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Who Gets to Teach Writing?

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A fundamental axiom in my philosophy of writing program administration is that institutions are, by definition, crystal-latticed structures designed to hold contradictions together in close proximity. Take, for example, a simple question that on the surface would seem to have an obvious answer: Who gets to teach writing? At my institution, we continue to hunker down through a perfect storm worse than any category 5 hurricane: SACS reaccreditation, program review, a fairly new and tentative administration, assessment, strategic planning, a new state law reducing the credits in the statewide general education/core curriculum, and budget cuts. It’s fascinating to see so many narratives about the university revisited and revised all at once; at the same time it’s inevitable (and simultaneously frustrating and amusing) to see how this storm churns up paradoxical discourses that long ago rested quietly in the sediment of the institution. For example, as part of our college’s budget cuts, our dean jettisoned our business writing course, since it primarily served students in the College of Business (CoB). We lost not only those students but also nine instructor lines (ouch). Recently, unaware of the fact that the CoB was transferring our course (ENC 3213) into their equivalent course (GEB 3213), an associate provost called a meeting between me and my dean and the folks from CoB. Her concern was “credentializing.” (Our school is hewing to a strict interpretation of the “18-credit-hour” rule in our accrediting body, which states that in order to teach a subject the teacher must have at least 18 graduate credit hours in the subject.) She explained that while it’s clear how someone who has taken a graduate course in Shakespeare could teach our writing course, it seemed to her a bit of a leap to claim that this same person could also teach business writing. Consider this theorem 1: only people with graduate training in business writing should teach business writing. I explained, first, that anyone working within academia is a business writer. I spend all day composing reports, proposals, memos, and e-mails, and I got my job only because of my skills in writing both a cover letter and resume. I then pointed out the logical extension of her argument. Consider that theorem 2: if a teacher needs graduate training in a discipline to teach a course in that discipline, then (I explained) there were only three people at our entire school who could teach our FYC courses—our three tenure-track Composition/Rhetoric faculty. (Curiously, that does not include me. Though my dissertation is in Comp/Rhet and though I worked with some rather significant figures in the field, my doctoral program did not have a Comp/Rhet track, thus my coursework would not qualify me to teach in the program I administer [cf. axiom 1]). Though unqualified to teach rhetoric, it would seem I am at least an adequate rhetorician, since the associate provost then conceded that perhaps people in English could teach the course—with sufficient orientation. (Though I suspect the logistical nightmare of replacing some 100 teachers of FYC courses had a more persuasive effect than the argument that academics are business writers). Complicating matters more, our university has a vigorous writing across the curriculum (WAC) program whose base philosophy is that any one in any discipline (with some training) can teach writing—we even have a second-semester FYC writing course offered in chemistry. Thus, theorem 3: writing happens in all disciplines and thus responsibility for writing should be distributed across the university. Let’s review the emerging geometry: Axiom: Institutions are designed to hold contradictions in close proximity. Theorem 1: Only people with training in a discipline can teach in that discipline. Theorem 2: Thus only people with graduate training in Comp/Rhet can teach writing. Theorem 3: Writing happens in all disciplines; thus, anyone in any discipline can teach writing. Maddening. Fascinating. As we continue to weather out this storm, I keep encouraging our chair to “embrace the illogic” of the institution. From my perspective, since any institution holds mutually exclusive positions simultaneously, getting out of any one jam simply means shifting one’s rhetorical position in the latticework. But there are larger questions embedded here. Who does get to teach writing? At our school writing is embedded in the English department. Where does it reside in your school—and why? As Comp/Rhet continues to mature as a discipline, how much longer can English (or communications, even) contain it? How can WAC/WID survive the twin forks of assessment (too often code for accountability) and accreditation?
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.