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11 C o m p o s i t i o n ’ s D e ad DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c011 Ann Larson It’s impossible to deny that, for increasing numbers of young people, a degree is more likely to lead to a lifetime of debt than to a middle-class job (Hechinger 2013). I’ve been thinking about the debt and jobs crisis in relation to the “I Quit Lit” genre recently popularized by MA and PhD holders, many of whom were forced out of the academy because they could not string together enough low-wage teaching jobs to support themselves (Powers 2013). The old idea of higher education as a publicly funded resource for students and a viable career path for teachers and researchers now seems quaint in our “era of neglect” (Fischer and Stripling 2014). In that context, there have been relatively few accounts of what the scholarly fields we hoped to join look like once reflections on personal experience become deeper ruminations on the connection between individual lives and global transformations. This essay examines rhetoric and composition from such a distance. My thinking about the issues raised here has been informed by scholarship that illustrates how education at all levels is being restructured according to capitalism’s drive to consolidate power and wealth in the hands of a minuscule percentage of the population at the expense of everyone else (Federici 2014). For those who identify as compositionists, a principled disengagement from the failed politics of respectability and reform may be the only morally defensible choice in the discipline’s aftermath. The College a s Bu reau cr atic Co rpo r at ion As of 2009, 75 percent of instructors at all two- and four-year colleges in the United States were hired in term positions off the tenure track (“Portrait of Part-Time Faculty” 2012). Part-time adjuncts earn an average of $2,700 per course. Most have few benefits, no guarantee of continued employment, no voice in their respective departments, and—let’s be 164   A nn Larson honest—virtually no chance at regular, full-time employment anywhere. Unsurprisingly, African Americans and women are disproportionately represented in non-tenure track positions (Bahn 2013; Cottom 2014). Academia’s job market collapse is largely a result of federal and state disinvestment in public education at all levels and the corresponding rise in institutional and student indebtedness (Quinterno and Orozco 2012). Recent data shows that “annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has grown by $1,850, or 27 percent, since the 2007–08 school year, after adjusting for inflation” (Oliff et al. 2013). In California, which is leading the trend toward privatization, more than half of the financing for public colleges now comes from tuition dollars, not state funding (Kroll 2012). That means administrators are free to use student fees on anything they choose, including capital development projects that have little to do with teaching and learning (Meister 2009). As a result, public universities in that state are already paying $1 billion each year in interest alone to Wall Street (Eaton et al. 2014). This restructuring is not a withdrawal of state support so much as it is an active program of turning higher education over to financiers and manager-elites. Almost two decades ago, in The University in Ruins, Bill Readings predicted that universities would become “bureaucratic corporations ,” not substantially different from any other profit-driven, commercial entity (Readings 1997, 21). He was right. No Silver Lini n g Compositionists have often operated under the assumption that our field is immune from the bureaucratization of the university. In fact, conventional wisdom says that composition and rhetoric specialists enjoy an advantage in the academic job market. Instead, I argue, composition does not defy our rotten economic system; it exemplifies it. A 2011 special issue of College English directly addressed the question of composition exceptionalism. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition ,” wrote Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe, “have been affected most by [higher education’s] growing reliance on contingent faculty. Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions” (Palmquist and Doe 2011, 353–54). There is no silver lining for composition in these statistics. Many first-year writing programs are largely—if not entirely—staffed by contingent faculty and graduate students who work cheaply and can usually be counted on not to complain under the assumption that their position is temporary, a necessary apprenticeship on the road to...


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