Enlightened Education

What is the inspiration for Instructor Knapp?

I have a terminal degree—no it did not kill me, almost, but not quite.

A terminal degree is the end-of-the-road kind of degree, like a Phd, the initials at the end of your name that signal to other experts in the field that you too are an expert. You have traveled to the end of the degree pathway, academically at least.

Systemic Problem 1. Historically**, there have been zero options for a Phd in writing, which is why I hold a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) because writing is considered an art, a fine art to be exact. Because my pedagogical interests were in teaching writing—it didn’t even cross my mind to pursue a Phd in Literature. Until after graduate school, when I began applying for full-time jobs in Academia, and I learned that a Phd in Literature, or Comparative Literature, was the only tenure-line eligible degree for teaching writing. After 75 units and a 188 page master’s thesis, I was set up for a life as a part-time employee.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so in some ways, I suppose my terminal degree did prepare me, after all I was so much stronger now!

Not only was I stronger from my terminal degree, but I had also arrived in Academia after more than a decade of working as a professional writer and I was on a mission: empower students with the skills they need to succeed. Part of my writing job had been to interview CEOs and Upper-Management in industry, and the most common conversation I had with these execs was about the importance of written communication: clear, accurate, concise communication.

 

Many repeatedly insisted poor writing skill was the number one problem with recent graduates. Once, after I became an adjunct writing instructor, I ran into one of these execs and he repeated the adage I’d heard so many times before: “We expect to teach them the technology—we are set up to do that, but we are not set up to teach them how to write well: That’s your job.”  These adages inspired me to press on despite my new status as a freeway flyer working at multiple community colleges, and my growing expertise at tackling the online unemployment benefits certification process…the only system worse than the online DMV, I can assure you, is unemployment, and thus, I became ever stronger, invincible really.

Systemic Problem 2. After moving over to the four-year university, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the university system does not privilege writing instruction—not even close. Indeed, writing is viewed by College Administrators as something you already need to know how to do well—otherwise you don’t belong here. And to many faculty in the English department (which is primarily tasked with writing instruction), writing is considered the means to the end: the way you express your ideas about literature, or human nature, but not necessarily the focus of instruction (for the same reasons just stated).

Systemic Problem 3. Teaching writing at the post-secondary level requires membership in the upper-echelon of the English department, and many English departments don’t recognize the MFA as the preferred terminal degree, unless one wants to teach poetry or fiction. Which means that in most college English classes, students cross paths with Professors of Literature, or , much more likely, Teaching Assistants, who are graduate students studying Literature, or adjunct faculty, the majority of whom hold Master of Arts degrees in, you guessed it: Literature.

That’s why most English classes tend to be literature classes; the focus of these classes tends to be on the interpretation of literature and/or the analysis of self in relation to literature, and the human experience—all important, don’t get me wrong! But since when did the definition of  “English” get translated into literature? Shouldn’t the focus of “English” classes be on mastering the English language? Reading, of course, plays a role in writing, but if I took a Spanish class and spent the majority of my time struggling to read in Spanish about the people who spoke Spanish, I can promise you that this struggle would not be improving my proficiency in conjugating verbs and developing eloquent Spanish prose.

Interestingly, at my alma mater, someone did notice this inconsistency awhile back. So, despite the fact that the vast majority of the faculty teaching Freshman Composition hold graduate degrees in literature, these same faculty were told that they were not allowed to incorporate literature in their composition classes! That’s correct: no fiction allowed! Banning fiction, to faculty who adore fiction more than life itself, felt like a rule of law only an evil empire would enact, dystopian at worst, paradoxical at best.

The reason for this paradox is that someone at the top looked down from afar and said, “Gee, the vast majority of these students don’t need more practice interpreting imaginary works, they need to learn how to manage real information, so we’ll just ban all fiction from the composition classroom: problem solved.”  In order to enforce this rule, administrators policed syllabi, searching for any hint of violation. In fact, sneaking in a Kafka short story or two, could get you a negative mark on your annual review and that might be enough for a new faculty to be out of a job. Kafka would have loved the irony in that!

Prohibiting faculty to teach what they have specialized in—telling experts in literature not to teach with literature— is similar to telling a software engineer that, if you want to teach engineering, go ahead, have fun! But under no circumstance are you are allowed to discuss coding. Now, carry on!

And what about the students? It reminds me of the myth of the Little Dutch Boy. Someone walking by sees this kid there and with his thumb plugging up the leak and they say to the kid—don’t worry, we are going to send help! And they do. Soon a whole class of kids arrives and they are all told to use their thumbs to help plug up the holes in the dike. Then, all the passersby just carry on because, can’t you see, obviously, the problem has been solved.

Systemic Problem 4. The infrastructure improvements have not been addressed and this really matters to these kids because if you are facing the uphill climb of college without writing proficiency, at some point, maybe not immediately, maybe you can hold back the torrent for awhile, but at some point, without help— without someone fixing that infrastructure that is supposed to protect you, support you—then you and all your fellow classmates who are in the same situation are going to find yourself drowning. And we cannot ignore this problem when less than half of our incoming freshman failing to reach graduation within five years.

In most universities, the only course that every student (except those who opted for AP English in high school), must take—is freshman composition.  This is the one course wholly dedicated to teaching writing, supposedly. However, the Phd-pedigreed, tenure-track English department professors avoid these composition classes like the Norovirus.

This makes sense when you look at the system and the fact that these professors have literature degrees—not writing degrees. So these courses—the one writing course that every college graduate must complete—are taught by graduate students and adjunct faculty. Although salary has nothing to do with talent, work ethic, or effective pedagogy in academia—it is true that adjuncts tend to be the lowest paid faculty, with the highest level of job insecurity and yet these are the individuals bequeathed with tackling the job of teaching one of the skills most valued by industry. And by the way, this is not an easy, kick-back job. I would argue that teaching writing under these circumstances qualifies as one of the most labor intensive, difficult jobs on the campus.

But the questions that really get at the crucial infrastructure failures include: Who has been trained to teaching WRITING? Not reading, but writing? How is WRITING instruction valued at an institutional level? How many literature majors arrive in the classroom with proper training in writing instruction for the diverse population they are facing? What is the ‘burn-out’ rate of these adjunct faculty? I would also argue that if you chose English as your graduate degree, then you are probably exceptionally proficient at writing and have always been good at writing—and you likely have very little understanding of how difficult writing can be, especially from an English as a second language perspective. So in your first years of teaching, you will necessarily face a steep learning curve as you will quickly discover that you actually need to teach writing. And I would guess that right about the an average part-time faculty figures out how to teach writing proficiently (not a simple task!) that part-timer might also be figuring out that it’s time to find a new career because part-time academic faculty have zero economic stability. I know this because—that was me, and I commiserated with my peers frequently over happy hour —so that makes me an expert.

Does this start to illuminate why employers across all sectors continually complain about job candidates’ lack of writing ability?

Do you see the disconnect here? The post-secondary system continues to fail students by not restructuring in order to better support a 21st century knowledge-based economy that (in California) depends on a largely foreign-born, non-native English speaking citizenry to clearly communicate and document ideas in writing. Moreover, given the snail-pace of change in these gigantic public, post-secondary bureaucracies—it’s become even more incumbent on secondary educators to prepare high school students with essential writing skills before entering these systems. And so high school systems need to also better support writing instruction, training, and technology development that supports the broad array of students’ writing ability that high school teachers grapple with in each writing course. Because, don’t get me wrong, high school English teachers also have their hands full. I know this personally because my dad worked as a high school English teacher for more than 40 years. And you don’t want to get him started on the topic of how college professors love to blame high school teachers—oh dear—even the sentence demands censoring.

Time for Systemic Change. This is what I am working on…transformational, systemic change that includes building a stronger bridge between high school Common Core curriculum, post-secondary writing requirements and industry needs through better writing instruction pedagogical training and technological systems that deliver personalized instruction to students and faculty who need more support.

Research makes clear what needs to happen in order for students to master writing, now we just need to better focus writing instruction on the “nuts and bolts” of attaining mastery in written communication. By aligning with Common Core standards and coupling those guidelines with carefully vetted technological systems and the generous research contributions from the fields of Rhetoric and Composition and Cognitive Science—we can transform our educational systems to produce the proficient communicators that our knowledge-based economy depends on.

 

 

 

 

 

**More recently the Phd in Rhetoric and Composition has arisen to tackle this challenge. Ironically, many English professors find this field sub-par. Rhetoric is something to be avoided, feared even.  Despite this fundamental misunderstanding of this important field that centralizes writing—more and more of these programs are cropping up. But if you dig in a little deeper, you might glimpse another systemic problem, namely: “high median salary 10 years after graduation $47, 460.” Couple this with: “Very difficult to get in” and “very competitive average SAT” and you start to see more issues here…but don’t get me started, unless it’s happy hour!

 

 

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