Faculty Clash With Duke on Proposed Writing Program Changes

Unionized faculty members in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University allege that proposed changes are intended to force them out and replace them with nonunionized adjuncts.

December 9, 2021
Faculty and students gathered at the Duke University Chapel Sunday to protest proposed changes to the Thompson Writing Program.
(Getty Images)

Proposed changes to a mandatory first-year writing program at Duke University have some unionized faculty members alleging that the shift in focus is primarily about union busting.

The Thompson Writing Program, in place at Duke since 2000, teaches writing through a multidisciplinary lens. According to the university website, its writing courses are seminar-style and faculty members come from a broad range of academic disciplines. Instructors for these writing courses are comprised of a mix of lecturers and lecturing fellows, the latter belonging to a faculty union. Though full-time faculty, lecturing fellows are not tenured. Job conditions vary, with some instructors on renewable contracts and others with nonrenewable appointments.

“Rather than spending an entire semester talking about composition and writing, which is, admittedly, rather boring—even for people like myself, who love writing—we teach writing in the discipline,” said Paolo Bocci, Thompson Writing Program lecturing fellow at Duke. “So we’re not English people. We are cultural anthropologists, geographers, biologists, archaeologists, historians and musicologists who teach classes that have this sort of dual nature.”

But now Duke is changing the nature of the program, zooming out to a broader focus, according to Erin Duggan Kramer, Duke’s assistant vice president of media relations and public affairs.

“Duke recently completed a review of the 20-year-old Thompson Writing Program curriculum and is making some major changes to better serve today’s undergraduate students. Instead of teaching writing through a disciplinary context, we will be teaching expertise in a number of areas including oral communication; scientific and technical writing; digital/multi-modal writing; multilingual rhetorics; and the literacies of race and antiracist pedagogies,” she said via email.

The emailed statement adds, “As a result, Duke will be hiring a number of new faculty who are scholars in writing and oral communication instruction—an expertise gained through a Ph.D. with specialization in Rhetoric and Composition—into positions as Professors of the Practice of Writing Studies and Lecturers in Writing Studies.”

That change, say unionized faculty members, means that some contracts will not be renewed. Additionally, they will not be qualified to apply for the new positions posted, which can be filled by nonunionized lecturers who have a background in rhetoric and composition. With the disciplinary focus on the chopping block, so are some unionized faculty members’ jobs.

Potential Job Losses

Seven unionized faculty members would see their contracts go unrenewed under the current plan, say critics. And some claim that Duke has been resistant to working with the union since non-tenure-track faculty members voted overwhelmingly to organize in 2016.

“From the very beginning, Duke has been strongly antiunion,” says Miranda Welsh, a lecturing fellow in the Thompson program, citing resistance from the university on faculty issues.

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Welsh says she has the unique benefit of being on a renewable appointment that isn't up until next year, but those hired after 2016 do not have renewable appointments. While the proposed changes could see her co-workers leave after the spring semester, she would remain employed. However, she’s concerned that her contract will be terminated next summer.

Duke has long argued against renewable contracts for faculty in the Thompson program, Welsh said, on the grounds that it needed a rotating roster of scholars to guarantee expertise across a broad spectrum.

“In our program specifically, they argued that because it’s a writing-in-the-disciplines program, they needed faculty turnover because it was the only way to maintain disciplinary diversity,” Welsh says.

Ultimately, it was the posting of job ads for the Thompson program that tipped faculty members off that changes were afoot, prompting them to seek an explanation.

A Dec. 2 email from Denise Comer, director of the Thompson Writing Program, to faculty members laid out the changes, and those affected say it was the first they had heard of the proposal. The email came in response to questions about the job ad postings.

“This initiative marks a strategic change in direction for TWP, requiring faculty who are scholars in writing and oral communication instruction—an expertise gained through a Ph.D. with specialization in Rhetoric and Composition,” Comer wrote in an email shared by a faculty member. “Our current model of teaching writing through a disciplinary context has served us well for the last 20 years, but the program needs to evolve in order to maintain excellence and truly prepare current and future Duke students to lead, discover, and engage.”

Duke did not make Comer or any other administrators available for interviews and declined to answer additional questions specific to concerns raised by students and faculty members.

Thompson faculty say they were blindsided by job ads that went up seeking candidates who will ultimately replace them under the proposed plan. They say there was no forewarning and little communication once they inquired about the ads. Likewise, the administration has been unwilling to address their concerns, faculty claim.

“Nobody’s talking to us,” Bocci says.

Protesting Changes at Duke

Surprised by the proposed changes, Thompson faculty organized a protest Sunday, drawing nearly 200 to the event, according to estimates from several people present.

One of those present was Jordan Reaves, a first-year student at Duke who took a Thompson Writing Program class this year titled Dolly Parton for President? The class, Reaves says, was research intensive but also fun and offered a unique approach to building writing skills.

He first heard of the changes from a professor and hopes to see the writing program continue in its current format, which he says creates a sense of community in mandatory writing courses.

“I feel like if you replaced it, there would just be less of a common experience; people will be less engaged with the material and ultimately not build as strong of writing skills,” Reaves says.

Faculty cite student support for the Thompson Writing Program, as well as high marks from U.S. News & World Report, which ranks Duke as the No. 2 university for Writing in the Disciplines.

“It really shapes and defines the undergraduate experience,” Bocci says.

But now, barring an administrative U-turn, it seems that experience will be reshaped.

“The rationale was that this will allow us to better serve students. But they haven’t provided any evidence for that at all,” says Welsh. “What they’re proposing, I think it’s actually an evolutionary reversal to an older model of teaching writing than the one we currently use.”

Given the popularity of the program, Welsh suspects these changes aren’t about serving students. Instead, she feels this is part of a larger battle between Duke and organized labor.

“At this point,” she says, “I feel like the only logical explanation left is that it’s an attack on the union.”

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