Expertise, Specialization and Writing Studies

Commenter DKO and I have been chatting. about contingent faculty and role of academic specialization. I decided to post about this b/c it fits in with the discussion about uneven tuition and even the idea of writing studies as FYC that I’ve been writing about here.

Essentially, I think the question is "what does it mean to be in rhetoric/composition?" Now, we can get all Derridean here a la "the mark of belonging does not belong," but we’ll set that aside for now.

First off, as I suggested in my earlier post on process, I believe there needs to be some separation between the teaching of writing and the academic study of writing (which again is separate from the way "writers," professional or otherwise, study writing for their own purposes). Why is that? Simply because there is a greater demand for writing teachers than there is for writing scholars. That’s not to say that those writing teachers do not require expertise  (a distinction DKO makes in a comment). To me, that means they need a disciplinary knowledge of FYC. This could be accomplished through professional development and would not require an active scholarly enterprise.

On the other hand, those who conduct research and scholarship of rhetoric/composition/writing (even the term is up for grabs) do not necessarily teach FYC, nor does their research/scholarship necessarily have direct application to the teaching of FYC.

Here are some of the issues…

  • One of the points about the "uneven tuition" issue raised on the WPA-L is the disparity in salary between faculty in different disciplines, specifically how faculty in business, engineering, and other professional fields make significantly more than those in the humanities. Yes, maybe it’s a little sour grapes and it is largely a factor of supply/demand of potential faculty, but the trend also points to how universities value faculty and disciplines. The argument goes, then, if we insisted that writing instruction requires specialization, then there would be an insane demand for PhD’s in rhet/comp and we could probably demand better pay. For example,
  • What if a college couldn’t get its accreditation unless half of its FYC courses were taught by rhet/comp doctorates (not suggesting that btw). How would that affect the supply/demand in our field and thus the pay?
  • What if the prestige of a college were reflected in the communication skills of its graduates and there could be a clear relationship established between excellent writing skills and a top-notch research faculty in writing (just as such relationships are assumed in virtually every other field)?

As I’ve said earlier, I don’t believe FYC writing instruction would necessarily be well-served by manning every section with a rhet/comp phd researcher (not that such a thing would happen anyway).

  • Obviously you can’t build a discipline around first-year, two-course sequence. The disciplinary knowledge we build cannot be delivered in that sequence, nor is all of it necessary to teach the course. Similarly, taking FYC is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a "good writer." You can become a good writer without it; taking FYC won’t make you a good writer. However, it is likely that taking FYC makes most students better writers and generally puts them on a path to being "good enough" to meet the writing demands of undergraduate education.

    On the other hand, an undergraduate professional writing degree is much like a journalism or business degree. You don’t need a business degree to get a corporate job. Would you rather have a business degree from directional state college or an English degree from a major university? However, if you’re like most students, what you want is the business degree from the major university (as we see in the "uneven tuition" discussion). I would say that professional writing students who graduate with a B average or higher from Cortland are among the group of the best writers in their graduating class. That’s partly b/c they have a self-selected interest in writing and partly b/c they receive an extensive education in rhetoric and writing from specialists in the discipline.

    As director of a professional writing program, I know our discipline, broadly conceived, has a body of knowledge to offer as a major for undergraduates to teach them technical writing, business communication, grant writing, professional editing, feature and essay writing, writing for new media, and so on. We also overlap with creative writing, journalism, communications, and wherever new media production is taking place on a campus.

  • Still I think we’re looking at a difference between expertise in professional writing and specialization in the research of particular writing practices. I suppose, in a way, this would be analogous to the difference in a business program between someone with an MBA and experience doing certain kinds of professional work and someone with a PhD in economics. The former individual could probably teach undergrads most of the things they need to know in their curriculum, but you need the latter to ground a program in academic intellectual practices. A different analogy might be made with creative writing programs. With a BFA, the creative writing portion of the curriculum is delivered by MFAs, but another portion of the program is delivered by PhDs. I guess my point here is that expertise is valuable but you can’t found a discipline on it.

Ultimately, I think all this points to a necessary division between the delivery of FYC and the work of writing researchers. Some of the latter may focus on FYC, and some of those researchers may teach FYC, but that’s not how an FYC program will be delivered. Instead you need a cadre of properly compensated expert teachers, supported by professional development informed by research. These individuals can then also be part of a professional writing curriculum as their expertise indicates (e.g. some might have experience in creative writing, others in technical writing or journalism, etc.). This whole business is then supported by researchers who also teach in the program. I don’t think you need a hierarchical relationship between experts and specialists, each performs a necessary and complementary role.

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