Monday, February 16, 2015

Composition Issues

Confessions of a Community College Dean has a post up today on varying organizations of first year Comp courses.  And it got me thinking, not about varying organizations, but about some problems with comp courses.  (And when I say "comp courses" throughout, I mean first year writing or composition courses, and not advanced level theory of composition or rhetoric courses, which I'll specify as upper level.)

Somewhere back in the dawn of time, faculty across universities decided that college students aren't good enough writers, so they decided to require some writing course(s) for all first year students (with variations, of course).  But there was no department of teaching writing to first year students, so by and large, English departments took on the task.  (Asked for or were asked, it's probably different everywhere.)  And because English departments took on the task, they needed more faculty.  And because R1s needed more people to teach comp, they got to take on more grad students, which is good for prestige and for teaching fun grad courses on Blake's Left Nostril.  And so, English departments got way bigger than they'd needed to be to teach lit and philology, linguistics, and such.  And English faculty (at many schools) took on comp as the part of their load they mostly didn't like, but as a sort of purgatory for getting to teach the stuff they loved.  And most of us work very hard to do a good job. 

The first problem with comp courses is that very few people actually want to teach comp courses.  A lot of people want jobs, and they're willing to teach a lot of comp in order to get those jobs, but given their druthers, many of them would much rather teach something else.  (It's really hard to teach comp, and it's hard to work closely with first year students, and it's hard to hear other faculty complain that their student doesn't "know grammar" when what the other person is complaining about is a style preference and not grammar, and when all the research shows that teaching grammar doesn't improve writing.)

When we think about how to improve comp then, we might want to think about taking it out of English departments and putting it in writing departments.  English departments will resist this to some extent, naturally, since it will see them lose positions.  And if that loss involves layoffs or firings, a lot of people will be very unhappy, and not only in English departments. 

But then there's the problem of staffing writing departments.  R1s can use armies of graduate students, as always.  But the rest of us would need to hire comp specialists.  Except composition (or comp/rhet) specialists are in fairly short supply these days compared to other humanities areas.  In English, we at NWU likely to get 100 applications for a fairly specific lit position, but for a broad comp/rhet position, we're more likely to get 30 applications.  (Comp/rhet is the field to go into if you want an academic job.)   And comp specialists don't want to teach endless sections of comp; they want to teach upper level courses, in the same way that biology faculty teach intro biology and also upper level, more specialized courses.

So, to compete as a writing department for comp/rhet faculty, you have to offer a job that isn't all first year comp, but also includes upper level courses.  And you have to pay a salary that's higher than for, say, English lit.

Let's imagine: you have comp faculty teaching, say, 12 credits a semester, and they teach two comp courses, and two upper level courses.  And then we get to another difficulty: relatively few undergraduate students are interested in upper level comp theory type courses.  So those courses are pretty small, and expensive.  Instead of the current balance, of lit courses with comp, including fairly large lit courses (45 at my institution, without graduate student TAs), you'd get all expensive courses with low enrollments taught by fairly expensive faculty.

And that won't work. 

What are the solutions?  I have some thoughts, but I'm sure there are other thoughts out there, probably better than mine.  And I'm pretty certain that what works for R1s isn't going to work for regionals, and what works for community colleges isn't going to work for SLACs, and so on.  We're going to have to find our own ways.

I'd argue that writing is as closely related to biology or political science as it is to English; we all write.  To teach comp, we all need good training and support.  Anyone able to earn a PhD in Philosophy is certainly able to learn to teach comp at the first year level.  A PhD in English is not the same as a PhD in comp or comp/rhet.  Teaching comp requires specific training, leadership, and support. 

Thought 1:  Spread the teaching of writing across many departments, training faculty across disciplines to teach writing within their disciplines, and it becomes part of the load of many faculty, with some direction from a faculty leader or committee.  Slowly divest the English department of positions to balance overall needs.  (If biology is teaching one FTE of writing, they're going to need another FTE.)  (You probably need to find an incentive for other faculty to take on the additional training to teach comp, and to take on teaching comp, so that would be potentially expensive.)

Thought 2: At one of my previous institutions, in an urban area, you train MA students and use them, and also send them to all the community colleges in the area.  That works for the MA folks if they can compete as MA comp specialists with PhDs in English for those community college positions; meanwhile, it staffs comp courses with people who work relatively cheaply but are pretty well qualified.  They never get permanent jobs or tenure, so for the institution it's flexible.  They may get benefits, but largely, its not a great solution for full time employment for the MAs who don't/can't move on to community colleges.  (I know people who were full time at community colleges as a result of this program, and others who were freeway fliers, cobbling together work.)  This may be sustainable for the program, but if it's not sustainable for the people teaching in it, it's unethical.

Thought 3:  At more regional, non-urban institutions, maybe create a department of writing with a few comp/rhet specialists and then hire people without PhDs in comp to teach, hopefully full-time with benefits, and maybe but probably not as TT faculty.  Certainly as long-term instructors at some level.  Train hires without specific comp preparation to teach comp, and slowly divest English departments of positions to balance overall needs.  Thus, MAs in creative writing with training in comp, MAs in Art History with training in comp, could be valued colleagues.  Or somewhat valued.  They'd still be teaching comp full time, and I really don't see that being a life goal for someone with a degree in Art History.  (A lot of SLACs and regional institutions require a terminal degree for new tenure-track hires; changing this might be problematic for accreditation.)

I think this is sort of what community colleges have long done, except they've mostly hired English PhDs to teach full comp loads.  With training, they could hire other people, and perhaps favor MAs in comp/rhet for these positions over PhDs in non-comp fields.

(Thought 3 is sort of like Thought 2, except it might hire grads of Thought 2's programs rather than producing them.)

Thought 4:  Get rid of first year writing courses.  Do they even work?  Does student writing improve in a one or two semester first year writing course enough to spend the money on them?

All of my solutions involve shrinking English departments.  With the exception of the last, a school could do this humanely, using retirements, though it wouldn't be easy, and would make English departments cranky.  (Imagine, for example, that an English department has 2 English Ed specialists, and one retires; the one remaining probably can't carry that whole program.  Inevitably lit would probably ask people to teach more broadly, so not the Romantics, but the 18th and 19th century.)


  1. Sarabeth10:39 AM

    Interesting to me, because we are doing a campus-wide curriculum review in which the teaching of writing is a major issue. We do have a Writing and Rhetoric department, and they actually don't have a problem filling upper level courses; they've become quite a popular major. Their upper-level courses are less comp theory, though, and more creative writing style classes focused on non fiction. They are not 45 person lectures (but those would be rare at my school in any discipline).

    Our big problem is that the W&R department was created in a past curriculum review in order to solve this problem, and it hasn't worked that way, because, as you say, the W&R faculty actually don't want to spend most of their time teaching first-year writing. Those courses exist, but there aren't enough of them to make all first-years take them. And they keep getting new hires on the promise of expanding the slots in those courses, but that part never quite seems to materialize.

    In the meantime, we maintain the polite fiction that our first-year seminars teach writing. However, those seminars are taught by faculty from a range of disciplines. Only some of them even make a serious effort to teach writing. And even among those, most faculty (myself included) don't actually have the appropriate training.

    To me, the best solution would be a combination of getting the W&R faculty to do a bit more comp teaching, and also training the FYS faculty better. But both of those options involve faculty agreeing to do things they'd rather not do,'s not clear what will happen.

  2. Sarabeth, your school seems caught in the conundrum, exactly. Is there a creative writing major elsewhere, or is this what students interested in creative writing tend to take?