Adjuncts, MLA, and Rhetoric

There's been a little back and forth on the issue of non-tenure track faculty and Michael Berube's (MLA President) recent statements. First of all, let me say that I fully support Berube's efforts to improve adjunct working conditions (specifically pay). Who wouldn't? Second, I will also note that as composition director at UB, I employ a number of adjuncts, a couple are on annual salaries (which are ok but not great) but most are on a per course basis ($2500, which is a far cry from the standard Berube states, though adjuncts do get benefits). Many of the adjuncts are graduate students past their 5-year TA-ships, so they are not permanent. However I do have a handful of effectively permanent instructors, most of whom I am sure would prefer to have more permanent, better-paying positions.

The issue that Steve Krause brings up has to do with the relationship between MLA and rhetoricians. This would appear to be a non-sequitur until one realizes that the vast majority of adjunct-taught courses in English are in first-year composition. As such, there is a valid point to be explored here. Berube also makes a valid point in noting that MLA makes no explict statements regarding rhetoricians. In response to Krause he writes:

I know there are snotty literature professors out there, absurdly invested in their place in the pecking order, just as there are rhet/comp people with chips on their shoulders, as you say. I am well aware of the historic tensions between teachers of literature and teachers of rhetoric, and of the fact that at some universities those tensions have resulted in departmental divorce. But the fact that snotty literature professors exist does not demonstrate that the MLA holds rhet/comp in some kind of blanket institutional contempt.

I think there's a fair amount of territory between "snotty literature professors" and "blanket institutional contempt," where the results are the institutional conditions we typically see today. So what are those conditions?

  1. Let's ask a "big data" question. Look at every English BA at an accredited four-year US institution. How many of those degrees include required courses in rhetoric? How many even have elective rhetoric courses? I think the answer to that question will tell you generally what role literary studies professors believe rhetoric should play in an English department.
  2. Now look at these same institutions and look at the ones that require composition. Here we could look at the percentage of composition courses taught by literary studies faculty and/or the percentage of their courseload that composition represents. I will hypothesize that the percentage is low (<10% of workload nationally) and that it is lower than it was 20 years ago. My hypothesis is strictly based on anecdotal evidence though.
  3. Let's also consider graduate programs. How common is a required course in rhetoric at the graduate level? Here, I bet that such courses are fairly common, if one includes the typical composition practicum course that TAs are required to take. So rhetoric is largely associated teaching, and specifically with teaching a course that literary scholars do not commonly teach.

But this is all old news, right? Still it's worth remembering lest we think this is just a matter of "snotty professors." There is a very clear institutional character to these relations.

MLA is just part of that system. While I have zero interest in assigning blame, I do think that recognizing these conditions will be important in MLA's efforts to address adjunct labor in English. I agree that it may be the "snotty professor" who holds rhetoric in contempt, and I would say that can go both ways these days as there is still a fair degree of antipathy that has been intensified in recent years as literature and rhetoric become increasingly specialized (hyper-specialized I would say) with the result of there being less overlap. My personal sense is that the typical literature professor recognizes rhetoric as a valid field of study, generally equivalent with other humanities, but does not view rhetoric as an integral part of English. That is, the typical literature professor views English as equivalent with literary studies: a claim that I am confident would be borne out by the representation of the field in curriculum. 

An English profession that viewed rhetoric and writing as an integral part of its disciplinary work would view composition as foundational. It would have departments with multiple faculty who view writing as central to their scholarly work. This would impact the role of writing instructors in the program who would be less likely to see themselves as doing work that is consider undesirable, non-intellectual, and/or disconnected from the "real" department. IF you had a department like that, maybe it would be more inclined to view NTT faculty as colleagues. Perhaps there wouldn't be a second-class status that implies "you're allowed to teach writing, b/c that requires minimal qualifications, but you aren't permitted to teach the 'real' curriculum."

Now how that would connect to increased pay is a little unclear. However I think the argument would be that if/when English comes to value writing it will insist on attracting the most qualified instructors. In a world of limited resources however, this means putting department resources and institutional clout to work in the name of writing. 

I will say that in the case of my own department, that it has recently put its weight behind writing instruction, including working hard to establish a writing center on our campus. Now I realize one could say that we should have had a writing center 20 years ago, but that's not what matters today. What matters today is that there has been a positive shift in the way writing is viewed. I am hopeful that it is part of a process that will lead toward a sustainable writing curriculum where instructors are well-compensated and all faculty (not just English but across the campus) take up an active investment in student writing.