Friday, May 30, 2008
Ask My Readers: Composition and Rhetoric Programs
A new correspondent writes:
I graduated from (Elite SLAC) two years ago as an English major with a concentration in creative writing, and I am now very interested in becoming a community college English teacher.
I would like to apply to masters programs for Fall 2009. I am feeling a bit lost, however, about the best avenues for getting into the field, and was wondering if you might be able to offer some advice. I spoke with a friend of a friend who is a president at a community college, and she told me that the trend is for teachers to get degrees in "composition and rhetoric" (as opposed to English literature), as the majority of classes taught at community colleges are composition-focused. Do you agree with this recommendation? Also, are there any top programs or schools that you would recommend? (I'm having trouble finding many that offer composition/rhetoric specifically [if, in fact, that is the direction in which I should head.]) I live in NYC now but am open to big moves!
I'll take the easy part first, then ask my wise and worldly readers to fill in some of my knowledge gaps.
It's certainly the case that at the community colleges I've seen, the majority of the English positions involve a heavy dose of composition. (Some colleges separate 'composition' from 'English' proper, reserving the latter for courses in literature and maybe film, but the student demand is still concentrated heavily in the composition area.) Historically, those composition-heavy positions have been staffed by people whose first love is literature, and who (often) would really rather be teaching literature.
The appeal of the comp/rhet grads is that they've walked in fully intending to teach composition. They aren't (presumably) pining for the English Lit job at Oberlin; they actually want to teach freshman comp over and over again, since it's their first love. From this side of the desk, that's appealing.
Among other things, that means that a comp/rhet degree probably isn't a back door into a literature job. (There's certainly no shortage of classically trained applicants for those positions.) It will target you to jobs teaching composition. If you like that idea, it may be for you, but don't do it as an end-run.
I'm told – though this isn't my field – that the folks in rhet/comp programs are also steeped in the latest research in how to teach composition most effectively. That may be 'beneath' the elite institutions, but at most community colleges, that's tremendously useful. If I'm hiring someone whose primary responsibility – sometimes sole responsibility – will be teaching Comp I and II, over and over again, I'm much more likely to go with the composition specialist than with the disappointed Milton scholar who's willing to slum. Over time, I'm likelier to see better teaching, better student performance, and better attitude.
That may be appalling to the folks who believe in the unilinear academic hierarchy, who think that the R1s will get the best five lit grads this year, the SLACs the next best five, and so on down the line. I don't want the fiftieth-best lit grad. I want the best writing teacher. That may be the same person, but I'm guessing usually not.
I'm told, too, that the comp/rhet grads actually find full-time jobs at a gratifying rate.
What I don't know, honestly, is which comp/rhet programs are considered the best. I'm pretty sure that some of my wise and worldly readers are intimately acquainted with this side of academe, so I'll put it to them: which comp/rhet programs are particularly successful or respected? How do you know a good one when you see it?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Also, since you are interested in CC teaching, look for programs that specifically prepare students for those jobs (those programs *do* exist).
When evaluating MA programs, make sure you look carefully at who teaches in the programs and how many classes are offered. Many MA programs are traditional English programs with one, maybe two, compositionists teaching just a couple of rhet/comp classes, so make sure there's a well-rounded program. You want classes in theory and research as well as pedagogy (interdependent in comp, but not the same thing) and a variety of other courses. You also want there to be at least a handful of rhet/comp faculty to work with. Finally, look at what kind of TA experiences you'll get in the program. Some MA programs offer TA opportunities--classroom teaching, writing center tutoring, etc--and others don't. Since I imagine any teaching-oriented institution (CC or not) will want you to have experience as well as an appropriate degree, that's important.
To find programs, here are some starting places:
Check out the Doctoral Consortium in Rhetoric and Composition: http://www.rhetoric.msu.edu/rc_consortium/about.php. While it is, obviously, focused on PhD programs, many of these places will likely have MA programs as well.
Consider subscribing to the WPA listserv (WPA=writing program administrator) and posting a query there: http://www.wpacouncil.org/wpa-l
There may be a comprehensive list of MA programs in rhet/comp somewhere, but as a field, we haven't focused as much on MA programs as we have PhD programs. I do know that others have posted similar queries to the listserv, so someone might have a list handy that they can email you (and people on this list are pretty generous with sharing info).
We offer a lit/writing course as one option for Comp II, and it makes up only about 15% or so of the available sections. We offer a couple of actual lit courses as a humanities option, but there are very few sections offered. Most students don't seek them out unless they already plan to major in that area or really liked a similar course in high school.
You won't be teaching literature at our CC but, like some of our great instructors, you might be using your creative writing skills to come up with innovative topics that will engage kids in writing.
There is no "best," program but I'd advise applying to both MA only and MA / PhD schools -- I have many Composition MAs currently working for me who deeply regret not having the terminal degree. It sort of limits your administrative and teaching career options very early on. While a dissertation on, for example, writing transfer issues facing CC students when they enroll at the local R1 / comprehensive, should keep a range of options open for the rest of you career.
I used the Rhetoric Review list when I was making my choices for where to apply to Ph.D. programs. It was a big help. If you like this field, you may find yourself going on for the doctorate, but for right now, you can actually have a happy and fulfilling career at a CC with an M.A. Why go on for the Ph.D. then? Teaching 5 sections of comp a semester at a CC or anywhere can be mentally and physically exhausting. If you are motivated by the teaching though, that won't matter to you. However, if research or your own creative writing is also important to you, the 5-course teaching load can make it very hard to keep up with your writing and (hopefully) publishing. That is one of the good reasons to go on for the Ph.D--being research-driven. Luckily, jobs are out there for this particular Ph.D. (unlike some other areas of English) as long as you're willing to do a national search. My alma mater has a 100% tenure-track placement rate for Ph.D.s who do the national search and don't add qualifiers for location or spousal hire, and I believe it is far from alone in this. The bottom line though, is that you have to live, love, and breathe composition. You can't fake it.
I know that might not seem like a big deal, but if you're attending any other graduate program I know of, you're going to be encouraged to teach students at that school. At CUNY, the range of undergrad programs is so wide and the need for adjunct instructors so great that generally, grad student instructors get the teaching experience they were looking for, whether that's in lit or composition (though, of course, we all do the latter). It's a great way to do CC teaching in an environment where all of your friends will also have done it, know the value of it, and support you in your work. Nearly all of us in the PhD program at CUNY have taught CC composition, no matter what our concentration, and you may even get the opportunity to work at different schools over your years in the program and learn what kind of fit is best for you in the long run.
And let me add, I'm not looking for a "lit." job; I genuinely like teaching comp. And after 8 years of doing it, I feel I'm pretty good. Also, I've familairized myself with the rhet/comp literature and theories, though I've not published in the field.
The thign s, while my teaching experiuence is in composition, I fear when I am applying to CCs and other comp jobs, I am getting passed over because of my lit. Ph.D.
You may need to rewrite your CV completely to emphasize what you are doing rather than what you did. It should not emphasize publications, as if you are applying to a 4-year college.
Here is a link to an old column in the Chronicle on this subject, but I don't see enough applications to give the kind of advice DD could give.
I'm in rhet/comp, and we see plenty of apps from people whose main focus was lit, but they think that a little bit of comp will get them into a job that's primarily (or entirely) comp. A strong focus on comp is a better bet in terms of the needs of CCs and the demands of the marketplace...for what that's worth.
To the lit person who wants to go FT at a CC in comp: make sure your applications and your interviews show your interest in/love of comp. There aren't that many comp/rhet MAs (much less PhDs) out there compared to lit folks, so you're mostly competing against people with a similar background. If you didn't get any training in comp, pick some up--workshops, conferences, whatever you can do to show that's your focus. Teach as wide a range of classes as you can, including basic skills. I'm going to be honest and suggest that it's probably not just that you have a lit PhD that's holding you back--I've been on many, many search committees for English hires and while a MA in rhet/comp might get a little bit of an edge, it's not going to be enough to knock a lit PhD out of the running. Do your structure your applications to emphasize your comp interest? Do you go too much into theory in your personal statement at the expense of giving concrete examples from your teaching experience? Do you fill out the application, if there is one, carefully and completely, following directions? Is it perfectly proofread? These are some of the ways applicants shoot themselves in the foot at the screening level.
"The bottom line though, is that you have to live, love, and breathe composition. You can't fake it."
I think that it's difficult to know whether this is the case for you until you've actually got more experience with composition/rhetoric. If you were my advisee, I would suggest you get a more general English MA with an emphasis with comp/rhet as one of your comp areas, ideally during which time you'd be teaching composition so you can get a taste of what that's like. If it really is your passion, you can go on to the PhD in comp/rhet. If not, you've only spent 2-3 years getting a more flexible MA that could potentially take you in other directions.
Caveat: I have a lit MA/PHD but I've got a lot of experience teaching composition, because I work at a regional university with a student population not unlike what you'd see at a CC. Teaching composition to (often) underprepared students is *grueling* and you can easily suffer from burn-out *even if* it's really your first love. In my case, it's not my first love, so take that into account with the advice that I'm giving.
It is true that the comp/rhet job market is the least saturated in the English disciplines, and so if you really enjoy it, specializing there can be a very strong choice. That said, depending on where you get a job you may be the only comp/rhet person in your department, which can cause some static in review for tenure/promotion if people don't understand your field, and/or it can be a difficulty in terms of you getting loaded down with service/courses that nobody else wants because "it's your field." This may be more of a problem at 4-year institutions than CCs, but it's something to consider.
None of this is to dissuade you. I just thought it would be valuable to throw in some bigger picture considerations that you may want to think about as you make your decision about what path to pursue.
Again, though, I'm at a 4-year institution, and even though we're not research-intensive, we do need faculty to teach upper-level courses, even in comp/rhet. Things might be more flexible at the CC level.
I would say, though, that the best way for you to demonstrate that you are now a "comp person" would be to publish in the field. Without having done a dissertation in the field, your CV doesn't show that you're "expert" in the field that you're trying to be hired in. It just shows that you've been adjuncting/serving as an instructor. There's no way for a search committee to know what you've been reading in your spare time.
--Yes, I recommend getting a degree in comp/rhet rather than lit, as long as comp/rhet is actually what you are interested in studying and teaching.
--I got my PhD in comp/rhet from Illinois State University, and I highly recommend their program because of its focus on pedagogy. Also, if you are interested in teaching at a community college, you might be interested in the ISU's class on teaching English at the community college level.
Also, most CCs don't require a PhD at all, so if you had one in lit, but had been teaching comp, you would be considered for the job.
However, it has been my experience that CCs hire their adjuncts first, so if you are wanting a job, you may have to go part-time first.
I am a Purdue grad and loved the experience, though it is strong in theory. University of Texas also has a strong program. There is probably a reasonably good program either near you or near somewhere you would like to be.
I mention this because this is a mis-perception of what we (I'm in comp/rhet) do that often colors how our work is perceived by those outside of our field. My own work is in literacy studies and is historical. Very few grad students at my institution write dissertations related to first year composition. It isn't what we do.
So, if you are interested in a particular type of teaching, look carefully at the universities you are considering in terms of both course work and teaching opportunities. Look at the type of research the faculty do. Again, not all comp/rhet people do scholarship related to pedagogy, although most of us have significant training in that area.
What Dr. Crazy said about the possibility of being the only comp/rhet person in a department is true, too, particularly at smaller institutions. It is something to consider when applying for jobs. And, as Dr. Crazy mentioned, teaching composition is exhausting. It can be very rewarding, but it is also one of the most work-intensive teaching assignments. Yes, these are typically low-enrollment courses, but the paper load is heavy when you count student drafts that need comments, portfolios to be graded, etc. Most students are only in these courses because of gen. ed. requirements. Many of them have some major hang-ups and fears about writing. You will rarely see English majors, so you need to keep in mind that your students probably won't remind you of how you were as a student. That's fine. I love my students and the different disciplines and approaches they represent, but I see this frustrate a lot of my colleagues.
I don't mean to sound discouraging. This is my area of study and teaching and I love it. Doing the MA can be a great way to test the waters, so to speak, and see if this is really what you want to do. I would suggest this before going into the phd simply for financial reasons. You might also consider seeing if there is a local program you can attend part-time. Maybe money isn't an issue, but I would keep in mind the potential for accruing obscene amounts of grad school debt when making this decision.
Also, you can try the American Society for the History of Rhetoric's website (www.ashr.org) for more info. They have a comprehensive list of rhet/comp programs and if you wish to teach writing make sure and select a free standing program or one housed in an English Dept and not one in a Comm Dept.