Writing Wrongs?

Arizona State, facing criticism, agrees to pay more to some composition instructors assigned extra sections. But the university refuses to back down on courseloads that violate disciplinary standards.

January 23, 2015
 
One of the logos of the Arizona State instructors' campaign against 5-5 courseloads

Arizona State University angered many of its faculty members last month when it announced that it was upping full-time, non-tenure-track composition instructors’ teaching loads to five classes per semester from four, without any additional pay. The university said it was eliminating a 20 percent-time service and professional development requirement to make up for the change, but instructors said that teaching five courses under any circumstance meant the quality of their instruction would suffer. Others questioned how full-time instructors could keep up with professional standards without participating in service or faculty development – or why their university wouldn’t want them to.

Arizona State, meanwhile, said the changes were necessary to address budgetary concerns within the department. Now it’s is backing down from some details of that plan -- but faculty members say the changes remain detrimental to teaching and learning.

Mark Lussier, chair of Arizona State’s English department, recently sent an email to faculty members saying that the “tension” surrounding the plan had led to “extensive conversations across the space between semesters.” As a result of those conversations, he said, Arizona State will raise the base salary for instructors with a Ph.D. to $36,000 from $32,000, starting next academic year, to reflect the additional course assignment.

Lussier also said department and writing program leaders will “identify necessary service and professional development contributions, and such service assignments will be specified in detail in letters of appointment along with any course reduction necessary to perform that service.” He noted that additional details are “in development.”

Both Lussier and George Justice, dean of the humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and vice president for humanities and arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, referred requests for comment to Mark Johnson, university spokesman.

Johnson said via email that Arizona State "recognizes the hard work and dedication of all of our faculty, including our entry-level instructors across the university. We regularly review the compensation paid to the university’s many contributors and compare it to relative market benchmarks, and after such a review conducted last year we are increasing pay to these instructors, not just in a single department, but university-wide." 

Addressing questions about writing instructors' course assignments, Johnson said that the the university has "consistently required that the writing instructors carry a 100 percent workload, made up of five equal components, regardless of whether one of those components was a class or service duties, such as work for a faculty committee.  That requirement of a full workload remains in place for the next academic year with classes making up all five portions of the workload."

English instructors at Arizona State and elsewhere found the development lacking.

Janice Kelly, a full-time, non-tenure-track instructor, said she’d received Lussier’s email, “and after over 30 years of teaching at ASU, I feel like quitting. … There is no good news here.”

Kelly said the concerns were about much more than money. She said that there is simply no way instructors can offer the kind of intense review of papers needed in first-year composition while teaching an extra section each semester. Kelly said she specializes in teaching Arizona State’s “Stretch” composition courses, a two-semester sequence for the university’s least-prepared students. She said she’s able to retain more than 90 percent of her students each semester by “working closely with each student, coaching them on academic success, and giving them individual feedback on the drafts of their essays rather than just grading the final product.”

That kind of contact would suffer with up to 25 new students in a fifth section, she said.

“I understand that instructors in other discipline areas teach a [five-course-per-semester] load, and if I could just give my students Scantron tests, I would not mind the increase,” Kelly said. “But teaching composition is different, and I will not be able to continue these best-practice approaches if our load is increased.”

Kelly said she worried that lots of faculty members would quit under the new system, making classes bigger for remaining instructors. But she said she wouldn’t blame them, and that they “should.” She added: “If I’m already giving 100 percent, how can I give 20 to 30 percent more?”

Another longtime instructor with a master’s degree who created a web page called ASU Against 5/5 to protest the changes (and who wished to remain anonymous, citing concerns about job security) had a similar reaction. In a new post to the page, she called the chair's email "shabby, at best," and an attempt to save face amid criticism. She said the chair's email leaves questions about pay for non-terminal-degree holders and individual service assignments unanswered, and that the plan still fails to address concerns about the impact of five-five course load on student success. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from a previous version to reflect ASU Againts 5/5's new response.)

Shirley Rose, a tenured professor of English and director of writing programs, said the changes don’t “fully address concerns about the impact of the [five-course-per-semester] teaching assignment on student learning.” She also expressed concern that the default workload does not include times for service, such as faculty governance or organizing the program’s annual composition conference. She also said faculty members need time for professional development, to learn about “recent research and theory that would inform their teaching or to become familiar with new teaching and learning technologies.”

Rose added: “If all of our teachers had ongoing access to these opportunities our students would obviously benefit more than they will if only some of our teachers do. But some is better than none.”

Arizona State isn’t alone is assigning instructors five courses per semester. But the practice is controversial, since five sections of up to 25 students each – the university’s maximum – puts its writing program so far outside of disciplinary standards.

According to policy set by the Association of Departments of English, a subgroup of the Modern Language Association, college English teachers “should not teach more than three sections of composition per term,” and the number of students in each section should not exceed 15, “with no more than 20 students in any case.” Put another way, the ADE says, “No English faculty member should teach more than 60 writing students a term; if students are developmental, the maximum should be 45.” The National Council of Teachers of English recently removed language about a recommended maximum of 60 students per professor per term from its Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing statement, but says it’s still good guidance.

Margaret Ferguson, distinguished professor of English at the University of California at Davis and immediate past president of the Modern Language Association, said it was “certainly encouraging” to see that Arizona State was offering an 11 percent pay increase to contingent faculty members with terminal degrees, and that the department appeared to be adjusting instructors’ workloads according to service responsibilities -- at least for some.

But, she said -- noting that the plan was discussed by the MLA Delegate Assembly during the organization’s recent meeting in Vancouver -- “I am still concerned about faculty members having a composition course load of that size.… If you teach 125 students per semester, every time you give a writing assignment, you're looking at over 30 hours a week for just that single assignment, even if you devote only 15 minutes to each paper.”

Ferguson added: “As a profession, we have a long way to go in our efforts to give undergraduates the best possible education. Students deserve professors whose work is well-compensated, whose course load allows a reasonable amount of time for constructive comments on student work, and who have opportunities for professional development.”

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