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8.6: Anyone Can Teach Writing

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    Author: Seth Kahn, English, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

    Every time I hear somebody complain about the poor writing ability of today’s college graduates and students, I can’t help but wonder what people would think if they knew more about the circumstances of many college writing instructors, who go by the titles adjunct, contingent, term, or non-tenure-track faculty (I’ll use the word adjunct to stand in for all of those possibilities). In 2013, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that adjunct faculty members were teaching more than 70% of general education writing courses (first-year composition, or ENG 101, so to speak) in the United States, reinforcing results from the Association of Departments of English in 2007.

    Who is Anybody?

    Unlike the stereotype of a college professor—a giant office stuffed with books, an antique desk, expensive shabby chic clothes, you know the image—adjunct faculty often face difficult working conditions that, I believe, rest on the myth that anybody can teach writing. As of 2015, the current average salary for adjuncts in English is $2,700 per section; teaching 10 courses per year (which is a huge work load) would gross only $27,000 total. Yet, many campuses won’t offer full-time work (usually 8 to 10 courses a year) as a result of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide health insurance to anybody working more than thirty hours per week. Because the pay is so low, it’s not unusual for adjuncts to become “freeway fliers” (teaching courses on multiple campuses) in order to cobble together enough money to live. Most adjuncts get no insurance or retirement benefits. Adjunct teaching loads can also change semester by semester (so that somebody might have two courses, then four, then one, then three, etc.). Often, adjuncts don’t know their schedules until a semester is about to begin, when it’s too late to find replacement work anywhere else, it’s too late to prepare for any new assignments, and it’s too late to update materials from prior semesters.

    Adjuncts, almost by definition, have no job security or protection against being fired at will. On many campuses, adjuncts share incredibly cramped office space (I’ve heard of as many as 20 assigned to an office with four desks and one telephone), if they have offices at all; adjuncts often discover that the safest place to store books, laptops, phones and so on during classes is in their cars. Imagine the challenge of needing to have a confidential discussion with a student about a grade, or something sensitive somebody wrote in a paper, and not even having a semiprivate place to do it. Under those conditions, the truth of the matter is that nobody can teach writing, at least not well.

    How we got to the point where so many faculty doing such important work can be treated so poorly is a long story. English Composition became an actual course in the late 1800s. According to historian Donna Strickland, for decades most teachers of writing were English professors trained primarily to teach literature, graduate students in literature (because there weren’t graduate programs in composition until the late 1970s), and faculty spouses or retirees who had at least taught high-school English. If you’ve never thought about specialized training for people who teach writing, that’s no surprise—the idea itself hasn’t been around for long. Because it’s low level (English 101 is about the lowest number a credit-bearing college course could have), and because of its content (traditionally grammar concerns, citation formats for research papers, and similar remediation that most people think students should have learned in high school), it’s not surprising that decision makers would conclude that anybody can do it.

    Unfortunately, high-ranking administrators (deans, provosts, presidents, chancellors) on university campuses often use that conclusion to justify hiring and offering poor working conditions to adjunct faculty. If anybody can teach writing, the argument goes, then why pay experts well to do it? For whatever reason, even though it’s common to hear people complain about the poor writing skills of kids these days, it’s just as common to hear the assertion that teaching them to do better shouldn’t be hard. We hear these two arguments surprisingly often, and worse is that they reinforce each other. If the people who teach writing don’t need real professional training, then why treat them professionally? And if we’re not offering to treat them professionally, then why would anybody pursue the training necessary to do it well?

    Poorly Trained Faculty Can’t Teach Writing Well

    I wish it were obvious that people better trained to do something would do it better than people who aren’t trained as well. That feels like such a truism it’s hard to know what evidence to offer to support it. But here’s what we know: People without advanced training in writing pedagogy tend to rely on outdated ideas about writing, particularly that mastery of sentence-level skills like punctuation and word choice leads to mastery of more complex writing tasks. As early as the mid-1970s, researchers had established that this assumption was incorrect. (Several chapters on grammar instruction in this book show why.)

    Mina Shaughnessy, who was a professor at the City University of New York during the period when the system became open admissions (so that anybody with a high-school diploma or equivalent could be admitted without question), published an influential book called Errors and Expectations in 1979. One of her key findings is that students struggle with sentence-level problems for any number of reasons that often have little to do with their mastery of mechanics; simply teaching them mechanical skills doesn’t solve those problems. Likewise, compositionist Patrick Hartwell reports in a well-regarded 1985 scholarly journal article titled “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” that students are much more likely to care about mechanical issues if they consider those issues in the context of their own writing purposes instead of worksheets and handouts.

    Another outdated but still common practice among non-specialist writing teachers is teaching the modes of writing: narration, description, analysis, and argument. Teaching the modes suffers from the same basic problem as starting from the sentence level— the assumption that writers move neatly through these stages of complexity simply doesn’t hold. And Hartwell’s argument that students learn more when they work on writing they care about also applies here as well. A course built on a series of tasks students must do even if they have nothing to say that motivates or interests them is a course with, let’s just say, limited potential. But too many writing teachers are either required to teach such courses in programs designed by non-specialists, or they design courses this way because their models are the courses they took themselves.

    I could keep listing practices that writing programs heavily dependent on adjunct faculty often use, but I hope the connection is clear—poorly treated instructors often work in programs without much regard for professional knowledge of the field, which both disempowers the instructors and reinforces the sense that what they do isn’t important. The system at too many colleges is stuck in a cycle of insisting that some work is lower value than other work, then using the fact that it abuses the people who do it as proof of its low value.

    Exploring Alternatives

    In its simplest form: Anybody who is trained and supported well and treated like a professional can teach writing. The key word is professional. The people teaching college writing courses have graduate degrees, often more than one— many have spent years on the job. Many conduct research into effective teaching or do other kinds of research that help them teach writing. Their training, experience, and expertise have earned them the support they need in order to do their work well. That support comes in many forms: resources they need like office space, computer access, photocopying and library privileges; engagement in their departments by being invited to participate in department meetings and curriculum development; job stability instead of constantly fluctuating schedules that may change suddenly and without explanation; and better compensation than most writing instructors currently receive.

    All too often “Anybody can teach writing” translates to “It doesn’t matter who teaches writing,” and as a result, nobody needs to pay attention to writing instructors at all. In multiple surveys conducted over the last five years, adjunct faculty report that even more than pay and benefits, they want to be treated as professionals and colleagues. Also at the top of the list is job stability—knowing they have work from one semester, or better yet year, to the next helps them avoid freeway flying and alleviates the stress of uncertainty. It also helps them teach better by giving them time to reflect on and improve their teaching in a stable environment.

    Finally, treating professionals as professionals means paying people more than many of them earn now. The Modern Language Association, which is one professional organization that represents faculty in English and Writing Studies, recommends a minimum salary of $10,700 per course. The National Council of Teachers of English, MLA, and many other organizations also recommend that faculty teaching at least half of a full-time load receive benefits (health insurance, retirement contributions) in proportion to their teaching load. The finances might be complex, but it’s clear that investing in faculty leads to better results; most recently, Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest University and Kevin Rask of Colorado College have found strong correlations between the instructional budgets of institutions and the earning power of graduates from those institutions. Investing wisely gets better results.

    It’s fair to demand better for students, but not to demand magic from a system that’s currently built on a bad premise that anybody can teach writing. If you’re thinking about colleges for yourself or anybody you care about, ask how writing courses are staffed and how well supported the instructors are. The American Federation of Teachers offers a useful list of questions in their “Just Ask” brochure. If the answers sound like the college’s representatives think anybody can teach writing, think very hard about what they’re really saying.

    Further Reading

    Donna Strickland’s history The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies helps illuminate the labor problems at the heart of commodified composition instruction. Laura McKenna’s “The Cost of an Adjunct,” Colleen Flaherty’s “The Case for Better Faculty Pay,” and the joint report by the Modern Language Association and Association of Departments of English, “Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English,” illuminates the false economy behind under-paying and under-supporting writing teachers. Finally, the American Federation of Teachers webpage titled “Just Ask” gives students and parents information necessary to decide whether a particular college truly supports teaching and learning.


    academic labor, adjunct, contingent, non-tenure-track faculty, writing program administration/administrators, writing studies

    Author Bio

    Seth Kahn is an English professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He researches and writes about academic labor, especially adjunct labor equity. He also serves on the board of the New Faculty Majority Foundation and has co-chaired labor/contingent faculty committees in several professional organizations.

    This page titled 8.6: Anyone Can Teach Writing is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Cheryl E. Ball & Drew M. Loewe ed. (Digital Publishing Institute and West Virginia University Libraries) .