A Recession Story

MLA (the Modern Language Association – where English professors go to party) just released a report on academic employment. Overall, the number of full-time jobs in academia has more or less stayed the same, while the number of part-time jobs has jumped due to increased student enrollment. The number of full-time jobs in English decreased by 10% in ten years. Across the board, part-time jobs are held mainly by women. Funny how the more white women and people of color attend and teach college, the less we pay the people working in the classroom.* What a coincidence. Isn’t that interesting.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was giving up on academia and searching for a nonprofit job. I’ll be honest – I didn’t work that hard at the job search. I sent out maybe five resumes, had one interview. If I really set my mind to it, I could probably have found something in a few months. But due to the nature of part-time work, which forces you to constantly cycle through job after job (most of us TAs and adjuncts pick up side jobs like private tutoring whenever we find out that a section has been cut or an offer has fallen through), I’d already spent the past year and a half sending out resumes on a semi-regular basis, and I was tired. Plus, a funny thing happened when I emailed the department chair at my other campus to tell him I couldn’t keep the class I was teaching: he offered me another one.

I sat on the offer for a few days. Another class meant $1,300 a month instead of $650. It meant I could make rent and buy groceries. I emailed him to accept it, and then slumped in my chair and cried for an hour.

Not because of the job itself. Composition is tough – especially since most instructors have little or no training in teaching composition – and isn’t what I entered academia to do. But it can also be really rewarding to work with students on producing something memorable, to expose them to essays you love and ideas that excite you, to figure out which assignments are going to yield heartfelt, honest writing. Getting a sentence to click is a wonderful thing, whether you’re at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or the local JC. And the problems that teaching present are problems I enjoy working through.

I cried because I was resigning myself to at least four more months of unequal pay for equal work, instability (remember that we’re classified as temporary part-time, which means we can be dropped with zero notice if the school wants to save a buck), and almost no health insurance. I cried because I know I can be more than an interchangeable grade-dispenser. Because I have so many ideas on how to make college what it should be, how to create more effective and worthwhile courses, how to take a nationwide system that only values credits and degrees and change it into a system that values analysis and action. Here’s an idea: for those of you with recent experience in academia, notice how, at community colleges, almost every single English class is a composition class? Putting aside, for now, the sheer fucked-upness of a system in which students take 2, 3, or even 4 semesters of composition before they’re allowed to actually study something, notice how many composition classes strive to be “content-free” – meaning that we’re supposed to teach writing without a subject, writing without thinking? The average composition textbook contains a mishmash of essays about any ol’ thing; students are supposed to study rhetorical modes like comparing/contrasting and proposal claims without engaging in actual ideas. My husband and the other TAs in his department have actually been told not to teach readings they’re interested in, for fear that subject matter will somehow contaminate the students’ work on citations and paraphrasing. Fuck that. Why not let instructors teach topics courses (that is, writing courses that center around a subject)? While I’m teaching my compare/contrast lesson and correcting their semicolon use, could I please also expose them to women’s social justice movements or 20th century American Jewish thought? May I please give students the option of choosing a composition course based on which themes look interesting, rather than making them scroll through thirty identical sections of a boring required class? Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

Some schools are already teaching topics courses (although they’re still not paying their part-timers anything resembling reasonable salaries). UC Irvine, for example, has a program called Humanities Core, in which students learn rhetoric and composition through the lens of philosophy, literature, art history, and even urban planning and music. Even UCI’s regular composition program (for students who aren’t humanities majors) offers a few general themes like Empire, Frontiers, and Heroism, and lets TAs choose their own readings (like actual novels and stuff!) instead of working from standardized textbooks.

Hell, let’s take it even further – why not try to integrate composition into other courses? Why not learn about citations in your freshman literature class, or process analysis in biology? Crazy, I know. And yes, remedial writing would still be an issue; there are some problems that do need a semester’s worth of intensive work. But perhaps we could address deficiencies in K-12 education instead of trying to solve serious literacy problems in a semester or two.

I know there’s a wider debate about topics courses versus content-free courses, and I’m not saying there are no good arguments for content-free writing instruction. But when part-timers are treated as second-class educators and are excluded from curriculum design and decision making, we’re barred from taking part in that debate – even though we’re the ones at the center of it! And when community college students sit through semester after semester of courses like Critical Thinking and College English Skills and Fundamentals of Composition, with textbook after textbook like From Inquiry to Academic Writing and Perspectives on Contemporary Issues while their richer (white) counterparts at the Ivies are reading Toni Morrison (no, the irony isn’t lost on me), the whole idea of “higher” education loses its meaning.

Why not employ us full-time? Then maybe we’d have the time and resources to make these courses better.

Because next semester, I’m going to walk into those classrooms with the same textbook, and we’ll have the same scattered, non-contiguous discussions about whatever subject is in the essay that happened to be on the syllabus. (I know I just talked shit about it, but From Inquiry to Academic Writing does have a bell hooks essay, which is pretty cool. But we’ll talk about it for 40 minutes – 20 of which will be devoted to thesis statements and transitions – and that’ll be it.) I’ll take home the same just-enough paycheck each month; I’ll keep fearing illness because a hospital visit is out of the question.

This isn’t what college is supposed to be. This isn’t what academia is supposed to stand for. But for the students and educators without the connections or the funds to be at a $40K-a-year school – that is, for white women and people of color – this is what it’s become. It’s impossible to change the system when we’re more concerned with whether we’ll still have work in four months.

At the community college that laid me off, almost every single section of the remedial writing course is taught by a woman. Filled with testosterone? It’s literature for you – get out that copy of Heart of Darkness! Got boobs? Here’s a grammar workbook!

And this type of discrimination is routine.

Next May, I’ll consider taking up the job search again. But for now, with the economy free-falling and half a million jobs gone in one month, I couldn’t bring myself to cut off my only source of income. The thought of approaching February with no paycheck on the way was too frightening. I just couldn’t do it. I know I’m not the only one who’s frustrated, scared, and rapidly losing hope – in academia or otherwise. I’m not the only one who’s always battling the feeling that my income determines my worth – that if my boss is making $100,000 and I’m making $10,000, then he must be ten times as useful a person as I am. I’m not the only one who knows that the structure around me is eating itself up, but feels powerless to stop it.

And the time we spend scrambling to get ahead in this system – a process that always necessitates stepping on someone else – is time that we’re not organizing and fighting it. And that’s not an accident.

Enjoy your recession, everyone.

(Cross-posted at Modern Mitzvot.)
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*Sources: Education Portal and American Council on Education. Pages 26 and 27 of the MLA report have breakdowns by gender. While most fields are increasingly dominated by part-timers, fields like engineering and physical sciences – which are still mostly male – have much higher percentages of full-time positions.

This entry posted in Class, poverty, labor, & related issues, Education, Feminism, sexism, etc, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

21 Responses to A Recession Story

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    Funny how the more white women and people of color attend and teach college, the less we pay the people working in the classroom.* What a coincidence. Isn’t that interesting.

    What’s the cause and effect relationship, though? Do you really think the administration is saying “Oh, look at all the female and POC resumes coming in – let’s lower wages”? Or is it more a case of men staying from part-time jobs because of cultural expectations of being family bread-winners

    Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

    Because publicly funded community colleges are more likely to a) enroll lower-income students and b) be sensitive to pressures from opposing parts of the community who object to certain ideas being taught?

  2. 2
    Joe says:

    I think the your central point about how to teach writing is a good one. I learned much better that way. But why is it that way? There’s got to be some rational behind the teaching philosophy.

    Odd, anyway, if I had to guess why there are fewer part timers in STEM it would be because a masters (or more) in those fields offers you a lot more career options than a masters in creative writing. How common are part time teachers in marketable fields that are dominated by women (e.g. Nursing)? Or are you using a more nuanced meaning of sexism than I’m understanding?

  3. 3
    sara no h. says:

    Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

    Because we outnumber them.

  4. 4
    golby260 says:

    To second sara no h.’s point; and also because, for us poor kids, poor = stupid for whatever reason, even if we manage to make it out of our usually pathetic and under-performing school systems with as good or better grades as that of all of the middle- and upper-class kids from decently staffed and well-funded school systems.

    I still remember how in my senior year of high school back in 2001-2002, my English Literature teacher spent a quarter to a half of the first semester making us complete these prep guides for the SATs, guiding us through each practice session — the sentence and essays questions, and the analogies that have since been removed. She also ran us through the basics of grammar, and I asked her whether she was going to cover semicolons.

    She basically said that she was trying to do one thing at a time without overwhelming us — semicolons were too advanced for us, that’s best for college.

    Now, our high school was in the lower-middle-class suburbs (not inner-city) south of Atlanta (Clayton County, to be exact), and by that point, the school was about 2/3 black, with a sizable Hispanic and southeast Asian minority population as well, quite a few from both groups speaking English as a second language. She was a strict but competent teacher, and that happened to be the year she was going to retire, and I’m sure she meant well. However, I can’t help but wonder if our society — the teachers, administrators, and the students themselves, particularly the black ones — sell themselves short to believe that, because they aren’t in a rich, posh area where the median income is at least $70K/year, the schools never run short on budget (no one ever has to rely on fund-raisers or vending machines from Mars. Co. or Coca-Cola to make ends meet), they can afford far beyond the basics of your typical college prep curricula (not just football and basketball; not just French and Spanish), then they’ll never be clever or extraordinary enough to transcend their surroundings, and thus, they shouldn’t try much harder to obtain more than the nearest opportunities afforded them. It’s something I’ve always wondered for years.

    I happen to be black, too, but my parents were originally from Nigeria, having been in this country for about 30 years now, so I have lots in common with Obama, if anything — that likely colors my perceptions a bit.

  5. 5
    Julie says:

    What’s the cause and effect relationship, though? Do you really think the administration is saying “Oh, look at all the female and POC resumes coming in – let’s lower wages”? Or is it more a case of men staying from part-time jobs because of cultural expectations of being family bread-winners

    RonF – I think a lot of it is subconscious. I think any field that’s full of women and POC is seen as not as valuable, even if people can’t figure out why. In this field, it isn’t a matter of men staying away from part-time jobs – it’s a matter of men being promoted out of the part-time jobs (remember that TAs are counted in this) while women get stuck in them.

    I think the your central point about how to teach writing is a good one. I learned much better that way. But why is it that way? There’s got to be some rational behind the teaching philosophy.

    Joe – I’m sure there is… but I think a lot of it is also sheer laziness. Letting adjuncts design their own courses means you have to train them. Training them means you’re investing in them, investing in them means you have to pay them more… and why go through the effort, when the only reason these kids are sitting through the class is so they can get their three credits?

    And that’s a good point about more marketable fields – I hadn’t thought of that.

    Golby260 – That’s so depressing. And so infuriating.

  6. I teach in the English Department at Nassau Community College in NYC, which, thankfully–to use and slightly modify an old cliche–is the exception that proves most of the rules Julie talks about in her post. (And, Julie, while I doubt we will be hiring this year, given the economy, if you are willing and able to relocate to NY, and still want to work in academia, you should keep an eye out for our ads. Email me if you want more info.) A couple of comments:

    RonF wrote:

    Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

    Because publicly funded community colleges are more likely to a) enroll lower-income students and b) be sensitive to pressures from opposing parts of the community who object to certain ideas being taught?

    Actually, it has a lot more to do with issues of race and class and how race and class bias color (pardon the pun) our ideas about intelligence and linguistic competence and how those two things are taught, developed and expressed. (I don’t have statistics in front of me, so I am not going to argue specifically about classroom makeup.) To teach writing, especially to remedial or otherwise underperforming students, in the context of a content is to suggest to them, to model for them, to begin to develop the expectation in them, that they have the right and the ability to make those ideas their own, to use them to understand and even try to change their world, even though they may not have the slightest idea how to do so in a competently written college essay.

    Now, you and I may agree that there is nothing wrong with this; we might even agree that what I have just described is entirely congruent with American values in all kinds of important ways, but the fact is that, put into practice, the idea makes us as a culture very uncomfortable. There is a strong belief running through our educational system–from pre-K all the way through college–that putting real ideas in the hands of underperforming students is dangerous. We tell ourselves it’s because the students can’t handle it, that if we ask a remedial writing class, for example, to struggle through the bell hooks essay that Julie mentioned, we will be setting them up for failure because they will never be able to handle the ideas hooks deals with. The fact is, though, that we are afraid–as a culture, as a society–that is we give those students those ideas, then they (the students) will no longer know their place and we will have to figure out how to integrate them into a system–educational, cultural, political, socio-economic, you name it–that the label “remedial” is intended to keep them out of until they learn how to play by the system’s rules. Because integrating them would mean upsetting the status quo and that means that the people who benefit from the status quo will have to give something up, and I don’t care whether that mean teachers who will suddenly have to deal with lower-performing students right alongside the good students, or men who suddenly have to compete with women, or white people who suddenly have to deal with people of color, etc. and so on.

    To teach writing is to teach thinking, plain and simple, and to do that you need, ultimately, to teach a content, even if that content consists only of what is generated in student-written essays. More to the point, there is a big conflict in this country between two value systems. One says students ought to be divided into at least two classes:

    1. Those who are able to deal with ideas, who need to be challenged to think for themselves, so they can assume positions of leadership, etc.

    2. Those who are unable to deal with ideas, who need to be trained how to follow directions, and who, therefore, ought not to be burdened with ideas

    The other value system says, roughly–I am thinking Paolo Freire here–that if the point of education is not to teach all students to think for themselves, then it is not real education.

    Sorry to be so scattered.

  7. 7
    Sailorman says:

    I think generally the problem with remedial courses is that they are designed to get the slowest students up to par. yes, of COURSE students should learn to read, write, and add before they get to college. But obviously you can’t control that, so you are stuck with what you have.

    So let’s say that the goal is defined as “get the slowest students in the school up to a minimum level of competence as efficiently and quickly as possible.”

    The question, then, is whether adding content to the remedial classes is going to satisfy that goal. Maybe you think it will. Or maybe you agree that the content would tend to benefit the more involved and interested students: in other words, that it would be more likely to help the smarter students get ahead farther.

    That’s an admirable goal. But in many settings, that’s not the goal of a remedial class.

    So when you say

    Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

    It is probably more that someone, somewhere, has decided that ideas will just interfere with teaching people to spell and read and write as quickly as possible.

    Which explains this nicely:

    …And when community college students sit through semester after semester of courses like Critical Thinking and College English Skills and Fundamentals of Composition, with textbook after textbook like From Inquiry to Academic Writing and Perspectives on Contemporary Issues while their richer (white) counterparts at the Ivies are reading Toni Morrison

    Do you think they could do it effectively?

    Really: Do you think that your students in your remedial composition classes could get through good literature, and read it, and discuss it, and still learn as much or more composition as they would otherwise learn?

    I don’t know. I have been frustrated in my own tutoring and have heard the same from enough other people that I wonder if you are right about this. How am I supposed to explain to someone how to write a compelling brief in an overall sense if she cannot write a competent paragraph? How am I supposed to explain how to write a competent paragraph or two if she is making gross grammatical errors in her sentences? How am I supposed to deal with proper word choice to convince a judge if I have to explain “their” and “there” and “they’re” to her first?

    People go to community college because they are trying to get an education and (generally) learn to get ahead in the world. And although “women’s social justice movements or 20th century American Jewish thought” are good things to know, and though they are good things to help you get ahead in the world… they’re not as important as knowing to write, read, and add.

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    Richard, I have to say that I think you’re reading way too much into this.

    If a kid is in a remedial class it’s because they haven’t learned as much about that given subject as they should have based on their grade level/age. Maybe it’s because the student has below average intelligence. Maybe it’s because that student was in lousy schools. Maybe it’s because that student came from an environment that sent them to school ill-fed, ill-clothed, needing glasses they didn’t have and otherwise ill-equipped to learn and that didn’t support and require getting their homework done when they got home. Maybe the student is lazy and nobody was kicking their ass or otherwise getting them to understand the value of an education and the penalty for not getting one. Maybe the student’s environment over-valued athletic or artistic achievement as compared to academic.

    Lots of reasons. And lots of them that probably are continuing to operate while the student is in the remedial class, so you’re fighting that as well. My guess is that the richer students in the Ivies are reading higher level literature not because they’re rich but because they’ve already gotten though the kinds of texts and work you describe back in high school. Your remedial students are going through the kinds of texts and work you describe because to work with higher literature you first need to master the basics and they have not yet done so. I doubt that it’s an issue of people being afraid of putting real ideas in the hands of poor kids – it’s an issue of getting poor students up to speed on the basics they need to deal with real ideas.

    It seems to me that the ideal of teaching writing is to have the student achieve the ability to communicate their own ideas and those of others. To that end it is necessary at some point to do just that; write using one’s own ideas. But first you need to learn to communicate all kinds of ideas in all kinds of ways, including ideas that you don’t have or are not familiar with in ways that you may not have even known existed. There’s a progression to this. The kids in the Ivys are further down that progression than the kids in the remedial classes in the community colleges are. If you want to posit that there are racist or classist or other such reasons for that, fine, make your case. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got learn to walk before you can run, and if you haven’t learned to walk yet you’ve got to pass remedial walking class before you can head out to the track and expect to do anything useful there.

  9. 9
    Joe says:

    I think a lot of this boils down to “Why do you go to college?” Some people go for personal growth, to broaden their minds via new ideas, and to become more well rounded people. I think Julie wants to teach these students. Some people go because in their high school that’s what you did if you weren’t a loser and binge drinking is fun. They come out and get clerk type jobs that really only require basic literacy, numeracy (sp?) and common sense. They have to go to college for this because a high school diploma /GPA doesn’t mean much any more, and because since everyone else has a college degree they need one just to meet the basic requirements. Other’s go because they wanted a job that didn’t require physical labor. Or a job that requires specialized knowledge (e.g. Accounting, Nursing, Engineering, Law, etc)

    This gets into why we fund college with public money. I clearly see the need for more engineers, nurses and doctors. I’m less sure about the need for more art history majors. And I think we have more than enough people majoring in booze and parties so I’d rather not subsidize them.

  10. Ron & Sailorman,

    While I do not want to assume that the thinking behind the points you make about remedial education are the same–and I am not even going to get into the distinctions that need to be made between remedial and developmental education/learners, only because that is a different discussion–after teaching writing at the community college level for 20 some odd years (which is not to say I am right, but that my observations are based on not a little practical experience, research and in-classroom experimentation), my initial response to both of you is the same: while of course there are some texts that students in remedial classes cannot deal with, an awful lot depends on what your expectations are in terms of the work they need to produce. Of course a student in my non-credit composition class is not going to be able to produce work in response to a given content at the same level as the student in my ENG 101 class, nor is it likely that he or she is going to be able to read as much of whatever content I want to provide; but those facts do not mean that remedial/developmental students cannot read/writer in response to any of those ideas, and those facts should not mean that remedial/developmental students are denied/excluded from the pleasures that come from mastering a content at whatever level they are able to master it.

    To teach remedial/developmental writing is, of course, to teach grammar, punctuation, coherence, cohesion, argumentation and more; and of course there are times when you need to address those issues specifically, as skills that students need to develop, (and, of course, there are going to be some students who may need, for any of the reasons Ron cites, to be taught those skills discretely, without a content to give them context), but learning always takes place more effectively when it is done in a context. When Julie talks about giving remedial/developmental courses a content, from a pedagogical point of view, one of the things she is talking about doing is giving the writing skills she is trying to teach a meaningful context. Remedial/developmental students can–and in my experience have–learned to write coherently, spell better, edit their work, use correct punctuation, argue more strongly and even do research, at their level, in the context of reading and writing about the history of racism in the US, the ethical implications of stem cell research, the novel Things Fall Apart and more.

    In response, Sailorman, to what you have said about your experience as a tutor, I will say only that the tutoring situation is very different from the classroom. As a tutor, I assume, you have been hired by someone who thinks she or he knows what they need to work on, and you may find that they do not and that you are in the position of trying to figure out, in the context of giving them what you have been hired to do, how to give them what they need–and that is a terribly difficult situation to be in pedagogically.

    Ron, you wrote

    My guess is that the richer students in the Ivies are reading higher level literature not because they’re rich but because they’ve already gotten though the kinds of texts and work you describe back in high school.

    My experience is that the richer kids are more likely to have everything they need in order to get to the point that they can get through those kinds of texts, while the poorer kids do not. So it is indeed in part because they’re rich that they are performing at a higher academic standard. And to use your analogy of remedial walking: If I read Julie correctly, what she is talking about when criticizes writing classes that do not have a content would be the analogy of asking students to take a remedial walking class without giving them a sidewalk, or a stretch of grass, or a whatever to walk on. (Which is an extreme statement of Julie’s case, but it makes the point.)

  11. 11
    Sailorman says:

    Richard,

    I suppose the crux of your argument comes down to this:

    learning always takes place more effectively when it is done in a context.

    While I agree that it is certainly true in some situations, I do not think it is a universal rule. (as an extreme example, I am the parent of young children who are being taught context-sensitive addition and who are therefore learning in two weeks what they should be learning in a day.)

    Now: Adults? generally yes, context is helpful. But still, not always. I don’t know the level of your students and perhaps I am imagining them to be worse than they are. i should say that having tutored NON-remedial students at a good college and in graduate school, my image of remedial CC students is both imaginary and pretty bad.

    the practice you suggest also depends considerably on teaching skill. There are teachers who can manage to add context without losing any of the base knowledge; perhaps you’re one and perhaps Julie is as well. I’ve been taught by people who instruct at that level, and it’s a pleasure. I don’t pretend to be there myself. Lesser (or should I say “normal?”) teachers seem to end up reducing content when they broaden horizons. It’s a simple fact of time: If you spend more time on X, then you have less time to spend on something else.

    If your goal is to drill your students on the proper use of semicolons, then a 5 minute discussion on american jewry isn’t going to move towards that goal. If you’re a good enough teacher than you can get your students to learn semicolons 5 minutes more quickly than the allotted time, then you can do semicolons AND american jewry. But I don’t think that’s altogether common. And as a general rule, i think people (not teachers, but everyone) tend to be overly optimistic of what they can achieve, especially when the optimism combines with the much-more-pleasant task of having an interesting conversation on social issues instead of yet another discussion of sentence structure.

    We’re in little disagreement about what causes the high level kids to be farther ahead, though this is one of those instances which is tailor-made for “privilege” as opposed to “wealth.” People like me (raised in a comparatively poor family but with two generations of teachers in the family and an excellent school system) would illustrate that perfectly.

    But that said, I think you are missing my point: It’s not that privilege allows yo to avoid content-free instruction. It’s just that privilege means you deal with it at a much earlier age. I spent many hours learning grammar, and I doubt i had much more context than do your students. That said, I did it when i was 12 and 13, not 19.

    Arguably that type of education would be a hell of a lot more difficult to sit through at my age. So perhaps the problem is this: We are applying an instructional model based on level of achievement, which means that less educated adults are being subjected to tactics suited for children. Maybe the model needs to be reworked entirely; i don’t know enough to say.

  12. Sailorman,

    I think that if we had the time to sit and talk about this face-to-face, we would find that we don’t disagree very much at all–but I could be wrong about that.

    In the bit of my post that you quoted about learning being more effective when it takes place in a context, I wonder what you mean and what you understand me to mean by effective. Based on the example you give of your children, I am assuming you mean something having to do with the speed at which things are learned; for me, effectiveness has much more to do with how well learning is retained and used. My son, for example, is also in a school where all learning is contextual–he’s in 5th grade now–and while it was very frustrating (more for my wife, who teaches kindergarten, than for me) to deal with what felt to me like the slower-than-it-should-have-been pace at which some basic learning took place, I have to say that, by now, all that learning is not only in place, but he has it at his command in a way that allows him to use it in thinking for himself and solving problems creatively.

    Context is, ultimately, what makes learning meaningful, in the sense of enabling students to give it meaning. Still, I would agree with you, there is absolutely a place for drilling in the classroom, especially when you are talking about discrete skills; I drill even in “skills” classes where I teach a content; and I give a content to classes that are normally more about drilling, like the grammar class I taught this past semester.

    Ultimately, it is an eclectic approach to education that is necessary; a willingness not to be dogmatic about one approach versus another or one philosophy versus another. But even drilling will be more effective, in the sense that I mean, if students perceive its usefulness in terms of a content they are trying to deal with. Your question about instructional models speaks to this point very precisely. But that is a much, much, much longer discussion. I need to get back to reading about Junichiro Tanizaki.

  13. 13
    PG says:

    If students are taking more than one semester of composition, surely they should be learning a different *type* of composition in each course.

    Probably the form of composition that is most practically necessary is the descriptive report: a document that can explain what has occurred at the car accident, with the breakdown at the manufacturing plant, what is the patient’s medical history, etc. This is a good place to learn grammar, topic sentences, chronological writing and how to edit for length and clarity. While I learned grammar at the appropriately early age of 8, the emphasis on creative and analytic writing in my primary, secondary and even college education (which included an English major) means that I didn’t really learn the other skills until I had to write factual statements for legal briefs, and that’s really quite late in the day to pick up such a fundamental ability.

    I’d consider the second most practically necessary form of writing to be the advocacy piece: I should get this job; we should get a cost-of-living raise; my kids’ school should adopt uniforms, etc. This is a good place to learn how to organize the composition by strengths rather than just chronologically, how to write transition sentences, how to anticipate disagreements. I’m still lousy at transition sentences.

    I don’t think these courses need to be about a specific academic topic, like 20th century American history. Having students read good examples of description and advocacy, regardless of subject, will help them grasp that this is an important skill that will apply to a large variety of situations.

  14. 14
    Plaid says:

    So when you say “Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?”

    It is probably more that someone, somewhere, has decided that ideas will just interfere with teaching people to spell and read and write as quickly as possible.

    There are a lot of folks, teachers and students alike, who prefer pure composition courses. I’ve even heard the well-off, bright, motivated students with access to “the superior” Toni Morrison Writing Classes ask the obvious from the administrators requiring them to take these classes.

    “Why can’t we take a no frills writing course, no themes beyond composition? I want to learn the formulas and the grammar. Directly reading and discussing how to write will be the fastest route toward writing well. Then I will be a better writer.”

    Notice that there’s no writing directly involved in that image of a proper writing class? ;) There’s your foremost problem.

    Get people to believe that “writing and critically evaluating my own writing will make me a better writer”, and I suspect you will have more student success no matter the overall class topic.

  15. 15
    MisterMephisto says:

    It is probably more that someone, somewhere, has decided that ideas will just interfere with teaching people to spell and read and write as quickly as possible.

    The problem here is that the “someone, somewhere” that decided this, often has little knowledge or experience in actual teaching, i.e an administrator, not a teacher.

    It is the job of the administrator to save money (often to better pad his/her own salary).

    It is the job of the teacher to teach effectively.

    Saving money is often not conducive to teaching effectively (for one, when you hire a bunch of part-timers, some of whom are just looking for some extra cash rather than to learn to teach effectively, it is at the expense of hiring one full-timer that intends to make a career of this and could use more in-class experience refining her/his teaching techniques).

  16. 16
    Joe says:

    MM, Don’t deans and department heads usually start out as professors themselves?

  17. 17
    AcademicLurker says:

    “Don’t deans and department heads usually start out as professors themselves?”

    In my experience, those destined for upper level administration move on to a fairly distinct “administrator’s track” early on in their careers.

  18. 18
    grendelkhan says:

    Joe: MM, Don’t deans and department heads usually start out as professors themselves?

    I don’t know about deans, but I was under the impression that department heads were always simultaneously full professors in that department. Maybe it was just my institution? The ones I talked to seemed to think it was a pain–extra work for not much benefit.

    As for insisting that students learn rules of form absolutely divorced from anything they might care about… wow. Nearly every anecdote I’ve heard or read about a teacher inspiring a student centers around the subject matter being made accessible and important; kids who wrote about their fandom, and learned to turn a critical eye to it, for instance.

    I’m reminded of the anecdote in Why Johnny Can’t Read about teachers making kids hold pencils in their mouths so they wouldn’t mouth the words while reading them. (See, people who are good at reading don’t do that, while people who are just beginning don’t… ergo, make kids keep their mouths shut while reading, and they’ll magically become better at it! I wish I were joking.) It’s about being more interested in obedience than in learning, more interested in the form of the instruction than its results.

  19. 19
    Sailorman says:

    AcademicLurker Writes:
    December 20th, 2008 at 10:02 am

    “Don’t deans and department heads usually start out as professors themselves?”

    In my experience, those destined for upper level administration move on to a fairly distinct “administrator’s track” early on in their careers.

    Teaching experience is good. Teaching experience is good and probably helpful when you are trying to design a large scale teaching program. Qualitative analysis skills are good and those skills are IMO pretty much a requirement for trying to design a large scale teaching program.

    I say this because teachers (like pretty much everyone else on the planet; this isn’t a jab at teachers alone) are not necessarily so great at evaluating their teaching skills. Subjectivity hurts; isolation hurts; pride; small groups… it is really very difficult to do well.

    Unfortunately, qualitative analysis skills are not generally a part of many people’s background. This is not the fault of the teachers, of course. There is little reason to demand that art history or English PhDs take courses in study design, analysis, and statistics. But as a practical matter you need some analysis skills to effectively design a large scale policy, and most teachers don’t have those skills. So the study and analysis of pedagogy; the design of performance measures; and the setting of departmental teaching policies have largely become the domain of people who are not actively teaching. It is a strange disconnect.

  20. 20
    Julie says:

    MM, Don’t deans and department heads usually start out as professors themselves?

    In my experience, deans and department heads aren’t considered administrators (although they do, of course, have a lot of managerial responsibilities). When people talk about administrators, I think they’re usually talking about provosts, presidents, and other people who aren’t teaching. And MM’s point (“It is the job of the administrator to save money (often to better pad his/her own salary). It is the job of the teacher to teach effectively.”) is spot-on.

    Also, I apologize if I gave this impression in my post, but I think a lot of us are conflating lower-income students with remedial students. Yes, there are a lot of remedial classes at community colleges, but there are a lot of remedial classes at universities, too. Also, most of the students in my freshman comp classes are writing at the same level – occasionally higher – than their peers at four-year schools.

    And Richard – thanks for the offer. :) I plan on staying in California for at least another year, but NYC is tempting!

  21. Julie:

    I think a lot of us are conflating lower-income students with remedial students.

    You may be right, but where I come from, and in my experience, one is usually code for the other–and they are often used interchangeably–with a coding for race (African-American & Latino) thrown in as well–not to mention how complex it gets when you toss ESL students into the mix. (That’s where my professional training is.) Where I work, people are generally free to teach what they want in credit-bearing courses, the content vs. non-content (which is a horrible way to put it, but you know what I mean) question comes up only in relation to remedial and developmental students, who also often tend to be among at the low-income end of our student body.