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Introduction C o m p o s i t i o n i n t h e Ag e o f Au s t e r i t y DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c000 Tony Scott and Nancy Welch After Syracu se In August 2013 President Barack Obama brought to Syracuse, New York, his plan for the future of US higher education. The choice of Syracuse was strategic: a once bustling economic hub, Syracuse has yet to recover from its loss of manufacturing jobs; close to half its children and teens live below the poverty line. The venue—a public city high school—was a smart choice, too: the hot auditorium was packed with children, parents , and teachers in a city whose schools have struggled as the city’s tax base has declined. After recognizing that the country—and this audience —had seen tough times, Obama described a recovery that is now fully underway thanks to the “resilience of the American people” and the ability of his administration to “clear away the rubble from the financial crisis and start laying the foundation for a better economy” (Obama 2013). He also understood that for this Syracuse audience, “We’ve still got more work to do,” and he openly acknowledged that over the past decade “we’ve seen growing inequality in our society and less upward mobility in our society.” He even asserted, “[W]e’ve got to reverse these trends” and return to a time when “we put these ladders of opportunity [up] for people.” But then, rather than announce a twenty-firstcentury version of the opportunity programs of generations past—such as the GI Bill or the Higher Education Act of 1965—President Obama moved from the metaphor of ladders to pathways: proposing the solution of “more pathways” for “people to succeed as long as they’re willing to work hard” with government stepping in to assist not with stepped-up funding but with new measures of accountability. Enter the College Scorecard—what one might think of as No Child Left Behind for higher education, except that instead of measuring and valuing math and reading to the near exclusion of all other subjects, the 4   Tony Scott and Nancy W elch scorecard uses metrics like speed to degree completion, loan default rates, and post-graduation earnings. For an audience largely priced out of higher education, left behind not only by the most recent economic recovery but all the proclaimed recoveries of the past twenty years, and further ravaged by racism in an ostensible post-racial era, such a speech touted access, opportunity, and hope. It did so, however, through austerity . Through rhetorics of austerity, institutions of higher education are admonished to make themselves more efficient and affordable amid deep funding cuts, and would-be students are counseled to be wise consumers and keep their personal debt levels down by seeking the cheapest , fastest route to a degree. Acknowledging that his Syracuse audience had been devastated by the neoliberal leave-it-to-the-market policies of the past forty years, Obama unveiled as the solution to this crisis the accelerated marketization of higher education. The speech he delivered provided a textbook example of how the neoliberal economic and social policies that have driven what is now a multi-generational trend toward ever-increasing inequality can be packaged and applauded as commonsense populism. We start the introduction to this volume with President Obama’s Syracuse speech because we imagine an audience for Composition in the Age of Austerity that shares the sense of urgency and (increasingly dashed) expectation that brought teens, teachers, and parents to that high school gym on a sweltering August day. Composition as a contemporary discipline has been sponsored by the ladders of opportunity of earlier eras, fostering access to and support in higher education for working-class, minority, and international students; connecting campuses and communities in public rhetorical works programs; and promoting critical and creative literacy education K through college with the National Writing Project. Even as the always tenuous rungs of these ladders are gradually removed—the rungs of long-term and secure faculty positions, of funding for writing programs, and of access and affordability for students— the expectation of opportunity and service provided by the field remains. Many of us—including adjunct faculty teaching without healthcare coverage and without assurance of continuing work beyond the next sixteen weeks, including directors charged with meeting new mandates on a downsized or eliminated budget—are also struggling to figure...


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