the conundrum of rhetoric & composition research

I’ve been thinking in the following terms since engaging in the process to revise our FYC program. I find myself facing one of two possible unsavory situations.

  1. Knowledge of rhetoric and composition scholarship is necessary for effective teaching of FYC. In which case, the vast majority of FYC instructors are unqualified to the do their jobs.
  2. Knowledge of rhetoric and composition scholarship is not necessary for effective teaching of FYC. In which case one has to wonder what the purpose is of the discipline.

Now certainly not all scholars in the broad field of rhetoric and composition conduct research related to FYC. So I do not mean to suggest that rhet/comp scholarship must pass some FYC relevancy test. That said, it would seem that a significant portion of our field focuses on college-wide writing programs of one form or another, as opposed to writing majors like ours.

Similarly, one might suggest that the first premise is a matter of degree. How much knowledge is necessary? What particular knowledge is necessary? Might one create a disciplinary canon?

Different kinds of institutions need to face these challenges in different ways. Research institutions are continually cycling through new cadres of graduate student FYC instructors. As Cortland, we have a core group of full-time, adjunct instructors, plus a fluctuating group of part-time adjuncts. We have an interesting mix of people. Folks with PhDs, with MAs, with MFAs, and MATs. We have people who are published writers and have worked as professional writers. We have people with a lot of teaching experience.  To my knowledge though, we have no one with an MA in Rhetoric and Composition or a dissertation in the field. So there’s writing experience and teaching experience, but little disciplinary experience.

So that returns me to my original conundrum: what is the importance of this knowledge to teaching FYC?

I think back to my first teaching experience. 22 years old. First semester in an MA program. One week orientation, plus a comp theory course we took during that first semester. In addition the program was highly structured, with a common text and common syllabus. My authority, such as it was, stemmed largely from that structure. My sense is that uncertainty about authority drives pedagogy in our program. It is easier to establish authority in terms of formal issues, so those become the foundation of the course. This is why one finds current-traditional rhetoric and New Criticism in FYC and general education literature courses.

Hypothetically, we could do something similar to my MA program experience by establishing common readings and assignments and then establishing a professional development forum of some type. However, I know that wouldn’t be popular and might intensify the authority issue. But maybe not. After all, our current program is very prescriptive and highly bureaucratic. So perhaps a program that was structured in a different way could work.

I don’t really have a structure to propose, at least not today.

But I do think that whatever we might do, we have to incorporate some professional development. That development needs to recognize faculty expertise in writing and pedagogy, using it as a foundation for our conversations about composition, and making disciplinary knowledge another part of that conversation. I wouldn’t want to suggest disciplinary scholarship ought to function as a "master discourse." Instead I see it as the continuation/extension of the intellectual work of pedagogy.

Anyway, I am hoping that as we revise our program, we can start a conversation about composition and disciplinary knowledge. I think, more so than anything else we might do, accomplishing this would go the furthest toward making improvements in our program.

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11 replies on “the conundrum of rhetoric & composition research”

With respect to #1, it is hard to imagine instructors teaching first-year chemistry or physics without a disciplinary knowledge of those subjects. With respect to #2, it is considerably easier to read, understand, and teach a first-year comp textbook than it is a first-year chemistry text, suggesting that disciplinary knowledge is not as important in fyc as it is in some disciplines.
With respect to becoming an effective teacher, disciplinary knowledge is not sufficient. Most of us have had a teacher or two or more who knew their discipline inside and out, but couldn’t teach. Thus, teachers also need some knowledge of how people learn.


As a coordinator of First-Year Writing at a small liberal art college in Albany, I sympathize with this conundrum. Given the fact that the majority of people who teach first-year writing (at my college and elsewhere) are contingent faculty, the odds of them having disciplinary knowledge of Comp/Rhet is very low. Yes, many with MAs, MFAs, and some with PhDs (in lit), but none with any comp. So, I’ve been working the professional development angle–biweekly “Comp Conversations” as a kind of one hour discussion focused around important pedagogical issues and “Teaching Communities” faciliated by an experienced teacher. Now, for the fist time, I’m also able to provide remuneration for faculty time and energy. The problem? Contingent faculty have other jobs and responsibilities beyond my campus. I’d thought that–like Kevin Costner–if I built it, then they’d come. That, however, has not proven to be the case yet. So lots of professional development opportunities, just not of people able to attend. Sorry, this turned in to more of a complaint than a comment:)


@ Charles, I agree that disciplinary knowledge is not sufficient for good teaching. Of course, in rhetoric and composition, unlike virtually any other academic discipline, pedagogy is a central element of disciplinary knowledge.
On the other hand, while it may be that an fyc textbook is easier to read, in some respects I would suggest that FYC is more complex than intro to chem or bio. In those disciplines the knowledge to be conveyed in an intro course is more discrete and identifiable.
I think it is easier to think you know how to teach FYC.
@Megan: I sympathize. And when I talk about professional development, I always want to make it clear that it isn’t just about contingent faculty. I simply could not do my job without ongoing professional development.
Professional development, particularly in terms of technology, is a critical problem for faculty and staff at every institution I’ve ever heard about.


I think the widespread perception of #2 is part of the reason why WPAdministration has emerged as a specialty, in an attempt to embed disciplinary knowledge in institutional structures. The ironic thing about that, unfortunately, is that it ultimately reinforces #2, as it makes it possible for folks with minimal disciplinary background to teach with some competence.
How’s about adding a third option, the claim that “Knowledge of rhetoric and composition scholarship increases the likelihood of effective teaching of FYC.” It wasn’t the only thing that did it for me, but it played an important role. I improved in part just by gaining experience, and in part by reflecting upon my own writing, but I came into my MA program not even realizing that there might be more than one way to teach writing. What I’ve learned from R/C isn’t the only reason that I’m (usually?) an effective teacher, but it’s made it much more likely from class to class…


I agree Collin. The issue of disciplinary knowledge is a matter of degree. Not only how much, like there’s a particular quantity, but also what knowledge. And I’m sure the answer to that question depends on the institution, the students, and the program, as well as the faculty.
As you say, it’s not so much that comp theory is going to tell you what to do in the classroom, though I guess that happens sometimes. It’s more that comp theory will open you up to different ways of understanding what writing is, how people write, and how people teach and learn writing. Generally speaking, over the long term, that’s going to make one a better teacher.


Yes, pedagogy is much more a centerpiece in composition than in other disciplines. However, I would say that for many instructors, composition’s pedagogical lore has become formulaic. Without an understanding of how people learn, one cannot adapt old formulas to current contexts.
For that reason, I do agree that “it is easier to think you know how to teach FYC.” What I was getting at, however, is the comparative difficulty of understanding physics or chemistry. I remember my intro physics courses. I would read the chapter at least 5 times before some understanding penetrated me. Think how many more times I would need to read it before I could understand it well enough to teach it at some basic level. In contrast, I can pick up any FYC textbook, along with perhaps Edward White’s “Assigning, Responding, Evaluating,” and after one reading understand enough to teach it–of course, not as well as someone trained in rhetoric and composition, but considerably better than I would be able to do in the sciences. If that were not true, then institutions wouldn’t let graduate students with no background in comp/rhet teach FYC. But they do. In contrast, who has ever heard of a graduate student without a degree in physics teaching introductory physics?


Perhaps some reframing of what counts as knowledge of RhetComp is in order. I’m definitely not persuaded that RhetComp Ph.D.’s automatically make the best teachers, nor am I at all keen on the idea that anybody can teach FYC. But, between those extremes lie worlds worth examining. Training and experience in things that will matter most to students, to colleagues, and to the institution don’t always come by way of the Ph.D. That’s the path we privilege, but it’s certainly not the only path, and maybe not even always the best one if excellent teaching is what you’re after. Some version of the “nurse practioner” is wanted here.


@Charles. Perhaps we should apply the criteria of the physics class to the writing class. What happens in those big science classes as I recall is that you have a professor who delivers lectures and then graduate TAs who run recitations, oversee labs, hold office hours, and grade exams. This model doesn’t really work for FYC, though you can have a different model of oversight, I guess. Of course my particular local concern is not with graduate assistants but rather with professional development and the role of rhet/comp scholarship in the labor of full-time writing instructors.
@Kafkaz: I agree that a PhD in rhet/comp doesn’t automatically makes you the best FYC teacher. It should mean that you have an expert understanding of rhet/comp scholarship. I suppose you could also say, drawing on Charles’ example, that a PhD in Physics doesn’t automatically make you the best physics teacher either.
I know what you are getting at though. PhDs are trained to be researchers. They are generally in positions where doing research is prioritized. Even in rhet/comp, they are likely to have interests and course loads that take them beyond FYC with which they must concern themselves. Certainly that is my case.
Perhaps the nurse practitioner model would work for FYC. What I like about that model is the explicit requirement for continuing education and professional development.
So I guess I would say that the education and professional development needed for successful FYC instruction is NOT the same as that needed for being a successful rhet/comp PhD. The two are related though. What we do need to do is define what IS needed in terms of ongoing professional development for FYC instruction and make sure that this work is incorporated into their job descriptions and salary.


The community college model might be helpful on this score, Alex. Salary scale is tied to years of experience an hours of education beyond the M.A., with a well thought out educational plan (publishing, research, coursework, conference attendance, conference presentations, and all sorts of faculty development activities) required for the jump to the highest scale, and a plan and review session scheduled in three year phases throughout. As an M.A., I actually *facilitated* faculty development workshops–both at my own school and at others–rather than only attending them, so this model would require a little readjustment of the world for some Ph.D.’s. Often, those attending my workshops did have doctorates. I didn’t, but I had tenure. It’s the smart M.D. who attends the nurse practioners workshop to get a sense of what the day to day realities, challenges, and paths toward success are when working closely with patients–much more closely than the typical M.D. ever does. Might be smart, too, for anyone considering this model to recognize that the non-Ph.D. rank shouldn’t be thought of as lower, but as a different sort of track. Nurse practioners make patient contact their priority and their area of expertise. Docs have much to learn from them, and vice versa. That would be the challenge–getting the communication flowing in a fashion that recognized the expertise of the Writing Teacher/Practioner (who, by the way, is also very likely to be enganged in some form or another of classroom research at any given moment) as being a complement to the expertise of the Rhet Comp researcher whose main area of day-to-day interest isn’t FYC.
But, the categorizing and the drawing of lines isn’t easy. I facilitated workshops, acted as liaison to part-time faculty, chaired both disciplinary and college-wide assesement efforts, started TechRhet when ACW-L petered out, taught many courses other than FYC, including honors courses, poetry writing, fiction writing, non-fiction writing, film and so much more. Not a Ph.D., but far more experienced, active, and well-read than some who are. So . . .Hard to imagine the scheme that makes room for the likes of me, or makes it possible for others to follow a similar path. For the most part, I think the M.A. only path is mostly closed, now, and it’s too bad.
Time to rethink the flaming hoops, maybe. The newly minted docs need a few old hand nurses around so they don’t kill anyone during those first few years of actually being in the field . . .And I’ve nursed along quite a few newly minted Ph.D.’s in just that fashion. (Wishing, sometimes, that we’d gone for the M.A. who could clearly teach up a storm instead. Less high maintenance, less learning at the expense of students, and prepared to be a good colleague right off the bat. That’s attractive.)


Thanks Kafkaz. To me it’s not an MA/PhD turf war over who is better or more qualified. That’s a moot question for us. We aren’t hiring rhet/comp PhD to teach in our FYC program. We can’t afford that. I doubt few institutions can.
If the MA instructors at my institution did the kind of work you describe yourself doing, I’m sure this wouldn’t be an issue at all. And in saying that, I’m not pointing the finger at them. Their pay scale and workload is such that we cannot expect or ask them to do that kind of work.
To restate what I said originally. What we need is professional development for our adjunct instructors. The development needs to begin by recognizing the value of their teaching experience and writing experience. It also needs to bring disciplinary knowledge into the conversation.
The new PhD (or new MA) will have growing pains in the classroom. The old PhD (or MA) who doesn’t keep up in the field or was never informed about the field is equally damaging, maybe even more damaging since they can sway others in the program. There are plenty of old guard teaching C-T rhetoric and barking about comma splices.
These are the kinds of issues I’m dealing with.


Well, I had tenure, Alex. Makes a whole lot of difference in what a person can accomplish. But, even for the tenured in the C.C., the workload is huges, so publishing isn’t ever at the heart of things, though a remarkable amount of it goes on.
But, yes, separate knowledge from the tickets. Then you might get somewhere, but it’s not easy going.


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