digital rhetoric Professional Writing

Learning from Assignment Zero

Jeff Howe recently offered some reflection on Wired‘s crowdsourcing journalism project, Assignment Zero. As noted in the Wired article and discussed at Smart Mobs and around the web, the project is being described as either a modest success/productive failure. You can go to the article for the details, but the lessons learned from the project are useful ones for thinking about crowdsourced composition projects, such as the work I do with NeoVox and in many professional writing classes.

It turns out the designing a crowdsourced project is not unlike developing a constructivist pedagogy. On one hand, you need to provide sufficient structure for the participants. As Jay Rosen, NYU professor and head of the project noted, “you have to be waaaay
clearer in what you ask contributors to do. Just because they show up
once doesn’t mean they’ll show up over and over. You have to engage
them right away.” A lack of structure led many would-be participants to drift away. On the other hand, you need to allow participants to establish their own structures, to allow their passions and interests to shape the project, and build a community. Howe explains that as the Assignment Zero team sought to repair the project, they

made the decision to
shift the goal from producing scores of feature stories to producing

scores of interviews. Asking contributors to ‘write the story on
open-source car design’ had all the appeal of asking people to rewrite
their college term papers. Asking them to talk to someone they admire
and respect was met with a far warmer response.

Yes, what could be more emblematic of an uninspiring, purposeless writing task than the "college term paper." No one would ever want to write one of those, right? And yet, one of the more interesting lessons from the project is the wide variety of motives that do inspire people to join crowdsourced projects including improving one’s reputation in a community, developing a particular skill, and the possibility of financial gain. (Hmmm… it would strike me that students go to college and select courses for similarly complex sets of reasons.)

Of course, there are important differences between a publishing project and a classroom, namely that a publishing project is ultimately valued in terms of its products; a classroom’s success is based on the more nebulous value of the learning experience (even though we typically–and in my mind insensibly–confuse learning with successful products).

So I think the trick with building a crowdsourced community writing project is to approach the task rhetorically (surprising, huh?). First off, you’re not looking for everyone to join. You’re looking for individuals who are knowledgeable about the subject on which you are writing, are energetic, committed, and tech savvy enough to not need tons of technical support. In short, you need to understand that the first audience of any crowdsourced project is the crowd itself. Audience awareness here will have a strong influence on how the project is originally designed.

Second, a crowdsourcing project is one flow point in an ongoing conversation. If a project is going to be crowdsourced, it’s b/c their is already an existing conversation with participants who might want to be part of the project. In addition, the project is going to result in products that will continue this conversation beyond the crowdsourcing community. Clearly the participants will have some role in defining these things, but it’s necessary, I would imagine, to make sure they think in such directions. I know that would be the case in a student, crowdsourced project.

Third, you have the issue of ethos. Wired obviously has a reputation that can back up a project like this. As a participant, you can believe that Wired is only going to publish quality material, that the editors in the project will be professional, and that ultimately you are participating in a reputable project.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got right now, but thinking about Assignment Zero does have me thinking about ways of shaping the NeoVox project into the future.


10 replies on “Learning from Assignment Zero”

Hmmm, is it just me, or is it not peculiar how this question was thrown out, so to speak, in the middle of that Wired article and yet not really explored and/or answered? Because whenever I read about crowdsourcing, my mind free associates to the problem of outsourcing and why, as Rosen asks, all of these “citizen journalists/ volunteers” have no problems contributing their labor for free.
“Why are these people willing to work for free?” — Jay Rosen in Wired News, on the launch of Assignment Zero
That question, too, is always first on my mind whenever I read about these projects. I think that it is important to ask, what does crowdsourcing mean for professional writers/researchers from a financial standpoint? One inevitably finds similarities to the economic issues that plague composition teaching.
On a related note, this discussion about crowdsourcing reminds me of an article in the NYTimes Magazine about the Wikipedia cadre of volunteers from several weeks back, which also speculated about motives behind volunteering and raised some interesting and highly relevant questions about the lack of journalistic experience on the part of many young “wikipedians” and their presumptions about being able to obtain/police neutrality in their entries (while leaving out the crucial qualification of “alleged”).

Worth a read, if you haven’t already.


Thanks d.o.. An interesting article in NY Times. Also an interesting question about crowdsourcing. I don’t really have an ethical issue with people who choose to do work for free. As I suggested, there could be many motives for doing this kind of work.
The economic issues do come into it, I suppose, when a commercial venture calls on crowdsourcing in a way that supplants professionals. However, I’m not really sure that that’s something that is happening.
Wired spent $95K on the Assignment Zero project, and perhaps they will need to spend more if they have any intention of making some improvement here. As such, it’s not exactly like they’re getting something for free here, even if everyone isn’t getting paid.
In any case, I’m not sure if crowdsourcing in professional writing/editing will reduce the amount of paid work or just change it.
Last week, I was writing about crowdsourcing the reviewing of books in rhet/comp. In some sense this is work that is just begging to be done. Hypothetically it could be done fairly easily in the traditional way. Hypothetically it wouldn’t be hard to write one book review a week. One could even make a name for oneself as an academic book review perhaps. But no one really wants to do it. No one seems to want to create the formal, editorial mechanism it would take to publish reviews on the necessary scale.
Crowdsourcing is one possible way of making book reviews happen. Who knows if it would work or not. Like Assignment Zero, it would be an experiment.
The adjunct model is different. The analogy for Wired would be to say that there are so many people who would be willing to write for the magazine at any price that they can pay dirt wages to writers. In a way, this might be true, but given that they want the best possible writers and probably want to retain writers they’ve had good experiences with, they end up paying more.
My point is that magazines don’t need to crowdsource to get cheap labor. You can find folks willing to write for a nickel a word, as long as you don’t mind working with writers living in third world economies.
Crowdsourcing, at least in writing, isn’t about cheap labor (or at least I don’t believe it is). It’s about doing things you couldn’t otherwise do.


I hate to come off as adversarial here — not my intent — yet I do pause at the concept of “*choosing* to do work for free” because I am not one to believe that the choice is always such a deliberate or conscious one. I mean, if most people had a direct choice between a paid job and an unpaid job, it is pretty obvious that they would choose the former. Similarly, if most (all?) university writing instructors had the choice between, say, a 45,000 job and piecemeal adjunct work at 2,500 or less per course, again, the choice would seem an obvious one. Point being that they are not actually choosing if alternative (paid) scenarios are not available — or even if they are choosing non-tangible rewards such as recognition, prestige or resume lines, I don’t believe that it is safe to assume that they are necessarily choosing not to be paid, at least not on a conscious basis. And I think that is where Rosen’s question comes into play — sure, folks will do this kind of work for the prestige (reputation) of being affiliated with Wired, still, by my assessment, that is not all that different than adjuncts/lecturers taking any teaching job at any pay that is available as a matter of maintaining an institutional affiliation or their professional status (reputation) as a teacher. I would hazard to say that in both cases you have cultural institutions using their cultural capital to entice a labor force to contribute their work for free or for pennies in exchange for a kind of psychic gratification of sharing in the (again, non-tangible) aura of that institution’s cultural capital — capital that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to partake of in the more competitive, occasionally-oligarchic arena of professional writing. Although I would agree that the analogy is limited by the fact that magazines’ reputations (cultural capital) are nearly exclusively dependent upon the quality of their writing — hence their desire to retain good writers, as you say — whereas universities need not care so much about quality of instruction in cases where research/scholarship has supplanted teaching as a source of reputation/capital — or when universities already know that adjuncts are often just as qualified, if not moreso, as t-t instructors (yet they can get away with paying adjuncts peanuts anyway). So, yes, the analogy may be a limited one — but only limited, I would argue, by how much is at risk for the institutions’ reputation in lowering the wage bar, and perhaps what Wired is (indirectly) doing with such an experiment as Assignment Zero is testing the quality of the (crowdsourcing) waters to see how crowdsourcing stands as a final product in relationship to its current models. Perhaps. I mean, 95K is, in fact, an investment — surely not just play money — and many companies similarly invest in and experiment with automating technologies/practices for the purpose of streamlining expenditures. That is to say, Wired may not be getting something for free even as they are still possibly making an investment with the hope of some kind of a future return once the system & tech is functioning more seamlessly. And, for certain, a university can likewise invest 95K in the salaries of two (or three) WPA’s to manage the crowds of adjuncts — likewise not exactly getting something for free yet still creating an administrative structure that keeps the masses in their place. So, anyway, those are a few of the grounds on which I find similarities. One of my main interests lately has been the concept of the psychic economy — which includes defining what is meant by “want” or “wanting” to give away labor — that underwrites how universities and other cultural institutions do business.
I also wanted to note — and maybe this has been noted elsewhere — that a precursor to this concept of crowdsourcing can be found in the customer-service business models of companies such as ebay. With ebay, it might be called customerservicesourcing, with customer service almost entirely farmed off to the community message boards, where members are “encouraged” to answer one another’s queries and concerns. Of course, ebay has gotten some flack for this over the years, and is now offering more direct customer service via chat, yet in its early years, as you may well know, it was extremely difficult to get direct customer service, and it still is next to impossible to get telephone customer service. Nobody can tell me that ebay’s recent 50 percent rise in profits is not at least partly attributable to its own crowdsourcing version of customer service that minimalizes its workforce. And there, too, it is interesting to speculate about why and how ebayers get sucked into giving away their time and labor for free.
Oh, and on the rhet/comp book review idea, as I recall, wasn’t there — once upon a time in a graduate program far, far away — an effort to create either a listserv or electronic journal devoted to book reviews. I forget how long that project existed — a year or two — or how it panned out? Anyway, when reading your earlier entry, I actually had a few theories about why the project is not so attractive a decade later as self-promotion (as opposed to collegially helping to promote others’ works, as book reviews do) and careerism has increasingly come to reign in the profession. I was also going to note that one of the things that I have noticed, on an informal basis, is that nearly half of the book reviews out there in comp/rhet appear to have been written by someone who is part of the extended (social or educational) network of the author of the book being reviewed. In other words, my sense is that many book reviews are often tribal in nature — meaning that people who are a part of the same rhet/comp networks or graduate programs are willing to set aside their own quest after academic capital (or recognition) to promote the work of one of their own — and increasingly on that condition alone. I was also going to note that for years, I have found it peculiar how many of the seminal texts in composition studies have never received a single review on Amazon — is it because, as an earlier commentator on this blog alludes, reviewing on amazon is perceived as too populist and unpoliced at that? That there is not a gatekeeping mechanism in place, so noone is willing to offer up a few comments? I might speculate that the scarcity of comments on Amazon for some comp/rhet books might have some indirect correlation to the unwillingness to take up the task of bookreviewing — they might spring from similar assumptions, perhaps.


A curious juxtaposition of ideas here, dko. On the one hand, you suggest that academics ought to write book reviews out of a sense of collegiality or perhaps ethical/professional responsibility. Yet, do you not object to such motives for those doing crowdsourcing? That is, if crowdsourcing writers should wait to get paid real money, shouldn’t I wait to get paid to write book reviews?
It’s possible to imagine that crowdsourcing writers are like adjuncts in the sense that they are hoping for full-time work as writers. But I’m skeptical that that’s the case. Let’s say I have a hobbyist’s interest in gardening. I may want to contribute to an article on gardening or a gardening website. But that doesn’t mean I want to become a professional writer anymore than it means I want to be a farmer.
I do agree that a magazine or a college can attract people to work for them simply out of the prestige, so that they might be willing to work for less. I understand your position about people not “freely choosing” to do these things. At the same time, I’m not sure what theoretical model would suggest that the adjuncts are ideological dupes while the college trustees are not. Or are the trustees in a position to freely choose how much to pay adjuncts or hire adjuncts into full-time positions while adjuncts are not in a position to choose different work?
In any case, I don’t believe crowdsourcing can replace professional writing. If it were the case then wikis, blogs, YouTube and the like would just supplant mass media. That is why pay for an issue of Wired to read crowdsourced material when I can read it on Wikipedia? However, I see these as very different discourses.
However, I will see this. Contingent faculty create the conditions under which other academic work is possible. If we were to create a situation in which there were only tenure-track faculty, we would have to reconstruct the entire college experience, and not necessarily in a way that would be better for students.
In the same way, the work of independent media producers-bloggers, wiki contributors, “crowdsourcers,” etc.–create the conditions in which professional media producers will work. I think it’s preferable to have professionals look upon independents as a valued resource, a parallel community to their own, than as a threat.


Umm, you’re decontextualizing my words a bit. I didn’t say that “academics *ought* to write books out of a sense of collegiality” — rather, I said that they already *do* write book reviews out of a sense of network affiliation and familiarity. There was no imperative in my previous comment. For instance, without naming names (it’s that search engine thing, again), I can count on more than one hand the number of book reviews by Albany-affiliated people for Albany-affiliated people that I have seen over the years. So, it’s not that I am objecting to any motives — indeed, I am far more inclined to find the quid-pro-quo book reviewing somewhat problematic, especially when there is no disclosure.
Okay, I can see, now, how you might have interpreted my earlier comment “as opposed to collegially helping to promote others’ works” as some kind of position — actually, it was intended as more of a value judgment than an imperative — that is, an observation about how values have shifted in the profession as a possible explanation for the decline in book-reviewing. Sure, you could say that I am objecting to the rampant, career-climbing individualism that pervades the post-20th C. academy — yet I can do that without simultaneously saying that people should give away their labor for the better, communal, institutionally-manufactured good. Protesting the former does not mean that I am advocating the latter — as if there were no happy medium. I happen to think that you’re conflating two separate issues here — because, originally, your book review website idea said nothing about compensation issues, so that angle was not on the table when I responded; however, if you are going to raise the issue now, I would say in response, sure, why shouldn’t academics get paid for book-reviewing labor? I certainly never said that they should substitute collegiality for payment as a motive, and if we are going to apply this analysis as an addendum, then why not go ahead and argue that academics should get paid for all of their writing — rather than being duped by the cv-line exchange economy wherein writing is reduced to a token or artificial academic currency?
So, I don’t see a viable juxtaposition here — because I believe that neither academics nor participants in crowdsourcing should ever sacrifice their own financial welfare for an institution’s or corporation’s loftier mission, and yet that belief does not necessarily mean that I am saying every person for her/himself with no consideration for the needs of others. I would say that there is a crucial distinction to be made between servicing the needs (bottom line) of a cultural institution and servicing the needs of one’s colleagues/allies/students — although I am well-aware that contemporary institutions are very savvy at exploiting the latter inclination and confusing the two for their own benefit. Going back to my ebay example, there is an excellent example of a corporation that has benefited from confusing the two and has taken advantage of people’s inclination (sense of responsibility) to help others. And that’s really what I am talking about here — institutions/corporations who exploit the service mentality for the benefit of their own bottom line and who capitalize on their cultural status as if it were sufficient payment for their workers, i.e., recognition in exchange for labor at meager wages. With academic book-reviewing — and granted that its part-and-parcel of a problematic system that tokenizes writing — the service of book-reviewing is not so likely to benefit an institution or corporation but rather the individual whose book is being reviewed. So, really, the factor at issue here is who benefits from the service being provided and whether or not those benefits equitable for all parties.
Okay, and in regards to the amateur-vs.-professional issue that you raise, first, I am not sure that we can even remotely assume that crowdsourcing writers do not aspire to be professional writers/communicators in whatever subjects that they fancy. Obviously, if they are voluntarily involved in a crowdsourcing project, then that implies a desire to communicate their knowledge of the subject and even a passion for the subject — the grounds on which the most successful writing is often based. I mean, in the reverse, not just any professional writer could start up a blog about a subject in which they held no abiding interest or passion (consider the etymological root of amateur) and retain a readership — I would argue that very few could. For these reasons and then some, I have been a long time-skeptic of the amateur/professional dichotomy — over a decade ago, Kurt Spellmeyer similarly deconstructed this dichotomy in the pages of *College English* and the rise of blogging, if I may say so, has only further deconstructed it.
And I was not saying that “adjuncts are ideological dupes” (my argument was more psychoanalytical than it was marxist) — what I was saying was that they hold psychological investments in their identities as teachers, in their desire to serve as teachers and assist students and in their identification with institutional/social statuses and because of those various investments, they *seemingly* choose to take lower pay in exchange for maintaining those identities and statuses — yet it’s not really a choice insofar as other alternatives (to work in their chosen profession of higher ed teaching) are not available. I am really not sure about your follow-up comparison in regards to trustees — because there is obviously a huge power, resource & even social class disparity between the two sets of people that you are comparing. I don’t see the point of your (rhetorical) question because I don’t know how you can possibly argue that trustees do not have greater institutional powers than adjuncts. Most importantly, trustees do not have to deal with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that many adjuncts have to deal with — trustees are not viewed as expendable labor. Hmmm, are you really serious here?
Next point that you make about crowdsourcing not replacing professional writing — why not, I ask? I happen to think that it’s highly probable that wikis, blogs, youtube, etc., are, indeed, starting to supplant mass media and will only further supplant the conglomerate mass media in the future. Why else are we witnessing the union of CNN and Youtube for the presidential debates? Why else since the rise of youtube have newsites such as CNN and the NYTimes stepped-up their use of multimedia videos? And I remember, not long ago — although I don’t have the link — the Times running an article about how wikipedia was a new form of journalism — even as that more recent NYTimes Magazine article raises significant doubts about the substitution. On a different front, I have been following the blog of a certain highly-popular celebrity talk-show host who recently resigned from *The View* — basically, what she did was take her audience from *The View* to her blog and now does videoblogs and talks frequently in her answers section about turning her blog itself into a talk show and how her videoblogging is the future of talk shows (especially sans the producers that she did not get along with on The View). Virginia Hefferen wrote an article, “Really, Really Rosie” in the Times several weeks back about the revolution being spawned by that blog. It’s not necessarily anything new in concept in the world of blogging — what is new, though, is a major media personality waking up to the possibility of taking the mode of production into her own hands and carrying her audience with her.
As for why pay for an issue of Wired when crowdsourced material can be read for free online — well, at least to say that I have noticed that my own magazine-buying habits have declined significantly since the rise of blogs. If it’s not crowdsourced somewhere, then it’s usually blogged somewhere, and both potentially contribute to the decline in magazine readership. I suppose that one advantage of crowdsourcing is then the assurance of the readership of at least the crowd. I think, for example, that Daily Kos is another good example of a crowdsourced project that seems to retain its viability by the sheer existence of the busy-bee crowd and their apprentice-like blogging. The idea that they are contributing to the content gives the readers a reason to stick around, thus built into the crowdsourcing is a sense of (brand) loyalty — another benefit for institutions, particularly those concerned with losing readers to the ever-proliferating alternative online venues.
Okay, now I am really befuddled by your second-to-last statement/paragraph: “Contingent faculty create the conditions under which other academic work is possible. If were were to create a situation in which there were only tenure-track faculty, we would have to reconstruct the entire college experience, and not necessarily in a way that would be better for students.” SERIOUSLY??? Are you serious? Or have you crossed over to the dark side of post-tenure? Contingent labor benefits students??? I mean, you’re being a bit dry with that ode to suburbia stuff.
And what if some independent media producers, as you say, are, in fact, professional media producers who have simply become fed-up with the institutional & corporate structures/hierarchies that have previously defined the conditions of their work? And what about independent media producers who are able to parlay their independent work into professional positions — or, alternatively, what about independent media producers who discover through the use of online advertising (e.g., google adsense) that they can make a living without worrying about their official designation? One example that I am thinking of here is — there is an example of one-time professional media producers running their own show. A rarity, perhaps, but a trend, nonetheless.


OK dko. I can’t really respond to this b/c now we are really going in too many directions. But a couple things.
1. Re: crowdsourcing replacing professional writers. I guess we will have to see, right? I’m not saying it can’t happen, especially in certain sectors of media. However, I think that people will always pay for reliable consistent media/information, even if maybe they wouldn’t have to if they were more resourceful. Basically this is a demand that people will be able to make money from.
2. With book reviews in rhet/comp, we pretty much just need to decide to do them w/o much compensation. The only compensation anyone is going to get is going to be through one’s college, and I just don’t see deans caring about book reviews. But folks in other disciplines do them, so there’s no reason why we can’t too.
3. The whole contingent/adjunct thing is an analogy you made here in your first comment. I don’t think crowdsourcing and adjuncting have that much in common. But let me explain what I said and what I mean by it. I think the best way I can do that is through the example of my own college.
At Cortland, basically all our FYC and the lion’s share of our general education courses are taught by contingent faculty. The numbers change, but I believe we have around 30 contingent faculty. Around half of them are full-time. We have 16 tenure-line faculty, and we have two replacement hires this year. The contingent faculty teach around 80 courses a semester altogether. The tenure line faculty are on a 3-3 load, but when you factor in sabbaticals and administrative course releases, we probably teach around 40 courses. (I’m just estimating here, but it’s something around that.)
So let’s say you wanted to eliminate contingent faculty. You’d have to hire another 32 tenure-track faculty. We can’t tenure people who don’t have PhD’s which means that only a handful of the current contingent faculty could even be considered.
Obviously we’d need more money to pay these faculty, so I guess we could just pass that cost along to the students, or maybe the taxpayers would like to pony up.
Then comes the question of who are we going to hire? And what will we all teach? Given our course offerings, 2/3 of our course loads would be FYC and gen ed. Do you think that sounds like an attractive job? How long would the people we hired want to stay?
Most people who get PhD’s want to do research in their specialty and teach courses related to it. We’d be hiring five or six people a year. And believe me that would be a nightmare.
And I still don’t know where the benefit to students is supposed to kick in. Do you imagine that we’ll be hiring 30 people with rhet/comp phd’s? Oh I can see that. My department going from being dominated by lit studies faculty to being dominated by rhet/comp faculty? Uh. no. So what exactly would be the benefit for a student of having FYC taught by one of five Shakespereans in our department, none of whom would likely have had any rhet/comp training or any real interest in teaching writing?
Is that really where we want to go?
No. This would be my solution. Go with full-time lecturers. Give them long contracts. (I believe our lecturers get three years; it would be nice if they were longer). Give them a better wage. Give them voting rights as full members of the faculty. Require them to do professional development and integrate that work into their job and pay. But don’t hire people with PhD’s who want to do research and teach in their area of specialty to do this work.
I know some university systems have specific classes of faculty who are not expected to do research. I could go with that, so that if an instructor decided to earn a PhD and stay with the job s/he had, s/he might move up to asst. prof and so on. I believe that’s how such systems work. It might even be that in some cases, these positions are tenurable. I have no problem with that, though clearly the requirements for tenure are different.
And while tenure, any way you can get it, is valuable, you are still ending up with two classes of faculty. Even at a comprehensive college like Cortland, there is increasing pressure to do research, get grants, build graduate programs, and so on. You aren’t going to attract faculty who can do those things by asking them to teach FYC two or three times a year. It’s hard enough to attract them with a 3-3 load of any kind of courses.
I guess my point is that the class of faculty who are now contingent faculty need to be paid better, have better job security, and be included fully in our academic community. That’s true at Cortland and basically anywhere else you might look. We might go so far as to redefine the full-time lecturer as a new class of tenurable faculty.
However I don’t see eliminating that class of faculty. I don’t see how our majors would benefit if there were a dozen or more writing faculty who each taught one or two courses in the major a year. I don’t see attracting good faculty with the promise of teaching a course in their area once every year or so. What kind of programmatic cohesion would we have? What kind of relationships, if any, would faculty build with the majors? How would faculty have an opportunity to develop their pedagogy in the major’s curriculum?
In some abstract sense it may seem more egalitarian to have everyone doing the same work. But the point of higher education is that each of us is specialized to do different work, not the same work. That doesn’t mean contingent faculty shouldn’t receive better treatment. It just means that making everyone do the same work is not a solution that makes sense. I find it hard to imagine any workplace where it would.


I understand what you are saying and how the contingencies at Cortland inform your perspectives — I forgot that you work in the SUNY system where focus on research (in the humanities) has come to replace reason and reality, so to speak. Such as the reality that there is no return on investment for most overspeciaized humanities research or the reality that students attend public universities to be *taught*, not to finance obscure research that cannot be translated back into a general ed course. Long gone are the days, for example, that places like Albany were known primarily as *teaching* institutions. Anyway, after your clarification, I understand somewhat better where you are coming from, even as I am not convinced that there are not serious downsides to any system that segregates teaching from research or vice versa — or constructs a hierarchy between the two. And a hierarchy is what inevitably happens even with the best of intentions.
Just to note, I have seen at least a few programs wherein tenure-track faculty have less issues with teaching FYC and gen ed courses insofar as they are permitted to shape those courses according to their own (often interdisciplinary) interests and the courses have been redesigned as writing-intensive, first-year seminars. I think permitting faculty autonomy is the key with such courses. I have also witnessed Shakespereans teach FYC without the difficulties that you imply — of course, those Shakespereans also had a background in the more interdisciplinary field of cultural studies. This seems very common in some liberal arts institutions, where teaching rather than research is the priority. No doubt, every department is composed differently and has different priorities — but I tend to think that any graduate program that is not preparing its graduates to teach lower-division, gen ed courses is not preparing them for the realities (yes, that R word again) of most universities’ curriculum needs. Was this not part of the concept behind “Writing, *Teaching* and Criticism” (before the theoretical specialists took over the program and drove the generalist pedagogues out)? Isn’t the concept of two different “classes” of faculty — a class who researches and a class who teaches — a sharp divergence from the aims of that particular program — one being an attempt to restore value and stature to pedagogy (with the DA originally being a teaching degree)? Not that the aims of that (once visionary) program really matter to anyone within that program anymore. (Sorry, the editorializing just spills out sometime. What I am trying to say is that the darkness seems inherent to what the SUNY system has become with its out of whack priorities — as you say, grants and graduate programs over and above teaching. )
“Most people who get PhD’s want to do research in their specialty and teach courses related to it. We’d be hiring five or six people a year. And believe me that would be a nightmare.”
And just to underscore again — and I am sure that I am preaching to the choir here — what they — those who seek PhD’s –want to do is often inconsistent with the reality of what universities need them to do once they have the PhD in hand. I see this as mostly the fault of graduate programs which idealize and romanticize the profession — and hence create the nightmare that you speak of. And then there is the entire issue of how freshman comp and gen ed courses, being the primary source of revenue for many departments, serve to subsidize those few who do get to luxuriate in seminars based on their specialties.
One of the ways in which I have long envisioned composition studies has been through its occasional critiques of the concept of specialization — as a kind of narrow-minded pursuit that compartmentalizes knowledge in restrictive ways that are not useful outside of a campus. As such, I have a difficult time accepting the implied dichotomy of specialist versus generalist or the idea that the point of higher education is to specialize rather than a more interdisciplinary approach. That, after all, is one of the reasons that some folks go into composition studies — because they are able to more expansively work across so-called disciplines such as cultural studies, ethnography, sociology, psychology, philosophy. etc..
Anyway, that’s enough of my two cents on this topic — I agree that it became frayed several posts back. Thank you for your qualification, though — makes sense relative to your institutional & departmental conditions, yet I still disagree on a few matters.


Well, I’m glad we’ve come to some agreement or at least detente on this matter. We’re certainly not going to solve it here.
Let me be clear that I believe a literary studies faculty member could be successful at teaching FYC, if s/he were committed to/interested in the task and made an effort to become knowledgeable in composition theory. I don’t think that typically describes literary studies faculty however. Not do I say that as a criticism. Not everyone has to be interested in teaching writing.
I don’t think we are especially research-oriented. I would guess that most 2-2 research universities, very few faculty are teaching FYC. Albany certainly didn’t practice what it preached. I don’t recall the graduate faculty ever teaching 100-level courses. I’m pretty certain their tenure requirements were heavy on research as well.
I agree though that basically phd programs train students to work at other research universities, not at comprehensive colleges.
That said, I’d be interested to see how many jobs in our field, even at comprehensive colleges, have a 75% load in FYC and GE for non-majors. That’s what our load would be like without contingent faculty.
But it’s not just the issue of research. It’s also about the quality of teaching in the major. I’ve got 30 professional writing majors and two writing colleagues. We could really use one more, but I don’t want eight more with each of us teaching one or two courses in the major each year.
The fact is that writing instruction is specialized. I’m the only person on my campus who has the technical, professional, and disciplinary knowledge to teach most of the courses I teach. Teaching writing for new media is specialized. It requires continually keeping current, evaluating new technologies, figuring out what needs to be included in the curriculum, etc. etc.
BTW, I don’t think I’m “luxuriating” in a seminar when I’m teaching Writing in Cyberspace or Computers and the Study of English. I think I’m offering students important disciplinary knowledge that they will require in their lives. On the other hand, I feel like I’m wasting everyone’s time when I’m teaching a Gen Ed. literature course. If there’s pomposity here, it’s in the notion that every student needs to have a disciplinary encounter with literature.
I think the division between specialist and generalist is specious. No one knows general things; everyone know specific things. What makes someone a “generalist” is that hir specific knowledge cuts across somebody else’s notion of epistemological categories.
As such I am not a fan of general education. As you say, it is a cash cow for colleges built on an exploited class of faculty. I would be more amenable to the proposal to eliminate general education (which few apparently want to teach, even fewer wish to take, and seemingly no one wants to pay for) than to the proposal that all faculty should become fodder for the cow.
In short, we absolutely must improve the working conditions of contingent faculty. I do not believe the solution is to turn all their jobs into tenure-track jobs. For one thing, few of them would be qualified, since they don’t have PhD’s. If you hired and tenured them w/o PhD’s, you’d completely undermine the entire tenure process. Unless you hired them into different types of positions with different tenure criteria. In which case, you’d still have two classes of faculty.
No one would want to turn tenure track lines into positions that require no research and no doctoral degree, unless they wanted to turn every campus into a community college. That certainly would be a dramatic transformation of the American university system. And I’m sure the universities in Canada and Europe would greatly appreciate the influx of new students.
Or do we imagine that students really want to be taught by professors in their major who lack specialized knowledge of the subjects they are teaching?


Just to quickly note, I think that concept of specialization is being used in two diverging ways here.
When you are talking about specialization, that is what I would refer to as expertise. That is to say, following your example, that you inarguably possess expertise in areas that others on your campus do not.
And when I am talking about specialization, the issue that I am raising is that of an overly narrow focus on a particular area, author or text in a discursive or theoretical manner that is not conversant with how people, particularly students, residing outside of the specialized interpretive community understand and interpret the texts. The critiques of specialization, used in this manner, often come from an ethnographic vantage and are based on the concept that knowledge-making or critical inquiry is holistically innate to all people and that one can learn from all interactions with texts, not only from those schooled or trained (another word that I have issues with) in specific theoretical methodologies. That is why I was using the admittedly-reductive phrase “generalist pedagogues” — because specialists, per this definition, are not so concerned with pedagogical matters because they assume their knowledges and interpretations to be authoritative and indisputable by virtue of their grounding in a specialized discursive community. They have walled themselves off from the world, in a way.
I think that a good analogy would be that of a general practitioner doctor when compared (off the top) to an orthopedic surgeon — both inarguably possess medical expertise yet the former is practiced, by necessity, in working with a wide range of maladies and ailments whereas the latter is only going to be sought out by those who need (and can afford) surgery for a specific orthopedic problem. Neither is any less knowledgeable than the other — that is not the issue here, rather the issue is one of to which kind of patients/clients they cater and how they cater to those patients/clients — how professors deliver knowledge to students, in other words.
And to further quickly point out, I have rarely met a university faculty — be that person on a tenure track or a lecturer — who does not have some abiding research interest.
As for your statement, “few of them would be qualified, since they don’t have PhD’s” — should that be the only condition (i.e., the “license” itself) by which people are qualified to teach and conduct research — as if the existence of the PhD alone were the only way that faculty’s talents could be assessed — or the only condition under which job security should be provided?
Following your reasoning here, the presence of an intellectual luminary such as Susan Sontag would have turned a university campus into a community college??? Obviously, you’re not saying that — yet that’s where that kind of reasoning leads since there are lots of intellectuals out there who do not have PhD’s and who believe that a degree itself does not a life of the mind make.


I’m thinking I’ll write something about specialization later in a new post, as it brings together several threads of conversation I’ve been following. However, I want to make clear that I don’t think that b/c someone doesn’t have a PhD that they necessarily are not qualified to be a full-time member of a college faculty. This is de facto not the case, as such people teach in college’s all the time. Indeed there are cases, well-known authors come to mind, of tenured faculty w/o advanced degrees.
My point is this. Let’s say 1/3 of our faculty are contingent faculty that we turn into tenure-line faculty and that most of them have Master’s degrees. We would be looking at tenuring 20% of the faculty without PhD’s. As it is right now, even though we aren’t especially research-oriented, we deny tenure to PhD’s who accomplish little in terms of scholarship. We pressure folks we hire ABD to finish quickly.
Now either earning a PhD is worth something or it isn’t. If it is worth something, then that something is not sufficient to get tenure. There’s no formula, but let’s say you have to publish three or four articles and present at a half-dozen conferences to get tenure. There’s little chance that someone with an MA could accomplish the work of a PhD plus this same level of scholarship in this period of time. Now some of these folks come in with a record of scholarly achievement and might be able to meet the existing standard, but I don’t believe that’s generally the case.
So my point is that in order to give these people a realistic opportunity to become tenured, we’d have to lower the requirements for scholarly accomplishment.
Now what we can do in SUNY is hire faculty as instructors, a position that is defined as full-time faculty (as opposed to lecturer which is contingent, even if full-time employment). An instructor can be promoted to assistant prof and beyond. I’m not sure if you can be tenured as an instructor, but even if you can, my point is that you still have two classes of faculty. No doubt the contingent faculty are better off this way, so this would be worth moving toward, but you still have two classes of faculty.


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