Resources & Resolutions
Resolution on Labor Practices
Labor practices deeply affect the general quality of college writing instruction. Too often, college writing is taught by part-time faculty carrying heavy course loads on multiple campuses without the possibility of tenure or meaningful support for professional development. Increasingly, too, graduate assistants who are struggling to finish their degrees become long-term part-timers as traditional full-time professorial lines continue to disappear. The great majority of these faculty members, working without the possibility of promotion or advancement, are paid substandard salaries calculated on a per-section basis. This arrangement makes the retention of qualified faculty difficult, driving away the most experienced, accomplished, effective teachers. Many wonderful part-time faculty members and graduate assistants commit themselves to their work at great personal expense, and the academy owes much to their selflessness and expertise, as do the campuses on which they work. Still, these practices discourage good teaching. Moreover, the heavy reliance on non-tenure track faculty places an increasingly disproportionate administrative burden on the tenure-line and full-time faculty.
Acknowledging the pressing urgency of this situation and the clearly established relationship between effective teaching and healthy working conditions for faculty, the SUNY Council on Writing hereby proposes:
1. That, in accordance with the Report of the UUP Task Force on Contingent Employees, http://uupinfo.org/reports/reportpdf/TFCE%20Report.pdf, all SUNY campuses begin using a prorated version of the minimum negotiated salary for Full-Time Lecturers within UUP as a general minimum for part-time salaries. According to rates negotiated for Fall 2012, this would mean that part-time faculty would make a minimum of $4,713 per section.
2. That these positions be converted to full-time with the possibility of meaningful advancement across a career. A stable body of well-prepared, available full-time faculty provide better instruction for students. Faculty should be part-time only when fluctuations in enrollment require it.
3. That ultimately provisions for tenure-like arrangements (“security of employment” and “continuous employment” lines, etc.) be made available for full-time instructor lines.
4. That Composition and Rhetoric be represented with much greater frequency in hiring for new professorial lines, recognizing that on many campuses tenure lines for faculty in Composition and Rhetoric are grossly outnumbered by those in other divisions in English and the Humanities.
5. That graduate assistants be assigned no more than one section and twenty students in any given semester, following the standards of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Proposed by Committee on Labor Practices (Michael Murphy, Oswego; Cynthia Davidson, Stony Brook; Wilbur Farley, Stony Brook; Kelly Kinney, Binghamton; Tina Good, Suffolk CC) and approved by consensus of the SUNYCoW Executive Board, March 29, 2012.
The teaching of writing and rhetoric at the college level has long been recognized as a profoundly important part of higher education, particularly in the Information Age, and composition, rhetoric, and writing studies has grown steadily as a discipline over the last forty years to support it. College administrators should recognize, honor, and support that discipline in hiring priorities, staffing arrangements, and policy decisions.
Over the last forty years, the academic discipline variously called composition, rhetoric, and writing studies, has evolved significantly. Rising largely from an institutional exigency – the widely felt need to teach required first-year courses in writing and rhetoric to undergraduates – the field has always had strong roots in pedagogy and practice. Of course, this perception about the importance of first-year writing courses, which prepare students to engage the world as citizen-writers, has only grown more adamant and more widely shared on college and university campuses in the years since the field began to formalize as a discipline. While veterans, new waves of students from minority communities, and international students helped drive and reshape the demand for writing education at the college level, all students have ultimately benefited from the foundational academic literacy skills taught by undergraduate writing programs in the United States, which higher education across the world sees as a model to emulate.
But the field’s practical dimension has also been steadily buttressed by increasingly substantial scholarship rooted in a range of related disciplines, including linguistics, literacy studies, psychology, literary and cultural theory, and media studies. It now boasts a panoply of scholarly journals, university press imprints, competitive doctoral programs, and well-developed undergraduate Writing majors with strong enrollments across the United States. These publications and programs are informed, what’s more, by the work of regional, national, and international organizations devoted to writing, rhetoric, and composition, including the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum, and the International Writing Centers Association.
For good reason, then, experts in composition, rhetoric, and writing studies have for many years now been generally recognized as the stewards of first-year writing courses on college campuses, as well as the most effective teachers of writing at the college level. Even in programs that involve writing-to-learn courses taught by faculty in other disciplines, the need for strong professional development support and a curriculum informed by strong scholarly engagement with the field is widely recognized. A good program in first-year writing or writing across the curriculum cannot be designed or administered by anyone who hasn’t thought and read seriously about writing and what it means to teach it, even if this person happens to be a very competent writer him or herself. Best practices in the field, moreover, suggest that effective instructors in such programs should have similar sorts of training and backgrounds.
The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), for example, insists in its statement of Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing that those principles “presume that sound writing instruction is provided by professionals with degree-based credentials in Writing Studies, Composition and Rhetoric, or related fields, or that have been provided with and/or have sought out professional development in this area.” The organization’s statement on Preparing Teachers of College Writing, goes on to suggest that “An investment in the training and professional development of writing instructors is an investment in student learning and success.” In its Statement of WAC Principles and Practices, endorsed by CCCC, the International Network of WAC Programs (INWAC) suggests, similarly, that “program director[s] ha[ve] a grounding in WAC research, theory, and assessment.” The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) concurs in its Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition, insisting that “These outcomes are supported by a large body of research demonstrating that the process of learning to write in any medium is complex[…]Programmatic decisions about helping students demonstrate these outcomes should be informed by an understanding of this research.”
As such, the SUNY Council on Writing, like many in the field, worries gravely about the failure of some university administrations to (1) consult meaningfully with faculty experts in the field on curricular revision, (2) appoint writing program administrators or writing center directors with such expertise, and/or (3) substantially value and cultivate such expertise in writing instructors. As the AAUP has amply objected, such practices lead not only to bad teaching but to the erosion and potential usurpation of the roles of faculty in governance as well.
Simply put, the teaching of writing in higher education needs more expertise, not less.
We do not mean that faculty outside departments of English or writing programs cannot help students learn to write effectively in their fields. Good faculty members in all disciplines provide meaningful writing assignments and experiences for students and offer thoughtful, formative feedback for student-writers. This is indeed at the center of what the writing across the curriculum movement has argued for many years. But expecting faculty without training in the field to either design or teach a central first-year writing course required of all students across campus, for example, significantly underestimates how difficult and complicated this work is, as well as how much scholarship and research it is founded on.
As such, the SUNY Council on Writing resolves in the strongest possible terms that:
1. The administrators of first-year writing programs, developmental writing programs, writing across the curriculum programs, and writing centers should have strong backgrounds of scholarship and teaching in composition, rhetoric, and writing studies, along with Ph.D.’s in the field wherever possible. If those individuals have terminal degrees in closely related fields (like creative writing or literary studies), they should have a significant history of teaching and engagement with scholarship in writing pedagogy and theory.
2. Initiatives for curricular change and writing program development should always be undertaken only with leadership of those with such backgrounds on campus.
3. Writing instructors should be supported in every way possible to expand their working knowledge of scholarship and practice in the field.
CCCC. Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing. October 1989. Last Revised, March 2015. http://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/postsecondarywriting
CCCC. Statement on Preparing Teachers of College Writing. November 2015.http://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/statementonprep
INWAC. Statement of WAC Principles and Practices, endorsed by INWAC and CCCC, February 2014. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/principles/statement.pdf
WPA Council. Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition. July 17, 2014.http://wpacouncil.org/positions/index.html
Approved by consensus of the SUNYCoW Executive Board, April 20, 2020.
The SUNY Council on Writing (SUNYCoW) is a thirty-five year old professional organization of teachers and scholars in Rhetoric and Composition across the SUNY system. As the faculty primarily responsible for overseeing and delivering the Basic Communication in Writing requirement, we have followed the plans for OPEN SUNY and seamless transfer, as well as the recent announcement of SUNY’s partnership with Coursera, with great interest.
Nationally, faculty in Rhetoric and Composition have begun to experiment with massive open online courses (MOOCs), and most of these professionals are skeptical about the value of MOOCS with respect to many important aspects of teaching writing. Likewise, members of the Council have participated in the few existing experimental Coursera MOOCs in writing by enrolling in those offered by Duke, Georgia Tech, and Ohio State. Based in part on this experience, we concur with the growing national judgment that MOOCs are not an effective mechanism for delivering credit-bearing writing courses, especially first-year composition.
We are aware of no peer-reviewed research that shows MOOCs to be pedagogically effective in and of themselves. Best practices in writing instruction have always relied upon the ability of experienced instructors to offer close and continuous individualized feedback to student writers; however, this practice is prohibited by the basic structure of MOOCs, which make individualized expert support impossible to provide because they are designed to enroll thousands of students. Indeed, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the main professional organization in our field, has long recommended that writing class sizes be limited to 20 students, a recommendation that guides current practice on most SUNY campuses. The pedagogical mechanisms commonly employed to scale instruction to a “massive” number of students, then, are deeply at odds with both current SUNY practice and acceptable norms in teaching writing. We are especially concerned about the prospect of the machine scoring of student writing often associated with MOOCs (cf. NCTE’s statement on the subject <http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/machine_scoring> and this well-researched petition against machine scoring, with over 4,000 signatures <http://humanreaders.org/petition>). Interactive work with student writers is at the center of our pedagogy, as many decades of scholarship in our field confirms it should be. We believe that the impossibility of this sort of mentorship in MOOC settings is likely responsible for their very high student attrition rates and frequently superficial levels of participation.
For these reasons, the SUNYCoW opposes the prospect that MOOCs–or any other form of massive-scale instruction–might be accepted for credit in writing, especially in satisfaction of SUNY’s Basic Communication requirement. Completion of the Writing requirement should always involve close work with a faculty member who can provide students mentorship, careful assessment and a genuine sense of a human audience. While we are reluctant to interfere with individual campuses’ freedom to make independent decisions on curricular matters, we recognize that a system of “seamless transfer” would suggest that any single campus’ decision to accept such courses for credit would in effect impact us all. CUNY’s highly publicized “Pathways” embarrassment might serve as a recent and near reminder that decisions affecting system-wide policy and pedagogy require considerable vetting by all stakeholders. We also assert the necessity of considering carefully and collaboratively how agreements with corporate providers such as Coursera may work for or against the best interest of students in all disciplines and how they may impact the larger mission of public higher education.
At the same time, we acknowledge that open-access, web-based education is an evolving experiment, and we commit ourselves to researching potential benefits for students in this technology, both as a potential supplement to conventional instruction in required first-year writing courses and in courses that do not fulfill the requirement. As rhetoricians we recognize that in the future these evolving forms of instruction may serve roles we cannot now anticipate in helping our students to thrive in a global digital culture, which seems to us a central task of humanities education in the twenty-first century. We can also imagine online offerings in Writing and Rhetoric Studies that might appeal to the general public who do not seek college credit. The Council looks forward to continued discussion of this matter and reasserts its commitment to working with system administration on behalf of composition teachers within SUNY on these and all other matters connected to the teaching of writing.
Affirmed by consensus but the SUNYCoW Executive Board, July 5, 2013.
Note: Peter Khost and Pat Belanoff have briefly discussed this petition in their Composition Forum article available here. It was circulated as a petition and endorsed by 433 members of the field, inside and outside SUNY, available here.