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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 171-189

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The Work before Us:

Attending to English Departments' Poor Relations

It is the last English department meeting of the fall semester. A composition worker takes her place among twelve colleagues with whom she, for the most part, feels very much at home. She feels fortunate, for upon arriving in this position, these colleagues made her feel welcome and valued with praise for her credentials and her work: "We're lucky to have someone with your expertise," and "I bet you're going to do wonderful things with the writing center." Her sense of belonging is further cemented during annual fall retreats where, for a weekend, the whole department shares cottages at a nearby resort, working on assessment issues, but also relaxing for family-style dinners and casual conversation. At this small private university in the Pacific Northwest, she's pleased to discover a department in which every member of the English faculty teaches at least one section of first-year composition per year. This, she imagines, should better help her colleagues understand and appreciate the intellectual and pedagogical challenges of her field. Until now, this department has felt to her very much like a cohesive, healthy family.

But now, the chair begins the meeting by passing around three calls for papers. The department's children's literature specialist reads the first call and asks rhetorically, "Composition in the Twenty-First Century—how boring is that?" She adds: "Quick, hand me one that I might actually be interested in." Ha, ha, chuckle, chuckle. Is Jennifer the only one present who finds no humor in this remark? She is puzzled at first by the source of this remark: the same woman who at those departmental retreats always badgers Jennifer and another junior colleague into eating dessert, telling them never "to take for granted the [End Page 171] finer things in life"; the same woman who a month before was delighted when Jennifer asked for a copy of her recently published article on dragons.

This localized, apparently minor, interpersonal incident changes how Jennifer understands her place in the department. She begins to feel less like a member of the immediate family and more like the department's poor relation, imagining that her departmental family conceives of composition as something that an English professor merely does/teaches when necessary, not as something that a serious scholar studies—as if her new family is loyal to her as kin, but disapproves of her choice of vocation. She suddenly wonders, "Do they see me as boring?"

As composition workers, we are often made to feel in our departmental "families" like the embarrassing poor relations, those relatives whom the more upwardly mobile of the family would rather keep at a socially safe distance. No one trots us out during dinner parties to play Mozart. Our tastes are lowbrow. We hang out with the wrong crowd. We bring too many ill- mannered children to family gatherings. Since we don't seem to engage in "real work," we are assigned chores by the family patriarch. We're those family members for whom, to quote from an old Frost poem (1979: 118-19), "Home is the place where, when you have to go there / They have to take you in." Our department-families are willing to put up with us, provided we don't bring shame upon the family name. If there were not real disparities of value between the products of our labors, the slights and dismissals of our colleagues wouldn't matter, or at least wouldn't matter as much. As things stand, however, they can be debilitating—not only because they give our work over to so much emotional labor, but because they reinscribe hierarchies that ultimately determine where educational resources are to be directed. Though our critique of such relations is motivated by our own everyday experiences, it's not just about us and how we experience our working lives. As Paula Mathieu and Claude Hurlburt (2002: 233) point out in their "Afterword...


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