Academic journal article College English

The Composition Specialist as Flexible Expert: Identity and Labor in the History of Composition

Academic journal article College English

The Composition Specialist as Flexible Expert: Identity and Labor in the History of Composition

Article excerpt

If you've been a graduate student in rhetoric and composition in recent de- cades, you've likely heard a peer in literary studies at some point remark, "At least you'll get a job." Such comments were reassuring to me in my early years of graduate school, but became increasingly troublesome as I neared the job market. How sustainable, I wondered, was success on the job market for our field? Weren't faculty positions in rhetoric and composition subject to the erosion of tenure-track (TT) faculty happening across the university? You may attribute my concern to graduate school-induced anxiety, but I am still pondering these questions with PhD and tenure-track job in hand, and for good reason. Composition1 has one of the strongest TT job markets in English yet also employs a large number of non- tenure-track (NTT) contingent faculty-many of whom are graduate students or individuals holding a terminal degree in English.2 This paradoxical situation begs the question: What does it mean to specialize in composition?

Concern that composition's division of labor dampers the field's identity is not new. In the 1990s, Susan Miller argued that the existence of an "underclass" of "numerous ad hoc mobile scholars" reinforces composition's low status (146-47). Sharon Crowley similarly predicted that composition would fail to achieve discipli- narity as long as the universal requirement of first-year composition (FYC) was so embroiled in unfair labor practices (254). The numbers, however, suggest precisely the opposite of Crowley's prediction for composition-that the discipline's growth historically (measured in terms of TT faculty lines) occurred even as reliance on contingent labor worsened. By my count, advertisements for TT positions in the Modern Language Association's (MLA) Job Information List (JIL) increased from around 10 listings to 170 listings between 1966 and 1988 (see Table 1).3

The same decades witnessing this massive growth also saw a rise in contingent faculty. Between 1966 and 1980, part-time faculty increased from 28 to 41 percent of faculty (Part-Time Teachers Committee 1). A 1981 survey in WPA: Writing Pro- gram Administration found that of 4,584 composition faculty employed across 156 institutions, nearly half (2,263) were part time (McClelland 13). This trend has only exacerbated over time, with the Committee on the Academic Workforce reporting that in 2004, NTT faculty (including full and part time) constituted 68.5 percent of all positions in English departments (MLA, "Education" 25). How did composition gain prominence as a faculty specialization amid a labor market that discouraged faculty hiring-an institutional trend that would seem to work against the discipline's development, as Crowley observed?

I argue that the simultaneous growth of TT faculty in composition and the increasing reliance on contingent and NTT faculty occurred at least in part because expertise in composition is an ambiguous and highly flexible construct. In and of itself, this claim is not particularly novel. As scholars of the profession have shown, composition does not model itself according to traditional academic expertise, typi- cally defined by research specialization. In fact, much scholarship highlights com- position's lack of shared expertise (see Smit; Penrose; Tarabochia). Despite recent attempts to defend and define expertise in composition (see Downs and Wardle; Ritter and Matsuda), antiestablishment scholarship persists, arguing that composi- tion should not adopt a traditional model of expertise at all, and favoring instead a pedagogical, collaborative, and democratic vision of composition's knowledge (see Trimbur; Harris). However, these debates generally situate our expertise problem- whether construed positively or negatively-as a knowledge problem rather than a labor problem. For example, Ann Penrose, noting that academic expertise comprises shared "content knowledge" and "worldview," acknowledges, "Under this defini- tion, the expertise of composition teaching is difficult to describe. …

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