Advice

Academic Bait-and-Switch, Part 6

Brian Taylor

February 25, 2010

When I was an undergraduate English major at Flyover College, I invented my own understanding of English as a discipline. I saw most of my professors as delightful eccentrics who loved literature. Some of them taught well, some wretchedly; some published books, others only book reviews; but they all cared about the success of their students. In their classes, I studied works that explored a fabulous variety of human experiences and points of view. Somehow I morphed that undergraduate experience into a belief that reading literature improved people morally, and that studying it seriously made people even better.

Today I wince at my naïveté. Studying literature doesn't guarantee moral improvement any more than studying chemistry, economics, or plumbing does. I should have accepted that in my first year of graduate work at Elite National University, because the evidence was all around me, but I clung to my childish belief in the power of literature. In my second year, when my fellow teaching assistants elected me their representative to the first-year-composition committee, I even had a notion that I could help change the program for the better.

Indeed, improvement seemed inevitable, since the imperious Dr. Dreedle, director of the first-year-composition program, had stepped down, although he still served on the committee. Dr. Dreedle's former assistant, Dr. Cathcart, ran the program and chaired the committee, which met around a large table in a conference room.

One of the first issues on the agenda involved improving the writing center, which did a poor job of helping students. Dr. Shapiro, the head of the writing center, didn't sit on the committee, but when we met to discuss this topic, I assumed that he would be invited to share his views. To my surprise, he made no appearance. The members of the committee simply discussed what we wished a writing center could accomplish. Toward the end, during a discussion of dyslexia, Dr. Cathcart said, "In Dr. Shapiro's opinion—"

"Shapiro is just guessing," Dr. Dreedle snapped. "He doesn't know anything."

With that, the committee dropped the topic. As far as I know, no one followed up on improving the writing center.

Another issue facing the committee concerned replacing the required textbook for the composition course. Dr. Cathcart distributed half a dozen texts and told us to circulate them among ourselves. She gave us no guidelines for preferring one over the others. She simply told us to review them and choose the one we liked best.

Review the books I did, one by one, shaking my head and sighing over each. Some talked down to students, while others assumed that readers already had considerable skill. The text I liked least was one that I'll call Writing Uplifts Everyone. As an undergraduate, I'd used it in an advanced-composition course. The book gushed about brainstorming and sudden insight but left students on their own when it came to creating actual documents. Because my own students needed clear directions for setting up even simple papers, I couldn't endorse the book.

When the committee discussed the texts, we went around the big table and everyone promoted his or her favorite. I noticed that people asked one another questions that revealed their ignorance concerning the texts they hadn't chosen. I began to suspect that I was the only one who'd actually opened all of the books, but I kept that to myself.

When my turn came I said, "I don't like any of them, but I don't have a lot of teaching experience to base a judgment on."

Dr. Minder, a professor new to Elite National U., took his turn. He held up Writing Uplifts Everyone and said, "Students will love this."

I wish that I had understood my place on the committee and kept quiet, but I viewed Dr. Minder's approval of that book as an opportunity to prove my worth to the committee. So I spoke up: "I used that book in an advanced-composition class as an undergrad. It didn't work well." I explained the problems with the book's setup.

Dr. Minder looked as though I'd slapped him. The committee failed to reach a consensus, and as people left the room, I heard Dr. Dreedle conferring with Dr. Cathcart on yet another text (call it Everyone Must Write).

Thinking that I should bring more information to the committee, and that as the TA representative, I should find out what the other teaching assistants needed to teach the first-year course, I drew up a memo that described the committee's mission and asked my fellow graduate students for feedback. I placed the memo in the TA mailboxes.

The next morning Dr. Cathcart stopped me in the hall and declared, "No one gave you permission to distribute a memo."

"But as the TA rep I thought I should—"

"You'll do what I tell you to," she said.

The military assumptions behind Dr. Cathcart's statement startled me. Before I could respond, she added, "Dr. Minder thinks you undermined our committee."

"Undermined the committee?"

"A committee's deliberations ought not to be revealed to the world without the committee's consent."

I apologized to Dr. Cathcart and went on my way.

Puzzled that my simple attempt to gather information had caused distress, I stopped at Dr. Minder's office. "Dr. Cathcart said you're upset with me."

"Well," he replied slowly, "Yes ... yes."

"I didn't think that what the committee did was secret," I said. "I just thought I should tell the other grad students about the committee's work and get feedback from them, since they teach the majority of sections."

"I see ... yes."

"I apologize for offending you," I said.

"Well, ... no harm done." He nodded. "Let's forget about it."

At the committee's next meeting, Dr. Minder gave a report on a teaching handout for the first-year-composition program that had routinely been given to all TA's when they arrived on the campus. Dr. Minder, in suggesting revisions to the guidelines, expressed dismay that the original document included a warning not to expect much change in a student's writing in one semester. He dismissed the warning as "too negative" and recommended more-optimistic phrasing to encourage new instructors. Freshmen, he said, really could accomplish much in a semester.

The original document's pessimistic view matched my own experiences with students, so I waited in that meeting for Dr. Minder to cite some study or quote some expert to support his assertions. He did nothing of the sort. He simply gave his opinion. If one of my students had handed in a paper like Dr. Minder's report, I would have sent the person to the library to do some research. After my earlier misunderstanding with Dr. Minder, however, I thought I would let someone else question him. No one did.

When he finished, Dr. Minder distributed copies of his report and said, "I added a note at the bottom about the graduate-student representative betraying the trust of the committee with his memo. I ask the committee to add that statement to the minutes of today's meeting."

Indeed, at the bottom of the sheet sat his accusation. Dr. Minder had cast me as the enemy of first-year composition and himself as the savior of the program. The professors didn't even discuss the issue. Dr. Cathcart said, "All those in favor of including Dr. Minder's note in the minutes, say "'Aye.'"

"Aye," said every professor.

Dr. Cathcart looked at me. "Opposed?"

I wanted to denounce Dr. Minder as a hypocrite and ask the others what I'd done wrong, but at that moment I finally grasped the dynamics of the committee, perhaps of the entire graduate English program. When the other professors looked at Dr. Minder, they saw someone who would be their colleague for decades. They would serve with him on other committees, want his support for their projects, and socialize with him and his wife. When those professors looked at me, they didn't see the elected representative of the group who taught the majority of composition sections. Elite National U. didn't hire its own Ph.D.'s, so they never imagined me as a potential colleague, either. They saw just another disposable nobody who would join the ranks of adjuncts begging for work. Of course they sided with Dr. Minder.

So when Dr. Cathcart asked if anyone opposed adding a condemnation of the TA representative to the committee's record, I abstained.

I should add that at the end of the year, there appeared in the TA mailboxes a memo naming the textbook for the following fall. It was Everyone Must Write, the title that Dr. Dreedle mentioned to Dr. Cathcart after the committee had discussed her choices for textbooks. If the committee actually discussed and voted on Everyone Must Write, no one invited the TA representative to the meeting.

(Editor's Note: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of this series are online.)

Henry Adams is the pseudonym of a faculty member who teaches at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.