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It's not hard to find higher education news that depresses me[1], but it's relatively rare that I can get genuinely enraged.

The news of Arizona State University’s plan to increase the teaching load for writing instructors from a 4/4 to a 5/5 with no increase in pay manages the feat.

For 32k a year, instructors will be required to “teach[2]” 125 students.

It is widely understood that an absolute maximum of 60 writing students per instructor is acceptable if we are at all concerned about quality of instruction. I’d guess that something close to a majority of those who teach first year writing in two and four-year colleges across the country are over this limit, but this doesn’t mean the 60-student maximum isn’t true.

When people lament about how students can’t write, one of the most important reasons why is because we don’t let writing teachers work in conditions that allow them to teach well, period, end of story. This is evident at our nation’s community colleges where 125 (or more) writing students per instructor is often routine[3].

What is different about the case of a community college suffering from funding deficits rooted in governmental neglect that shades towards negligence and what’s happening at ASU is that while the non-tenure track instructor teaching workload will increase by 25%, the tenured and tenure-track instructor teaching workload will increase by 0%.

I know this play, I thought, because I saw it happen at the three R1 universities where I’ve worked as NTT faculty. At Clemson, it went a little differently, in that the proposed solution to the budget exigencies was to lay off (sorry, not renew) 75% of the NTT faculty.

Rather than increase the teaching load of the tenured, they would simply remove the 200-level general education literature requirement that was largely taught by NTT instructors. The priority throughout the discussions about responses to the budget “crisis” was to protect the research time of the T/TT faculty, even those who hadn’t done any substantive research in decades[4]. Under all possible contingencies, this would be done on the backs of the non-tenured.

There are some other interesting wrinkles in the well-reported article by IHE’s Colleen Flaherty.

As it turns out, 50% of the affected instructors are alumni of ASU’s own graduate program. This means that ASU’s tenured faculty are largely in the business of producing graduates who become human shields, working for substandard wages in order to protect the 2/2 teaching loads of their privileged tenured professors.

There’s a word for this…oh yeah, “gross[5].”

Some additional observations/predictions:

1. ASU president Michael Crow is widely viewed by business and political types as the model for a postmodern college president. His moves towards replacing people with algorithms (as they’ve already done with math instruction and advising) are met with significant approval among the ruling class.

These trends are not regretful compromises made necessary by outside exigencies. They are deliberate and desirable. If ASU found itself with an extra pile of money from, I don't know, striking a deal with Starbucks to be the exclusive education provider to its employees, they would not use it to improve face to face instruction.

2. I will be shocked if the ASU tenure track faculty make a single substantive move in solidarity, despite what I imagine is a significant number of them identifying as political progressives. There will be some mewling of disapproval, and likely some statements of support, but I can almost guarantee none of them will voluntarily give up their 2/2 loads or take a stand that requires genuine personal or professional risk. There will be a whole litany of reasons they can't do anything other than "give voice" to their disapproval, but unless proven otherwise, the real reason is cowardice.

If I am wrong about this, I will gladly and publicly eat massive platefuls of crow and feature each and every profile in courage in this space.

3. Those same faculty will complain about the poor quality of writers and writing coming out of the comp classes. They probably already do.

4. While it isn’t going to happen, a fairly obvious step would be to suspend their graduate program that seems to primarily churn out poorly-paid non-tenured lecturers, which will in turn free up the tenure track faculty to teach first year writing[6].

5. Many of these tenure track faculty will be miserable at teaching first year writing, but they can be trained by their instructor brethren who will now have additional time for service because of their reduced teaching loads.

6. In reality, no amount of protest or opprobrium will reverse this course. It is a done deal.

We can sign petitions.

We can cry “What about the children?” until our vocal chords are shredded, and we can heap scorn on ASU on Twitter and in blogs, but the higher education factory has no feelings, no morality. It has been deliberately constructed as a machine without ears to listen with, so we can never be heard.

I have to go vomit now.


[1] Anything about how Big Data is going to “solve” the problem of student learning is pretty reliable on this front.

[2] Credit to my friend Susan Schorn, who is also the Writing Program Coordinator in the School of Undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, for the ironic quotes. As she notes in a recent guest post, a single instructor cannot actually “teach” that many students.

[3] We absolutely can and should have this discussion as well.

[4] The budget crunch wasn’t as severe as predicted, so natural attrition – which mostly took the form of people like me getting the heck out of Dodge – took are of most of the layoffs.

[5] Two others might be “unconscionable” and “immoral.”

[6] This will not result in the displacement of any current instructors because their loads will instead fall to 3/3.


Lots of chatter on Twitter about this, but I can't imagine it does any good.


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