Discourse of 'Don't'

Adjunct writing instructors argue that current activism focuses too much on what adjuncts lack, rather than what they bring to the composition classroom.

March 23, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. -- Books, articles and talks about adjuncts typically include a long list of what these instructors lack: decent wages, upward mobility, office space, assurances of academic freedom and inclusion in departmental activities, among other material and social goods.

But is the activist focus on what adjunct instructors don’t have, rather than what they positively contribute, hurting their cause? That was the premise of a panel here Friday at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. The topic was particularly urgent among the rhetoric and composition instructors in attendance, whose ranks are disproportionately non-tenure-track -- even compared to the already high numbers of adjuncts across the humanities and academe in general. Experts attribute the trend to the vast number of compulsory, first-year writing courses offered by colleges and universities, the fact that many writing instructors don’t have a Ph.D., and the decline of the share of the professoriate in tenure-track positions.

Given those trends, panelists said they need to be more involved in department life – especially since popular writing pedagogies stress a democratic, collaborative approach to curriculum design and instruction. But something is keeping them from fighting to be fully “enfranchised,” several speakers said: “a discourse of ‘don’t.’” (That was also the title of the session).

Chloe de los Reyes, an adjunct instructor of writing at California State University at San Bernardino, said such a discourse is a “tacit encouragement of inactivity” on the part of adjunct instructors. She said longer-serving adjuncts are particularly at risk of internalizing the idea that they have less to offer than their tenure-line colleagues and therefore adopting a “keep your head down mentality.” In other words, she said, adjuncts may begin to believe that being competent or professional means staying quiet, not asking for a greater role in curricular decisions and department life overall.

In turn, de los Reyes said, tenure-line colleagues begin to internalize the idea that their non-tenure-track colleagues “don’t want to work as hard.” She noted a comment on a department Listserv from a tenure-line colleague at an institution where she’s worked, complaining that an adjunct faculty member had called herself a “professor.” The tenured colleague said that an adjunct “usurping” rank in that manner was distasteful, given how difficult it is to obtain tenure. He insisted that there should be a policy governing use of the term “professor” as a title.

De los Reyes wondered, “How much would the discourse change if held ourselves accountable for what do rather than what we don’t do?” A new discourse of “do and will,” she said, would involve evaluating non-tenure-track faculty members for their contributions to rhetoric and composition beyond teaching, to ensure that adjuncts are current in the field. It also would mean non-tenure-track faculty members playing a bigger role in department life, academic planning and governance -- not in the unrealistic hope that they’d all be granted tenure, but simply valued for their contributions as scholars specializing in teaching. She said she didn’t think the answer was focusing on those writing instructors with Ph.D.s, a group that might benefit most from a new proposal by Michael Bérubé, a past president of the Modern Language Association and the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. Bérubé’s proposal calls for the creation of a teaching-oriented tenure track, in which those who hold terminal degrees are prioritized in hiring.

Panelist Gina Hanson, an adjunct instructor of writing at the University of the Redlands, agreed that asking all first-year-writing teachers to get a Ph.D. wasn’t the answer. She said she wondered if the field wasn’t big enough to think up a new kind of terminal degree for people who know they want to teach composition, not eventually pursue more research-oriented positions -- a degree that might bring some of the social “goods” adjuncts lack in their own departments.

Unlike other disciplines, which have seen the employment of adjunct instructors proliferate since the 1970s, Hanson argued that composition instructors -- despite their important role in providing new college students with the writing and analysis skills they need -- always have played a “servile” role. She based her assertion in part on Oscar James Campbell’s critiques of the “Freshman English machine” dating back to the 1930s, in which he asserted that there was little hope of a career for the undervalued first-year English instructors.

More than 50 years later, Hanson said, “the entire field of composition has sprung up around us... and nothing has changed.”

Joseph Farago-Spencer, another adjunct instructor of writing at San Bernardino, said adjuncts sometimes ask themselves questions such as “But I didn’t say anything -- why am I not getting better class time?” or “Why was I not invited to the luncheon? I’ve been doing my job... I haven’t caused any trouble.” He said the questions showed how the discourse of “don’t” -- which he said was adjuncts’ attempt to save “face” among colleagues -- hasn’t helped them gain better standing in their departments, and that it’s time for something new.  

He shared personal experiences from one of the institutions where he’s worked, saying that early in the semester, tenure-line colleagues sometimes stared at their computer screens to avoid engaging in substantive conversations about their work. One professor also brusquely told Farago-Spencer -- and a classroom full of students -- they’d need to move to another classroom, then later introduced himself as the professor who’d “kicked” Farago-Spencer out of class. At another institution where he taught, he was invited to serve on a student equity committee, but realized he lacked the institutional vocabulary to follow along and be effective. He stopped attending the meetings and “silence and isolation” became his preferred method of dealing, he said.

(In another roundtable discussion on professional issues Friday, Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at Emory University, attributed some of this kind of uncollegial behavior toward rhetoric and composition adjuncts to the decline of literature positions within English departments. “The cultural capital of literature study has dropped like a stone,” he said, inciting a “moral panic” and resentment of those in other subfields.)

Farago-Spencer said he thought the problem of “habituated silence” among contingent faculty was worthy of empirical study, to determine its prevalence and possible effects on department culture. The academy needs adjuncts’ “insight” into curricular changes and other academic matters, he said, but it runs the risk of “losing valuable input” in the first-year writing program when it systematically excludes adjuncts.

David Laurence, director of research for the Modern Language Association, attended the session as an audience member. He pointed to the difficulty of obtaining data on the placement of English Ph.D.s, following the end of funding for the National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty in 2004. Several others present said they thought that any kind of reform would require better data on just what instructors with what degrees are employed where.

Hanson said she agreed with other panelists, that adjuncts are at risk of being “construed as lacking so much that they have nothing to contribute at all.” She said that the discipline is currently divided into “haves” and “have nots,” or “thinkers” and “teachers,” and that adjuncts are often used as a scapegoat for a “declining educational system.”

She blamed the divide mostly on what she called “tenurism” and “remediation.” She borrowed the first term from adjunct activist Keith Hoeller’s book, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. She noted that Hoeller was criticized for comparing the bias adjuncts face to other -isms, such as racism, but she said there were similarities. She noted a tenure-line colleague’s pejorative comment regarding a possible tenure-line faculty strike at one of the institutions where she works. The colleague said that such an act -- in which only the adjunct faculty would be left teaching -- would turn the university into a “community college.” She noted, too, an institutional course selection system that prioritizes brand-new hires with no experience in a given field over adjuncts who have been teaching a given class for years.

Hanson also compared adjuncts to the “remediated” students in first-year writing courses, in which work is accomplished but no real credit is given. She said a student in a remedial writing class once asked her what an adjunct was, and then astutely asked, “So adjuncts are the remedial professors?” Hanson said that just as remedial students sometimes hide their status from friends and family, so do adjunct professors. She also noted institutions' tendency to force "canned" curriculums on adjuncts as a kind of quality control, and the common insistence that tenure-line faculty members -- even those from other subfields -- "approve" of long-serving adjuncts curricular changes or suggestions.

“Going to college is impressive and being remedial is not,” she said. “Being a college professor is impressive, and being an adjunct is not.”

Hanson said the antidote to such feelings is a “more unified, collegial field,” in which adjuncts are valued for their unique contributions to higher education -- their teaching expertise and their desire to contribute more to department and university life.

Audience member Suzanne M. Labadie, a tenured chair of English at Oakland Community College, said she was impressed by some of the panelists’ comments -- particularly their desire to do more. She said she would like adjuncts in her department to be more involved in department life, but felt an obligation to shield them from work for which they aren't paid.

Hanson said she acknowledged that adjuncts would like to be compensated for service and other tasks, but that there are “alternative forms of compensation, too,” such as respect and collegiality. “We don’t want to crawl home at night hoping to avoid eye contact with anyone other than composition studies” faculty members, she said.

Lacey Wootton, a senior lecturer of writing at American University, told panelists that it’s important to note that not all non-tenure-track faculty members feel disenfranchised, and that much depends on context. She said that she’s chair of the Faculty Senate at American, for example, and gets a course release in exchange for her service. She suggested that faculty members elsewhere try to fight against the perception that they’re somehow deficient by contributing to department life initially without the expectation of compensation. In her experience, she said, material improvements eventually follow. 

Hanson said she could "definitely see" that approach benefiting adjuncts in the long run.


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