What Is a Composition and Rhetoric Doctorate?

Data show stability in number of programs and enrollments, but continued shifts in what programs are called, reflecting tensions within the field over its role and whether it is a single field.
April 4, 2008

The discussion of graduate programs in composition and rhetoric was proceeding with a fair amount of politeness, with professors talking about their search for well rounded scholars, versed in the theory of rhetoric and the practicalities of managing writing programs.

But a graduate student forced the discussion to get more pointed. "I find it interesting that you are all talking about how you want a wide ranging person," said that graduate student, who is early in his program. "What I find is that I'm being pressured, encouraged to get really specific now" in the program, picking either rhetoric or composition as a clear focus, he said. "You've got to pick," is the way he phrased the pestering he's receiving from faculty members. He described himself as "floored" by the contrast between what he's hearing in his department and the way the discussion was proceeding at the annual meeting of the Conference of College Composition and Communication, in New Orleans.

The graduate student's comments seemed to liberate participants in the group discussion to acknowledge that the field of composition and rhetoric is frequently faced with demands "to pick" -- to identify more with one part or another. This turns up particularly in doctoral programs, where there is enough of a critical mass to focus on serious theory, but where many of the new Ph.D.'s will be getting jobs focused very much on teaching undergraduate writing. If anything, the tensions over definition could be increasing, as programs increasingly seek to name themselves in different ways.

Stuart C. Brown, a professor of English at New Mexico State University, kicked off the discussion by presenting preliminary information about a survey he recently conducted about the doctoral programs, the third survey he has conducted since 1993. Results came in from 67 programs, the vast majority of those that exist, and they enroll about 1,200 students in all -- suggesting that the number of programs and total doctoral enrollments in them is relatively stable. At the same time, there are signs of changes in the field, he said.

First, the stability he noted may not last. While the job market has remained strong for new doctorates in the programs, Brown said that wasn't a sure thing to last -- especially with an economic downturn having an impact at many public universities. There are already signs, he said, that some programs may not be viable over the long run. While there are about 10 programs with 60 or more students each, he said, there are 14 that don't have even 10 students each in their programs.

Women are increasingly doing the teaching in the programs, he said. Male faculty members were the healthy majority in the 1993 survey and the numbers were relatively equal seven years later. Now, female faculty outnumber male faculty 264 to 224.

Another shift that Brown noted was in the names (and presumed emphasis) of the programs. Some composition and rhetoric programs are parts of English departments and others are free standing. But names now include "rhetoric in professional communications," "Ph.D. in English with professional writing in new media," "English composition and rhetoric," and many programs that have added "new media" or "digital" to their names. The proliferation of names, he said, is a challenge in terms of the field establishing more visibility in the graduate education world.

Audience members described a variety of feelings about the various parts of the field. Several said that the more theoretical rhetoric part of the field tends to appeal more to literature professors and builds ties to English departments. But Brown noted a flip side to such ties. Some of the graduates of his doctoral program end up at community colleges, he said, and he worries that the program doesn't do enough to train them for such work. "Do we in doctoral programs know enough about what's involved?" he said.

While plenty of people in the audience -- a mix of graduate faculty and graduate students -- pledged their mutual commitment to combining the various emphases, the difficulty of doing so was prevalent in the questions from those looking at the job market.

For example, one trend discussed was the "professionalization" of positions as writing program administrators. Many doctoral students are studying these jobs and their work for dissertations and putting themselves on a track to work there. Others focus on writing programs for freshmen -- similarly doing coursework and dissertations on the topic. But one person in the audience reported that even though there were job possibilities in managing writing programs, her professors strongly discouraged her from taking those jobs, seeing them as less research oriented as other positions.

Another person in the audience said she had worked for many years teaching writing to freshmen and liked it, but was afraid of getting labeled as someone who could only do such work. "You can get stuck in one area," she said.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top