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?

Good luck!

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