Composition’s Industrial Turn (And The Question of Who’s Left Holding the Wheel)

Ok, a quick trip down disciplinary history lane:

As Geoffrey Sirc and others have noted, composition had a choice to make back in the 1960s, when it began to behave (and thus be recognized as) a discipline: a) to fashion itself as an integral part of the university’s mechanics, thus ensuring its survival; or b), to keep on keeping on as its own weird, inscrutable thing, one whose value the university itself was likely to recognize.

In his book English Composition as a Happening, Sirc talks about this in terms of theater: composition could either become a scripted drama or remain more akin to a “happening,” a particular kind of immersive, often improvisational theater in the 60s and 70s that valued the unexpected rather than the preordained. As an audience member, you were never quite sure what to expect from happening, which were often staged in industrial spaces 180 degrees from a traditional proscenium stage and called upon each member of the audience to move independently throughout the play space. The expectation was that each individual would have a distinct experience with the play and its actors; no two encounters with the text were the same.

Of course, as Sirc bemoans, composition moved away from the spirit of the happening and towards formalization within the official structure of the university. As a discipline, composition valued its own legibility and viability over what Sirc constructs as its original, free-spirited ways–and this, for him, marks a tremendous loss of possibility and opportunity. Composition, he seems to suggest, chose to be boring. And that sucks.

I was reminded of Sirc’s argument today when reading through the website of a composition program at a land-grant university in the United States. Since I only came upon this site because of my job search, you’ll forgive me if I don’t identify which one it is (and if I complicate the quotes below a bit to obscure identifying details). That said, what’s of import here is not the university’s location, but the way in which it talks about the values of its composition program.

To wit, the program attempts to “advance [the university’s] mission to pursue academic excellence in the context of writing instruction. Undergraduate composition courses . . . help students [to become more effective] writers and researchers by [offering students]. . . flexible strategies for researching and composing texts.”

On solid ground so far. But then, there’s this: guess who is charged with “advancing” this central element of the university’s mission? Yes, they’ve chosen those who traditionally possess the least amount of teaching experience—grad students who are new to the university themselves.

After taking a “how to teach writing” course, these students, now recast as “teaching assistants” are charged with transforming first-year undergrads into better “writers and researchers.” At this university, the TAs, “along with a few lecturers, comprise the teaching staff for the program”–yep, that it–and form “a group of dedicated [instructors] who [are cognizant of] the vital role they play in students’ writing development.”

Did I mention that the university in question is searching for someone to head this composition program?

The cognitive dissonance here was striking: the “vital role” of helping first-year students develop as writers has been wholeheartedly and unabashedly set into the hands of those who are, by in large, least experienced in the classroom.

To me, this makes no bloody sense. But neither, I know, is it at all uncommon.

In taking its industrial turn back in the 70s and 80s, in choosing to fashion itself as something invaluable to the contemporary university, composition as a discipline created a monster: the ever-growing demand for comp courses meant to “fix” student writing (and shield profs up the food chain from ever catching glimpse of a comma splice) creates a concomitant demand for qualified instructors. A good problem, perhaps? Except–in terms of teaching, composition has zero prestige. Maybe even into negative territory.

As a rule, tenured faculty, even new faculty, do not want to teach first year writing. There’s no money in it, it takes a HELL of a lot of work, and it’s really fucking hard. Not that other sorts of teaching in an English or Writing program don’t present their own difficulties, but nor do they present the sheer volume of hands-on time required to read and respond thoughtfully to the writing of 20 students X 2 or 3 or 4 sections.

So it’s the greenest among us–the most naive, perhaps? the most optimistic–who are often given this task, often with little training or preparation, and yet with the expectation that teaching writing (however successfully) will in turn prepare that grad student to teach other kind of English and Writing courses.


To be clear: I love teaching first-year writing and have found that I carry the attitude of writing teacher into other courses that I teach. It comes out in the way I structure writing assignments for my lit students this term, for example, or the ways in which I respond to and talk to them about their writing. But I learned how to teach not as a grad student (after an initial “how to teach writing” course at Georgetown) but as an adjunct. I may not have been paid well, but I did hold two master’s degrees, and thus was treated as a professional. Teaching writing was my job, one that I chose freely for myself—it wasn’t structured as an on the job learning experience, or as the basis of an assistantship.

All that being said: I don’t understand how or why many composition programs seem to have decided that teaching writing is a task best left to a grad student, period. Ethically, this is incredibly troubling—which likely means, I suspect, that it’s often a decision based in economics instead.

In considering whether or not to apply for this particular job, then, I find myself considering the ethics of teaching writing in a way I hadn’t before. Certainly, at many universities, it’s an army of adjuncts—like the one I was once part of—that is charged with transforming first-year writers into college writers. But what of a program that instead openly sets the important work of composition into the hands of those who likely have never taught before?

I’m making some assumptions here; I know that. And perhaps some are unfair. However, I can’t help be reminded of Sirc’s assessment of composition as an industry, when it might have been an art.

A colleague and I recently presented a paper that hinged on the premise of what fan studies scholars like Mel Stanfill and others have called the “industrialization” of fandom, one marked by corporate attempts to coopt, direct, or reconfigure grassroots fan practices to meet corporate needs. Industrialized fans celebrate the media text–the TV show, the movie, the books series—they don’t criticize it. Transformational fans push back at the text, take it apart in order to put it back together anew; they do what they like and the corporate types be damned. Certainly, as my colleague and I argue, this dualism is far too simple; fandom is a Kinsey scale, we suggest, not a binary.

So maybe, the optimist in me says, the same is true for composition: maybe teaching writing isn’t just an industry or an art only. Maybe there’s a sliding scale of opportunity between. And it’s exactly this kind of thinking that makes me believe I should apply for this job anyway–or, rather, that considering the teaching of writing in this way is EXACTLY why I should apply.

They need you, this argument goes, urgent whisper. The grad students there, the program: they might not know it yet, but they need you.

Crap. I was hoping that writing this post would help me sort through things. Would make the picture a bit clearer. But, of course, now all I can see is the gray, and its productive potential. Yeah, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

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