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.

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The Devil’s Bargain in Composition and Rhetoric

I am grateful to all the smart people who read and commented on a post I wrote here in which I argued that the labor crisis in Composition and Rhetoric can only be fully understood through a global economic lens. I used David Harvey’s theory of capitalism in crisis to make the claim that finance capitalism circumvents barriers to accumulation by creating low-wage industries staffed by contract workers (such as academia) that are managed and legitimated by the very intellectuals who ought to know better.

My grief over Rhet Comp’s complicity in perpetuating this system is captured in many of the comments made by readers, including one by Anthony Paré, a thirty-year veteran of the field. You can read his full note here. In brief, he writes about “a central and damning paradox at the heart of rhet and comp’s history”: Continue reading

Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers

When I enrolled in the PhD Program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center to study Composition and Rhetoric, I was idealistic about the future of the discipline and my own place in it. I believed that Comp and Rhet (as I came to call it) was asking crucial questions that were central to the mission of higher education in America. I still believe that. But, after working in the field in a number of full-time and part-time positions over several years, my idealism has turned to despair at what I now regard as Composition’s great shame. It has left me to doubt that there is a place in the field for me and for many others like me. Continue reading

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