Saturday, February 28, 2009

To my Colleague, on Composition

Or, what I want to say in the lunchroom when my colleague complains that s/he wasn't trained to teach composition and hates composition and teaching composition is beneath him/her and the students never learn anything and blah blah blah.

Remember when you applied for this job, how we listed on the JIL that the job was about 50% composition? And when you came for the interview and we told you that everyone in the department teaches composition for about half our load?

Your letter of application talked about how well-prepared you were to teach composition, how much you took time to think of interesting and challenging assignments, how innovative you were in your approaches. Remember that? I do.

So, what, you forgot? Seriously?

Yes, I know composition:literature or creative writing =/= basic math:advanced math. I know it's a totally different field.

But this is the job that we advertised, and you applied and accepted the offer. And there are 100+ candidates who'd apply for your job in an instant if you decided to leave.

And your being far too amazing and wonderful to be asked to do such demeaning work? You should have taken the R1 offers you had, the ones in better geographic locations with better pay and benefits.

What's that? You deserved an R1 job, but you didn't get even an interview nibble? Remind me again how you deserved an R1 job because you went to Old Ivy and and you're white and male but the world is mean to white men.

So here we are together. It must be dreadful for you to have to share the lunch room with the non-Ivy likes of me.

I wonder why your students don't learn anything? Want to talk about that?


Yes, teaching composition is hard work. It's the hardest work I do, consistently, every semester, the hardest work. It's harder than writing someone's tenure letter, by far.

But in the pantheon of difficult jobs, I bet it's not in the top 100.

And since I knew from grad school that I'd be likely teaching composition for the rest of my career, I took some classes to prepare, and I read some research to keep up, and I struggle with it. I talk to our comp person to get ideas; I get ideas from other instructors. I even share some ideas. And it's still a struggle.

If you don't want to do HALF your job and do it well, then leave. Just leave. Either go to that R1 that's begging for the privilege of hiring you, or leave academics and do something else.

If I were Robert Browning, this would have been in blank verse. Alas, I'm not.

Imagine, though, the kick-ass assignments Browning would have come up with: "Write an argumentative essay asserting the rectitude of killing your wife."


  1. Ouch, I feel duly reproved for my last post! Good thing I'm neither male nor an Ivy alum, or I'd really be squirming :)

  2. It's never fun hearing someone complain about this, but I admit it -- I hate teaching comp too. I have to do it to pay the bills, but it's not what I wanted to do with my life. When I am also teaching Shakespeare (or other lit), I'm able to find an endurable balance, but when I'm only teaching comp, it gets old. Maybe if I felt qualified to teach it I wouldn't feel so much angst. Can you recommend a good book about comp theory so I won't feel so insecure about my comp teaching skills?

  3. I think the biggest thing with comp teaching (I taught a half-load of comp for my first 4 years here, and now, after a wee break, I'm teaching what is basically a comp course - though by another name - online, in addition to two other service courses and then one course in my field, which was my trade-off for not teaching comp halftime) is ultimately burn-out. I think it's really difficult, teaching comp semester after semester, to remain energized to do it and to do it well. I always have a better time with gen ed service courses that are in lit, because it's easier to change them up, because even though I still assign a lot of writing, the writing that I assign is content-driven. I always have a better time teaching first semester freshmen comp than any other comp course, not because I like the course but because I like teaching first semester freshmen, which isn't the case for all people. It's tough to maintain one's enthusiasm, though, for a course that one doesn't really believe in or that one is fried from teaching, and I think that happens to a lot of people who end up in jobs where comp is a major component.

    I think you're right to be irritated about the complaint from this person - because, indeed, this was the job they applied for, and this was the job they took. One of the things about working at a university like the ones that you and I work at is that you've got to make the parts that aren't ideal work for you and you've got to be creative about doing it, or end up a bitter person who isn't well liked by colleagues. That said, I'm a big fan of giving people a break every five years or so from comp - if they earn it by doing a good job with comp teaching, by producing in other ways - to get reenergized to get back in the comp classroom. Honestly, I think that's a good thing even for people who are hired as comp/rhet specialists. Teaching those courses year after year can lead to some miserable, stale teaching. I don't think that means people should get out of teaching service courses, but I am hard pressed to understand why teaching, say, two sections of intro to lit for two semesters in lieu of teaching comp (a service course often taught by adjuncts, just as comp is a service course often taught by adjuncts) is a burden on a department, and I think that allowing for that sort of break can go a long way toward improving morale. At least I know it went a long way toward improving my morale.

  4. Yeah, I feel chastened too, for the comment I left on Quills! I complain about comp a good bit (though less this year than last), but honestly I do find the course baffling, and I can't seem to find a really good way to make it work. It's exhausting to spend so much of one's working hours teaching a course that one can't get a handle on. Now, in my fourth semester, I feel like it's sort of starting to come together and I'm actually working towards some more identifiable goals, but it still seems that there's a goodly group in the class who simply is not getting it. At all.

    (And in my grad dept, we didn't teach comp and were given no opportunity to do so, so that doesn't help. I did work at the Writing Center for a number of years, which makes me a good conferencer, but coming up with the day-to-day stuff for the course is what gives me a hard time.)

    Anyways, Bardiac, yes, I can definitely see why this complainer is annoying!...But I guess my guilt and shame makes me want to go easier on him? Or at least know that I'm not really like this guy?

  5. Oh, yes -- the person who, instead of commiserating about how tough it is to teach basic elements in the curriculum is trying to pretend they're above it and whine that they don't really know how to do it. Both of those last would be maddening to overhear!

  6. I think the problem isn't about teaching comp, which can lead to burnout; it's about the expectation of privilege that leads to the whining. As you point out, Bardiac, there's nothing to prevent the complainer from educating himself about teaching comp, etc., but it's annoying to have him proclaim his Specialness in the Academic World by saying that he shouldn't have to do what everyone else does.

    A mean part of me thinks that it would be interesting to say "So, have you tried X?" (technique that he mentioned in his cover letter).

  7. non-academic here, but your post reminded me of a couple of people at an old job who really felt they were too special to spend their valuable time on some of the basic, time-consuming, non-glam activities that were essential to the work of the organization. for some reason, they felt they should shoot straight to superstar status. that is just a miserable attitude to deal with.

  8. I'm glad you wrote this. I agree with the other commenters that teaching comp is exhausting and challenging (I am a rare scientist that taught comp for a year). And yet, if you go into a position with your eyes open (he saw the description, he explicitly said he was prepared for this type of work etc), then this privileged whining is ridiculous. And honestly, if you are senior to him, maybe it wouldn't hurt to pull him aside, give him a chance to vent his nasty stuff, and then calmly share with him how problematic his statements are. He probably has no idea how obnoxious he sounds (as is true with most privileged people).

    Or you can just cut him off next time in the lunch room and ask someone if they have ketchup or something :). He may get the picture by being interrupted.

  9. the entitled ones never get the hint by being interrupted.

  10. Excellent! As a comp person, I completely understand that it isn't the #1 teaching choice for non-comp folks (and even we like to have a bit of variety in our lives), but if it's part of the job you signed up for, you just need to do it as well as you can.

  11. It's the conditions and expectations. If I could teach this kind of course with the conditions I had teaching them in graduate school, I'd feel fine. That's why at job interviews I said I didn't mind teaching them ... I had no idea what I was agreeing to!

    In graduate school:
    + the program director had credentials in the field and was up on it
    + people teaching had input on teaching materials, assignment creation, etc.
    + people in classes got the books before midterms and therefore didn't get so far behind
    + the classes were allowed to be creative and interesting, and you could tailor things to individuals ... none of this "answer multiple choice questions on a website that will be corrected by a machine in Cupertino" that exists now.