Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead

There is a growing online literature, by those with no access to the traditional academic forums, that tells the stories of former academics and graduate students being forced out of their jobs. Some decide they no longer want academic careers, but most report being unable to support themselves in the low-wage hellscape that some still call “higher education.” The last few years have also seen rising anger and frustration from students and families who are paying an ever higher price for college at the same time that, for most students, a four-year degree is more likely to lead to a lifetime of debt than to a higher wage job. I’ve been thinking about the convergence of these two phenomena in relation to the “leaving academia” genre. As the old idea of higher education as a publicly funded social good and a viable career path for teachers and researchers dies, there have been fewer accounts by post academics of what the scholarly fields we wanted to join look like from afar, once reflections on personal experience become deeper ruminations on the connection between individual lives and global transformations.

This essay examines Rhetoric and Composition, a sub-field of English in which I hold a PhD, from such a distance. My thinking about the issues raised in this text has been informed by theories on the political left that illustrate how education at all levels is being restructured according to the capitalist imperative to consolidate power and wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of everyone else. I hope to add something to the conversation about the particular (and, I believe, substantial) role that “Rhet Comp” has played in that process in academia and how those of us who identify as Compositionists might usefully employ our knowledge and skills in the aftermath of our discipline.

The College as Bureaucratic Corporation

First, academia – like most other industries – is in the midst of a labor market recession that has worsened in recent years. As of 2009, 75.5% of instructors at all two- and four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. were hired in term positions off the tenure track. According to the Coalition of the Academic Workforce, part-time adjuncts earn an average of $2,700 per course. Unsurprisingly, women and African Americans are more likely to work in contingent positions, especially in the Humanities. Most adjunct teachers earn low wages, have few benefits, no guarantee of continued employment, no voice in their respective departments, and – let’s be honest – virtually no chance at regular, full-time employment anywhere.

The reasons for the decline in tenure-track professorships are clear. First, the growing precariousness of wage labor is not limited to academia. According to one 2005 study, about a third of all U.S. workers are employed on contingent contracts. (Since the study is almost ten years old, the number is no doubt higher today.) The post-war compromise between labor and capital, which created the American middle class, has ended. Sociologist Shamus Khan described the period from 1947 to 1969 as “a tiny blip in what is otherwise a national history marked by tremendous degrees of inequality and struggles over inequalities.”

Another reason for academia’s job market collapse is federal and state disinvestment in public education at all levels and the corresponding rise in institutional and student indebtedness. According to the CBPP, “annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has grown by $1,850, or 27 percent, since the 2007-08 school year, after adjusting for inflation.” Passing more of the cost of college on to students (who incur additional debt in the process) means that more of the revenue used to finance higher education is “unsecured.” In California, which is leading the trend towards privatization, more than half of the financing for public colleges now comes from tuition dollars, not state funding. That means administrators are free to use student fees to finance development projects such as luxury stadiums. As a result, public universities in that state are already paying $1 billion each year in interest alone to Wall Street. This neoliberal restructuring is not a withdrawal of state support so much as it is an active program of turning higher education over to financiers and manager-elites. More than twenty years ago, in The University in Ruins, Bill Readings wrote that, as universities lost their status as bastions of national culture, they would become “bureaucratic corporations.” He was right.

No Silver Lining for Composition

Despite the fact that the transformation of higher education has taken place as part of a global process of “accumulation by dispossession” (to use David Harvey’s term for the privatization of public wealth), those of us who identify as Compositionists have long operated under the assumption that our field is immune from such dynamics. Conventional wisdom says that Composition and Rhetoric specialists enjoy an advantage in the academic job market. I have argued previously that it is time to reject the myth of Composition’s exceptional status. English departments and writing programs are at the top of the list of those that rely on a steady supply of poorly remunerated, low-status teachers. Composition does not defy our rotten economic system; it exemplifies it.

The literature on contingency leaves no room for doubt. A 2011 special issue of College English directly addressed the issue of Composition exceptionalism. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition,” wrote Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe, “have been affected most by [higher education’s] growing reliance on contingent faculty. Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.”

There is no silver lining for Composition in these numbers. Many first-year writing programs are largely  – if not entirely – staffed by contingent faculty and graduate students who work cheaply and can usually be counted on not to complain under the assumption that their position is temporary, a necessary apprenticeship on the road to a professional career. It is absurd to conclude that such realities do not affect the number and quality of jobs in the field. The truth, as more and more people are discovering, is that adjunct teaching is rarely a road to anything other than more adjunct teaching. The most recent CAW survey reported that over 80% of adjuncts have been at their jobs for more than three years, and most have been teaching part time for more than six years.

The academic job market itself speaks to the bleak future faced by writing teachers, including graduate students, MAs, and PhDs. Tenure-track positions are being rapidly replaced by teaching intensive lectureships with limited contracts, including visiting positions. The AAUP’s report on the trend identified “whole departments of full-time non-tenure-track English composition instructors” as a manifestation of the shift in institutional priorities. “Whether these [contingent] faculty members teach one class or five,” the report stated, “the common characteristic among them is that their institutions make little or no long-term commitment to them or to their academic work.”

In addition to contract workers, a growing number of institutions are also seeking Comp degree holders whose primary job would be running writing programs and performing other administrative duties. This implies a particular and troubling relationship between the material and the intellectual: statistically speaking, a Compositionist is more likely to get a tenure track job if s/he is willing to supervise low-paid, marginalized workers. No doubt, most Comp specialists expect to do “admin” work at some point in their careers. But considering the grim the prognosis for so many aspiring professors in general, perhaps we should all be less comfortable with the fact that Comp PhDs in particular are virtually “required to oversee the labor of others” (Miller).

The neoliberal transformation of the university into a corporation staffed by an increasingly precarious class of workers leads us to Marc Bousquet. In How The University Works, he argued that Composition as a discipline has had a particular role in processing under-employed degree holders, those he called the “actual shit of the system—being churned inexorably toward the outside.” Writing programs that employ low-wage teachers are often headed by directors with Composition credentials. In many departments, Compositionists help design and assess writing curricula that are then deployed by part-time teachers in the classroom. Thus, as Bousquet wrote, Composition’s intellectual work has helped to legitimate “the practice of deploying a revolving labor force of graduate employees and other contingent teachers to teach writing.”

Bousquet’s critique of Composition, which he first published in the early 2000s, inspired impassioned rebuttals from some who accused him of looking down on writing teachers and scholars from his perch as a cultural critic.  Joseph Harris wrote that Bousquet, like most faculty in English departments, treated Composition as the “instrumentalist Other of literature.” In JAC, Peggy O’Neil argued that Bousquet was letting tenured faculty in literary studies off the hook for their “ongoing prejudices against Composition” and that he had failed to recognize that “labor issues are intimately connected disciplinary concerns.”

Harris’s and O’Neil’s reduction of Bousquet’s analysis to a case of disciplinary hostility – or “prejudice” – is something of an apotheosis in Composition discourse. Later, I will discuss the broader implications of the field’s longstanding obsession with earning respect and recognition in the academy. First, I want to spend a little time tracing the history of the idea that labor exploitation in English departments is attributable to disciplinary discrimination.

The Wyoming Resolution and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class

Since Composition established itself as an academic discipline, starting in the 1970s and early 1980s, it has made a few attempts to address the adjunctification of college teaching. The pioneering document known as the Wyoming Resolution is an important example. Drafted by adjuncts and full-time professors at a 1986 summer conference, it was approved by the College Composition and Communication Executive Committee the following year. The resolution called on the profession to develop standards for writing teachers’ wages and working conditions. The Committee on Professional Standards promoted the Resolution in the CCC journal: “All teachers of writing,” they wrote,

are entitled to design and implement the curricula they think most effective and to use whatever materials they find necessary to that end; all teachers of writing are entitled access to relatively private office space, telephones, and other lines of communication that are standard within the institution; all teachers of writing are eligible for and/or are entitled to compete for whatever sources of research support are available at their institutions; all teachers of writing are entitled to salaries that are commensurate with workload, rank and teaching experience; all teachers of writing are entitled to be eligible for promotion and tenure according to the prevailing standards of the institutions in which they work; all teachers of writing are entitled to achieve the job security that is necessary to preserve their academic freedom.

Importantly, the Committee did not make a distinction between professionally trained Compositionists and those with MAs or PhDs in literature who were assigned to teach “Comp” each semester. To the early proponents of Wyoming, “all teachers of writing” meant all teachers of writing. It is obvious that these demands – from fair pay to academic freedom – could still be made today on institutions and departments no more willing to grant them.

One of the reasons there has been so little progress is that professional organizations can (and do) publish calls for reform all the time. But formally issued statements can’t make anyone do anything, a fact that Compositionists at the time knew all too well. Considering the lack of enforcement power, it is not surprising that the majority of writing classes are still taught by low-wage adjuncts. Not much has changed.

From another point of view, a lot has changed. Composition has grown into a bona fide academic field led by a cadre of (relatively) high-profile scholars teaching in R1 institutions from coast to coast. There are Ph.D. programs, conferences, and prestigious (and not so prestigious) journals devoted to writing theory and practice. How should we understand the field’s rise to prominence in light of unconscionable labor practices that endure almost 30 years after Wyoming?

One answer is that, over the last few decades, Composition scholars who already occupied privileged positions at R1 and other elite colleges succeeded in co-opting popular rage against labor exploitation in the service of advancing a campaign of non-discrimination that ultimately benefited themselves. In doing so, they diverted the field from the task of building the kind of organization that was truly needed: one that could back up demands for justice (such as those contained in the Wyoming Resolution) with action that couldn’t be ignored. I am not suggesting Composition elites made a purposeful decision to use the anger of the dispossessed to achieve their own professional goals. I have nothing whatsoever to say about individual intent. Instead, I am interested in how individual motives and actions are inseparable from their moment in a history and in how past successes and failures can inform current struggles in higher education and beyond.

The ‘Erosion of Opposition’ in Composition

In 1988, John Trimbur and Barbara Cambridge, who were then working as full-time faculty and writing program administrators, wrote an essay in the WPA journal in support of the Wyoming Resolution. They called for sweeping changes to institutional priorities and value systems in order to end “the blatant exploitation of part-time faculty.” Yet, their arguments for reform reveal another agenda. “We do not have to accept second-class status,” they wrote, “because we are interested in the study and teaching of writing.” Trimbur’s and Cambridge’s use of the pronoun “we” is extremely telling. It illustrates how elite members of the discipline interpreted the anger and bitterness of contingent faculty as their own. They did so because they believed that the key to winning Composition’s class struggle was “resist[ing] the unnecessary and unhelpful polarization of scholarship and pedagogy.” The logic is clear. Trimbur and Cambridge believed that demanding legitimacy and respect for a particular subject matter – in this case, the pedagogy of writing – would create better conditions for teachers of that subject matter. While not an unreasonable strategy, it turned out to be wrong. A less generous reading is that, in their framing, the “blatant exploitation” of workers was transformed into a symptom of the valuing of some kinds of scholarly interests above others, a problem arguably of less concern to those teaching in dead-end jobs for poverty-level wages than to an arriviste class focused on attaining professional legitimacy.

Trimbur’s and Cambridge’s “defense” of the Wyoming Resolution was its death knell. They laid the rhetorical groundwork for what was to come: the battle for a labor movement in Composition would, from then on, be primarily waged not as a campaign for workers as workers, or even for teachers as teachers, but as a program of non-discrimination aimed at elevating the rights and interests of professional scholars vying for position in hierarchical institutions.

Obviously, this shift – and its ultimate failure as a politics of social and institutional change – is not limited to academia. The political theorist Adolph Reed described how counter-hegemonic social movements in the 1960s collapsed into a “pluralistic politics” that “construe[d] political issues solely in terms of competition over goods and services within the bounds of fixed system priorities” (Race, 63). The same trajectory is visible in Composition. The discipline came into its own as a small cadre of professionals was promoted through the ranks of a fixed system. In response to an outcry from those teachers who were actually marginalized within that space, a dominant discourse emerged from established corners of the field: adjuncts’ demands for fair pay and secure jobs in workplaces and elites’ demands for legitimacy and recognition in academic departments were the same struggle. Composition as a discipline has never recovered from this category mistake.

I am not the first to point out how a campaign of non-discrimination in isolation from any larger program of social change blunted an incipient labor movement in Composition. In 1990, James Sledd argued that the field’s middle-class professionals were working at odds with those for whom they often claimed to speak. He asserted that the Wyoming Resolution would never be implemented because the “newly risen Compositionists and their freshly bedoctored students” benefit from a labor system in which other people (namely, adjuncts) do the work that they theorize about. “With that solution,” Sledd wrote, “the compositionists are apparently content, since it marks the literary establishment’s acceptances of their claims to shared glory.” Sledd’s open disdain for the intellectual work of Composition may be offensive to some (as it is to me), but he was correct to point out that the rise of a class of professional composition scholars was made possible due to the existence of an army of exploited teachers that were sometimes scorned by a self-styled vanguard, including Maxine Hairston, who wrote in the 1980s that “most composition teachers” did not share her interest in composition research and, thus, did “not know what they were doing” (“On Not Being”).

Later, after more than a decade of zero progress to improve pay and working conditions for writing teachers, some Composition scholars recognized the inherent conflict in advancing claims for professional status when most writing teachers and students would never benefit from those gains. In 2000, Duke’s writing program administrator, Joseph Harris, wrote: “Following [Jeanne] Gunner and Sledd, I have come to believe that we have succumbed to a professional logic in which establishing composition as a research field is seen as the key to improving the teaching of writing to undergraduates.” Unfortunately, Harris’s proposed resolution to the contradiction was not to build a labor movement in Composition but to work technocratically within the boundaries of a system of apparently unchangeable inequities. We should “move beyond our seeming fixation on the Ph.D. and the availability (or not) of tenure-stream jobs,” he advised, “and instead agitate at a local level for better working conditions for the people actually teaching writing.” Harris’s position was commendable in that it rejected a distinction between professional scholars and “the people actually teaching writing.” Yet, fifteen years after Wyoming, his position was essentially that Compositionists should give up the battle for a transformation of the academic labor system qua system, i.e., the class struggle. That he described his vision of local, situated reform as a new “class consciousness in composition” should alert us to how unlikely a revolution is to occur under the direction of manager-elites who have been positioned by upper management to add a veneer of professionalism and a dose of cooperation-disguised-as-reform to the labor exploitation machine. From the perspective of “the university in ruins,” it is clear that what has unfolded in Composition over the last 30 years – and in the academic labor system more generally – is what Reed, in his eulogy of 1960s radicalism, called the “erosion of oppositional content.”

Depoliticizing Composition

The effects of this erosion can be detected in the Composition literature produced during the 1990s and 2000s. The emergence of the field of basic writing, for example, can be read as an effort to further establish the professional authority of Composition by creating formal programs and administrative bodies to house those students that could not be quickly mainstreamed into college courses as well as the growing numbers of scholars who had dedicated themselves to theorizing about that problem. More recently, the effort led by Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle to develop the field of Writing Studies can be understood as a continuation of an historical process to consolidate Composition as a profession with its own courses and scholarly content.

Compositionists themselves identified this trend early on. David Bartholomae discussed the interconnectedness of professionalization and basic writing in the “The Tidy House.” Basic writing, he wrote, “is a reiteration of the liberal project . . . where in the name of sympathy and empowerment, we have once again . . . confirm[ed] existing patterns of power and authority [and] reproduc[ed] the hierarchies we had meant to question and overthrow.” In other words, basic writing was a product of a politics of reform whose commitment to equal opportunity and respect for difference posed no challenge to the hierarchies in which it was embedded. Bartholomae’s solution was similar to Harris’s: Compositionists should work at the local level to resist the dominance of basic writing as an idea while protecting the students who entered the university under that rubric.

Other scholars have deepened and extended Bartholomae’s analysis. Mary Soliday’s research on remediation at CUNY showed that segregating students into special literacy programs was actually a “crisis management tool” that allowed institutions to manage growth and maintain an aura of selectivity in a context of greater demand for college access (The Politics). In 1996, Bruce Horner expressed a similar view. He argued that basic writing’s existence was a function of Composition’s push for institutional legitimacy. Quoting Mina Shaughnessy, Horner noted that early basic writing scholars had described the field as “‘frontier territory.'” “Cast as frontier pioneers,” Horner explained, “Basic Writing teachers could be granted credibility as ‘professionals.'”

As the work of Bartholomae, Soliday, and Horner illustrates, scholars have long known that Composition’s growth was an outcome of professionalization, which happened concurrently with the broader de-politicization of the academy and the rise of the contingent professoriate. The neoliberal economic turn helped to transform colleges from hotbeds of radicalism to “job training” sites where students enrolled to learn skills for individual advancement within fixed, stratified systems. Composition emerged as a growth management tool at this historical juncture.

Composition’s Critique of ‘Management Science’

Though a few scholars had identified the limitations of Composition’s liberal project, the discipline would never establish itself as the radical forefront of an academic movement against labor exploitation, privatization, and managerial control over curricula and research. These crises were always overshadowed by elites’ claims to status in a minority discipline whose mission included advocating for marginalized students. Walter Benn Michaels, now a professor in Chicago, described the problem with such an agenda in 2007’s The Trouble With Diversity. “It is not prejudice or discrimination that makes people rich or poor,” he wrote. “It is capitalism, neoliberal capitalism in particular.” Michaels argued that colleges and universities played a part in reproducing inequality by treating “diversity,” “multi-culturalism,” and “equality” as synonyms. Around the same time, Compositionists were also theorizing the limitations of educational initiatives designed to provide access to hierarchical systems for underrepresented groups. In 2004, Donna Strickland, wrote:

[T]he rise of composition studies brought with it the initiation of many new ‘basic writing’ programs, which in turn led to the appointment of new directors to lead ‘writing labs’ or ‘writing centers’ that would offer tutorial services for these at-risk students. Thus, the discourse [of idealism] that set ‘democratization’ in motion also set in motion various administrative structures. … I recount the ‘myth’ of composition’s democratic agenda not to unveil it as ‘false’ but as limited, limited precisely by the lack of attention to the administrative imperative within the profession (“Making”).

Strickland’s Foucauldian thesis that Composition’s “administrative imperative” is in conflict with it’s supposed “democratic agenda” was built on prior research in the field about declining labor conditions for writing teachers, the feminization of Composition teaching, and the circulation of management discourses in higher education. By the time I entered graduate school, for example, Eileen Schell had already written her well-known analysis of “mother-teachers” who were expected to teach out of love in lieu of a decent paycheck. And, in the early 1990s, Susan Miller coined the phrase “the sad women in the basement” to describe adjuncts whose often invisible labor made elite scholars’ intellectual work possible.

These critiques are still relevant today. Composition specialists, especially PhDs, are seen as uniquely eligible to be what James Sledd called a “boss compositionist,” the employee primarily responsible for staffing writing classes, often at the last possible moment. Or they can be, what Joseph Harris reluctantly identified as, “the faculty member assigned to supervise the [Comp] droids” so that literature scholars don’t have to dirty their hands teaching writing.  Or, they can assume the role of the scholar-manager who maintains “a permanently subordinate class of teacher-technicians,” as Tony Scott – in an anthology titled Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers – described it. A critique of Composition as “management science” (to use Bousquet’s term) can be found in Composition itself. Why, then, is the argument that the discipline’s intellectual work has often functioned to legitimize labor exploitation a marginalized position in the field?

From Anti-Discrimination to Anti-Politics

I think part of the answer is that magnifying Composition’s role in perpetuating corrupt labor practices undermines the identity of the discipline as a democratic force in higher education. Many tenured faculty oppose such a move because it opens the door to overturning the claims to status that Composition’s professional-managerial class is still focused on defending. I described one dispute between two esteemed scholars and a room full of anxious graduate students here. Other examples abound.

In December 2013, Rebecca Schuman, a blogger, German PhD, and Slate journalist, wrote an essay that was critical of MLA conference interview procedures and the treatment of job candidates. She described search committees as “elitist and out of touch.” Claire Potter, an historian who blogs under the name “Tenured Radical,” wrote a response criticizing the “chronic rage” expressed by those shut out of academic jobs. The result was a weeks-long social media war fueled by rightfully angry Humanities PhDs and graduate students trying to convince defensive “tenured radicals” that academia is a lottery system, not a meritocracy.

Some Composition faculty entered the debate to offer advice to unemployed PhDs and graduate students. One response in particular illustrates a new low in Composition discourse. Steven Krause, of Eastern Michigan State University, insisted that the job market in Composition is a “completely different animal” than the market in literature. When people “express ‘rage’ about the terribleness of the job market in Literature,” he wrote,

I have to wonder what it was they thought they were getting themselves into when they started down the PhD in literature path in the first place. …. I think a lot of their anger – and Schuman is angry, no doubt about it – comes from this realization that they didn’t beat the odds, that they fooled themselves (and/or allowed themselves to be fooled) into believing that they were somehow immune from the job market laws of supply and demand.

Krause suggested that, if English graduate students expected to get jobs, they should have studied Composition like he did. This response is indicative of Composition’s new position with regard to academic labor. Henry Giroux might call it a “zombie politics,” but it could also be named an “anti-politics.” The labor crisis is no longer assumed to have been caused by “prejudice” or disciplinary “discrimination.” Such liberal epithets might have served the field well in Mina Shaughnessy’s day, but they no longer apply now that the MLA routinely advertises more Composition jobs than Literature jobs on its annual list. Instead, the new argument goes, there is no adjunct labor crisis. There are only immutable economic principles such as “the law of supply and demand” to which none of us can expect to be “immune.” In this neoliberal paradise, Krause suggests, underemployed PhDs are not victims of discrimination; they’re just fools who failed to take personal responsibility for whether or not they could find a job in a field they chose and whether that job paid a living wage. This is where Composition’s decades-long fight for status in academia was always fated to lead. Any semblance of class struggle, not to mention old-fashioned liberal sympathy, has been reduced to the dictum: “those unemployed people should have been smart like us.”

Who Is To Blame?

Why write this history? Many veteran Compositionists have contributed a great deal to bring the Composition discipline – and its important intellectual work – to prominence. They’re not the real enemy, after all.  We know who the real enemies are: state defunding initiatives led by out-of-touch legislators, administrators determined to run the university like a for-profit business, Wall Street bond managers whose loans are backed by tuition dollars, and all the rest of those philistines who don’t understand who we are and what we do.

Indeed, the list of culprits may be long. But global systems and circuits shape everyday experience in places where we work and live. In “Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons,” members of the anti-capitalist Midnight Notes collective argued for not letting the global context of the crisis paralyze us. “All too often, even within the Left,” they write,

explanations of the crisis take us to the rarified stratosphere of financial circuits and dealings, or the tangled, intricate knots of hedge-funds/derivatives operations—that is, they take us to a world that is incomprehensible to most of us, detached from any struggles people are making, so that it becomes impossible to even conceptualize any forms of resistance to it.

I concede that tenured faculty of any sort are not really to blame for what’s happening to public education in America when compared with the federal government, Wall Street, and the Board of Trustees at the University of California. But I still insist on not letting them off the hook. Demanding that (relatively) privileged members of the Composition discipline face reality is important to the inter-class alliances that are crucial to the struggle. Unfortunately, the prospect that those committed to ideologies of merit and professionalism will find common cause with the working classes in their own departments seems more unlikely than ever.

Composition is Dead

What about Composition as a field of study? Does it still exist? Can we reclaim it from the managerial elites as a force for democracy? I think the answer to these questions is no. We can understand why by studying how Compositionists themselves have grappled with similar questions.  In 2005, Chris Gallagher responded to Marc Bousquet’s critique of Composition’s management imperatives by lamenting the discipline’s inability to engage the public. Composition has been “a self-referential, middle-class psychodrama,” he wrote, arguing that faculty needed to cease navel gazing in order to “disrupt” the “corporatization of the academy.” I certainly agree that “disrupting the corporatization of the academy” was, at one time, a worthy goal. But it seems a kind of willed insanity to continue under the belief that privatized institutions, full of indebted students and low-wage workers, in the midst of an all-out assault by politicians and Wall Street are in any sense reclaimable.

However, I think we have to take Gallagher’s diagnosis seriously and ask a more basic question: what has Composition’s obsession with disciplinary status – it’s “middle-class psychodrama” – meant for the majority of writing teachers, whether they are PhDs, graduate students, or contract faculty? By most accounts, writing teachers’ working conditions have stayed the same or deteriorated during the period that Composition scholars fought for disciplinary status in the academy (and then mourned the internalized dramas that emerged from that pursuit). The problem is not that Compositionists lost that battle against disciplinary discrimination; the problem is that they won it. That campaign has been largely successful, within the framework of reform in which it was first articulated. To “the people who actually teach writing,” to use Harris’s phrasing, it has been meaningless at best and destructive at worst. In framing their narrow professional interests as the interests of all, scholars in the emerging field helped to transform genuine opposition to corrupt labor practices into a platform for elite mobility. This is doubly unfortunate since this was not the original goal. The field’s founding scholars sought to raise the status of Composition as a discipline and “writing” as a subject matter. But it didn’t work. We should admit the failure and learn from it. It seems clear that the solution to the corporatization of the university, then, is not to continue down that road and create alternative models of professionalism for a “New Progressive era”, as Gallagher ultimately argued. Instead, we must acknowledge the emptiness of ‘Progressivism’ as a political category and come to terms with the fact that, as Nathan Brown explained, “the university is one situation among many in which we struggle against debt, exploitation, and austerity. The university struggle is part of this larger struggle. And as part of this larger struggle, the university struggle is also an anti-capitalist struggle.”

Long Live Composition

If the university is dead, then so is Rhetoric and Composition. We shouldn’t mourn the loss. The field was never a beacon of democracy, no matter how much we wished it to be. Instead, the rise of “Comp” presaged the end times. Historically, its mystifications and ideologies were reflective of broader politics, from the liberal commitment to “access” to closed systems to the neoliberal worship of “efficiency” within open markets. All is not lost. We can still learn a great deal from the discipline’s passing about what kind of political commitments and acts of solidarity are likely to lead us, finally, out of the “university in ruins.”

For one thing, we can acknowledge that expanding the political rights of marginalized groups within an already oppressive system is not in any sense liberatory. As Adolph Reed wrote in his denunciation of “cultural politics”:

What if the historical truth of capitalist class power is that, without direct, explicit and relentless, zero-sum challenge to its foundations in a social order built on its priority and dominance in the social division of labor, we will never be able to win more than a shifting around of the material burdens of inequality, reallocating them and recalibrating their incidence among different populations?

The task ahead is not to reclaim Composition within the social division of labor that exists. As public institutions are dismantled around us, those who identify as Compositionists should take the radical step of refusing to apply our knowledge and expertise in the corrupt institutions as they are. We may believe ourselves to be knowledgeable about literacy development and about the theory and practice of writing and learning, as we surely are. But the operative questions now must be: in whose interest is such knowledge deployed and in what contexts might it be made valuable again? The battle for respect and authority has proven to be ineffective and downright counterproductive to a goal truly worth fighting for: the end of the university as “bureaucratic corporation” and the creation of democratic sites of teaching and learning in which teachers and students might re-think what counts as knowledge in a world of deepening inequities and re-make their relationship to each other in the process.

A class-based labor movement may be on the rise in academia. The creation of the MLA Subconference is a hopeful sign. Recently, faculty at University of Illinois-Chicago went on strike. A key demand was better wages and working conditions for faculty, especially non-tenure track lecturers who teach most first-year students. Importantly, the strike organizers, some of whom are tenured, rejected claims to professionalism. Walter Benn Michaels and Lennard Davis referred to all UIC faculty as “workers.” They explained that the term was a key feature of a new coalition strategy. “If you’ve done any work on the history of professionalization,” they wrote,

you know that one of the original points of the whole concept of the professional — as it applied to ministers, doctors, lawyers and professors — was to distinguish them from workers. But what we’ve all begun to realize is that, whatever it meant in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the 21st century that distinction is pure ideology. Professionals are workers — and professors are workers.

What does it mean to name professors and teachers as “workers”? Does it evacuate identity categories, including race and gender, and flatten out an analysis of oppression? On the contrary, ensuring diversity and equal access to education, whatever we may take “education” to mean, is a goal we shouldn’t lose sight of. But to achieve it, we have to stop seeing colleges and universities (or the labor practices therein) as having a special status with regard to capitalist social relations. Academia is not outside the system. Composition in particular must stop perceiving itself as having a special, democratic role within the academy. It doesn’t. In global labor markets, precarity means part-time, low wages, insecure, and temporary. In academia that means adjuncts, grad students, and lecturers. By giving up our claims to expert knowledge as professionals in an unequal system, we can allow ourselves to mourn the loss that really matters: a generation of writing teachers and scholars who have either left the academy or are working in the lower ranks of the education factory that elite members of a moribund discipline hardly acknowledge exists. We can never bring them back from the dead.

32 thoughts on “Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead

  1. I appreciate this thought-provoking piece, but am left with one question — what *do* you propose we folks in rhet/comp/writing programs do?

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  4. I’m in and out of agreement with this piece but mostly in. I don’t quite line up with the end, though, which I think is probably a little overdrawn in terms of how the “elites” in the field understand contingency and labor. I disagree that they (We? As a mid-career tenured faculty member, I’m not sure where you’d put me on your scale.) don’t recognize the problem at all. Instead, I think the situation is both better and more insidious.

    There’s been enough of what I’d call, in my angrier moments, lip-service to labor inequity that to say nobody notices the problems isn’t quite right. It’s in the discourse, just not as productively or aggressively as I’d like it to be. So the insidious part is that our lip service over the last, oh, thirty years or so has acted a sort of safety valve through which we’ve vented what should have become the momentum needed to launch real work.

    On the other hand, the recognition exists. We do recognize real, concrete injustice. So the problem isn’t how to educate or convince ourselves that there’s a problem; it’s how to mobilize people around a problem we *already know is there*.

    Not an easier problem to solve, necessarily, but a somewhat different one.

    • “I think the situation is both better and more insidious.” That’s probably right. It’s difficult to write something like this without making it seem personal, though many adjuncts and post-acs do feel duped and misled – and then accused of making bad choices. But it’s really not primarily about individual responsibility – on either side. I think it was highly unlikely (not impossible) that it could have happened another way. So how do we take a different road at this point?

      • Not a lot of time think hard (or carefully) about this, but I want to say at least this much before I lose track of the idea–I think the place to build from is a much more overtly activist/networked version of Joe Harris’ call to address local situations first. That is, I agree with your critique of Harris’ version of it–that it opts out of thinking about the larger problems/contexts. But I don’t think the answer to that critique is to stop working locally. It’s for people working locally also to be networking regionally/nationally (even internationally, although that’s getting dizzying to think about already). And by networking, I mean something akin to the Hardt and Negri notion of networking, something much more sophisticated than simply getting to know each other and sharing ideas.

        Sorry to leave that half-baked version of the thought, but I knew I’d forget to post at least the seed of it if I didn’t start right now.

  5. Hello Ann,

    Thank you for this piece. It is informative and I appreciate the analysis. I have a PhD in philosophy, with a decade of experience as an adjunct. I have in development two models for the provision of higher education that I believe might be of interest to you. For an initiation to one of the models, the professional, see: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-new-tender-for-higher-education.html

    You speak of institutions as corrupt, bureaucratic corporations and advise that we (as academic workers) refuse them our expertise, presumably no matter the field. I agree.

    You share the view of Walter Benn Michaels that academics should not seek professionalization along the lines of attorneys, physicians, engineers, etc., because the distinction between professional and worker is pure ideology. I disagree with you both.

    I agree that the casualization of labour has affected not only the so called non-professional but also the traditional professional vocations, and acknowledge that sociologists have over the past 40 years had a hard time distinguishing the worker from the professional (i.e., agreeing on a distinct definition for a professional category of labour/work). But it does not follow that there is no difference or that the professional organization of labour is not of value – and particularly of value in higher education.

    Michaels offers unionization. But I believe this a wholly inadequate response to the crisis in higher education – which reaches well beyond labour conditions of adjuncts – and I would think inadequate from your point of view, which in some sense seeks the democratization of what is “claims to expert knowledge as professionals in an unequal system.” You seem to prefer a liberation from the corporate institutions of higher education, while Michaels wants to ensure protection of and shared governance by workers through union representation from within these institutions.

    Perhaps I misread you. But if I do not, then unionization of the few that can be accommodated by the employment bottleneck of HEIs will not open Composition or any academic field to the many that seek such work or the many that seek such service. In contrast, one of the reform models I propose is indeed predicated on the formal professions (which enjoy a formal social contract as one its distinguishing features). I believe this means of organizing our labour might be of interest because it:

    1) Subordinates higher education institutions to the academic workers that are the core of higher education service: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2014/01/0-0-1-1079-6151-kristen-warren-ucd-51.html;

    2) Provides the opportunity for working and material conditions for academic workers that are better than any union offering: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-right-to-earn-living-in-system-with.html;

    3) Allows as many academic workers to provide their service/expertise as wish to – or certainly many more than the current institutional model can hope to accommodate;

    4) Places all academic workers on the same level of systemic recognition and value; and

    5) Removes or at least reduces the exploitation of academic workers.

    These are only a few of the benefits and only those that pertain directly to academic workers. There are also numerous benefits to students and society. I have also not mentioned the other model I am developing that likewise eliminates the need for unions by combining the professional with the co-operative model in a hybrid that moves higher education out of the capitalist and into the social economy: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2013/01/higher-education-in-social-economy.html

    I hope you find this work of use. I ask for nothing, as I do this to meet my professional and civil duties.

    Shawn Warren

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  7. Brilliant analysis. The only thing I question is “a generation of writing teachers and scholars, disproportionately women and people of color. . . .” I’m not sure what the proportions would be based on (presumably the percentage of degree holders in the job market to the percentage of those in the adjunct ranks?) but in my experience adjunct writing teachers are not disproportionately people of color. I don’t have experience with community colleges, however.

    The current adjunct demographics in my department (which doesn’t have a freshman writing program) 8 white males, 2 white females.

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  9. See, here’s the problem, not just with this essay, but with essays of this genre.

    So I happen to tell people all the time that Composition is not immune from the vagaries of the academic job market. Not at all. But look: it’s just a fact that people in rhet/comp have vastly better percentages than people in Lit. You might find that an insufficient defense of the discipline, and that’s fine. But when you deny that rhet/comp enjoys a significant advantage in the job market, when you know that to be true, you’re being dishonest, and it does no good for you or for your position. But since I’ve said that, I’m going to be accused of being an insufficiently supportive ally of adjunct labor, or of being deluded, or whatever else. Because this is the rhetorical landscape writers like you have built: either you are devolving into inchoate rage about all things connected to the academy, or you’re a collaborator, snitch, or traitor. Asking for people to get the facts right, in that atmosphere, becomes seen as a class crime. But playing fast and loose with the facts, as you do here, will not improve outcomes for anyone.

    This is what Schuman does constantly; she says something inflammatory and frequently factually inaccurate, then when she’s called on it, retreats to her personal blog to say that she’s telling the “emotional truth” about her situation, and then accuses critics of being against adjuncts. But she also wants credit for being a rational political organizer, and you can’t have both. Either you’re telling the emotional truth and raging about the injustice of it all, or you’re trying to use facts and arguments to improve labor conditions in the university. Don’t claim that you’re doing one while you’re really doing the other.

    I don’t know why people always evince shock when they lay out the facts that the academy is part of the elite capitalist enterprise, or to act as if they’re pulling back the curtain when they do so. It’s always been that way. The academy is mostly a training mill for the country’s elite? Of course it is. Who gave you the impression it was ever anything else? The academy sees academic labor as just labor? Of course it does. Why would there ever have been a different relationship? These essays yearning for the past are yearning for a fantasy. It sounds nice but it has nothing to do with real life. Academics have always been workers, the academy has always been an employer like any other, and the academy has never been about knowledge for its own sake. You have the historical chops to know these things.

    It happens that I’ve been talking about the adjunct crisis since well before it became a hot topic on the internet. I think resolving this crisis and improving the conditions of contingent labor (by converting them into full-time, salaried employees with benefits) is one of the great moral challenges of current university life. I also think that adjunct unionization is an immensely important task ahead, and will work to help in that effort, whether I’m an adjunct in the near future or not. But none of that is ever sufficient, because I refuse to engage in ritualistic expressions of rage, or to make statements like “Composition Is Dead,” which are good clickbait but don’t actually mean anything in a deeper sense. Those are the conditions people like yourself are creating: a “you’re either with us or against us” atmosphere where being with you means accepting statements you know to be factually inaccurate and refusing to ask tough questions about what’s best politically.

    I don’t think adjuncts can do the important work ahead alone. I’m afraid that’s a product of their very precarity. They need allies. And a piece like this is not designed to win allies or create positive political change. So you have to ask yourself: what’s your priority, to rage or to build?

    • Hi and thanks for your response. I did not say that R/C folks have no “advantage” in the job market. I said that Comp was not “exceptional” with regard to capitalist social relations and had no democratic role within the academy. I also said that too many of the “jobs” that R/C people are seen as eligible for are admin jobs, overseeing the labor of part-timers and other precarious workers. So, to the extent that Comp folks have an “advantage,” the question is, what kind of advantage is it and how does it play out and functional ideologically in the larger labor system?

      I admire Rebecca’s work. But I am not telling an “emotional truth” here. I have tried to write an evidence-based, historical account. I don’t really see how you can read that as “a ritualistic expression of rage.”

      I’m gad you are trying to address labor issues on your campus. Unions can be part of the solution, but I don’t think they’re the only one – or even necessarily a primary one.

      I don’t know what you mean by a “with us or against us atmosphere.” I can’t find any place in this text where I am doing that. I can’t be responsible for people’s interpretations of the kind of “atmosphere” I create or don’t create. Again. I’ve provided an historical account based in the literature of the field.


      • When you make a claim about the state of composition PhDs, and then refer to statistics that tell us only what percentage of composition classes are taught by adjuncts– many of whom, of course, are in literature– I find that unhelpful, if not dishonest. No doubt composition is no safe haven. I tell that to people in the field all the time. But you don’t do yourself any favors when you deliberately muddle populations your argument seeks to keep separate.

        On the level of tactics, I just don’t understand what you think refusing to participate does for anyone. That means, what– mass resignations? How does that help? If people who care about labor and adjunct issues refuse to participate because of this stance, the universities will simply replace them with people who don’t care. And then what? How is that victory? You name check the UIC strike, but you would have the people who made that strike possible remove themselves from the process in a way that would neuter their ability to create change. I don’t get it, from a practical standpoint. The only way it makes sense is if you’re misdirecting anger, which is natural but not helpful.

        • There’s one thing unions do that almost no other organizing structure can do–give *legal force* to the organization. Legally mandated grievance rights, for example, are difficult to come by any other way–legally mandated enforcement mechanisms, etc.

          I’m a strong union advocate and a leader in mine, and I even I won’t say unionizing is a magic bullet. But where it’s legal to strike (even where it isn’t in some ways), the legality of a negotiated CBA is an important mechanism for defending against arbitrary and capricious management. That’s valuable.

  10. Thank you for this. It fleshes out a narrative of which I (a literature Ph.D. who has been teaching primarily composition, as a TA, part-time adjunct, and, for over a decade now, full-time contingent) have been vaguely aware, without knowing exactly how all the pieces fit together. I’m not sure what all the answers are, though I suspect that being very, very careful about claims that rhet/comp Ph.D.s will fare well in the job market would e a good start. I also suspect that a re-valuing of expertise developed and expressed primarily in the classroom (in addition to, or instead of, through formal, published research) might be worth exploring. The class divisions among academics increasingly coincide, at least in universities, with the divisions between those who spend a significant amount of their time (by choice or requirement) on research and/or administration and those who spend most of their time (by choice or by necessity) in the classroom. The sort of informal and/or local sharing of expertise gained through teaching that takes place in activities usually labeled “service” (e.g. curriculum development and/or assessment committees) is increasingly being done by only a small portion of the faculty (usually those who teach in conditions quite different from those of the majority of the faculty), and/or by people who are primarily administrators. Putting more teaching-oriented faculty on the tenure track (and being willing to invest in the course releases necessary to allow them to do service, and perhaps a bit of more formal research/writing/presentation for distribution beyond the immediate departmental/university context) would signal a respect for actual, in-the-classroom teaching that seems lacking from the structure of Comp & Rhet programs as currently constituted.

    • Cassandra says: “The sort of informal and/or local sharing of expertise gained through teaching that takes place in activities usually labeled “service” (e.g. curriculum development and/or assessment committees) is increasingly being done by only a small portion of the faculty (usually those who teach in conditions quite different from those of the majority of the faculty)…” and “Putting more teaching-oriented faculty on the tenure track (and being willing to invest in the course releases necessary to allow them to do service, and perhaps a bit of more formal research/writing/presentation for distribution beyond the immediate departmental/university context) would signal a respect for actual, in-the-classroom teaching that seems lacking from the structure of Comp & Rhet programs as currently constituted.”

      I expect you didn’t mean this implication, but essentially you’ve just told people like me, with PhDs in Rhet/Comp in tenure-track/tenured positions who teach a lot of writing and do scholarship *about teaching writing* that our advanced specialization doesn’t distinguish us from people who don’t have the same advanced specialization. Your contention that people who have taught for a long time are just as qualified for tenure as people who have taught for a long time AND do research in the field kind of dismisses (unintentionally, I assume) those of us who teach a lot AND do research in the field–and there are more of us than the national conversations these days seem to recognize.

      I’m not opposed to creating positions at research-intensive institutions in which people who want primarily to teach can do so and still be tenured, but I can’t support the leap from that to “…and anybody who’s taught [x] for a long time is qualified for one of those positions.” There has to be a way of ensuring (well, demanding) that people in those positions are active and current in the field in which they’re being tenured–and of course there has to be support in a department/institution for making that happen.

      • Seth wrote, in response to Cassandra:

        “I expect you didn’t mean this implication, but essentially you’ve just told people like me, with PhDs in Rhet/Comp in tenure-track/tenured positions who teach a lot of writing and do scholarship *about teaching writing* that our advanced specialization doesn’t distinguish us from people who don’t have the same advanced specialization.”

        I don’t know what Cassandra meant, and I welcome her clarification. What I do know is that this point of view is in fact used all the time where I work (in an independent writing program where all faculty — NTT and TT alike — have full time, long-term positions with benefits).

        I find it ironic, when I am not finding it disheartening.

        Here are some of the main arguments that prompt writing programs to become independent: Specialization in the field is not needed; a lit PhD or an MFA is just as qualified to teach comp and to direct a writing program as someone with a degree in the area; comp/rhet is not a discipline that requires its members/practitioners to keep abreast of the research, but instead something one can learn solely through experience in the classroom; publications in literary or creative areas are just as valid as demonstrations of expertise as publications in comp/rhet.

        And yet here we are, some of us, in independent writing programs, being told by people with literature PhDs that their expertise is equal to our own; that advanced training in the field is not needed or relevant; that publications in literary criticism and related areas should be considered just as valid (e.g. for advancement) as publications in comp/rhet; and so on.

        In situations like this, it seems like independence is a sham. Literary critics are still calling the shots regarding the teaching of writing — and when people who chose and trained in and published in comp/rhet try to argue for our expertise, we are called “boss compositionists” and accused of being exploitative minions of the capitalist state (or worse).

        It’s not everyone saying this, of course, but it’s a lot of people. I am glad the question of expertise has come up here, because it seems to me it’s one of the missing pieces of the picture in many discussions.

        • Just a little anecdote to build on this: I chaired a search for a faculty position for someone who (among other things) would be the associate director of our first year writing program. Someone emailed me and said something kind of like this: “Hey, I’ve taught part-time in your program off and on for several years and I have an MFA in creative writing, and I think I’d be a really good candidate for this.” I emailed back and said something like “Of course you can apply, but I have to tell you that we are almost certainly going to hire someone with a PhD in composition and rhetoric.” This person emailed me back and just was indignant at this prospect, the idea that someone who didn’t have a PhD and who didn’t do scholarship in the field. As if that PhD would matter.

          • Steve’s story is emblematic of something I suspect every senior rhea/comp person has experienced at one point or another. I’m going to make a plea here not to pile on with examples of people who wanted to get hired in spite of not being at all qualified for the positions.

            The larger point I was getting at in response to Cassandra’s comment was the notion that Lit PhDs or Creative Writing MFAs would be perfectly viable “teaching tenure track” candidates even if they’re teaching mostly comp simply because they’ve done a lot of it. Yes, experience matters, but experience with advanced training matters a lot more.

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  13. Thank you, Ann, for your essay. Though hardly an expert on these matters, I found most salutary your remarks about the seduction of professional expertise. I imagine that as the adjunctification of socially reproductive labor continues apace, the question of what counts as expertise — and how that affects the chances for solidarity — will increasingly be contested terrain. I follow Jacques Ranciere in thinking that labor movements cannot afford to ignore this question.

  14. Thank you, Dolsy. I read your post and found it thought provoking as well. I like the phrase “the seduction of professional expertise.” I think that’s exactly right.

    • What does “the seduction of professional expertise” mean? Or at least, what does it mean to each of you?

      I am genuinely curious. Ann, for example, thought a PhD worth getting. Dolsy, based on her page, also has developed expertise in a professional area. Were you seduced? Do you regret having developed your expertise in your chosen areas? Are you arguing against the development of professional expertise by anyone in the academy? And,to return to my original question, Ann, what *do* you propose we do? I get that you do not like things as they are, but “stop doing X” is much more useful if followed by “I recommend doing Y or Z instead,” or even “I wonder if Y or Z might be better and would like to discuss them as options.”

      • Thanks for your comment.

        The “seduction of expertise,” as I interpret it, is about a class relationship. It’s really the answer to a question: which side are we on and how did we end up on that side?

        I spent 10 years studying Rhet Comp in an English dept. I wrote a dissertation on basic writing. I am not saying there isn’t a place for expertise or specialized knowledge. But in whose interest is that knowledge and expertise deployed? And for what purpose? Those are the questions I am interested in now.

        I don’t have a blueprint for what’s next. But I think your question (“what is to be done?”) is exactly right.

        • I think I’m still not following you. What do you mean by “which side”?

          If I am reading your post correctly, it sounds like you are saying one is either on the side of labor rights, or one is a TT rhet/comp faculty member, but that one cannot be both. This suggests that the “sides” are NTT and TT, and that NTT is the morally correct side. Am I reading you correctly, or am I missing something?

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