If you have to ask…

Yes, it is, in a sense, the oldest question, the formative question, of rhetoric and composition, and yet posed once again by a colleague:

Do you really need a PhD to teach writing?

It is a surprisingly ambiguous question. Afterall my 5-year old daughter is being taught writing by someone without a PhD. Students K-12 regularly receive instruction in writing (and reading and literature) from teachers without doctorates. Even in higher education, a solid fraction of courses in writing (though again also in literature) are taught by graduate students, adjuncts, and lecturers without terminal degrees.

So the answer is quite obviously, “No, one does not need a PhD to teach writing anymore than one needs a PhD to teach literature,” as anyone who is an academic should know. In fact, the answer is so obvious that it is likely this is not the crux of the question. Perhaps the crux is whether or not it is necessary to have a PhD to teach writing well.

This is a more complicated question. First of all, we would have to specify the type of PhD: any English degree, rhetoric/composition, technical or professional writing, journalism, creative writing, would an MFA count?

Second, we would have to ask what is meant by writing: for example, are we talking specifically about undergraduate academic writing of the type typically taught in FYC and assigned in literature courses? Derrida writes, given the linearity of writing and its connection to our concept of temporality, “the meditation upon writing and the deconstruction of the history of philosophy become inseparable.” This grammatological approach to writing would suggest a need for a decidedly erudite education.

Third, one would have to define “well,” which is clearly a problem invested with all types of ideological and epistemological pitfalls.

But, actually I don’t think that’s the question either. What this question “really” is, in my reading, is whether or not the teaching (and study) of writing is an intellectual activity on par with the teaching (and study) of literature. I include study parenthetically for although it was not included in the question, one does not generally hire a PhD solely to teach; there is an expectation that one will conduct research as well.

There are several answers to this as well.

Clearly one essentially needs a PhD to be hired as professor. It would be difficult to get books or even many articles published without a degree.

However, the real thrust of the question is to challenge the questioned to legitimate the study of writing. If one can legitimate the study of writing, one implictly legitimates its teaching. That is, if the content of the discipline is valuable then it is worth teaching. True, writing courses place a special emphasis on practice, but I would argue this demonstrates not only the “real world” value of writing education but also our discipline’s insight that learning is a practice: students acquire the content of rhetoric by producing knowledge of rhetoric through practice.

So how does one argue for the value of studying writing and writing practices as an intellectual enterprise? Well, I suppose one might begin by examining the 26 centuries of philosophical/rhetorical study of writing. This would obviously include the past four decades of research in rhetoric and composition. Second one could examine the extensive role writing practices play in our culture across a range of cultural sites.

Then one would have to ask oneself: could there be something to gain from studying writing and writing practices?

I’m not going to argue that here, but assuming that one says yes, then one would have to say that the need for a PhD to teach writing is the same as the need for a PhD to teach any subject: professors with doctorates are experts and active scholars; they are thus able to deliver an education that reflects a thorough understanding of the subject and its latest developments. This, of course, is the potential problem with non-PhDs teaching writing: a lack of knowledge in the field makes it difficult to teach the subject.

I suppose you could say that just about anyone could sit and talk about writing as it relates to their own experience. Likewise, just about anyone could sit and talk about a novel or a poem. Of course, they wouldn’t be providing a disciplinary understanding of the text. Similarly the former person wouldn’t be providing a disciplinary understanding of writing.

So the bottom line is that one needs a PhD to teach writing because it is a complex disciplinary field that requires that level of education in order for one to engage in research and be able to teach the disciplinary knowledge of writing the field generates. Like all fields, more basic or introductory courses can be taught by less experienced faculty.

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