Not a Consolation Prize

Not a Consolation Prize

April 7, 2010

At the March meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, some colleagues and I hosted a workshop that focused on preparing graduate students to teach writing at the two-year college level. At one point, we asked participants to list some desirable qualities in a two-year college composition teacher. Despite the diversity among participants – some were faculty running or developing M.A. programs to train new teachers, some were faculty at two-year schools, and some were grad students aiming to teach in a two-year setting – there was agreement on many qualities, like flexibility and professionalism, and we also seemed to agree there was one thing a two-year college instructor really didn’t need: a Ph.D.

The reason I point this out is because the declining job market in the humanities has led some (such as Tom Hurley) to suggest that English Ph.D.s should consider applying for teaching positions at two-year colleges. That’s probably good advice, at least from the perspective of the new Ph.D. without good job prospects. Today there are simply too many Ph.D.s competing for too few of the four-year college jobs for which they’ve been trained. Most will need a backup plan.

The problem with such advice is that it tends to ignore the fact that there are existing graduate programs, like the one I teach in at San Francisco State University, where the primary mission is to prepare master's-level students specifically for teaching in two-year colleges. From my vantage working in such a program, I see some potential problems with the notion that we ought to be flooding two-year college departments with newly-minted English Ph.D.s.

One problem is the fact that not all English Ph.D. programs emphasize the same things. Some programs offer a specialization in composition studies (or “rhetoric and composition” or “writing studies”) that concentrate on the pedagogy, theory, and scholarship of literate activity. Many more programs, however, focus on the study of English-language literature. Those who get literature Ph.D.s are clearly the audience for this excerpt from an article advising them to apply for two-year jobs: "But one significant difference between two- and four-year English departments is the ratio of literature to composition offerings: Most of our departments offer only a small number of literature courses."

In other words, don’t be disappointed by the fact that, although you may have spent six or more years getting an advanced degree in 20th-century American literature, your teaching at a two-year college will almost exclusively focus on reading and writing. Or rather, don’t be surprised.

But taking a position at a two-year college involves more than just knowing the kinds of teaching involved. According to the Two-Year College Association’s position statement on “Guidelines for the Academic Preparation of English Faculty at Two-Year Colleges,” "[w]hat distinguishes the two-year college teacher-scholar is his or her dedication to open educational access, commitment to democratic participation and equity within higher education, and ability to help make these ideals a reality for highly diverse learners…."

Just as there are different emphases in Ph.D. programs, so too are there different kinds of English M.A. programs. A growing number of M.A. programs, like ours at San Francisco State, allow students to specialize in the teaching of composition. Typically, these programs involve coursework in pedagogy, theory, and research in the field of composition studies. Many of the students in our own composition M.A. program start out from the very beginning wanting to teach in a two-year setting, and they take courses (such as our seminar on post-secondary reading) specifically aimed at helping them realize that goal. And for those students, opportunities to tutor and to teach their own undergrad courses are considered integral to their experience of the program, and not simply as a way to pay the bills while pursuing a degree.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this, but I’ll go ahead and spell it out: I would argue that an M.A. student who specializes in composition is likely to be better prepared to teach composition at a two-year college than a Ph.D. student who studies literature. I would never say that this is an absolute or universal truth, since I know many literature Ph.D.s who are terrific composition teachers. And I acknowledge that this argument might come off as self-interested, since I would like to see our own graduates getting the jobs for which they were prepared.

However, I am simply pointing out the fact that former group -- M.A. specialists in composition -- are often committed and prepared to teach writing in a two-year college setting in a way that the latter group (typically) is not.

It’s not just that literature Ph.D.s don’t often receive as much formal training in teaching composition (aside from the ubiquitous proseminar during a stint as a teaching assistant); it’s that there are all sorts of ways in which being in a literature Ph.D. program involves active suppression of the ability to imagine any career paths beyond that followed by one’s professors (despite the fact that the jobs those professors got are currently occupied by, well, those professors, and they aren’t giving them up any time soon). Thomas Benton sums up the situation in his gloomy Chronicle piece, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”: "[D]octoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe."

When we advise literature Ph.D.s to apply for two-year college jobs, we are in essence offering them a way to remain within the “periphery of academe,” even if it means seeking positions for which they have neither training nor interest. I am most emphatically not saying that two-year colleges are “peripheral” to academe, but instead I’m suggesting that many literature Ph.D.’s, because of their enculturation into the expectations and values of their professors, may perceive teaching at a two-year college as something of a consolation prize.

Still, there is nothing wrong with reminding literature Ph.D.s that they have options, especially before they’re facing the job market. Perhaps programs could do more to diversify the career trajectories of their graduates by broadening the range of their teaching experience and maybe even partnering with two-year colleges to create internship opportunities. Until then, however, I would caution two-year colleges against seeing a bad job market as an opportunity to snatch up literature Ph.D.s. Though many of them may turn out to be excellent two-year college teachers, some will lack the commitment and preparation possessed by a composition M.A. who wanted to be there all along.


Kory Lawson Ching is assistant professor of English at San Francisco State University.



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