Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chapter 3. Whither or wither?

This is the third chapter of my intended twelve-chapter series of essays on writing and writing pedagogy inspired by my colleagues at and participation in this past September's Carolina Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) conference at the beautiful Wildacres retreat center. (For the first chapters in this series, see here and here.) Since I last wrote a post in this series, much about our nation has changed, especially as regards its economy, and I believe the changes we've seen directly affect the issues I hoped here to raise.

Perusing the second link above you'll note that I closed the second essay shortly after asking the question "should a school entirely eliminate its first-year composition requirement, whither the expertise of those faculty formally trained in composition and rhetoric?" This question concerns the redundancy of comp/rhet faculty, should cost-cutting mandate a school's writing program be eviscerated.

This issue has now been magnified and universalized: our country's economic tailspin has now has left no sector unaffected, academia included. Private school endowments are drying up, state funding for public schools is disappearing, killed by a thousand cuts. Some schools now struggle to pay for things as fundamental as heat, lights, and other electrical equipment, hiring freezes are chilling the academic job market, and unfilled faculty lines are simply dying away.

In this environment nothing is certain, and nothing is safe. While the recent past has seen more courses being taught by adjunct faculty, now those adjunct faculty are being let go, and as the number of course sections being taught dwindles the number of students enrolled in each remaining course by necessity goes up. In my own department an upper-level stats course (the first upper-division course scheduled to be taught by my newest colleague, Kiri) was scrubbed due to low enrollment. The few students who had registered for it were forced into courses that, though they may impart a few useful skills, are hardly those offering them training in the skills most pertinent to their future careers.

Of course, as any above-average educator knows, the bigger the class, the lower the quality of instruction. This proposition proves as true for courses in writing and math as it does for those in any other subject. "How can I be expected to teach a writing-intensive course with 27 students in it?" my colleague Bea asked me at a party last night. "This last semester I had six in the same course, and it was wonderful. They had their own individual projects, and they all worked together on one class project. Now I'm going to have to come up with some way of putting them in teams or something."

I feel her pain: I've got 25 registered for my Foundations class right now, and I've chosen this semester to implement a new component to the writing instruction in this course.

Meanwhile the economic recession is likely to make more and more students opt for a public education over a private one. I'll bet dollars to donuts, therefore, that the next few years are going to bring yet greater pressure to grow on the nation's state schools. UNC Asheville is unlikely to be immune, though no doubt we will (and should!) continue to chant the mantra "small by choice...small by choice...small by choice" even as ou sister schools, like East Carolina, NC State, and UNC Greensboro, grow by leaps and bounds.

Fewer teachers, fewer classes, and fewer resources will all be brought to bear the burden placed on our system by a greater number of students. The question will be not "whither?" so much as "wither?"

Let's think locally: what's likely to go down in our own home departments?

This past term saw our scheduled search for a new applied mathematician get canceled (it was one of over a dozen canceled searches campuswide). Though the administration has promised that all searches suspended this year will be given a chance next year, I find it hard to believe that next year's budget will be strong enough to support the weight of both this year's leftover searches and next year's fresh ones. In all likelihood, the 2009-10 budget is going to be weaker than the 2008-09 one. A best case scenario involves us picking up our search where we left off; at worst our vacant line will simply dry up and wither away, leaving us a colleague short and with classes to cover.

What, then, goes? Do we raise enrollment caps, moving 20 to 25, 25 to 30, and 30 to 35? Or do we shift schedules so that every now and then one of us takes on 14 hours instead of 12? Or do we simply scratch a section or two of Nature of Mathematics, or Precalculus? Or do we cut Precalculus free altogether, leaving it to be ably taught by the community college on the south side of town? (Interestingly enough, the area's community colleges are not suffering through a hiring freeze right now.)

This says nothing of the upper-division courses that serve our majors. If we choose to keep covering the entry-level courses that serve the remainder of the school, the personpower we've got left over to teach the upper-level courses is diminshed. Would we be forced to keep our number of majors artificially low? At present several of my colleagues and I actively recruit majors from among the ranks of the first- and second-year students: we're an open, suppotive, and welcoming department with a "big tent" philosophy...will the coming years force us to adopt a more chilly attitude?

I don't know the answer to any one of the questions I raise above, but I'm certain the coming years will offer some response.

To return to the question I'd meant to ask originally, whither? Whither the expertise? What happens when trained rhet/comp are left out in the cold when first-year comp courses are cut? "Well, a lot of them would be assigned to writing centers," my friend Eomer (currently an adjunct in the English Department at Furman University in nearby Greenville, SC) offered when I asked him the question.

"What if their schools don't have writing centers?"

"Yeah, Furman doesn't."

What then?

At the CWPA conference someone suggested rhetoricians could find work as "facilitators" who could advise faculty in writing instruction. In such a role they could help faculty members to integrate writing into their courses, to design appropriate writing assignments and to train the faculty in providing useful and meaningful feedback on their students' written work. Thus in some way they'd be "just-in-time" writing center directors, offering some services cognate to those writing centers offer now but on a case-by-case basis.

This presupposes a demand for these services. Irrepressible optimist that I am, even I have a hard time imagining that there'd be enough call for an on-the-spot rhet/comp expert to warrant the school's employment of such a full-time member of the faculty. (The story may have a different ending at larger schools.)

Is there a parallel postulate for math and mathematica sciences? Should Precalculus be stripped from the curriculum, where might the adjuncts teaching this course be sent? The first stop would likely by the Math Lab or something like it, the mathematical equivalent, in many ways, of the Writing Center.

The same reply can be made: "what if my school lacks a math lab?"

Well, shit.

Is there then room for a rotating tutor, a one devoted to providing "just in time" assistance to students in danger of failing out of required calculus courses?

I'm not sure that these situations are cognate to one another: while on the one hand English experts may train for years to earn a specialized degree qualifying them to teach rhetoric and composition to college kids, hardly ever is it that any mathematician trains to teach entry-level college math courses, and those courses only. While Precalculus could be cut from the college curriculum, calculus courses are highly unlikely ever to feel the axe, and those who are sufficiently trained to teach Precalc are equally able to teach calculus itself, and these folks are therefore assured a modicum of job security.

I don't know. I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around all of this. As I said at length above, I believe that the current economic downturn (to put it euphemistically) has exacerbated the situation: stemming the loss of first-year comp courses is hardly the most pressing item on the typical English department's agenda.

Okay, it's a hair on the short side of eleven o'clock, and I've got an early start scheduled for tomorrow (on which my Precalckers cap off their final exam) so I'd best say good night.

The next essay in this series of twelve presupposes that your school has a writing program of some kind (WAC, WID, writing center, first-year comp...whatever form it takes), and that you're actually interested in asking the question "how am I doin'?" I'd like to turn to the area of assessment and try to understand just how it is one can tell if one's program is purring along at all perfectly.

As always, those of you who are still reading along should feel free to offer up your insights on the topic of this past post, or on that of the one to come. I.e., writing folks: I need your help!

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