That’s an Ugly Quote: Some Thoughts on Fear, Identity, and Indirect Activism

By Jeffery Klausman

Klausman office doorIn the Symposium of the spring 2018 TETYC special issue on academic freedom, Annie Del Principe and Jacqueline Brady include this:

In this vein, Jeffrey Klausman asks us: “Can we say that a person with a Master of Arts in Imaginative Literature and little graduate training in composition, who is not current in the field and does not read the journals or attend the conferences, who relies upon lore primarily in his or her teaching, is a ‘professional’ in composition? It would be difficult to say so.” (244)

My gut reaction was, “Well, that’s an ugly quote.”

Even now, I feel some shame and trepidation that something I’d written so long ago was still out there (“Mapping” came out in 2008). After all, I try to be a nice guy (a secular Buddhist, practicing mattri, the principle of loving kindness), and here I am saying in print that the majority of composition faculty, contrary to what they might think and feel, are not professionals, at least by my definition.

But what gives me the right to say such a thing? Who the hell do I think I am?

In my own contribution to that special issue of TETYC, I go even further and clearly define academic freedom as grounded iScreen Shot 2019-02-27 at 12.59.11 PMn disciplinary knowledge and practice, not simply in the fact of employment status at an academic institution (“Academic”). The right to speak freely as an academic employee, I argue, is protected under Constitutional rights of the freedom of speech, whereas academic freedom, I claim, following the AAUP, has to do with disciplinary “speech”: the right to determine curriculum and pedagogy based on disciplinary but only based on disciplinary knowledge, not “lore,” as we’ve come to define it.

Is that a harsh thing to say? Does it disrespect people? When a colleague of mine—contingent, involved in the field, a leader in our department—read my article, she came to me and asked, “Won’t people get mad when they read your article? You’re basically saying they’re not professionals.” I responded, “They would, if they read it. But no one does.” In fact, I’ve heard nothing from anyone in my department to indicate that anyone was even aware of the article.

Which, perhaps, proves the point.

Still, I admit that I am afraid of people’s reactions, of offending people, of disrespecting them. I have to think there’s fear in all of us who have privilege—tenure, the ethos that comes with active membership in our field—and attempt to shape a writing program. We do not want to come across as elitists, “knowing better,” forcing onto others what we think is better practice. (“You might think you know what you’re doing, but you’re wrong,” such an act says—another ugly quote.) We are all of us, to a fault, “democratic” and want to believe that we are all equal, that everyone has equally valuable knowledge because to do otherwise implies—what?

That some of our colleagues do not know as much? That some knowledge is better than other knowledge? That we, in the profession, do know better and they should listen to us? If they’re not willing or able or interested in becoming part of the discipline, they should teach what we tell them?

Yes, that’s exactly what we fear. We fear knowing and saying it, at least out loud. That would be a series of ugly quotes to be sure.

Still, we know we’re not necessarily to blame. Joe Janangelo and I wrote up our findings to a study that Joe, then president of the CWPA, spearheaded. We wrote,

Finally, the very idea of a single, underlying theoretical approach to teaching writing as a ground to a program is itself a contentious issue. One respondent put it bluntly about whether there was a shared philosophy to teaching writing expressed in something like a mission or vision statement: “We don’t have one. It seems that a number of English faculty are opposed” to such explicit statements. Another said that it was “hard to say how much [underlying theory] is shared, but [it’s] easier to talk about with full-time faculty.”

“We can only conclude that at these colleges, the notion itself of an underlying theoretical frame is clouded with fear—that is, we surmise based on our own experiences and the responses to our questions on assessment (see below) that a shared theoretical approach—or even discussion of one—may seem threatening to a faculty member’s sense of autonomy, professionalism, and competence. That the majority of composition faculty at two-year colleges are adjunct, and that adjunct faculty overwhelmingly do not feel appreciated nor valued by their institutions (see Klausman “Not”) and thus feel vulnerable; such concerns raised by any talk of “underlying theoretical frames” are understandable, and thus may be part of a larger cultural, economic, and labor issue fissure. (136 emphasis added).

And later, I wrote up a chapter for Joe’s book on institutional missions in which I go further. I argue that corporatized academic institution constructs a division in labor—the “faculty-manager” and the composition instructor (though not the infamous “comp-droid” that Cary Nelson so unfortunately invoked). This class structure is at odds with the democratic principles we want to believe in and which we don’t want to let go of, in spite of all the signs all around us that such principles do not really reflect reality (see “Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Brand”).

But even more disturbing: such an acknowledgment might also challenge our unspoken beliefs, or our hopes, about our labor structures, that they are at least to some degree meritocratic, and thus to our own sense of self: While we want to believe that we have worked hard to earn our disciplinary knowledge and thus our positions (of privilege), we also know how fortunate we are to have such positions in the first place, knowing as we do the hundreds if not thousands of qualified people who could just as easily have our tenure-track positions.Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 1.09.37 PM

So what are we to do? Patrick Sullivan writes, “To be uninvolved—to teach our courses, grade our papers, and go home—is to help regressive forces do their work and to support bad ideas and bad public policy (Newkirk)” (349).

And most of us are involved (otherwise, why would we be reading this blog?). We work directly against economic models that create labor inequities.

But we also work indirectly to mitigate the effects of those inequities, by creating opportunities for contingent faculty to become involved in the field, to become “full members” of the academy, at least as much as that is possible given limitations of time and money.

To do otherwise, we recognize would be irresponsible to those positions of privilege we may hold, however fortuitously, because, I would argue, to allow our fear of offending people, of violating our shared principles of respect and democratic ideals, or even further, of challenging our own identities as agents of equality, would be to do a disservice to those students whose educational experiences we have at least partial responsibility for.

In other words, while we’re fighting on one front against the most pernicious effects of a corporatized academic labor structure, we’re also fighting another front to get the best teaching and knowledge to our most vulnerable students. We can’t let our students suffer as well from an unjust labor system, even if it means we must give voice to ugly quotes.

Jeffrey Klausman has taught at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington, since 1996, after earning a Doctor of Arts in English at Idaho State University. As a composition instructor and Writing Program Administrator (WPA), his main area of research is how programmatic reform can foster student success, especially for systemically non-dominant students. His textbook, Active Voices: The Language of College and Composition (Fountainhead Press 2019), seeks to provide instructors of composition, ALP-courses, and first-year experience courses a foundation to teach in a socially just way.

Works Cited

Del Principe, Annie, and Jacqueline Brady. “Academic Freedom and the Idea of a Writing Program.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 351-360.

Janangelo, Joseph, and Jeffrey Klausman. “Rendering the Idea of a Writing Program: A Look at Six Two-Year Colleges.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 40.2, (2012): 131–44.

Hassel, Holly. “Symposium: Academic Freedom, Labor, and Teaching Two-Year College English.” TETYC 45:4  (2018): 29-46.

Jensen, Darin. “Freedom Requires a Place.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 345-347.

Klausman, Jeffrey. “The Two-Year College Writing Program and Academic Freedom: Labor, Scholarship, and Compassion.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 385-405.

—– . “Not Just a Matter of Fairness: Adjunct Faculty and Writing Programs in Two-Year Colleges.” TETYC 37:4 (2010): 363-371.

—–. “Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Brand: How the New Two-Year College Mission Shapes the Faculty-Manager.” Provocations and possibilities: A critical look at institutional mission (2016): 77-91.

Klausman, Jeffrey. “Mapping the Terrain: The Two-Year College Writing Program Administrator.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 35.3 (2008): 238-51.

Sullivan, Patrick. “Different Kinds of Freedom.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 347-351.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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