From Part-Time to Tenured Faculty at a Two-Year College: Entering
the Conversation from the Margin
I am a community college composition instructor who, in the past, has not been an active, visible participant in the discipline. I am not alone. I and my colleagues back home, especially those who teach part-time, are not likely go to 4Cs, not likely to have the time or energy to read the 3Cs, not likely to participate in online meetings and chats, not likely to publish.
Let me quickly trace my path to this place today: Like Wendy, Im from a working-class background. Im a first-generation college student in a family that hasnt supported and still doesnt quite get this weird interest of mine. Like Donna, I was a hard worker in school: a "dumb smart kid." After I completed a BA in English, I worked as a secretary for three years and then went on to do graduate work. After I received an MA in literature from Washington State University, I waited tables for two years and then taught part-time for five years, while still waiting tables on Saturdays. I was hired for a full-time tenure-track position after five years part-time, and I received tenure two years later, in 1996.
And now, I have been making some attempts to "enter the conversation" taking place here, in the journals, online. And doing so is not easy. Briefly, Id like to explore some of my experiences and observations.
When I started as a part-timer teaching at Whatcom Community College, I had a degree in lit with very little comp training: the requisite companion course to the TA position and one or two composition courses. And I had the TA experience in the first- and second-year composition classroom and had spent a quarter working in the writing center. But my graduate work had done nothing to include me in a larger dialogue about composition/rhetoric. I was really only aware of the field and its central debates and issues, and this part is hard to talk about: I was skeptical about what others might be able to contribute to my own understanding of the students I was working with. I was self-identifying with my students much more so than with the composition professionals who were doing the research and working out the theories.
During my five years as a part-timer, I did do work that tied me to larger intellectual communities. I did regular classroom assessment and attended annual outcomes assessment conferences in Washington State, with a focus on improving teaching and learning. I attended, quietly, NCTE and MLA conventions when they were close enough for me to get to. I read Teaching English in the Two-Year College to get ideas for effective teaching practices and to find out about studies that might relate to what I was doing. I talked with colleagues about what we were doing that seemed to work. I talked, a lot, with students about their needs and learning styles and ideas and writing.
But I wasnt a composition scholar. I was a part-time instructor who wasnt even sure this was going to be a career. I remember saying, early on, to a friend, "If Im still working here part-time in 10 years, call my mom to come get me." I hated the uncertainty of the job, the constant reminders that I could be canned at any moment. I knew I didnt want to get stuck, as I saw it, in part-time teaching, in that kind of temporary job, and I wasnt sure I was going to be able to convince anyone to hire me full-time. I expected to have to change jobs.
Then I was hired full-time at Whatcom, and I was put almost immediately into the role of chair for a new Composition Department. I felt a twinge of fear that I knew so little about the discipline. But there was too much to be done to worry about my lack of training. We had no time, especially in those early days, for curriculum revision. There were 25 part-time composition faculty to work with, new full-time faculty to hire, a program to run (if not to revise), and way too many responsibilities. I should note that I was the coordinator of the English 100 panel after this point, and up until Brian came to save the day.
My improved status was exciting and challenging. I had climbed out of the schools teacher-underclass and was now one of the people calling the shots, or at least some of them. I met regularly with the dean (whom Id not known before being hired full-time) and with the other department chairs. I ran things in my program. I bought two suits.
After two years full-time, right around the time I got tenure, I read Victor Villanuevas Bootstraps. With a jolt, I realized that comp theory held direct relevance for me and my studentsand that our experiences might have some relevance for others in the field. I imagine that getting tenure added to my willingness to explore theory and to my belief that I might even be able to make a contribution; it provided a boost of confidence, Im sure. In addition, one of my newly hired full-time colleagues had a good foundation in comp theory and was rather patiently explaining things to me, and that helped get me interested, too. But the big thing was realizing that there were theorists out there who had something valuable to say about my work, something viable and pertinent to my teaching and to my students lives. From Villanueva, I turned to Mike Roses Lives on the Boundary, and had a very similar reaction.
So why wasnt I reading comp theory before this time? And why wasnt I, with my abilities and interests and strong identification with students, participating in the disciplines many conversations? Why was I not writing?
In The Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich writes, as do many others, about the "silence" of the working classes. Im thinking of the silence of part-time faculty, particularly part-time faculty at the community colleges, particularly part-time community college faculty teaching comp with degrees in lit. Im thinking of some reasons for the "silence."
One is, in my own experience, resistance. A feeling that the university-based theorists couldnt possibly know what goes on in my classes, with the students that I meet everydayat this community college, in this place, at this time. The theories might not seem to be based in the reality I know. We might also resist because of our strong identification with our local colleagues. In my own case, I was most closely identified, and still am in many ways, with my colleagues who were counting comma splices and somehow eliciting those papers on snowboarding vs. skiing. Though I wasnt necessarily doing these things (and this wasnt all that they were doing, in my opinion), I knew enough about comp/rhet to know that the theorists responses to these practices would be like those expressed by Victoria and Brian. Just as Victoria felt her teaching was being judged, my colleagues and I, too, felt our teaching was being judgedand we didnt have the discipline behind us, the theory. We were resisting those judgments.
Im thinking that a second reason for the "silence" of some part-time community college faculty is frustration. When we do try to read, to get involved, to write, to say something in those online list-servs and meetings, we are often very aware that we are outsiders, "Other." (And yes, I feel this here, at the Cs.) Debates rage about first-year comp that completely exclude usas if a good chunk of first-year comp classes arent being taught on community college campuses, as if a large percentage of comp classes arent taught by part-time faculty on these campuses. Graduate TAs and adjuncts on university campuses are much more visible than we, more likely to do presentations at conferences, more likely to be mentioned in the studies and research.
And Im thinking of the fact that "silence" is usually not silence at all. Part-time faculty on community college campuses are speaking: to their classes, to each other, to full-time faculty.
In a September 1999 CCC article that Brian has mentioned, "Professing at the Fault Lines: Composition at Open Admissions Institutions," Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jeff Sommers call for a reevaluation of the role of composition instruction at open admissions colleges, two- and four-year. They argue that the discipline of composition "takes place in the interactions of teachers and students" and is best studied in the classroom, especially the open admissions classroom, where an instructor has "repeated opportunities to teach the same course" and, continually, to revise it. I like this view of composition teaching. It describes the comp classroom just as I have experienced it: exciting, changing, rewarding. Lewiecki-Wilson and Sommers ask us to "reverse the usual thinking" and to "consider the teaching of writing in open admissions sites as central to the historical formation and continuing practice of composition studies" (440). Such a reversal of thinking would be refreshing and invigorating for those of us at the two-year colleges. A new interest in the teaching of composition at our campuses would mean an increased awareness of the work and world of part-time faculty (approximately 65% of two-year college faculty, as of 1997, according to the CCCC Task Force on Part-time Faculty)hopefully with increased understanding and respect.
And so, here I am, a full-time tenured instructor, working my way into a discipline Ive been teaching in for 15 years.
And the effect of this transition on my teaching? Ill probably spend the next 15 years answering that one. At the risk of sounding na´ve, or perhaps overly self-confident, Ill say that I suspect my ability to reach and communicate effectively with students has not been dramatically altered as a result of my status change and my study of composition/rhetoric. While Im finding my studies helpful and fascinating, Im not sure that what is happening in my classroom now is remarkably better than what it was, say, six years ago. Maybe Im simply trying to emphasize here that my work in the classroom was effective before, too, according to all accounts.
One thing Im sure about: Making my way from part- to full-time and from non-participant to participant in the field has given me insight into the process many of my students are going through as they make their way into college and through my English 100 and 101 classes. Its a good thing for a composition instructor to be reminded that moving back and forth across borders is not easy.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
"Facts and Statistics on Part-Time Labor." The CCCC Task Force on Part-time & Adjunct Faculty. Online. 11 November 2000. 6 March 2001 <http://www.ncte.org/cccc/adjunct/adjunctfacts.html>
Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia and Jeff Sommers. "Professing at the Fault Lines: Composition at Open Admissions Institutions." College Composition and Communication 50 (1999): 438-462.
Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. New York: Free Press, 1988.
Villanueva, Victor, Jr. Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993.
Harris, Joseph. "Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Class Consciousness in Composition." College Composition and Communication 52 (2000): 43-68.
Horner, Bruce. "Traditions and Professionalization: Reconceiving Work in Composition." College Composition and Communication 51 (2000): 366-398.
Sullivan, Patricia A. "Passing: A Family Dissemblance." In Coming to Class: Pedagogy and the Social Class of Teachers. Eds. Alan Shepard, John McMillan, and Gary Tate. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook, 1998.