First, I didn’t sign up to become an expert in composition.
I signed up to get degrees in literature and that’s what I got. I guess my first college course must have been a writing course, but I remember it as one where I read some interesting literature. I remember it for reading “The Big Bear of Arkansas” by Thomas Bangs Thorpe and other stories of American humor, because the professor at the two year branch campus of Penn State, John Bryant, was able to craft the course to include works that fit his expertise. That I didn’t think of it as a composition course is to his credit.
I never took a Comp & Rhetoric course in grad school, because it was not my interest. I think we were given hints, in the sorry classes where we learned what to do as TAs in our own composition courses, that the job market would expect us to teach composition, but we all laughed that off because we were planning to be the next academic stars. That’s why we were focused on impressing our lit profs and getting published. We all expected jobs at big universities where we would teach a little–upper and grad level–and do research. It’s an understatement that I was saddened to find out that the academic marketplace only wanted me to teach composition, and that it might throw in the meatless bone of a literature survey course once a year to keep me from committing suicide.
I think I did my part to learn to teach composition well, if only to feel like a professional and to know I was doing a good job, but it is not what I signed up for. Not once was I able to develop a course in my field–and who cares what that was anymore–even though I was able to publish a few articles in good journals while I was still in grad school. At some point, and I think I reached that point last year, I think it’s more important to say “No more.”
Second, I can’t continue to contribute to the de-professionalization of the professoriate.
Although I had a couple of full-time positions, one as a full-time temporary instructor teaching a five-five load, and one as a non-tenure track assistant professor, most of my teaching, including the latest stint, has been as TA or adjunct. Once before, I had decided that if I didn’t get a full-time position the next semester, I was quitting and looking outside academia for work. Fortunately or unfortunately, as it turns out, I did get that non-tenure position and kept it for four years. At the time of that moral outrage (c. 2000) the adjunct ranks were already quite full and the stigma of being an adjunct was thought to prevent you getting looked at seriously for a tenured position. That was then. Now the reasons for the swollen adjunct rolls seem to be more about changing the whole system–why is it always the teachers that are the first targets in such changes?
So, I stopped teaching as an adjunct after the spring of 2012, and it was obviously easier to do now that I already have a full-time job doing something else. But more than giving myself some free time on evenings and weekends instead of grading essays or facilitating online classes, I felt like I would be contributing to the problem by saying yes to another adjunct contract. Even though I never did nor ever will get the tenure-track position I had long ago hoped for, I admire the profession of being a professor and worry about its future. I don’t want to continue to be exploited for my knowledge and I don’t want to contribute to the decline of the professoriate.
Finally, I no longer believe in the academic essay.
This has been coming on for a long time, and I know that there are places where better courses and better forms of writing are taught, or at least I imagine that’s the case, but maybe those are the elite colleges and universities where I have never had the opportunity to teach composition. Down here in reality, the worn academic essay prevails, the essay that pretends to be better than the five-paragraph essay, but is really only an extension of it, as if 7 or 9 or 15 paragraphs will mask the same core pattern of intro-body-conclusion. I can no longer, with a straight face, try to coerce students to twist their words and ideas into that horrid little shape that no one wants to read. Isn’t that what matters–no one wants to read those essays, especially me. I included in my courses, and now counsel faculty to include in theirs, writing in blogs and wikis, but our courses are finally judged on the quality of traditional essays to appease the institutional course outcomes, and also for the odd reason that we are doing all the disciplines a favor by teaching how to write these essays. I don’t believe that anymore. It’s a fairly useless piece of writing. Teach your own writing forms in your discipline.
In my own education, I received one piece of good writing advice and it was not in a composition course. It was not even from one of my professors. When I was getting the master’s degree at Penn State (87-89) I was encouraged to ask professors in the department for advice on writing more professional essays. One day, I was walking past Bob Secor’s office and I stopped and asked how I could improve my writing and and he simply said “Read more scholarly journals and write like them.” I took that as blowing me off, but followed the advice anyway, and still think it was the best advice. Mimic the style you want. Teach yourself.
When they do talk about teaching writing, I think the folks at Hybrid Pedagogy are on the right track, but I can also see that they are either positioned or are positioning themselves not to be stuck in the limbo of reading the worst writing possible day after day after day. Maybe that’s finally why I won’t teach again–I don’t want to end my life reading bad writing. All the student writing I have ever read, even the A essays, were bad writing. Given that, maybe I should not be allowed to teach writing anymore. I no longer believe the lies I tried to tell myself. I only want to read good writing from now on and that’s the plan.
If you still teach first-year composition and see no way out, think about what you might do to change the model at your institution to fit the kind of writing that would be of value to students in the 21st century. Personally, I would try to blow up the model and the whole teaching of writing.
I hope there aren’t too many errors and typos in this long post, but I’m not in the mood to edit.