Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thoughts on Composition Teaching and the Job Market

My department had several searches this fall, though most of them have now been cut, alas. Although this year's a mess, and things aren't going to get better fast, I imagine that we'll be searching for English department literature positions at some point in the future.

Every time we do a lit faculty search, we put up front in our ad that composition is about 50% of our load. And when I am (and my colleagues are) reading 100+ applications for a lit position, we look for evidence that the job applicant can teach comp. Maybe that evidence comes through in the letter, or in the CV, or in the letters of recommendation, but in order to get past my first cut, an application has to give me a sense that the person can teach composition.

So I have this to say to job applicants:

1) If you can't bear the idea of teaching about 50% comp, please don't apply for our job.

2) If you want to be a strong candidate here, know how to teach comp well, and make sure that comes through in your letter, CV, and maybe even letters of recommendation.

3) If you sound enthusiastic about teaching comp and working with our students, that will make your application stronger. If you sound insane, we won't believe you anyway.

Now, the paragraph on teaching comp that will help get you past my first cut isn't going to help you getting an R1 job. Depending on the R1, being able to teach writing well may or may not be helpful at getting you to the next step. (It may be helpful if you get hired.)

I'm willing to bet that most English lit faculty at other regional comprehensives, at SLACs, technical universities, and community colleges teach a fair bit of composition. So if you're willing to apply for those jobs, it makes sense to prepare yourself to teach composition well.

That means, if you're applying to grad schools, you should think about what sorts of training and opportunities they offer in composition teaching. If they provide neither, then that's something to think about. Maybe you'd rather leave academics than teach composition, and so you're making a good choice.

If you're already in grad school, and your institution doesn't offer good training and opportunities, then you need to think about what you want. And then you either need to decide you don't care because you're going to teach at an R1, or you need to find a way to get some training and some experience. Maybe that means taking a class or two at another school. Maybe that means working for a tutoring center or trying to find other teaching opportunities.

If you're already in grad school and your institution does offer some training and opportunities, then I'd strongly recommend you take real advantage of them. Put aside the comments from folks who think teaching composition is a waste of time, and make connections with the people who do it well, whether they're other grad students or professionals who teach comp/rhet. Yes, I know that's a lot to learn, but you don't have to learn to do research in comp/rhet; you have to learn to read research and to take advantage of research in order to teach well.

Yes, it's a different field, but learning to teach writing well will help you teach writing in lit courses, too. And it will also probably help your own writing.

What if you're already finished with your phud and don't feel qualified to teach composition?

1) When your grad school/department does the alumni interviews for assessment, make sure you tell them they screwed up.

2) If you can't stand teaching comp, find something else that makes you happy.

3) Put the skills you learned in earning your phud--research and analysis skills, especially--to work and learn about teaching composition.

From the comments I've been reading, I get the sense that there are a number of folks out there teaching comp in programs where control of composition is pretty tightly held by administrators (or someone).

I'm of two minds about that. The first is that if you're not already confident and well-trained in teaching comp, having an imposed structure might actually help, even though it feels awful (and I'm sure it does). But if you're already confident and well-trained, then it probably just feels awful. I'm sorry.

I've never taught anywhere post-phud like that (and that's three jobs). I can only imagine how utterly frustrating such a program is. My experience has usually been that everyone was WAY too busy to try to control my work in the classroom (except to collect syllabus information, do observations and responses, check evaluations, and provide critical feedback).

I don't know how I'd manage within such a program. I like to think that I'd be able to find a way to teach well, but who knows?

And now, I'm off to grade, because grading truly is endless, even when it's not comp.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:42 PM

    I really appreciate this post. I just started an English MA program and I've been debating whether to take a double lit concentration or a lit and rhet/comp one. I'm not wondering anymore.