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

The MLA President And The New Faculty Majority

I don’t hate MLA President Michael Bérubé’s report from the New Faculty Majority conference in Washington D.C. I respect that he positions himself as a listener, as someone who has something to learn from the NFM and from the part-time and contingent faculty who now teach two-thirds of all courses in college and universities. And Bérubé seems to understand just how dire the labor crisis is in higher education. He seems, in short, to care. But Bérubé’s position of authority and influence (and the fact that he seems genuinely interested in getting the strategy right) means he must be held to a very high standard with regard to how he frames the problem and proposes solutions.

I have to point out some problems with his report. Continue reading

“What the Ruling Class Wants Are Technicians”

What depressing things have we learned about education this week?

We have learned that Apple makes iphones, and all the other stuff we love, in China. There’s a giant factory, or what the NYT calls “the largest, fastest and most sophisticated manufacturing system on earth,” in Chengdu where tens of millions of gadgets (including the one I am typing this on!) are made. At Foxconn, employees “work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk.” That sounds bad, right? But it doesn’t end there. There are a lot of underage workers at Foxconn, apparently. And a few deadly explosions here and there, as expected. As a result, workers have a tendency to throw themselves off of buildings rather than continue their rotten lives. Continue reading

Bizarre-O World

David Brooks’s NYT column is essential reading because, by studying his words, one can discover what the ruling class thinks about everything. It is quite fascinating! For example, Brooks, like many of his peers, honestly believes that the only thing standing between an un/underemployed person and a job with health care benefits is a college degree. Of course, it has to be the right college degree from the right institution. No middle-class standard of living for you English majors! Like his colleague, Thomas Friedman, Brooks would prefer if all the unemployed people went to MIT and studied Engineering or some other Technology field. Do you know how to make those microchips that make the Apple computers work? Then you will be employed for life because you have a valuable skill! Continue reading

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