An Investigation Into the Working Conditions of Non-tenure Line, Contingent Writing Center Workers

We’re very excited to be blogging here this month, and we would like to extend our thanks to the WCJ team, particularly Anna Sicari, for inviting us to engage with the WCJ community and discuss the very important issue of contingency and writing center work. Last year, we began work on a large-scale, qualitative study--supported by a research grant from IWCA--on contingent writing center workers. In this study, we talk to participants directly and in detail about the personal, professional, and programmatic risks and benefits of contingent writing center labor. To begin our first blog this month, we engage in a dialogue about why we think research on contingent writing center labor is so needed.  We would love for members of the WCJ community to join our dialogue!


Why did we want to do this study?

Dawn Fels: For several years, I’ve seen directors post to WCENTER their concerns about the future of their centers, the security of their jobs, or both. Some asked for listserv members to share scholarship or anecdotes to justify their position, to ask for fair pay, or to develop their program in the way they knew best. Over time, I noticed that those requests became more frequent -- and urgent. Then came announcements of directors losing their jobs, their centers, or both for reasons that had nothing to do with their job performance.


We often hear discussions about what happens to writing centers after a director leaves, but we haven’t always talked about what happens to the director after they’re forced to leave their center. Or what happens to their tutors and students. The writing center field has always presented itself as a feministic, nurturing, protective “family,” but we have not done a very good job of raising up and protecting our own. Why do we not talk about what we lose when directors lose their jobs? Why do we not talk about what contingency models for our tutors and students?


I wanted to do this study to give voice to the most vulnerable in the writing center field: the contingent workers -- directors, staff, and tutors. To deny that contingency is a problem is to deny the lived experiences of the contingent. There is no denying that contingent writing center directorships are on the rise, and with contingency comes personal, professional, and programmatic risks. The problem is, too many of us don’t think there’s a problem. Or we think that we can’t do anything about it. Well, I think we can.


Clint Gardner:  My interest in the study of contingent writing center workers stems, quite frankly, from the fact that I am a contingent writing center worker.  I’ve never held a tenured or non-contingent position in my 25 year writing center career.  Initially, I thought that my position was in the minority, and that most writing center professionals held tenure-track, non-contingent positions.  I just assumed that everyone I met at conferences, for example, were in writing center director positions that had full-time, tenured or tenure track faculty status.  Since I was at a two-year institution, as well, I also assumed that those at universities were nearly automatically in a different employment structure, where as a writing center director, they would automatically be in a faculty, tenure-track position.


Nevertheless, I’ve come to see that there are many in our field like me--no matter their institution type or context--but we don’t really have much data to support this conclusion.  Anecdotally, I could see that many of my colleagues were in a similar position to me:  full-time, full-year, contingent writing center professionals, who, while having basic job security based on our common labor laws in the United States--as well as they are--still did not enjoy the benefits of tenure, and were often subject to outrageous demands by administrators and their fellow faculty.  There have been sporadic studies to give an overview of the working conditions of writing centers such as the Writing Centers Research Project, but most such studies focus only on title and staffing and their tenure status, but do not ask about contractual positioning in the writing center, nor the impact of that positioning.  The primary focus of those studies, I might add, was not about working conditions.  As far as I know, in fact, there has been no concerted effort in our field to study the working conditions of writing centers.


I am involved in this research because we need, as an academic field and a place of employment, concrete data on contingency, as well as a sense of what impact contingency has on our field. 


Lila Naydan: I'm interested in doing this study because of my personal experience in a contingent lecturer job in a writing center and because of my commitment to the labor movement, especially as it addresses problems in higher ed in its twenty-first century corporate form.


In my own contingent writing center director job--my first job out of grad school--I realized that there existed a deep disconnect between the way in which tutors who worked at my center perceived me and the way my institution perceived me--and in turn the way I perceived myself. My tutors saw me as holding authority, at least to a degree. They looked to me for answers to their questions and they saw me as akin to my tenure-line colleagues. Many of them had no accurate understanding of what a lecturer was: someone doing the intellectual and pedagogical work of a professor without the pay, status, or job security. Yet my own perception of myself as the institution created it differed dramatically. I had no real authority over a budget, over my own future, or over anything because the university classified me as disposable--as not entirely necessary and as easily replaceable.


My precarious position took a toll on my sense of self as an academic, and I was lucky to find more secure work. Most academics can't because of the lack of available tenure-track jobs, the result of a manufactured job shortage that need not exist and that faculty can organize against. Yet contingency has pervaded my identity in enduring ways. As a tenure-track faculty member now, I consciously opt against seeing myself as removed from the labor crisis in higher education. More now than ever, I feel a sense of responsibility to the labor movement and to all contingent workers in higher ed, namely writing center workers who perhaps fail to realize their contingency. These include full- and part-time adjunct faculty who lack the opportunity to earn tenure and full- and part-time staff, including peer tutors who are reluctant to view themselves as exploited because they see the opportunity of working in a writing center as one that will open doors for them eventually.


In sum, I'm engaging in this research as a sort of activism that academics might value more so than old fashioned rallies and picket signs. I'm engaging in this research because all writing center workers will benefit from attention to and education about our working conditions.


Maggie Herb:  Not surprisingly, much like my colleagues, my interest in issues related to contingency in writing centers stems from my own personal experience as a contingent writing center director. Nonetheless, I must admit that my awareness of contingency as an issue was very gradual, and my initial steps into this work were tentative. When I got my first “real” job in academia as a non-tenure track lecturer and writing center director, I was still in grad school, adjuncting and struggling with my dissertation. So, in all honesty, I was just thrilled to have scored a full-time job with decent pay, benefits and my own office. And not only that, I had some pretty good perks, too—travel funding, a good degree of autonomy, and key administrators who genuinely cared about the success of my writing center.


In the last several years, I’ve heard colleagues--at conferences, in articles, and on listservs--make the argument that perhaps we as a field focus too much on whether writing center administrator positions are tenure-track or not, that perhaps we should focus instead on other measures, like the existence of some of those perks I mentioned above. And this perspective makes sense, to a degree; contingent writing center workers should have good benefits, travel funding, and administrative support. But ultimately, even these “cushier” contingent positions lack permanency and security, and as long as those conditions exists, these workers are at risk and their centers are at risk. As a result of a new policy or a shift in administration, a contingent position that seems stable or comfortable can become decidedly less so.


And this is a conversation that we should be having before we get to the state of crisis that Dawn mentions above, where someone loses their job or loses their center or otherwise experiences radical instability in their working conditions. Those of us who have hold or have held contingent positions that were relatively comfortable, relatively rewarding, that were “not so bad” should still recognize the effects our status may have on the work we do. And talk about it.


Finally, I’ll add that I work on this project now from the perspective of someone who holds one of those relatively rare tenure-track writing center directorships, and the degree to which I was affected (and my center was affected) by my contingent status in my previous job is something that I’m still processing. I think individuals in contingent positions may often feel alone or isolated from colleagues, and I suspect this can especially be the case with writing center administrators, who often hold unique institutional positioning. For example, in my previous position, I reported to three different departments, but my office and center were located in the university library, which I shared space with but did not report to. Navigating this positioning as a contingent worker was challenging, and I often felt uncertain of where or to whom I belonged or who my allies were. I hope then, if nothing else, that this project can help contingent writing center workers to feel less isolated and to examine and process the effect that their contingency has on them and their work.


Clint: Maggie writes about the tenuous nature of contingency, and I think that can be seen in a recent sad turn of events at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) where tutoring services were shut down at the end of the the semester.  Supposedly no full time employees were affected, but part-time employees were, since “many who work at the school’s tutoring centers, for instance, are part-time workers.”   Nevertheless, CSN Associate Vice President James McCoy states that “Student success is our number one priority...We are making data-informed decisions to minimize the impact that these budget cuts have” (Ley, Ana. “Budget Woes Prompt Cuts at CSN, Affecting Tutoring During Finals Week.”  Las Vegas Review-Journal. 6 Dec 2015).  I find it difficult to to reconcile the notion of student success that administrators like McCoy tout, with the harsh realities of contingent employment, and the part-time basis that many tutoring centers and writing centers are operated under. It is ironic, as well, that the part-time workers being laid off are, most likely, students. 


I think such actions as happened at CSN smack of Beth Boquet’s observation in her plenary address at the Council of Writing Program Administrator’s Conference in Boise, Idaho of our institutions’ unwillingness to render visible the power they mask through the increasing disembodiment of our educational enterprise.” (Boquet’s address was published in the Fall 2015 edition of Writing Program Administration--39.1.) Contingent employees in higher education are the first to be sacrificed on the wheel of sustainability. They are very well aware of that fact, and often find themselves scrambling to keep their jobs and also, if they are full time, their careers. 


Boquet also recalls a quip from a senior colleague about students when she first started teaching: “The good ones, you can’t hurt; the bad ones, you can’t help.”  The ease with which some institutions sacrifice support services such as writing centers and the individuals who work in them to “sustainability” seems to show that they fully adhere to this cynical view of education.  I hope that our research can make the working conditions of contingent writing center employees more clear, and the important work that they do more evident, so that such cynical attitudes, if they really do have any influence in higher education, can be dispensed with.


Boquet also talks about the status of all higher education employees/workers at institutions by exploring a trope of violence present in their shared working conditions:


 “…It is difficult to draw the connections, as I would like to, between violence in our communities...and the violence implicit in our institutions’ unwillingness to render visible the power they mask through the increasing disembodiment of our educational enterprise. We are experiencing the deterioration of the value of expertise and shifts in the value of academic literacies writ large and as they have been historically practiced. The central consolidation of power, the control of information along with the simultaneous denial that such practices are operative:  These are contemporary literacy tests; we should make no mistake about that.  I bristle at the mission creep of the term sustainability, as I have outlined here.  I have no language for bridging the distance between the ways that the term is deployed in my own institution’s documents, my understandings of my university’s core mission, and my felt sense of this term’s mattering in the world.”  (Boquet 102)


While Boquet is speaking specifically about teachers in higher education, it would seem that violence of the sort she described for the sake of sustainability is very often directed at contingent employees first.  What has happened recently at CSN is nothing new.  Tales of downsizing or outsourcing of writing centers were prevalent in the community during the so-called Great Recession.  While I will not name particularl people here for their privacy’s sake, long-standing writing center professionalswith highly popular writing centers, were dismissed from their positions, and their work with students was either abandoned or combined into conglomerate “tutoring services” that paid little attention to the specific needs of student writers, or of the particular writing center theory and practice that our field has developed.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that in 2013 “states are spending 28% less per student on higher education nationwide,” andthat “cuts over the last five years have been remarkably deep,” and that the target of such cuts are services that impact students directly.  These cuts have occurred despite research that shows that “Instructional spending (spending directly related to classroom instruction) and student services spending (spending on counseling, career guidance, tutoring, and other services intended to support students outside of the formal instructional program) positively affect student graduation rates.”  As with CSN such cuts are described as only budgetary and “good for students” but are never described in terms of the real harm that they do to real, living, human beings.


Maggie: Jumping back a bit, Clint and Lila have both mentioned student workers, and I’d like to reflect on that thread a little more.  Lila describes the responsibility she feels toward “peer tutors who are reluctant to view themselves as exploited because they see the opportunity of working in a writing center as one that will open doors for them eventually.” I think this characterization of peer tutors is really provocative and compelling—and frankly, one that I was initially a bit resistant to. Like many others who are now writing center administrators, I first stepped foot in the writing center world as a peer tutor, an experience that I still hold as one of my most formative and valuable. As a result, I work hard as a director to make my peer tutors’ writing center work experience just as meaningful. To consider otherwise—to consider my own complicity in their potential exploitation—was an uncomfortable proposition indeed. But, as I’ve learned from my colleagues and from our initial work on this study, we can’t talk about contingent writing center labor without talking about the peer tutors, who, as they work in our centers for a year or two, often earning little more than minimum wage, are perhaps the most contingent writing center workers of all. Their inclusion in our study is deliberate, and I hope their voices will bring a much needed dimension to this conversation.


Lila: What most interests me about the reflections written by my colleagues is that they point to the ways in which writing center workers are both exploited victims and perpetrators of exploitation. Neither role seems easy to embrace, as Maggie intimates via her remark that she didn't want to see her experience as a tutor as one that involved exploitation. But as a field, we need to see when and how labor exploitation happens and not shy away from discussion of it. By talking about our working conditions, we can hear important stories of directors’ experiences--stories of the sort that Dawn mentions. We can thereby build connections among one another so that we don’t find ourselves in situations like the one Clint found himself in when he felt isolated in his contingency.



My colleagues have spoken to so many of the issues and concerns that we have heard others voice at SIGs, or read on WCENTER, or observed through our work as contingent writing center directors. At the last IWCA conference, Lila reminded us, “We do this to each other,” and she is so right. As a field, we do not do enough to create equitable working conditions for our colleagues. Too often, we choose not to act because we don’t want to make waves, or we feel powerless, or we just don’t see contingency as a problem or see the problems that our colleagues face. We can no longer ignore that contingency is a problem, and we can no longer ignore our complicity in those problems. At the very least, I think the voices that emerge from our study will urge us to act in selfless, compassionate, productive ways.