Revolution Lullabye

January 10, 2011

Connors, Overwork/Underpay

Connors, Robert J. “Overwork/Underpay: Labor and Status of Composition Teachers since 1880.” Rhetoric Review 9.1 (Fall 1990): 108-125.

Connors looks at the change in the institutional position of composition teachers from 1880 to the present (1980), tying composition’s current low status to broader changes in society and American higher. Connors explains how the structure of the composition course in the late 1800s – which most often contained the entire freshman class, not split into sections, and which was based on frequent essay-writing and individual attention to students – butted up against the rise in American university student population. Professors of rhetoric were overworked, often moved on to another less laborous field, and rhetoric was not considered a desirable field for a scholar to enter. The growing graduate student population provided a large pool of cheap labor, which extended after the graduate students graduated and became poorly-paid instructors (disproportionalty more women than men compared to other fields) in order to have a foot in the door for a more well-paying assistant professor position. Connors uses historical documents and reports to construct his history, including reflections written by and about the Boylston Chair at Harvard, the Hopkins Report of 1913 (which published the results of a nationwide survey of over 600 composition teachers about their working conditions and expectations), and the NCTE “English and the PhD” report from 1925 (which argued that literature PhDs were not trained to teach composition)

Notes and Quotes

“Rhetoric has changed in a hundred years from an academic desideratum to a grim apprenticeship, to be escaped as soon as practical” (108).

Connors explained the first American college literacy crisis, which originated at Harvard in 1874 and resulted in the institution of hte required basic freshman writing course.

late 1800s: coeducation (men felt more comfortable writing arguments to women than debating them); rise of business and industry that demanded consistent written communication; larger debates of linguistic correctness; university student population growing rapidly and the emerging notion of writing instruction that should be individualistic (and hence labor-intensive.)

Hopkins Report estimated that, given how fast a teacher could read (2200 words an hour, 10 hours a week), a composition teacher could only effectively teach 61 writing students.

“While teachers in other fields were dealing successfully with the larger numbers in their classes by evolving techniques of discussion and lecture, composition teachers were tied to the reading of thousands of themes” (115).

mismatch between the work required to get a PhD (investigation, research) and what the TAs were then expected to do (teach, often sections of freshman composition.) TAs were assigned multiple sections of labor-intensive composition while trying to complete their dissertations, and they hated rhetoric andcomposition as a result.

Why did people agree to be part of the composition underclass? 1. “Surplus” PhDs who wanted to stay doing something academic in the hopes of getting a better job 2. Women who did not have a fair shake in competing with fellow male PhDs for academic jobs 3. Women who had the added burden of raising children and couldn’t compete in scholarly production 4. Women who needed part-time jobs to raise children. 5. People who wanted part-time flexibility

“Unless and until teaching and studying writing can be made work the entire English faculty wants to share in, irresistable social forces will maintain the underclass and all of the unhappiness and poisonous inequality that have always followed in its train.” (one solution – give extra credit to faculty who agree to teach writing)

uses late-19th and early-20th century reports, articles in English Journal, monographs, surveys on the teaching of English and composition


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: