Conflict between professors and Duke over proposed changes to the writing program


The proposed changes to a compulsory freshman writing program at Duke University have some union faculty members alleging that the change in focus is primarily about fighting unions.

The Thompson Writing Program, in place at Duke since 2000, teaches writing through a multidisciplinary lens. According to the university website, its writing classes are seminar style, and faculty members come from a wide range of academic disciplines. The instructors in these writing courses are made up of a mix of lecturers and fellows, the latter belonging to a union of professors. Although full-time teachers, the lecturers are not tenured. Working conditions vary, with some instructors on renewable contracts and others with non-renewable appointments.

“Rather than spending a whole semester talking about composition and writing, which admittedly is rather boring, even for people like me who love to write, we teach writing in the discipline,” said Paolo Bocci, in charge of writing. of Duke’s Thompson Writing Program. . “So we are not English. We are cultural anthropologists, geographers, biologists, archaeologists, historians and musicologists who teach courses that have this kind of dual nature.

But now Duke is changing the nature of the program, focusing on a larger goal, according to Erin Duggan Kramer, assistant vice president of media relations and public affairs at Duke.

“Duke recently completed a curriculum review of the 20-year-old Thompson Writing Program and is making major changes to better serve today’s undergraduate students. Instead of teaching writing in a disciplinary context, we will teach expertise in a number of areas including oral communication; scientific and technical writing; digital / multimodal writing; multilingual rhetoric; and racial literacy and anti-racist pedagogies, ”she said by email.

The emailed statement added, “As a result, Duke will be hiring a number of new faculty who are academics in teaching writing and oral communication – expertise gained through a PhD. with a specialization in rhetoric and composition – to positions of practical professors of writing studies and lecturers in writing studies.

This change, say union professors, means that some contracts will not be renewed. In addition, they will not be qualified to apply for new positions posted, which can be filled by non-union speakers with training in rhetoric and composition. With the disciplinary emphasis on the chopping block, so do the jobs of some unionized faculty members.

Potential job losses

Seven unionized faculty members would see their contracts not renewed under the current plan, critics said. And some claim Duke has been reluctant to work with the union since non-permanent faculty members voted overwhelmingly for the organization in 2016.

“From the start, Duke was strongly anti-union,” says Miranda Welsh, a lecturer in the Thompson program, citing the university’s resistance to faculty issues.

Welsh says she has the unique benefit of being on a renewable appointment that isn’t until next year, but people hired after 2016 don’t have renewable appointments. Although the proposed changes could see her colleagues leave after the spring semester, she would remain employed. However, she fears her contract will be terminated next summer.

Duke has long opposed renewable contracts for professors in the Thompson program, Welsh said, on the grounds that he needed a rotating roster of academics to ensure expertise across a wide range.

“In our program in particular, they argued that, because it was a writing in disciplines program, they needed a faculty renewal because it was the only way to maintain disciplinary diversity, ”explains Welsh.

In the end, it was the posting of job postings for the Thompson program that alerted faculty members that changes were underway, prompting them to demand an explanation.

A December 2 email from Denise Comer, director of the Thompson Writing Program, to faculty members outlined the changes, and those affected said it was the first time they had heard of the proposal. The email came in response to questions about the vacancies.

“This initiative marks a shift in strategic direction for TWP, requiring professors who are academics in teaching writing and oral communication – expertise gained through a doctorate. with a specialization in rhetoric and composition, ”Comer wrote in an email shared by a faculty member. “Our current model of teaching writing in a disciplinary context has served us well over the past 20 years, but the program must evolve in order to maintain excellence and truly prepare current and future Duke students to lead. , discover and get involved. “

Duke did not make Comer or any other administrator available for interviews and declined to answer additional questions specific to the concerns raised by students and faculty members.

Thompson’s professors say they have been caught off guard by the job ads that have been posted looking for candidates who will ultimately replace them under the proposed plan. They say there was no warning and little communication once they inquired about the announcements. Likewise, the administration did not want to respond to their concerns, say the professors.

“Nobody talks to us,” says Bocci.

Protesting changes at Duke

Surprised by the proposed changes, Thompson’s faculty held a protest on Sunday, drawing nearly 200 people to the event, according to estimates from several people in attendance.

One of those in attendance was Jordan Reaves, a freshman at Duke who took a course in the Thompson writing program this year called Dolly Parton for President? The class, Reaves says, was research intensive but also fun, and offered a unique approach to developing writing skills.

He first heard about the changes from a professor and hopes to see the writing curriculum continue in its current format, which he says creates a sense of community in compulsory writing classes.

“I feel like if you replaced him there would just be less common experience; people will be less involved with the material, and ultimately won’t develop as many writing skills, ”Reaves says.

Professors cite student support for the Thompson writing program, as well as the high marks of American News and World Report, which ranks Duke as the # 2 university for Write in the disciplines.

“It really shapes and defines the undergraduate experience,” Bocci explains.

But now, barring an administrative turnaround, it looks like the experience will be reshaped.

“The rationale was that it will allow us to better serve students. But they didn’t provide any evidence for it, ”Welsh says. “What they are proposing I think is actually an evolutionary reversal to an older model of teaching writing than what we are using now.”

Given the popularity of the program, Welsh suspects these changes are not intended to serve students. Instead, she thinks it’s part of a larger battle between Duke and organized labor.

“At this point,” she said, “I feel like the only logical explanation left is that this is an attack on the union.


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