Aliens in Academia: Teaching Writing from the Margins

One of my earliest and most vivid experiences with being an alien in academia happened many years before I entered higher education. I was teaching high school English in the same English classroom of the high school I had attended.

One day, exasperated, a tenth grade student exclaimed during class, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write, read and write!”

For her nine or ten years of formal education, she had come to view “English” as plowing through grammar text books, worksheets, and tests. That my class was solidly grounded in teaching them to write—even the reading was mostly about reading like a writer more so than traditional literary analysis—transported her and other students to an alternate universe that was at least disorienting.

A bit past midway into my 18 years as a high school English teacher, I entered a doctoral program and developed a more cohesive awareness of the source of my status as an alien in academia—critical pedagogy.

I remained in my high school classroom for four years after my doctorate, but the move to higher education, I must admit, was in many ways a search for belonging. The alienation I felt for nearly two decades of public school teaching reached a saturation point (some of which, I think, manifested in my panic attacks and realization I was a life-long sufferer of anxiety in the year after I received my EdD).

However, I have to report that 17 years into higher education I am possibly even more aware of being an alien in academia.

Recently on Twitter, John Warner, Paula Patch, and I wrestled with a thread started by Warner:

While the three of us are joined by expertise and experience in teaching writing, we all have different degrees and backgrounds along with different higher education fits.

Several aspects of this discussion highlight that teaching writing at the college level is its own unique kind of being an alien in academia. Here are some of the issues worth considering:

  • Tenure-track and full-time teaching at the university level tends to require faculty with terminal degrees. The word “terminal” implies that this is the highest degree a person can earn in a field, but it also suggests the stress of achieving the degree (the experience could kill you, if it doesn’t necessarily kill your spirit) and, as the points raised by Warner and Patch reveal, represents the unspoken reality that the degree kills your opportunities beyond a very narrow band of “fit.” Too often, it seems, advanced degrees are alienating instead of being one of many possible ways to enter and grow in higher education as faculty.
  • The fine and performing arts, for example, offer a counter-model to how the teaching of writing often exists on the margins in colleges and universities. Fine arts and performing arts professors may not have terminal degrees, but do have expertise; notable, though, is that the fine and performing arts are not viewed as discrete skills that can and should be taught across the curriculum. In other words, the teaching of writing has experienced two contradictory and corrupting characterizations: (1) all students and academics need the essential skill of writing, and thus, (2) all disciplines and professors should and can teach writing (seemingly without any formal understanding of pedagogy).
  • This writing-across-the-curriculum has worked to push the teaching of writing even further to the margins by seeking ways to integrate it everywhere. Composition exists as an independent structure in some colleges, but more often than not, writing is diluted as something to be taught by everyone and even worse as something students should have already acquired (or can acquire in one or two first-year seminars)—thus, the teaching of writing is mandatory drudgery, a low act of remediation.
  • The teaching of writing, extremely well highlighted by Warner’s experiences, also labors under limiting and limited constraints, tensions among remediation, first-year composition, writing-across-the-curriculum (and among the disciplines), scholarly writing (citation and concerns about plagiarism), and so-called creative writing (fiction, poetry). These tensions highlight the common failure for colleges and universities to consider who qualifies to teach writing, how to structure writing instruction and programs, and how to recruit, support, and foster expert faculty of writing.

Teaching writing suffers from its diversity, its need for faculty who either have some generalist leanings or seek ways to grow and develop beyond the narrow expertise of a terminal degree. Teaching writing is about both pedagogy and content expertise—the teaching of writing requires expertise and experience in the teaching and being a writer.

My journey as an alien in academia has many facets; my credentials mean I belong in teacher education, but I do not fit there because my soul is somewhere that fits better with English and composition as well as sociology, all of which are places I do not belong.

Being working-class and critical do not help things either.

The conversation among Warner, Patch, and me raises a powerful question about the essential nature of teaching writing in higher education where those of us teaching writing are mere aliens, pushed to do our work at the margins while struggling within the paradox of writing as essential and something any professor can teach.

This may, of course, lead to another paradox, the community that is formed by our status as aliens teaching writing at the margins that in some ways hold everything together.

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