The Politics of Writing Studies: Reinventing Our Universities from Below

The Politics of Writing Studies: Reinventing Our Universities from Below


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A friendly critique of the field, The Politics of Writing Studies examines a set of recent pivotal texts in composition to show how writing scholarship, in an effort to improve disciplinary prestige and garner institutional resources, inadvertently reproduces structures of inequality within American higher education. Not only does this enable the exploitation of contingent faculty, but it also puts writing studies—a field that inherently challenges many institutional hierarchies—in a debased institutional position and at odds with itself.

Instead of aligning with the dominant paradigm of research universities, where research is privileged over teaching, theory over practice, the sciences over the humanities, and graduate education over undergraduate, writing studies should conceive itself in terms more often associated with labor. By identifying more profoundly as workers, as a collective in solidarity with contingent faculty, writing professionals can achieve solutions to the material problems that the field, in its best moments, wants to address. Ultimately, the change compositionists want to see in the university will not come from high theory or the social science research agenda; it must come from below.

Offering new insight into a complex issue, The Politics of Writing Studies will be of great interest to writing studies professionals, university administrators, and anyone interested in the political economy of education and the reform of institutions of higher education in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607325833
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 09/07/2017
Edition description: 1
Pages: 172
Sales rank: 824,102
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Robert Samuels serves as president of the faculty union University of California-American Federation of Teachers and lectures for the University of California, Santa Barbara Writing Program. He is the author of eight books, including Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free.

Read an Excerpt



This chapter looks at two texts, one by Elizabeth Wardle and one by Wardle and Doug Downs, to examine the ways the use and abuse of contingent faculty in higher education affect the ability to implement a writing studies approach to the teaching of composition. Although I focus on research universities, many of the practices developed at these institutions are spreading to all forms of higher education in a globalizing mode of social conformity. On many levels, writing studies is itself structured by the contradictory nature of its relation to the dominant university research paradigm: while the teaching of writing challenges many of the standard institutional hierarchies, the desire for more resources pushes these composition programs to reproduce the structures that place writing, teaching, students, form, and practice in a debased position. Wardle's work is important here because she both acknowledges the need for structural change and offers a curricular and theoretical solution.

My strategy in referring to Wardle's texts focuses on performing a close reading of her argument in order to both highlight her main contributions to the field and unveil what is still missing from her discourse. Since she is one of the most recognized scholars in the field of writing studies, her work is highly influential; however, it not my intention to argue that Wardle, or any other single contributor to the discipline, embodies the entirety of the discourse. Instead, I seek to look at the ways key texts are shaped by the political economy of neoliberal higher education. I also want to emphasize the importance of close reading and the need to avoid vague and distant summarizations. Since words and arguments matter, it is essential to look at how specific arguments are constructed by paying close attention to the unfolding of a particular text.

I also want to stress that I engage with her work through a series of ideological assumptions that concern the role higher education plays in the political economy of neoliberalism. Although many people define the current historical moment by the dominance of a conservative backlash against public institutions and progressive policies, I argue that it is also important to look at the ways liberals have actively participated in the reshaping of the political economy. For example, it is clear a conservative tax revolt has fueled an antigovernment movement, and this movement has resulted in the defunding of public universities and colleges. However, at the same time, liberal and progressive professors have helped construct and maintain a system that privileges research over teaching and individual rights over collective solidarity. Even though tenure was developed in order to protect academic freedom and shared governance, one must wonder why this system of job security has resulted in a structure in which the majority of the faculty do not have their academic freedom protected and are not able to participate in shared governance. The downsizing of the faculty and the rise of a businessoriented administration class in higher education, thus, must be tied to both internal and external forces.

In Degradation of the Academic Dogma, Robert Nisbet (1971)argues that research universities in America began to be restructured after World War II, when huge sums of government money were funneled into public institutions in order to support military and scientific research. According to Nisbet, research faculty quickly learned that prestige and high salaries could be attained by focusing on conducting funded research, and once these professors turned away from their teaching duties to focus on research, other people had to be found to instruct the students. From this perspective, the privileging of research over teaching and grant-funded professors over instructors was not the result of a decrease in public funding for higher education; instead, government support led to a change in the priorities and incentives of these universities.

Nisbet's narrative challenges several common understandings of the relation between higher education and neoliberalism; instead of placing all the blame on the decrease of public funds and the external political push to privatize public institutions, he shows how internal practices were influenced by an increase of public funding. Thus, before the current destructive defunding of public institutions, we already see a major restructuring of higher education, and the hierarchies developed then still tend to dominate today.

As I argue throughout this book, the privileging of research over teaching and science over the humanities has a major effect on the present and future of writing studies. Not only do these hierarchies help explain the shifting of teaching from tenured professors to contingent faculty, but we also find a debasement of undergraduate teaching and the promotion of theory and graduate education over more "practical" courses like composition and foreign languages. We shall see that Wardle is aware of all these institutional transformations, yet she tends to argue that the best way for writing studies to improve its status and funding is to conform to the dominant institutional structures.


Wardle (2013) begins her "Intractable Writing Program Problems, Kairos, and Writing about Writing" by highlighting the problematic relation between the theories of writing studies and the practice of actual composition courses.

Macro-level knowledge and resolutions from the larger field of Writing Studies are frequently unable to inform the micro-level of individual composition classes, largely because of our field's infamous labor problems. In other words, composition curricula and programs often struggle to act out of the knowledge of the field — not because we don't know how to do so, but because we are often caught in a cycle of having to hire part-time instructors at the last minute for very little pay and asking those teachers (who often don't have degrees in Rhetoric and Composition) to begin teaching a course within a week or two.

Here, Wardle correctly indicates that we cannot promote new pedagogical practices, theories, and research projects if we do not also deal with academic labor issues. As she stresses, it is hard to mentor and train faculty who are hired at the last minute and may not have expertise in writing studies. This important framing of the relation between research and teaching can help us to think about the political, economic, and institutional affordances shaping the possibilities of writing studies.

A concern for the material conditions structuring higher education weaves in and out of Wardle's article, and it is my contention that a close reading of her argument reveals a conflict concerning the ways positive change can be made at higher education institutions. On the one hand, Wardle points to large structural forces determining how writing is taught, and on the other hand, she seeks to provide a local example of how individuals at a particular location can enact new pedagogical models. The question remains whether a move to adopt a writing studies approach in the teaching of composition courses can be achieved without collective action dedicated to transforming our institutions of higher education. In other words, can new methods centered on research into genre, transfer, threshold concepts, and metacognition be applied if old institutional hierarchies are not confronted and transformed through organized collective action? If institutions value research over teaching, graduate education over undergraduate education, theory over practice, and content over form, can writing studies' focus on researching how undergraduate students learn and write take hold?

For Wardle, material conditions and institutional expectations help define the possibilities and limitations of classroom practices: "Often these courses are far larger than the class size suggested by NCTE, likely because of the high cost of lowering class size and of widespread misconceptions about what writing is (a 'basic skill') and what writing classes do ('fix' writing problems)." From this perspective, the determination of class size is driven by an economic concern and an institutional interpretation: not only do institutions want to save money by having larger classes, but they rationalize this expansion by claiming writing courses teach a basic skill and serve primarily a remedial goal of fixing writing problems. In response to this analysis, an important question to ask is whether economic concerns are driving pedagogical expectations, or the reductive understanding of writing is producing a rationale for money saving. To be precise, are economics producing cultural understandings, or is culture determining the material conditions?


As academic thinkers and people invested in the power of rhetoric, we often believe culture drives social institutions, so the best way to change a system is to change the culture. However, what if we have it backward and economic forces produce cultural interpretations? For instance, behind some of the recent pushes to focus on a writing studies approach to the teaching of composition is the implicit argument that the best way to increase resources for these programs is to enhance the cultural respect for the field. According to this logic, if writing studies can be seen as a legitimate discipline with established research methodologies, theories, and concepts, it will be treated with the same institutional respect as other research-oriented disciplines. Yet, one must still ask whether this approach is too focused on a rhetoric of logos and ethos. Furthermore, if the major forces structuring the distribution of resources in higher education are irrational and unethical, rational and ethical appeals may not prevail.

It is my contention that the social hierarchies placing research over teaching, the sciences over the humanities, theory over practice, and graduates over undergraduates are not rational or ethical structures; rather, they are irrational power structures rationalized after the fact in order to maintain a system of prestige and privilege. Moreover, these power structures can only be countered by organized collective action, and they will not be transformed by merely rational and ethical appeals. This does not mean we should stop making rational and ethical arguments, but we must understand that these rhetorical devices will not be enough. We should add to pathos, logic, and ethos a fourth category of social power.


In returning to Wardle's (2013) text, we see both the strength and weakness of her institutional analysis.

In addition, composition courses continue to be housed largely in English departments, where they tend to get the least attention and funding of all the low-funded English programs and where sometimes faculty with little interest in or training to teach writing are nonetheless required to do so. Sometimes entire composition programs are staffed with brand new graduate students, many if not most of whom are graduate students in fields other than Rhetoric and Composition, and who have taken, at most, one graduate course in how to teach writing before walking into a classroom.

Wardle begins this important analysis by pointing out the problems many composition programs face because they are located in English departments, and they are often at the low end of the funding and prestige hierarchy. Since theory and literature are privileged over practice and writing, the importance of writing studies is devalued, and the teaching of composition is seen as an activity that requires little expertise, experience, or concern. One of the main ways this dynamic has been countered is by the establishment of separate writing programs. In what is often considered a type of academic divorce, collective action changes the power relation by producing a new institutional structure. Here power and privilege are countered by a collective will to create a new system and set of material relations. Yet, rarely has this type of transformation been produced by compositionists convincing English literature professors to revalue writing and writing studies; instead, the divorce is made through institutional power structures and battles over scarce resources.

In stressing culture over economics, Wardle argues that promoters of the field of writing studies must realize composition has been treated by management in a different way than other disciplines.

No administrator would ever send untrained faculty members or graduate students from another discipline to staff an entire segment of courses in, say, biology or history or mathematics or economics. Yet this happens every day in composition programs. Because of these and other entrenched practices, locations, and labor conditions, and despite our field's advances in how best to teach writing, we can still find composition classrooms where the students are learning modes or grammar or literature in formalistic ways, or are learning popular culture with little to no attention to writing itself, in courses sometimes if not frequently taught by faculty or graduate students with little to no training (or even interest) in teaching writing.

Once again Wardle hones in on the main problem, which is that teachers' working conditions shape students' learning conditions, but her analysis does not go far enough. Not only are first-year writing courses often devalued in the higher education institutional hierarchy, but many first-year courses are devalued and underfunded no matter the discipline. The central problem then is not primarily an issue of the ways people see the teaching of writing; rather, the problem stems from the social hierarchies placing research over teaching, faculty over students, theory over practice, and disciplines over general education.


Writing studies often flies in the face of the dominant social hierarchies shaping higher education because it uses research to focus on student learning and effective pedagogical practices. Moreover, the attention to which skills and knowledge transfer from one class to the next — and from inside and outside the academy — positions writing studies to be a major player in assessment and the evaluation of instructional quality. Still, the problematic nature of labor conditions for writing instructors threatens to undermine the desire to produce specific outcomes: "The fact that research has suggested for many decades now that students in composition courses often do not reach desired course outcomes or improve as writers in measurable ways in one or two composition courses is not an unrelated problem. It seems reasonable to assume that if we staffed any set of courses in any discipline with teachers who had little training or interest in teaching them, we would likely see a problem in student achievement" (Wardle 2013). As several longitudinal studies have looked at what students learn and transfer into and from their writing courses, it has become apparent that students are often not learning and retaining the desired goals of courses. Wardle argues that one reason for this failure to transfer is that the faculty teaching the courses have little training in writing studies. However, one unintended risk with this focus on transfer is that it can feed the current political ideology that blames teachers for all our educational and social problems. Without a focus on the larger economic and political forces shaping higher education practices, teachers become the solution and problem in every social issue. In the case of higher education, the lack of expertise and experience of graduate-student instructors places them in a difficult situation: they are often pushed to teach courses outside their interests and knowledge, and then they are blamed for not being experts.

A materialist analysis of higher education tells us graduate students play a contradictory role since they are supposed to be students and teachers. For example, many graduate students are recruited for graduate programs in order to keep certain subdisciplines alive, but once they start to study, they are immediately asked to be teachers of courses outside their area of specialization. One could even argue that the use and abuse of graduate-student workers has been a major driver in the casualization of the academic labor force. The fact that departments allow grad students to teach undergrad courses sends the message that one does not need a degree, or expertise, or even experience to teach at a research university. This system puts the bar of entry into the profession so low that the door is open for virtually anyone to teach required undergraduate courses. A reason, then, that there are so few jobs for graduate students after they earn their PhDs is that there are so many grad students and contingent faculty without degrees teaching the courses.


Excerpted from "The Politics of Writing Studies"
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Table of Contents

Introduction 3

1 Contingent Labor, Writing Studies, and Writing about Writing 9

2 The Politics of Transfer: Grades, Meritocracy, and Genre in Anne Beaufort's College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing 44

3 Metacognition and Cynical Conformity in Writing across Contexts 74

4 Genre as Social Conformity: Charles Bazerman after Postmodernity 96

5 Writing Theory, Ignoring Labor: Sid Dobrin and the Posthuman Subject 115

Conclusion: Collective Action to Reinvent the University 144

References 156

About the Author 161

Index 163

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