Being COMPetitive

Randall McClure considers how literature scholars facing a terrible job market can become good candidates for writing positions.
April 6, 2011

In its landmark document, the Statement of Principles and Standards for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) offered the following professional standard:

To provide the highest quality of instruction, departments offering composition and writing courses should rely on full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty members who are both prepared for and committed to the teaching of writing. The teaching of writing courses need not be limited, however, to those faculty members whose primary area of scholarship is rhetoric and composition. Because of the significant intellectual and practical connections between writing and reading, composition and literature, it is desirable that faculty from both areas of specialization teach in the composition program. Ideally, faculty from each area should have the training and experience necessary to teach in both the literature and composition programs.

This standard, the first of more than 20 in the 1989 document that detail the appropriate staffing and teaching conditions for college composition, makes the case for tenure-track faculty, an argument that at the time was the exception, not the rule.

What is often forgotten in the discussion and use of this document, however, is the position that, "ideally," composition and literature specialists should teach composition. While there were motivations at the time of the statement to call for a collaborative effort between composition and literature specialists, one has to wonder if this is still the sentiment in either field.

I believe it may be time to reconsider some of the principles and standards for teaching writing at the postsecondary level, and perhaps that discussion may lead to division rather than collaboration. Yet, this is not my purpose here. Instead, I want to discuss ways in which students of literature and the programs that train them can prepare for the changing and challenging job market, a market that may have them teach composition as part of their regular course load and a market in which they may spot more openings in composition than in whatever literary specialty they want to study and teach.

The MLA Job Market

Anyone who has been involved in the job search — on either side of the table — in the past few years knows well the bleak state of the market for those with terminal degrees in nearly every area of English studies. Given the state of the market, it is axiomatic that those with advanced degrees in English develop a sense of text that is amenable to work in both composition and literature.

The 2010 Report of the MLA Job Information List, 2009-2010 paints this picture clearly. Here are just some of the statistics associated with what the report calls the "severity of the contraction in faculty hiring":

  • The 1,100 jobs in English in the 2009-2010 Job Information List (JIL) total only 25 more than the record low set in 1993-94
  • For the first time, more positions were advertised later in the hiring year (February, April, and summer) than during the typical hiring season (October and December)
  • A specialization in rhetoric and composition continues to be identified in the largest percentage of ads, representing one-third of all positions

In short, there are fewer jobs, fewer institutions hiring new faculty, fewer tenure-track jobs, and fewer searches resulting in hires, likely due to declining state and institutional budgets. These figures, of course, do not take into account the sharp enrollment increases at many postsecondary institutions, which make these declines even more staggering. Moreover, many signs point to continued drops in hiring for the next few years. Given all of this, it only makes sense that we discuss strategies to help job seekers better prepare for the tightening market.

Suggestions for Ph.D.s and Programs

As the above discussion of JIL data attempts to illustrate, the job market in English is clearly in decline. However, one constant in the JIL is college composition. In a time of financial constraint, composition’s role in the general education curriculum tends to shield it from the economic woes experienced by other departments and units on campus.

So, what can my colleagues in literature do if they wish to prepare themselves or their graduate students for work that likely includes the teaching of composition?

There are many possibilities, but I want to focus on four here:

  • Coursework in rhetoric and composition.
  • Classroom experience under the supervision of trained rhetoric and composition professionals.
  • Tutoring experience under the supervision of trained writing center professionals.
  • Participation in professional conferences and discussion lists related to rhetoric and composition.

I believe that many literature professionals have some of this experience to include on their CVs, yet a clear commitment to professional development in these four areas and a generous attitude toward teaching composition should better situate them for success in today’s job market.

First, literature students and professionals would increase their marketability for positions that may have them teaching college composition if they demonstrated graduate coursework in rhetoric and composition beyond the teaching assistant (TA) practicum. Classes in the rhetorical tradition, composition theory, visual rhetoric, teaching with technology, and assessing student writing are just some possibilities. In many doctoral programs focused on literature, these courses may not be suggested or encouraged; my advice for you is to seek them out. If these opportunities are not available locally, I recommend reaching out to composition professionals in order to pursue independent study opportunities or compile recommended reading lists in these and other areas of rhetoric and composition.

Second, literature students and professionals should have experience teaching college composition as instructors of record, experience guided and mentored by rhetoric and composition professionals. Literature professionals without this experience, perhaps as TAs or adjunct instructors, are at a significant disadvantage for positions that may have them teaching college composition. Most college and university administrators I know expect their composition faculty to have training for and experience in the composition classroom. In addition, it is important to note that these experiences are strengthened significantly when experienced rhetoric and composition professionals supervise them. If your graduate program in literature only provides teaching experiences in literature, consider seeking out other opportunities where you can learn about the teaching of composition.

Third, literature students and professionals would strengthen their positions on the job market by gaining experience working closely with students on their writing in a tutoring center or, preferably, a campus writing center environment. Successfully teaching students to become more effective writers requires not only a clear commitment to the project, but also a rich understanding of the different processes students use and the challenges they face with academic writing. Tutors see new and unfamiliar challenges in nearly every individual session. For this reason among others, writing center experience is invaluable, and as with experience in the composition classroom, work in any tutorial setting is greatly enhanced when supervised by a trained and experienced writing center professional.

Finally, literature students and professionals should take advantage of the opportunities to participate in local, regional, national, and even international conferences in rhetoric and composition. Most conferences and workshops in rhetoric and composition allow graduate students, adjunct faculty, and faculty on the job market the opportunity to attend for a significantly discounted rate, and some even waive the registration fee for graduate students and adjunct faculty who serve as presenters, session leaders, or conference assistants. The Graduate Research Network at the International Computers & Writing Conference, for example, offers travel assistance for participants, and the Research Network Forum at the CCCC Convention offers a free forum for convention participants including "published researchers, new researchers, and graduate students to discuss their current research projects and receive responses from new and senior researchers."

Since I recognize that some graduate students and literature professionals may not be able to afford the costs of participating in professional meetings and conferences, they may consider participating on discussion lists related to Rhetoric and Composition. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • WPA-L, the listserv for the Council of Writing Program Administrators.
  • TechRhet-L, a list "devoted to exploring the intersections among teaching, learning, communication, community, and the new literacies."
  • WCenter-L, a list used by numerous writing center professionals who ask for advice and post research queries and writing center-related announcements to the writing center community.
  • NCTE Connected Community on "Teaching Writing."

Having a strong sense of the common topics and current issues in rhetoric and composition should help literature students and professionals compete for positions that will have them teach college composition as part of their faculty assignment.

In this article, I attempted to remind readers of the relationship between composition and literature, discussed the challenges of today’s job market in English, and offered suggestions for graduate programs and literature professionals to be better prepared for work that may include the teaching of college composition. I realize that some readers in both the literature and composition fields will find this approach far from ideal, and their points are not without merit.

What I am arguing for, instead, is continuing to professionalize the teaching of college composition. If, as the CCCC Statement from 1989 recommends and as the job market appears to suggest now, faculty from literature and composition will be teaching college composition, then it only makes to help our colleagues in literature be prepared to effectively do so.


Randall McClure is chair of the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University.


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