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Last week I went to my first ever academic conference,[1] the meeting of the Carolina Writing Program Administrators[2].

Eighteen years teaching at the college level (including my years as a graduate TA), and I’d never had occasion or ability to attend a working conference. This is one of the byproducts of contingency, being something between dissuaded from and shut out of taking these opportunities.

My role was ostensibly to deliver a “keynote” address (“Who Are We? What Do We Do? How Do We Do It?: The Laborers and Labor of the Composition Classroom”), but with an intimate group of thirty-five or so attendees, it was less an address and more of a kickoff to a two-day discussion.

Not long after I started speaking about the challenges I’ve experienced as a teacher of writing while holding a series of contingent positions, I saw others nodding, and the refrain of Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” started to play in my head.

Contingent work is inherently isolating, and the opportunity to spend time with others who struggle with the same problems was a tremendous balm. I’ve always believed that the work I do matters – despite all of the external signs otherwise – and it’s refreshing to be surrounded by a group who agree with me, many of whom have been facing these challenges much longer than me.

I hope that I gave as much as I took at the conference, but this seems not likely, as I left with pages and pages of notes for fresh approaches to my work and new perspectives to the problems we face. Each presentation left me excited to try something new to better serve my students. My biggest regret is that so much of it has to wait for me to retool the course between semesters.

As uplifting as it was for my spirit to spend time with these fine folks, the conference illustrated some of the deep problems with the way labor is treated within higher education, particularly the labor in the composition classroom.

Who are we?

I was actually surprised about how few of the attendees to the conference were tenure track or tenured faculty. Even people in significant administrative positions within writing programs (director or associate director) were contingent.

The attendees were also overwhelmingly female. I may be off by one or two, but I believe I was one of only four men in attendance.

I cannot help but think the lack of resources directed towards writing programs is related to this reality, that within our institutional systems, the work of teaching writing, particularly that of teaching first year writing, has been relegated to “women’s work,” and is therefore devalued.

The people I met at the conference are experienced, educated, knowledgeable, and continuously doing scholarship that informs their work. Anyone would be lucky to wind up in their classrooms – classrooms that easily run at a surplus of tuition dollars - and yet the vast majority of us make less than $40k a year, in some cases significantly less than that.

What do we do?

The phrase all of the writing program administrators seemed to know well, and hear from their colleagues and institutions was, “Making the trains run on time.”

While this is ostensibly praise, an expression of appreciation for a difficult task, it is interesting to note that first-year writing is viewed through the lens of a logistical problem, as opposed to an academic or disciplinary one.

Is there another subject at the college-level that gets similar treatment?

On the one hand, over and over we hear how important writing and communication skills are, and yet the courses where this is expected to be covered are consistently the least resourced in the entire college or university.

I believe that most faculty outside of the writing classroom have very little idea as to what happens inside that first-year writing classroom: the process, the goals, the outcomes. I say this because I can include myself in that group. Prior to my return to teaching first-year writing I had significantly less than a full appreciation for the course’s importance, and the exciting and valuable work going on inside the field.

My hunch is that many faculty members believe the composition classroom is primarily designed as a training ground where students will be prepared to write the “more important” papers in their upper-division courses.

That’s not really what we do, and for good reason. That skill is both limited and perishable.

I left the conference thinking that one of the things we of composition must do is better educate our colleagues throughout our institutions as to what is actually going on, and why[3].

How do we do it?

A majority of the attendees at the conference teach courses with student loads in excess of recommended disciplinary maximums. They are being asked to, in the words of undergraduate Writing Program Coordinator at the University of Texas, Susan Schorn, “teach in thin air.”

Too many students, not enough time, too little support.

Speaking from personal experience with students loads at, but not above, the recommended maximums, I can say that the work these people are doing borders on the heroic and often requires what I believe to be an unreasonable degree of self-sacrifice to preserve the quality of student learning, all for a salary below the average grade school teacher, who is also likely to be disastrously underpaid.

Frankly, the amount and type of work these people are asked to do for the salary they are paid is straight up bullshit. It should be a source of shame for institutions across the land, and yet it’s the instructors themselves who are tasked with carrying that shame.

That the edifice hasn’t collapsed entirely is because of the hundreds and thousands of dedicated non-tenure track instructors holding it up.

Part of me thinks we should just let it fall, to show our institutions what happens when we hold them accountable to their own rhetoric of being student-centered and fostering excellence.

But because of who we are, what we do, how we do it, that’s not going to happen.

Students would be harmed. The people I met could not bear such a thing.

But if we say that writing is important, if we believe that close personal instruction is necessary for teaching writing (because it is), then maybe we should begin to resource the work with something other than the bare minimum and expect the instructors to work miracles.

[1] I’m excluding the AWP conference because it is much more trade show than conference, having more in common with Book Expo America than an exercise designed to promote the discussion and dissemination of disciplinary knowledge.

[2] Held at the beautiful Wildacres Retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Highly recommended if you want some time away from distraction in a beautiful setting.

[3] Hopefully there’s a future post on this topic from me, or even better, someone else in the field.

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