Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Contingent Labor, Writing Studies, and Writing about Writing

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Contingent Labor, Writing Studies, and Writing about Writing

Article excerpt

This article examines Elizabeth Wardle's "Intractable Writing Program Problems, Kairos, and Writing about Writing" to explain how the use and abuse of contingent faculty in higher education affects the ability to implement a writing studies approach to the teaching of composition. Central to writing studies is the argument that by focusing on a social science research agenda through the use of the concepts of transfer, genre, and metacognition, writing programs will enhance their disciplinary prestige, and this will bring more resources and tenure-track positions. The strategy then is to mimic the dominant university research paradigm, but the problem remains that research universities are structured by a series of social hierarchies privileging research over teaching, theory over practice, the sciences over the humanities, and graduate education over undergraduates.

Although I focus on research universities, many of the practices developed at these institutions are spreading to all forms of higher education in a globalizing mode of social conformity: in an effort to reduce costs and increase administrative control, universities around the world are increasing their reliance on inexpensive, just-in-time academic labor. On many levels, writing studies is itself structured by the contradictory nature of its relation to the dominant university research paradigm: while the teaching of writing challenges many of the standard institutional hierarchies, the desire for more resources often pushes composition programs to reproduce the structures that place writing, teaching, students, form, and practice in a debased position. Wardle's work is important here because she both acknowledges the need for structural change at the same time she offers a curricular and theoretical solution.

Wardle begins her article by highlighting the problematic relation between the theories of writing studies and the practice of actual composition courses:

Macro-level knowledge and resolutions from the larger field of Writing Studies are frequently unable to inform the micro-level of individual composition classes, largely because of our field's infamous labor problems. In other words, composition curricula and programs often struggle to act out of the knowledge of the field-not because we don't know how to do so, but because we are often caught in a cycle of having to hire part-time instructors at the last minute for very little pay and asking those teachers (who often don't have degrees in Rhetoric and Composition) to begin teaching a course within a week or two.1

Here, Wardle correctly indicates that we cannot promote new pedagogical practices, theories, and research projects, if we do not also deal with academic labor issues. As she stresses, it is hard to mentor and train faculty who are hired at the last minute and may not have expertise in writing studies. This important framing of the relation between research and teaching can help us to think about the political, economic, and institutional affordances shaping the possibilities of writing studies.

A concern for the material conditions structuring higher education weaves in and out of Wardle's article, and it is my contention that a close reading of her argument reveals a conflict concerning the ways positive change can be made at higher education institutions. On the one hand, Wardle points to large structural forces determining how writing is taught, and on the other hand, she seeks to provide a local example of how individuals at a particular location can enact new pedagogical models. The question remains whether a move to adopt a writing studies approach in the teaching of composition courses can be achieved without collective action dedicated to transforming our institutions of higher education. If institutions value research over teaching, graduate education over undergraduate education, theory over practice, and content over form, can writing studies' focus on researching how undergraduate students learn and write take hold? …

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