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Bill Maxwell

Professors teaching writing deserve promotion

“The structure is not in place that will allow adjuncts to move out of their Untouchable position in this caste," a blogger wrote a few months ago, alluding to the strict occupational and social class distinction in the two-tiered, or multi-tiered, system of faculty employment at colleges and universities.

In the top class are tenured professors, mainly doing research, who enjoy job security, decent salaries, benefits and academic freedom. On the bottom are the adjuncts. They do the majority of the core teaching, they are undercompensated and most have little if any academic freedom.

They, along with teaching assistants and non-tenure-track lecturers, are euphemistically known as "contingent faculty" because they can be let go without cause. They make up 70 percent of the nation's university and college teachers, and the overwhelming majority can only dream of tenure and moving out of their "untouchable position" in the caste.

Now St. John's University in New York has established a program that will put its instructors who teach first-year composition on the tenure track. More than 3,000 freshmen annually take the course. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that officials at the Roman Catholic-affiliated school wanted to change its relationship with its 20 instructors in the English department, improve its first-year writing program for the benefit of everyone at the university and remove the anxiety the instructors feel over the lack of job security.

In 2006, the university opened its Institute for Writing Studies. The president, the Rev. Donald J. Harrington, told the Chronicle that he wanted to have "every St. John's student recognized for their writing skills." To that end, he said, the university "had to make a strategic priority to invest in a writing faculty above and beyond the English faculty…. We wanted to completely change the direction of English composition (for freshmen). If we were going to do this, we knew we had to do it on a grand scale. It was really us telling the English department, you shape this for us and tell us what you need."

What the department needed most was the ability to hire, develop and keep a cadre of highly qualified and dedicated teachers, some with only master's degrees. For these instructors, teaching — which is the contingent faculty's raison d'etre — has real practical and professional value now because it counts more than research in their tenure process.

To earn tenure, however, the instructors must perform all the other traditional duties, such as conduct research; write papers; read and speak at conferences; serve on various committees; and perform service beyond the campus. To give instructors time for research, the university requires them to teach only three classes a semester instead of the typical five or six that other contingent instructors often find themselves teaching.

According to the Chronicle, in addition to the required freshman writing course, the institute operates a program that helps professors in every discipline improve their methods of teaching writing in their classes.

To further ensure success of the program, officials decided to move the institute from its cramped two-room space. Now, thanks to a gift of $2.5 million, the institute is housed in renovated, electronically equipped rooms on the first floor of the library on the main campus in Queens.

St. John's initiative holds lessons for Florida, where higher education is done on the cheap, where increasing numbers of contingent instructors are teaching our university and community college courses, especially our first-year required composition courses.

In 2007, believing that reliance on adjuncts had gotten out of hand, two Democratic state lawmakers, Sen. Steven Geller and Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, introduced legislation that would have required 75 percent of all undergraduate courses at state colleges and universities be taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Neither bill got a committee hearing at the time. And neither got new life during the embarrassing session that just ended in Tallahassee.

I do not know of a Florida university or community college that is replicating the St. John's model, which is successful primarily because, as president Harrington said, the university made a "strategic priority to invest in a writing faculty."

Imagine that in Florida: investing in our contingent writing instructors and putting the best ones on the tenure track.

Professors teaching writing deserve promotion 05/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 7:10pm]

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