The Teaching of Writing
at UNF by Dr. Richard Bizot
(English and Foreign Languages)
August 27, 1999
My remarks concern what we
are doing in the lower division writing courses offered by the Department
of English and Foreign Languages. Faculty in many disciplines assist students
in the development of writing skills, and that is as it should be. But
the university's main and most concerted effort in writing instruction,
impacting well over 2000 students a term, comes in the courses I am talking
When I speak of "writing
courses," that is shorthand for courses which stress critical thinking
and critical reading, and introduce research methods, all in conjunction
with writing. For writing is not a skill which can be taught in isolation;
writing is the final stage in the thinking process. "Mal écrire
est mal penser," Pascal said; and he was correct: to write badly
is to think badly. If one cannot find and assemble the words to express
an idea, with clarity and precision, the idea does not fully exist. The
teaching of writing necessarily engages the entire process of thinking.
That is why it is so crucial. That
is why the teaching of writing, as the Conference on College Composition
and Communication has asserted, is "the academy's most serious mission."
It is the foundation stone which bears the weight of subsequent learning.
Therefore, though I speak
of one department, the issues I raise ought to be of general concern The
students of every department, every major, every minor on campus pass
through my department's writing courses. Our successes are your successes;
our failures are your failures; our problems are yours as well. Let
me tell you about the conditions under which my department's lower division
writing courses are taught. This fall we are offering 98 sections of these
courses, 88 of them capped at 27 students apiece, the other 10 (for students
whose writing needs extra attention) capped at 15. I salute the university
for forming these smaller sections in order to provide intensive care
where it is needed. It is the first time we have created limited enrollment
sections for these new writing courses, and it is a very positive step.
It should contribute to the success rate of such students, hence to our
retention rate; it is academically and morally the right thing to do.
The enrollment caps of
27 in the other 88 sections, on the other hand, ought to be a source of
embarrassment to us all. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE),
the Conference on College Composition (4 Cs), the Modern Language Association
(MLA), and the Association of Departments of English (ADE) all agree that,
ideally, all college writing courses should be limited to 15 students
and that in no case should enrollments in college writing courses be allowed
to exceed 20. Our caps nearly double the ideal and are 35% higher than
what all the professional guidelines say should be the absolute maximum.
are not arbitrary and do not represent wishful thinking; they are grounded
in practical experience of just how labor-intensive the teaching of writing
is. Writing classes do meet as groups, and some aspects of writing
instruction can be accomplished in groups; but in its essence the teaching
of writing is a one-on-one activity: a teacher confronts one student's
paper at a time, and a dialogue begins, with the teacher's comments and
questions in the margins. The dialogue continues when the student reads
these and tries to apply them in a rewrite, and the dialogue goes on.
Interspersed in this process are face-to-face meetings between student
and teacher, in classroom, hallway, teacher's office, as well as -- nowadays
-- virtual face-to-face meetings through e-mail.
I spoke with James R. Papp, Assistant Director of English Programs with
the MLA and the ADE, to confirm his associations' guidelines. When I told
him that we have been capping our writing courses at 27 his response was,
"I don't think I have ever heard of that many in a composition class.
Once in awhile I hear of caps of 25, and that's abusive." He added,
"I can't imagine teaching a section of more than 25 with any standard
of quality." I said, "May I quote you?" and he said, "You
bet!" The NCTE, the Four Cs, the MLA and the ADE also agree
that "No English faculty members should teach more than 60 writing
students a term." At UNF, in the term we have just begun, more than
a dozen faculty have in excess of 60 writing students in their classes.
In fact, they exceed that limit by, on the average, more than 50%! That
is, on the average, they have more than 90 writing students each! And
the numbers I am giving you are from figures I gathered 11 days ago; needless
to say, enrollments have gone up since then.
Let me tell
you how we staff our lower division writing courses. Of the 98 sections
offered this fall, almost 88% are staffed by faculty who are neither tenured
nor in a tenure track -- that is, they are staffed by visiting faculty,
instructors and adjunct faculty. By far the majority, 68%, are being taught
by adjunct faculty. In the crucial introductory course, ENC 1101, nearly
80% of the sections are staffed by adjunct faculty and only 5 out of 52
sections, less than 10%, by tenured or tenure-track faculty.
16 tenured or tenure-track English faculty in my department, not counting
two on administrative assignments. But these 16 make up only one-third
of the ENF English faculty this fall, because there are 32 others: 3 instructors,
4 visiting faculty, and 25 (!) adjunct faculty. Do these sound like good
proportions to you? In your program is a sentence that reads, "When
Bizot was at Notre Dame he was one member of a 45-member literature faculty."
That is true -- and the total enrollment at Notre Dame in those days was
about 8000. I do not have a formula for how many tenured and tenure-track
English faculty there ought to be in a university with over 12,000 students
-- but I can tell you that 16 is a ridiculously low number.
Let me tell
you what the professional organizations say about a department so constituted.
In a landmark "Statement of Principles and Standards for the Postsecondary
Teaching of Writing," the Conference on College Composition and Communication
condemned the creation of an "academic underclass" composed
principally of college and university teachers of writing, who "work
without job security, often without benefits, and for wages far below
what their full-time colleagues are paid per course." Such "working
conditions undermine the capacities of teachers to teach and of students
to learn. These conditions constitute a crisis in higher education, one
which dramatically affects the public interest." This "Statement
of Principles and Standards" was published in October 1989; and in
the decade since then many colleges and universities have taken significant
steps to reform their exploitative and educationally unsound practices
in the teaching of writing.
has taken some steps itself. Surely the creation of the Writing Center
is a good first step, and the appointment of Kathy Hassall as its Interim
Director is a brilliant second step. It remains to be seen, however, what
kind of support the university will give to the Center and its director.
Two years ago at the fall convocation Allen Tilley spoke eloquently about
the need for us to reform our utilization and our treatment of adjunct
faculty. This past March, the Committee on Adjunct Affairs, which Allen
chaired, issued its report. There have been some small signs during these
two years that the university may have the will to effect reform. Certainly,
one gets the impression that key administrators (1) understand the problem
and (2) are committed to making improvements. So far, however, few actual
improvements have been made.
The UNF catalog
claims that our academic programs "reflect UNF's commitment to the
highest intellectual and scholarly standards. Instructional quality is
maintained by striving for relatively small classes." Well, that
is fine language and the sentiments are admirable; but we have a long
way to go before any of that can be said with a straight face about UNF's
commitment to its writing program.
me what you like," said John Ruskin, "and I'll tell you what
you are." What we would like to think of our university is articulated
in catalog copy. What we in fact value -- what, in Ruskin's terms, we
are -- tends to express itself silently, but far more candidly, in how
we distribute resources. What does it say of our values that we entrust
"the academy's most serious mission" to an underclass of underpaid,
overworked adjunct faculty? We pay most of our adjunct faculty $1500 to
teach writing for 15 weeks to 27 students, each required to write 6000
words. If they do their job conscientiously -- and, God bless them, our
adjunct faculty do! -- what do you think that comes to, figured on an
hourly basis? I have worked out the math, and it is less than minimum
wage. We value their services less than McDonald's values its lowest paid
sweeper of floors. An 18-year-old freshman, working part-time at the Boathouse,
is better paid than his or her freshman English teacher, who holds at
least a Master's degree in field. And the Boathouse gives its employees
a free lunch, too! With values like that, what does that make us?
I have described were not created by our current academic administrators;
they inherited those conditions. The conditions I have described are most
assuredly not ones my department has ever approved. If time permitted,
I could tell you what I know about how we got to where we are today, during
the 15 years since we added a lower division to the university. I could
say: here is where we went wrong, and here, and here. But perhaps it is
just as well that I do not have time to do that today. What we need most
now is not to look back, except to be sure that we do not make the same
mistakes again; the real need now is to look forward, to figure out how
and at what rate to correct those mistakes.
challenge of effecting reform is great; the need for effecting reform
is greater still. Current academic administrators did not create the conditions
I have described -- the class sizes, the teaching loads, the over-dependence
on adjunct faculty, the under-payment of adjunct faculty, the stunted
growth of the tenure-track English faculty -- but they will be judged
according to whether or not they bring meaningful reform to the teaching
of writing at UNF. We all have a stake in how well they meet this challenge.
of North Florida.
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Questions, Comments, Suggestions
July 6, 2006