The Real Meaning

One of the dangers of the over-reliance on (some would say “abuse of” and I would not argue) adjuncts and other contingent hires is that it creates a pressure-cooker environment for those particular teachers, one that sometimes explodes–as it did yesterday for adjunct and Slate contributor Rebecca Schuman. Writing, putatively, about student essays and whether or not they should be assigned, Schuman, as she admits, doesn’t actually “want to help anything, other than some over-graded professors blow off steam,” her own explosion keeping others from having to do it themselves.

Now, there most certainly are real concerns about the utility of the traditional college essay–and I share them–but the real question here is what “we” (and in that I include both administrations and tenured/tenure-track faculty members) are doing to the instructors whom we are relying on more and more to teach our introductory courses. For an English composition professor, the heart of the job is the teaching of writing and, in most institutional views, the focus of that is the traditional college essay. Leading students through the process is both time consuming and emotionally exhausting–especially since a too high percentage never master the skills we are trying to impart. Take a classroom of 25 students, few of whom have ever written anything more than a plot summary or a mechanical “critical lens” response (as the New York State Regents exam terms it)–and in the stultifying 5-paragraph-theme format–and you are almost guaranteeing that any teacher trying to “create writers” there will be drained of time and spirit by the end of the semester.

Is it any wonder that most full-timers in English departments shy away from First Year Composition? They like to mask their reluctance, of course, saying they want variety, wish to work within their specialties (even compositionalists do this), find advanced students more intellectually challenging… whatever. The fact is, teaching FYC is hard, and most of us shy away from that much work when we can. Adjuncts do it, too; they just have less power to make it happen.

When you have a course based on out-moded assumptions–not only that, but a course seen by most in most universities as nothing more than a “service” course, merely preparation for the “real” work of “content” courses–filled with students ill-prepared, for the most part, by secondary schools that have come to emphasize standardized testing and (as a result) writing by formula, where the work required for doing a good job is always far beyond that contracted for, of course you are going to have frequent burn-out, explosions of frustration, and diminishing results.

And we have that. All of that.

When you are teaching things that you know the students are never going to need outside of the academy (who, anywhere else, for example, writes using MLA style?) and (more and more) toward “unified” tests that judge the trivial while ignoring the significant (that writing, for example, is communication–not simply marks on pages and screens), irritation is going to grow. When you realize that your own expertise as a teacher and (in many cases) as an expert in composition theory is going unheaded in favor of grandiose “outcomes,” you have to, at the very least, hold in your exasperation.  Add to that the fact that few of the students read enough to understand the dymanic that composition involves: Teachers are going to snap sometimes, as Schuman has done.

It’s much worse, though–and that brings us to what is, I think, Schuman’s real point. Yes, the way we generally approach composition in flawed. But that’s a given. For all of her foot stomping and attempts to shock, Schuman is not (on the surface) saying anything that many of us have not said (and generally more elegantly) for years: We need a better way of teaching students to write (and to read, but that’s another story). Her real point is that she, as an adjunct, is being abused.

You are not going to find many tenured and tenure-track faculty diatribes like Schuman’s–even though many share the same frustrations about pedagogical concerns surrounding FYC. They have benefits–real ones. Job security, retirement plans, health insurance. Hell, office space and staff support on campus. This is the difference, and this is the real heart of plaints like Schuman’s. The tenured and tenure-track get to teach a much wider variety of courses, making the onerous demands of FYC much easier to take. They participate in college governance (or still do in most places) in significant fashion, electing department chairs and serving on the committees tasked with curriculum design.

It is powerlessness that sparks people like Schuman to write. As she says, in academia, she is “a barely-recognized non-person anyway.” Before we even address the weaknesses of our writing pedagogy, we’ve got to look to that. Without teachers–all teachers–being full participants in the lives of their institutions, not even the best teaching methodologies will survive or be effective.

Teaching, after all, comes from the teacher, not from the institution or from the demands it may make. Just as learning starts with the student, teaching (again) begins with the teacher. The best thing any institution of higher education can do is make sure its teachers–all of its teachers–are adequately supported.

After that, it can start working to improve pedagogy.

6 thoughts on “The Real Meaning

  1. I noticed a few errors, too. With my overloaded schedule, I don’t have time to proofread. Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t contributed much to this important dialogue. Nonetheless, I admire those who are contributing, and – for me – the mistakes didn’t detract from the message. I appreciate this article.

  2. Of course the ability to hire a greater proportion of full time tenure-track faculty would be of great benefit to the ability to provide more effective instruction. This is not to declare that there are no GREAT adjunct faculty out there, or that there are times and places where the adjunct is appropriate or necessary (private music instruction in small music departments, special topic areas in professional disciplines that require significant levels of expertise, etc). However, the ability to engage more faculty into the community of the department, and involve them with the responsibility for planning and curating curriculum, and investing them in the lives of their students through more than a single class.

    However, I am not sure if we will ever see the day again when our large public institutions are able to increase the overall proportion of full-time to adjunct faculty.

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