What does neoliberalism have to do with teaching research writing?

Author:Downing, David B.
Position:Essay
 
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  1. When Research and Writing Confront the Disappearance of History

    Ask any progressive educator the question posed by my title, and you won't have to wait long for an answer: everything. From the size of the class, to the quality of the computer lab, to the costs of textbooks, to the demographics and the class schedules of the students, to the workload and the compensation of faculty assigned to teach them--it is just so easy to name a few of the obvious material factors signaling the neoliberal economy's effect on how we teach required service classes like research writing (or any course, for that matter). By and large, we share basic understandings about that history, so I am not going to rehearse it here.

    Rather, in this essay I focus on how I have experimented with bringing some version of relevant history into a general humanities required course called Research Writing. The problem I address is that most educators still struggle with the disappearance of history from the disciplinary agenda scripted into a class like research writing. Service writing courses occupy an especially difficult position when the consumerist powers that be wrap such courses into the anti-historical formalism of decontextualized skills that can supposedly be swallowed quickly if not painlessly. Not one research writing handbook on the market today even begins to address the significance of the transformations of the global political economy and the neoliberal production of knowledge as having much of anything to do with their basic research and writing tasks. How can a teacher frame this complex history (all in one writing [not history] class?) in such a way as to combat the historical amnesia, while making such history vital, understandable, and engaging to first year undergraduates? That is the task of my class and this essay.

    Of course, what is possible in any given class is determined by context: the relations between the local and the global meet wherever we happen to be. For this reason, in the next section I will sketch the local colors of my own institutional circumstances, before describing some of the strategies I have experimented with in my own research writing classes.

  2. A Little Local Context: Public Education in a Private Economy

    Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), where I have taught for twenty years now, is a mid-sized, public university. All faculty in the state system of 14 universities work under a collective bargaining agreement reached between the union (the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty [APSCUF]) and management (the state). This is not a minor point since the entire system is an anomaly with respect to American higher education: we have roughly 25% of our faculty on temporary contracts in contrast to the national average which is getting close to the inverse (about 75% contingent labor). This means that all faculty in the English department end up teaching the basic humanities distribution requirements for composition, research writing, and humanities literature. These factors explain why, even though I am now one of the most senior members in the department, I regularly teach research writing. These working conditions become an issue in the course itself: IUP's faculty union has successfully on this score resisted the pressures of neoliberal privatization that seek flexibility, contingency, and cheap teaching all around (Bousquet). Regardless of how students feel about me, it is important that they have a sense of collective bargaining's ability to protect some dimensions of the public commons from direct capital control.

    At the same time, students at IUP can hardly avoid the remarkable ironies in their own educational circumstances. For instance, students can readily see that there are some dimensions of their education over which the union has absolutely no control. Indeed, management has cleverly found many ways to work privatization into the public university, so it is an easy initial research question to ask students where they see examples of such privatization on campus. It is a long list, similar to the franchising and branding going on all over U.S. campuses: they can only buy Pepsi, not Coke; Chick-Fil-A, not McDonalds; Spring Reflections bottled water, not Dasani, etc. But the biggest irony is right before their eyes every time they walk out of a campus building: the enormous dormitory expansion project at IUP. This they cannot miss.

    Some of the readers of this essay might not have missed it either. One of the front page stories in the April 11, 2008 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is titled "Swanky Suites, More Students?" and it describes IUP's building bonanza as, perhaps, the largest dormitory expansion project in the history of higher education in America. The article included several color photos of the luxury suites together with an explanation of the administration's goal to "reinvent its living-and-learning program" (Supiano A1). Many people are very proud of this project, but (and you would not know this from reading the CHE article), many people, mostly faculty, like myself, also have strong objections to the idea of re-enforcing class differences among students on the basis of the progressively more costly fees for the new dorms.

    Funding for this massive 270 million dollar building project comes from the IUP Foundation, in other words, from private sources, donations, etc. The Foundation hires private developing corporations to do the building on state-owned land leased on long-term contracts to the corporations. The point is, as the administration points out, this building project budget has nothing to do with academic funding for the institution because those revenues come from state taxes and student tuition. In contrast, the corporations building the dorms even handle all business arrangements, including the room payments which are made directly to the private enterprises, not to the university or the state.

    Now there is no rule that says the Foundation could not invest directly in academic projects, but the separation of public and private realms explains why the administration can raise class sizes, authorize faculty hiring freezes, and ask all college divisions to tighten their budgets because of fiscal crisis. The public/private split is immediately evident to students in my research writing class because the...

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