Seeing Us Ghosts

I’ve mentioned from time to time how little research has been done about the shift in the academic labor force to primarily adjunct faculty that defines us all. I’ve also mentioned how helpful people working in the field have been. This week these two matters came together, as Cindy Whitesel, an adjunct teaching at University of Maryland University College, was kind enough to share a paper with me that she’d co-authored with William Donohue, who teaches at Lincoln University.


The paper, titled “Looking over Shoulders: Sustaining Contingent Faculty in Basic and Developmental Writing Programs,” was presented at CCCC in 2009. The paper was based on a survey, and looked “over the shoulders” of the adjunct faculty who are too often invisible in the academic landscape. As the title indicates, Whitesel and Donohue focused on faculty who taught basic writing, due to the particularly charged nature of the student experience in those classes.


Their survey showed a wide but unsurprising variance in pay for classes: there really is no single marketplace for academic labor. (Someone really should do something like “econographic maps” of the varying pay rates.) Likewise, it was useful that the survey results documented the minimal input these faculty had to school governance, the emotional experience of isolation and neglect, and so on…but it wasn’t surprising.


Given the flooded market for English PhDs, what was surprising were the accounts of hurried, uneven, and incomplete hiring processes. What was even more surprising was that for the most part, these faculty members were not screened for training in this especially challenging area of composition pedagogy. Almost as interesting— and even more depressing— is that while these faculty members often received technical training and support, such as in specific teaching software, they did not receive training in developmental writing pedagogy.  Nor were they oriented to their department’s pedagogical orientations, how the basic writing courses fit into the larger structure, etc. As a result, these faculty members mentioned drawing heavily on past experiences, and to modifying course designs somewhat.


Though Whitesel and Donohue do not say this in so many words, it seems clear that the result is that these schools—from community colleges to private schools—do not have a unified basic writing program, and perhaps not even a real one. Regardless of any vision or up to date plans made by the program heads (here again this is my conclusion, not Whitesel and Donohue’s claim), the failure to train and orient faculty means that students are trained behind the times, albeit with up to date software.


The authors of “Looking over Shoulders” devote their extended conclusion to suggestions on how departments can improve what they’re doing, and to how adjunct faculty can improve their situations (and take care of themselves). All of these suggestions seem compassionate and sensitive. All of them also seem like they’re underestimating the power of the economic forces documented in the authors’ survey. (In other words, I don’t think they’ll work.)


Still, it is nice for us ghosts to be seen sometimes, and I thank Cindy Whitesel and William Donohue for writing “Looking over Shoulders,” and for being so kind as to share a copy with me.




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