Bad Idea About Writing: Anybody Can Teach It

The system at too many colleges is stuck in a cycle of insisting that some work is lower value than other work, then using the fact that it abuses the people who do that work as proof of its low value, argues Seth Kahn.

August 7, 2017

Every time I hear somebody complain about the poor writing ability of today’s college graduates and students, I can’t help but wonder what people would think if they knew more about the circumstances of many college writing instructors, who go by the titles “adjunct,” “contingent,” “term” or “non-tenure-track” faculty. (I’ll use the word “adjunct” to stand in for all of those possibilities.) In 2013, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that adjunct faculty were teaching a significant majority of general education writing courses (English 101, so to speak) in the United States, reinforcing results from the Association of Departments of English in 2007.

Who is “Anybody”?

Unlike the stereotype of a college professor -- a giant office stuffed with books, an antique desk, expensive shabby-chic clothes, you know the image -- adjunct faculty often face difficult working conditions that rest on the myth that anybody can teach writing. The average salary for adjuncts is $2,700 per section, so teaching 10 courses a year (which is a huge load) would gross only $27,000. And many campuses won’t offer full-time work as a result of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide health insurance to anybody working more than 30 hours per week.

Because the pay is so low, it’s not unusual for adjuncts to become “freeway fliers” (teaching courses on multiple campuses) in order to cobble together enough money to live. Most adjuncts get no insurance or retirement benefits. It’s not unusual for adjunct teaching loads to change semester by semester (so that somebody might have two courses, then four, then one, then three, etc.). Often, the professor doesn’t know until a semester is about to begin, when it’s too late to find replacement work anywhere else, it’s too late to prepare for any new assignments and it’s too late to update materials from prior semesters.

Adjuncts, almost by definition, have no job security or protection against being fired at will. On many campuses, they share incredibly cramped office space if they have offices at all; it’s not unusual for adjuncts to discover that the safest place to store books, laptops, phones and so on during classes is in their cars. Imagine the challenge of needing to have a confidential discussion with a student about a grade, or something sensitive somebody wrote about in a paper, and not even having a semiprivate place to do it. Under those conditions, the truth of the matter is that nobody can teach writing -- at least not well.

If you’ve never thought about specialized training for people who teach writing, that’s no surprise -- the idea itself hasn’t been around for long. Because of its low level (101 is about the lowest number a credit-bearing college course could have) and its content (traditionally, low-level grammar concerns, citation formats for research papers and similar remediations that most people think students should have learned in high school), it’s not so surprising that decision makers would conclude that anybody can do it.

Unfortunately, high-ranking administrators (deans, provosts, presidents, chancellors) on our campuses often use that conclusion to justify hiring, and offering poor working conditions to, adjunct faculty. If anybody can teach writing, the argument goes, then why pay experts well to do it? For whatever reason, even though it’s common to hear people complain about the poor writing skills of kids these days, it’s just as common to hear the assertion that teaching them to do better shouldn’t be hard. We hear these two arguments surprisingly often, and unfortunately, they reinforce each other. If the people who teach writing don’t need real professional training, then why treat them professionally? And if we’re not offering to treat them professionally, then why would anybody pursue the training necessary to do it well?

Poorly Treated and Trained Faculty Can’t Teach Writing Well

I wish it were obvious that people better trained to do something would do it better than people who aren’t trained as well. That feels like such a truism that it’s hard to even know what evidence to offer to support it. Here’s what we know: people without advanced training in writing pedagogy tend to rely on outdated ideas about writing, particularly that mastery of sentence-level skills like punctuation and word choice lead to mastery of more complex writing tasks.

As early as the mid-1970s, researchers had established that this assumption (sentence-level skills lead to more complex skills) was incorrect. Mina Shaughnessy, a professor at the City University of New York during the period when the system became open admissions (so that anybody with a high school diploma or equivalent could be admitted), published an influential book called Errors and Expectations in 1979 (Oxford University Press). One of her key findings was that students struggle with sentence-level problems for any number of reasons that often have little to do with their mastery of mechanics. Simply (re-)teaching them mechanical skills doesn’t solve those problems. Likewise, compositionist Patrick Hartwell reported in a well-regarded 1985 article titled “Grammar, Grammars and the Teaching of Grammar” that students are much more likely to care about mechanical issues if they consider those issues in the context of their own writing purposes instead of worksheets and handouts.

Another outdated but still common practice among nonspecialist writing teachers is teaching the modes of writing: narration, description, analysis and argument. Teaching the modes suffers from the same basic problem as starting from the sentence level: the assumption that writers move neatly through these stages of complexity simply doesn’t hold.

And Hartwell’s argument that students learn more when they work on writing they care about also applies just as well here. A course built on a series of tasks students must do even if they have nothing to say that motivates or interests them is a course with, let’s just say, limited potential. But too many writing teachers are either required to teach such courses in programs designed by nonspecialists, or they design courses this way because their models are the courses they took themselves.

I could keep listing practices that writing programs heavily dependent on adjunct faculty often use, but I hope the connection is clear: poorly treated instructors often work in programs without much regard for professional knowledge of the field, which both disempowers the instructors and reinforces the sense that what they do isn’t important. The system at too many colleges is stuck in a cycle of insisting that some work is lower value than other work, then using the fact that it abuses the people who do it as proof of its low value.

Exploring Alternatives

In its simplest form: “Anybody who is trained and supported well and treated like a professional can teach writing.” The key word is “professional.” The people teaching college writing courses would have graduate degrees (most already do, of course, often more than one), and many would have spent years on the job (many already have). Many (more) would have conducted research into effective teaching or other kinds of research that help them teach writing. Their training, experience and expertise would have earned them the support they need in order to do their work well. That support would come in many forms: resources like office space, computer access, photocopying and library privileges; engagement in their departments by being invited to participate in department meetings and curriculum development; job stability instead of constantly fluctuating schedules that may change suddenly and without explanation; and better compensation than most writing instructors currently receive.

Finally, treating professionals as professionals would mean paying people more than many of them earn now. The Modern Language Association, which is one professional organization that represents faculty in English and writing studies, recommends a minimum salary of $10,700 per course. The National Council of Teachers of English, MLA and many other organizations also recommend that faculty teaching at least half of a full-time load receive benefits (health insurance, retirement contributions) in proportion to their teaching load.

Research supports such efforts: most recently, Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest University and Kevin Rask of Colorado College have found strong correlations between the instructional budgets of institutions and the earning power of graduates from those institutions.

The fact is that investing wisely gets better results. And, ultimately, while it’s fair to demand better for students, it’s not to demand magic from a system that’s currently built on a bad premise that anybody can teach writing.


Seth Kahn is an English professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He serves on the board of the New Faculty Majority Foundation and co-chairs or has co-chaired labor/contingent faculty committees in several professional organizations. This is the second in an occasional series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe for an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries.


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