Writing program administrators often joke that class sizes in first-year writing courses have more to do with US News and World Report – which defines “small” classes in its college rankings as those enrolling fewer than 20 students – than with all the impassioned arguments and eloquent resolutions of the field’s scholars and professional organizations on class size and workload over the years. And indeed, many institutions did lower the caps in their first-year writing courses to 19 as college and university ranking indexes became really visible and influential in the 1990s, pretty much on cue.
But the truth is that central administrators never actually needed either rankings or resolutions to convince them that Writing should be taught in small classes: it’s just common sense. Indeed, the caps in Writing courses on most campuses were always pretty close to 20 to begin with, even before the college rankings services came up with their definition of “small” courses, which is why they were natural candidates for lowering to 19. SUNY Oswego’s cap on ENG 102 when I began teaching here in the early 90s was 23, and when the Writing Across the Curriculum Program was set up in the middle 90s, one of its key features was “small group instruction (25 or fewer students) – a configuration that promotes frequent student/teacher interaction and peer discussion.” Student writers improve predictably when they’re given access to faculty mentors – experienced and reflective academic writers who can help them develop ideas, think about why those ideas matter, read drafts carefully, make constructive suggestions, and provide genuinely formative feedback that makes them better, more self-conscious writers in the future. Close work with informed, sensitive readers, that is, has always been very plainly in the best interests of student writers. A no-brainer.
This, however, is not the educational model being promoted over the last year or so in MOOCs, massive open online courses. MOOCs are courses offered for free online and designed to be taken by thousands of students in a single session. Readings and assignments are posted, course leaders appear in regular video discussions, video hangouts are arranged with small groups of students with representative questions, and students are encouraged to share written work with one another.
But from the perspective of a writing teacher, MOOCs offer something much more like an enhanced library service – the provision of a really wonderful, rich resource – than a teaching service. For one thing, MOOC instructors never actually read student work, even to evaluate it summatively – much less to offer the sort of supportive readerly feedback and suggestions for revision that really help writers improve. Instead, students enrolled in MOOCs typically get feedback on their work from whatever fellow students are interested in offering it, which experience suggests is usually a pretty small number. Of course, peer revision workshops provide a very useful developmental experience under the right circumstances, one practiced in face-to-face courses with some frequency, but it’s no replacement for close work with a mentor. And though most MOOCs are not now offered for credit, at least one MOOC provider has promised to deliver automated grading software emulating the patterns and preferences of given readers to facilitate evaluation on a mass scale – so that, theoretically, grades could be awarded without anyone ever actually reading a word of a student’s work. It’s no wonder UUP President Fred Kowal has expressed “alarm” about the University’s apparent “goal to use MOOCS to add 100,000 students without increasing faculty.”
This is why the SUNY Council on Writing, a faculty group representing teachers of Writing across the SUNY system, recently passed a resolution against using MOOCs to satisfy the Writing component of SUNY’s Basic Communication requirement and has begun to circulate it across the system for signatures. I should be clear that to date no one has proposed that MOOCs be used in satisfaction of this requirement: SUNY has only recently begun to think through how it will use the contract it signed late last spring with MOOCs provider Coursera. But the Council wanted to make it clear as these discussions proceed that this is not a model that works for first-year Writing courses.
As the Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum here at Oswego, I’d argue strongly that MOOCs are similarly unsuited for all courses deemed writing-intensive. These courses depend directly, as the WAC Guidelines ratified in 1998 by the Faculty Assembly point out, on the close attention of faculty-mentors to the work of student writers. Neither peer response alone nor (certainly) automated grading software will invite students into the real discussions of scholars or offer them counsel about the nuances involved in writing and thinking like an Anthropologist, Art Historian, or Economist.
Proponents tout the democratic potential of MOOCs, which on the face of it might seem consistent with the aims of a public university: these are free courses for anyone who’s interested, often led by accomplished scholars. And indeed this sort of access is a wonderful, exciting, even groundbreaking prospect – as is the opportunity for so many networked voices to be joined in a collective give-and-take over ideas. But the danger is that the possibility of working closely with faculty-mentors will be restricted to an ever smaller core of students with the means to attend an elite college or university – and hence the establishment of a much more clearly and deeply entrenched two-tier system in higher education. Students at public universities deserve more than either pro forma or automated responses to their work. They deserve what’s always been the promise of higher education: authentic exchanges with real people who’ve given their lives over to the serious study of ideas. (Originally published in the SUNY Oswego UUP newsletter)
Michael Murphy is Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum Program, as well as Vice-President of the SUNY Council on Writing. The Council’s resolution on MOOCs can be viewed at <http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/suny-cow/>. All SUNY teachers of Writing, including those who teach writing-intensive courses across campus, are invited to sign.
the SUNY Council on Writing has produced this petition. It has been signed by all the board members, other SUNY faculty who contributed to the document, and many others. Please take a moment to read it and consider signing it so we can reach our goal. Thank you!
“Resolution on Massive Open Online Courses and the Teaching of Writing”
SUNY Council on Writing
Position Statement on Labor Practices
Committee on Labor Practices: Michael Murphy, Oswego; Cynthia Davidson, Stony Brook; Wilbur Farley, Stony Brook; Kelly Kinney, Binghamton; Tina Good, Suffolk CC
March 29, 2012
Labor practices deeply affect the general quality of college writing instruction. Too often, college writing is taught by part-time faculty carrying heavy course loads on multiple campuses without the possibility of tenure or meaningful support for professional development. Increasingly, too, graduate assistants who are struggling to finish their degrees become long-term part-timers as traditional full-time professorial lines continue to disappear. The great majority of these faculty members, working without the possibility of promotion or advancement, are paid substandard salaries calculated on a per-section basis. This arrangement makes the retention of qualified faculty difficult, driving away the most experienced, accomplished, effective teachers. Many wonderful part-time faculty members and graduate assistants commit themselves to their work at great personal expense, and the academy owes much to their selflessness and expertise, as do the campuses on which they work. Still, these practices discourage good teaching. Moreover, the heavy reliance on non-tenure track faculty places an increasingly disproportionate administrative burden on the tenure-line and full-time faculty.
Acknowledging the pressing urgency of this situation and the clearly established relationship between effective teaching and healthy working conditions for faculty, the SUNY Council on Writing hereby proposes:
1. That, in accordance with the Report of the UUP Task Force on Contingent Employees, http://uupinfo.org/reports/reportpdf/TFCE%20Report.pdf, all SUNY campuses begin using a prorated version of the minimum negotiated salary for Full-Time Lecturers within UUP as a general minimum for part-time salaries. According to rates negotiated for Fall 2012, this would mean that part-time faculty would make a minimum of $4,713 per section.
2. That these positions be converted to full-time with the possibility of meaningful advancement across a career. A stable body of well-prepared, available full-time faculty provide better instruction for students. Faculty should be part-time only when fluctuations in enrollment require it.
3. That ultimately provisions for tenure-like arrangements (“security of employment” and “continuous employment” lines, etc.) be made available for full-time instructor lines.
4. That Composition and Rhetoric be represented with much greater frequency in hiring for new professorial lines, recognizing that on many campuses tenure lines for faculty in Composition and Rhetoric are grossly outnumbered by those in other divisions in English and the Humanities.
5. That graduate assistants be assigned no more than one section and twenty students in any given semester, following the standards of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Sent: Sun 03/31/13 11:06 PM
Subject: Fwd: SUNYCOW sayonara
Good evening, all,
I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for coming to Buffalo for
this year’s SUNYCOW conference, which, from all that I have heard from
participants, was a great success. I hope that in that brief, intense span
everyone found intellectual engagement, met new and future colleagues and
collaborators, and rejuvenated previous acquaintances.
I want to express our collective gratitude to Kelly Kinney and Richard Miller,
who offered us much to ponder in reshaping aspects of our own programs and
looking to an already-present future that will challenge every aspect of our
philosophies and pedagogies.
From what I have heard, there were reasons to be enthusiastic about every
session. I can only speak from the experience of the sessions I myself attended,
and I do want to highlight the excellent new podcasting venture This Rhetorical
Life (http://thisrhetoricallife.syr.edu) initiated by Syracuse students; the
possibilities explored by UB students, thematizing the future and
disability/ableism, being attuned to reciprocity and affect, and employing
role-playing and “uncreative” activities. In my own session, Malkiel Choseed made
a compelling case that assessment will be an inevitable part of any leverage we
wish to exert on institutional discussions of writing’s centrality to education,
Jacob Bodway pointed to the need to keep track of shifts in goals and outcomes
for NY state high school students, and Nicole Gonzales Howell showed how–through
a close consideration of the labor and civil rights activism of Dolores Huerta
(today being, appropriately enough, the birthday of Cesar Chavez, with whom she
worked as a partner for so many years)–we might reconsider both the need for
more WPAs of color and the extension of the role of the WPA outside the bounds of
A quick synopsis of the SUNYCOW business meeting, in case you were busy scraping out the last bits of chocolate mousse from the glass when Arabella Lyon made the announcements: (1) a vote was taken to approve the SUNYCOW statement on contingent labor, which will be posted soon, I believe, on the SUNYCOW website (http://sunycouncilonwriting.wordpress.com/) and Facebook page (please join!); and (2) a committee is forming to examine how SUNYCOW might respond definitively to the new Open SUNY online course initiative and to the question of MOOCs (massive open online courses). If you are interested in contributing to the committee, please contact Alex Reid, who is serving as chair (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Please let us know if you have any suggestions for how future SUNYCOW conferences could be improved. One I myself have considered making stems from my own frustration (echoed by others) at having only one body with which to attend four or five appealing sessions transpiring concurrently: given the need to keep the conference to one night and one full day for cost’s sake, perhaps we could move for slightly shorter papers wrapped up in hour-long sessions to allow for more time slots.
And now to the round of gratitude! Arabella was as integral to process of staging
the conference as she was modest about her role in it. Without her, and without
the extensive efforts of her graduate assistant Morani Kornberg-Weiss, this
edition could never have been more than a string of pixels on SUNYCOW’s web
presence. I want to reiterate all of the thanks made on the back page of the
conference pamphlet, to the committee who considered the proposals and helped
shape the program, to our colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences (Erik
Seeman, Martha Barton, and Cathy Norgren) who helped fund and otherwise support
the conference, the administrative staff who straightened the way for us (Wendy
Belz, Jennifer Elinge, Nicole Lazaro, and Carol Ciaciuch), Rick Feero and Alex
Reid for bringing and setting up additional technology, the Ramada event staff,
representatives from Cengage, Norton, and Bedford/St. Martin’s, and any others we
have inadvertently neglected to mention by name or by grouping.
Again, many thanks to everyone. I hope you have had a safe return trip, and I
wish you the best for a smooth end to the spring semester! And good luck to the
as-yet-unnamed hosts for Sept. 2014!
University at Buffalo
President’s Address from CUNY COW 2012
As a political philosophy, neoliberalism construes a rational for a handful of private interests to control as much of social life as possible to maximize their financial investments.
Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searle Giroux, Take Back Higher Education
In the 1990’s Susan Miller and Sharon Crowley wrote tellingly about the economics and politics of composition, but in the last decade, the problems of sad women in the basement have grown dire and the arguments about student needs sometimes have been abandoned for those about faculty needs. Even as recently as 2005, Doug Hesse could suggest in his 4 C’s chair’s address that “those who teach writing must affirm that we, in fact, own it”(459; emphasis in original). Right now, however, the issues in higher education no longer seemed based in institutional economies dependent on student needs, and faculty seems to have lost a position from which to refute the U.S. commissions and forces who would take writing away from writing teachers. Now our problems are transparently part of a pattern of global capitalism, a pattern that erodes the pretense that faculty own writing. There can be no pretense of first year writing’s sustainability based on historical models of writing instruction….