Writing Teachers of America, Unite!

Originally published in culture front in Summer 1999.

Once every generation, businessmen, journalists, and college officials join English professors in a chorus of lament about the state of literacy. According to the “Johnny Can’t Write” refrain—made popular by Newsweek in the 1970s—students in the United States cannot recognize elementary standards of grammar.[1] An assessment by the Lehman Brothers investment firm renewed this long-held sentiment in 1996. “Businesses,” noted the report, “complain that they cannot employ the ‘product’ coming out of our schools because graduates cannot read and write, and, recognizing the consequences of this situation in the context of a global economy, businesses are demanding immediate reform.”[2] Our schools, it seems, fail to deliver young capitalists who can tell a noun from a verb.

Complain in this manner about poor writing skills among American undergraduates and the custodians of the literary tradition will wince in knowing assent. Mention Freshman Composition and watch them duck and run, but not before drafting others into the job. Johnny comes to campus and finds his composition course staffed not by an English professor, but by a member of a poorly paid, exploited, and ill-trained underclass of instructors. Confronted by what the Chronicle of Higher Education called a “labor crunch” in 1998, administrators across the nation pressed into service scores of graduate students from fields like English and History. No problem? They also took teaching assistants from Musicology and Kinesiology. Few of the conscripts received adequate preparation.[3]

That scandal was noteworthy only for its scale. Non-tenure-line faculty have long carried the burden of the much-despised freshman writing course. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), tenured and tenure-track professors staff fewer than five percent of all first-year college writing classes in the United States. Graduate teaching assistants account for fifty-five percent, and part-timers and full-time adjuncts another twenty percent each.[4] Writing teachers comprise the largest, oldest, and most abused contingent of non-tenured instructors in higher education. No other group of pedagogues has endured so lowly a station for so long. Why does a society that claims to value writing consign its writing teachers to a subservient position in the hierarchy of higher learning?

The history of the problem begins in the nineteenth century, when a confluence of events simultaneously gave birth to the freshman composition course and dispatched its instructors to the lowest rungs of education. By the Gilded Age, silent inscription had displaced public oratory as a hallmark of advanced thinking; the prestige of the emerging academic disciplines and the enlightenment of the growing middle class depended more than ever on the dissemination of printed scholarship. As rhetoric lost authority to written composition in the last half of the century, the traditional oral component of the college curriculum gave way to the freshman writing course.[5]

In 1874, Harvard became the first college to ask its applicants for a writing sample in English. More than half the candidates turned in unacceptable performances, and the first of many such crises ensued. A decade later Harvard’s president, Charles W. Eliot, undertook to remedy the problem by introducing freshman composition into the curriculum. Every major university soon copied his innovation. Since its widespread adoption in the late 1880s, composition has enjoyed an unbroken history in the academy. It remains one of the few courses that nearly every American college student encounters.

Then, as now, a difficult question confounded the freshman course: Who would teach it? A few leading scholars—the University of Michigan’s Fred Newton Scott, for example—treated it with intellectual seriousness and plunged dutifully into the business of teaching writing. Most others evaded it. Francis Child, who occupied Harvard’s distinguished Boylston Chair in Rhetoric from 1851 to 1876, often complained about the amount of time he squandered correcting undergraduate compositions. Professor Child once punted a chair across his classroom to protest his compositional obligations. His migration to Johns Hopkins University in 1876 owed much to his determination to avoid any more. In turn, the freshman course’s notoriety owed much to Child’s widely discussed defection.[6]

To what did Child and the others object? Overwork. Those who ventured into the college writing classroom faced what critic Robert Connors has termed a “nightmare of overwork.” In the mid-1890s, four instructors and two graduate students at the University of Michigan wrestled with more than 1,000 students. Twenty teachers evaluated papers for 2,000 undergraduates at Harvard, where Barren Wendell personally graded 24,000 themes every year. Similar situations developed at Yale, Wellesley, Minnesota, Iowa, and other universities, thanks both to high enrollments and to the laboratory method, which still makes composition an exceptionally laborious course. In a series of reports compiled in 1923 for the NCTE, Edwin Hopkins, a faculty member at the University of Kansas, stressed the difficulty. Hopkins reported that an alarming proportion of writing instructors “certify to wearing out, suffering from nervous exhaustion, loss of efficiency, impaired eyesight, shattered nerves, and collapse—all as the result of attempting to carry a ‘killing’ overload of pupils in English composition.”[7]

The excessive work helps to explain the refusal of the professoriate. Nearly everyone preferred “the glorious liberty of literature.” Yet this explanation does not account for the contempt heaped upon the course and its instructors. Literature was easier to teach, but why did the leading members of English departments treat composition as a subservient branch of learning and writing instructors as an underclass? “The opinion that the correcting of school compositions is a low and disagreeable form of mental labor has been expressed so often and with so much emphasis and by so many eminent authorities that it has now come to be regarded as part of the condensed wisdom of humanity,” noted Fred Newton Scott in 1903. “During the years of his training the instructor-to-be has not only been taught composition, but he has been led to regard the work as dull, uninteresting,” Lyle Spencer noted a decade later. “He has been taught, if not by precept, certainly by example, that composition teaching is menial work, drudgery, a pursuit to be avoided.”

How did composition acquire its invidious trappings? In the modern era—the “predatory phase of life,” as Thorstein Veblen called it—particular kinds of labor take on the attribute of “irksomeness.” Veblen thought the “assertion of prowess, not of diligence,” signifies superior work. Socially valuable labor that involves proximity to tools “carries a taint, and all contamination from vulgar employments must be shunned by self-respecting men.” As Veblen elaborated in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), “conspicuous abstention from labor becomes the mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the conventional index of reputability; and conversely, since application to productive labor is a mark of poverty and subjection, it becomes inconsistent with a reputable standing in the community.” So conceived, efforts to denigrate composition as a irksome necessity—while ennobling the study of literature as an honorable enterprise—appear as an assertion of class superiority. Demeaned for their usefulness, composition teachers stand in contrast to the more abstract teaching of literature. Reading, not writing, comprises its cardinal activity; leisure, not labor, its leading connotation.

Literature is still the prize, while the ordeal of correcting themes is still reserved for what Robert Connors calls “a cadre of graduate assistants, low-level instructors, part-timers, and departmental fringe people who have become a permanent composition underclass.” Women, in particular, teach the course in numbers disproportionate to their overall presence in higher education. In 1929, thirty-eight percent of all composition teachers were women. (Only home economics had a higher percentage of feminine labor). Today, more than two-thirds of writing instructors are female. Part-timers, non-tenure-line full-timers, and graduate teaching assistants (“men and women of uncertain or negative qualifications,” as one literature professor called this class in 1921) still comprise the first line of attack in the composition classroom.

To ask a tenured scholar to shoulder the burden of writing instruction—or, conversely, to permit a graduate student in Musicology to teach a course about Shakespeare —is to violate a fundamental axiom of hierarchy in America’s knowledge industry. As Veblen articulated the precept, “the able-bodied barbarian of the predatory culture, who is at all mindful of his good name, leaves all uneventful drudgery to the women and minors of the group. He puts in his time in the manly arts of war and devotes his talents to devising ways and means of disturbing the peace. That way lies honor.”

What is to be done? The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of the “new rhetoric,” which has given the field—now called Composition Studies—unprecedented theoretical confidence. But preoccupation with professionalization has yielded little material improvement. Practices fixed early in composition’s history—low pay, no job security, few chances for promotion, onerous labor-hours per pupil—are much in evidence in the profession’s angst-ridden newsletters. The large pool of underemployed Ph.D.s in English continues to supply a cheap and demoralized labor pool. Meanwhile, the “new rhetoric” has made Composition Studies as trendy, as over theorized, and as exclusionary as any other field that demands a ritualistic parade of abstruse theory for participation in its journals and conferences.

The field’s most important reform began in the late 1980s when a band of insurgents created the Wyoming Resolution. In 1989, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)—a professional group formed in 1949 under the auspices of the NCTE—incorporated the resolution into a “Statement of Principles and Standards.” The CCCC characterized the situation of its membership as “the worst scandal in higher education today,” one that had produced “an enormous academic underclass.” The Statement of Principles called for tenured, full-time status for qualified composition teachers; limits on the use of part-time labor; course sections of not more than twenty students; and time to conduct scholarly research and to design individualized syllabi. The CCCC’s Statement of Principles won the endorsement of other professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association, and has made the measure of indignities and exploitative practices.

In my view, composition teachers should set aside the issue of professional status and instead join the movement to organize academic labor. A complete evaluation of the problems and prospects of this movement would require another essay. But, let me suggest that nothing else has succeeded. Recent campaigns to organize graduate teaching assistants, part-timers, and full-time adjuncts of all disciplines—efforts that have gained momentum and confidence on campuses across the nation—have underscored the idea that nothing motivates universities more effectively than organized action.

Organizing instructors, moreover, would expose the class lines of contemporary higher education. No group of comparable teachers is as large; their potential role in any campus-wide unionization effort is enormous. And they occupy a position in the academy that has long been recognized as useful. In unionization lies the only available strategy for bettering the working lives of writing instructors and the conditions of composition pedagogy.

1)  Merrill Sheils, “Why Johnny Can’t Write” Newsweek 92 (8 December 1975): 58-65. Also see John Trimbur, “Literary and the Discourse of Crisis” in Richard Bullock and John Trimbur, eds., The Politics of Writing Instruction: Postsecondary (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook, 1991), 277-95.

2) Lehman Brothers Inc., “Investment Opportunity in the Education Industry” (1996), 4, 6, 5, 38, 4; in my possession.

3) Robin Wilson, “Universities Scramble to Find Teachers of Freshman Composition,” Chronicle of Higher Education (30 October 1998): A12-A14.

4)  Bill McClearly, “National Organization for Adjunct Or Part-Time Faculty Holds Its First Conference,” Composition Chronicle 8 (February 1995): 7.

5) The transformation from oral to print culture in American education is detailed in the following works: S. Michael Halloran, “From Rhetoric to Composition: The Teaching of Writing in America to 1900″ in James J. Murphy, ed., A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Twentieth-Century America (Davis, California: Hermagoras Press, 1990), 151-82; and David R. Russell, Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870–1990: A Curricular History (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 35-69. For a broader view of developments in print culture, see Carl F. Kaestle, “Standardization and Diversity in American Print Culture” in Kaestle, Literacy in the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 272-93.

6) Donald C. Stewart, “Two Model Teachers and the Harvardization of English Departments” in James J. Murphy, ed., The Rhetorical Tradition and Modern Writing (New York: Modern Language Association, 1982), 118-29.

7) Edwin M. Hopkins, “The Cost and Labor of English Teaching,” Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the National Education Association of the United States (Ann Arbor, Michigan: National Education Association, 1915): 115; Edwin M. Hopkins, “The Labor and Cost of Composition Teaching: The Present Conditions” Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the National Education Association of the United States (Ann Arbor, Michigan: National Education Association (1912): 747. Also see Robert Connors, “Overwork/Underpay: Labor and Status of Composition Teachers Since 1880″ Rhetoric Review, v. 9 (Fall 1990): 110, 114, 113; and James A. Berlin, Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900–1985 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 22.