This is an excerpt from the article “We Value Teaching Too Much to Keep Devaluing It,” written by NCTE/CCCC member Seth Kahn, which appears in the July issue of College English.
For all the scholarly and professional work in our field focused on teaching—as well as the growing body of research and advocacy on labor conditions—a set of recurring “riffs” in policy documents, trade news, listservs, and social media routinely conflate understandings of value. Such riffs include: the current low pay for teaching-emphasis faculty, teaching as punishment, ignoring teaching-emphasis positions in regard to tenure/promotions, and undercutting some faculty value while arguing for the valuing of others. Riffs that devalue teaching, even inadvertently, make the task of winning labor equity harder by inviting the exploitation of teaching labor.
Beyond the pages of College English, writing studies as a field has attended at times so heavily to teaching practice that Lynn Worsham referred to our “will to pedagogy” way back in 1991 because of our insistence on anchoring conversations in classrooms. Since I entered the field in the mid-1990s, the “ how do I use this on Monday morning” trope has ranged from a mandate to dismissive shorthand for undertheorized pedagogical shop talk, but the fact is that we have a recognizable term for it. We have lots of books about training new teachers, about assessing the teaching and learning that happens in our classes, about all kinds of pedagogical theories and applications and histories; we have journals that publish pedagogical applications and studies. We study and argue about best practices for professional development.
At the same time, our history as a field—a story of striving for professional legitimacy by backgrounding the importance of teaching—is anchored primarily in the teaching of general education and basic courses, which were often taught by the spouses of literature faculty (generally wives who were retired school teachers; see Strickland) or by graduate students in growing literature programs through the mid-twentieth century (see Ohmann) and are now taught largely by NTT, often part-time adjunct, faculty. Even Joseph Harris’ declaration that composition is “a teaching subject” is an unflinchingly scholarly account of the claim.
As much as we publish about pedagogy, we demand that such publications are the results of “rigorous research.” Synthetic concepts like Boyer’s “teacher- scholar model” (TSM) and the growing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (STL) create necessary spaces for taking teaching seriously by articulating ways to make that attention credit-worthy to institutions that privilege research. However, even the arguments for TSM and STL tend to identify the payoff of their arguments as scholarship; that is, the teaching is valuable insofar as their supporters argue that it’s also scholarly or leads to scholarship.
I need to emphasize my respect and gratitude for all of this work, not criticize other people for not sharing my purpose. The problem is not the internal logic of any of these arguments, but that there’s still a gap between the scholarly bodies of knowledge about teaching and labor in English studies, which researchers like Amy Lynch-Biniek (see “Don’t Rock the Boat”) and others are starting to fill, and there’s a discourse in trade publications, professional documents, and our informal networks that seeps right into the gap, a discourse fraught with a set of bad rhetorical habits that work against so much of the effort put forward in the research/scholarship.
It’s impossible to quantify the impact that the discourse of teaching devaluation has, but at least recognizing it helps to explain why so many people have worked so hard to argue so well about how to improve labor conditions in the field and have produced such hit-and-miss results. Right alongside all that hard work to do right is a discourse that denigrates the value of the exact same labor for which we demand labor justice. At best, these two sets of arguments combine to produce a mixed message: Yes, teaching matters, but no, we’d prefer not to pay people very well to do it. So, we don’t.
I’m going to spend most of the rest of this essay documenting the economics of low pay for teaching labor and then documenting/explicating examples of the ways we propagate that problem: posing teaching as punishment or something to be released from, leaving teaching as an afterthought in the pursuit of hiring and tenure/promotion, and denigrating certain kinds of courses and jobs.
Finally, I’ll make a slightly more extended case for why we need to cease making the same mistakes, and I’ll suggest what else we might do instead. Some readers may find it overkill to read through these examples and variations; I’m asking you to do it for two reasons. First, the variations matter in terms of helping to demonstrate just how insidious the discourse is, and some are subtle enough to need some explanation.
Second, especially if you’re comfortably tenured or otherwise secure and content, I want you to share my sense of irritation that’s been steadily accreting for nearly twenty years of being asked when I’m going to leave the position I love for a “real job,” so that you too may feel motivated to help send this trope to the trash heap of academic labor history.
Read Seth Kahn’s full article in the July 2020 issue of College English.
Seth Kahn is Professor of English at West Chester University, where he teaches courses primarily in rhetoric and writing. He has served as co-chair of the CCCC Committee on Part-time, Adjunct, and Contingent Labor and currently serves as co-chair of the CWPA Labor Committee. His recent publications include Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement (2nd edition), co-edited with JongHwa Lee; and Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity: Labor and Action in English Composition, co-edited with William B. Lalicker and Amy Lynch-Biniek.
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