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Here we have reblogged the first of a three part series on outsourcing graduate student writing support. Although situated in a North-American context, the discussion raises important issues for institutional writing specialists, doctoral students, supervisors and consultants everywhere as cash-strapped institutions increasingly combine with entrepreneurial markets to provide writing support to doctoral scholars. The posts are written by Shannon Madden and Jerry Stinnett in response to an article in College Composition and Communication.  We don’t necessarily endorse all the arguments they advance (how could we, since at least two of the editors at DoctoralWritingSIG occasionally work as consultants?!) but we do think these issues deserve attention.  We hope you find the series stimulating. 

Empowering graduate student writers and rejecting outsourced mentorship

By Shannon Madden and Jerry Stinnett

In this 3-part series of installments on the WCJ Blog, we reject the outsourcing of graduate writing support to inexpert consultants in the private sector and call instead for university stakeholders to attend more systematically to the needs of graduate student writers.

As faculty members and former graduate students ourselves, we like many others have experienced the need for more writing support at the graduate level (see also Caplan & Cox, 2016). Very often, graduate students across the disciplines receive little feedback on their writing projects or instruction in advanced genres even though coursework, conference presentations, job applications, and theses and dissertations are all grounded in specialized disciplinary communication practices (Carter, 2007). As a response to this problem, Daveena Tauber’s (2016) recent article in College Composition and Communication offers a model for private writing consultation as a way to support graduate students as they navigate advanced writing tasks. Tauber advocates expanding the definition of successful academic employment to include writing consulting as a means of helping graduate student writers succeed in the university and of relieving the “job crisis” facing Ph.D. students in the humanities.

While Tauber’s approach attends to some of the problems facing graduate student writers, her model also exacerbates many of the same issues it purports to mitigate. As we explain in this series, because Tauber and similar consulting services offer privatized instruction to support underserved students and underfunded universities, private consulting offloads the cost of educational access problems on those least equipped to handle them. Additionally and also dangerously, she ignores a significant body of existing research on the goals and methods of graduate writing instruction, as well as evidence-based efforts of writing centers, institutional programs, faculty mentors, and scholarly organizations such as the Consortium on Graduate Communication. These elisions together with the absence of data-driven assessments of private consulting services invite questions about how effective this consulting model can be. Ultimately, because the model does not rely on a strong research foundation and legitimizes inexpert writing instruction, it promotes a casualized labor structure and undermines the possibility of more fully integrating writing instruction into graduate education across the curriculum.

In this series, we use Tauber’s article and its appearance in the flagship journal of the field as indicative of the urgent need for compositionists to attend to graduate writing experiences and articulate better alternatives to the offshoring model of graduate writing support.

Private Writing Consultants Profit by Exploiting Existing Equity Gaps in Higher Education

As is well documented, the question of equity in graduate education remains vexed. Nationally, universities are still graduating underserved groups in much smaller numbers than majority students, and this imbalance is even more pronounced at the graduate level. Reports from the Council of Graduate Schools (2011; 2015) demonstrate that students from underserved groups such as students of color, students with disabilities, and nontraditional students are statistically more likely to suffer from attrition and prolonged time to degree. Additionally, attrition typically happens during the dissertation- or thesis-writing phase, which suggests that issues of equity in graduate students’ writing experiences deserve more concentrated attention.

In general, much of the responsibility for mentoring extended graduate writing projects falls on individual committee chairs working in isolation with their advisees, and many students are cut off from the strong networks that are needed to provide frequent and sustained feedback on their writing (see for instance Casanave, 2002; Golde, 2005; Phillips, 2012; Simpson, 2013; Zahl, 2015). While writing is constitutive of disciplinary knowledge-making and comprises much of the work of graduate professionalization, faculty tasked with mentoring graduate students often see writing as a neutral skill distinct from content knowledge (see for instance Gere, Swofford, Silver, & Pugh, 2015). Graduate writing centers, dissertation workshops, and other mentorship services are starting to develop on many campuses but are still not present at the majority of U.S. universities. As a result, many graduate students do not receive the feedback, instruction, or sustained support in writing they need to complete their degrees.

Tauber’s troubling answer to the problem of graduate support need is a private consulting model—one in which for-profit “entrepreneurs” working outside the university consult with students on their theses or with departments on how to integrate more writing support into their graduate programs. In her view, these consultants can provide the focused attention on writing that so many students need and may not be getting from their committee chairs or academic programs. Positioned outside the academy and working for the student, Tauber claims, allows these consultants to work alongside students’ committees to promote retention and success, especially for underserved populations (p. 650). Tauber explains, “For [underserved] students, the opportunity to work on their writing in the context of a supportive, non-evaluative relationship can make the difference between completing and not completing” (pp. 650–651). For this reason, she concludes, “[W]riting consultants are in a strong position to help graduate schools and departments put their rhetoric about supporting diversity into practice” (p. 650).

As becomes clear in her discussion, certain universities and particular stakeholder groups will be more vulnerable to the offshoring model of writing support than others. Tauber admits that of those who hire her services, women and students of color are overrepresented relative to national demographics. She notes that around 81% of her clients are women and around 45% are students of color (p. 649). These certainly don’t match graduate demographics overall; the National Center for Education Statistics reports that students of color represent around 14% of all students at the masters level and around 11% at the doctoral level.

Rather than treating the problem, Tauber’s consulting model treats the symptom while leaving the problem in place. Of course “writing support and instruction should be an integral part of graduate education rather than being self-funded by students” (Tauber, 2016, p. 649). Yet self-funding is exactly what her model proposes, even as she acknowledges structural inequities within academe that contribute to systematic disenfranchisement of students of color, students with disabilities, and low income students. She calls her services a way to promote equity but in fact reproduces the logic of the equity gap in graduate writing support. Students who are well-integrated in peer cohorts and supportive departments and whose committee chairs offer frequent, substantive feedback on their writing wouldn’t need to hire a Tauber. If those who have less access are more in need of writing support, then those are also the students who would be forced to shoulder the cost of redressing access problems by paying a nonacademic consultant. In this way, private consulting makes the equity gap in graduate writing support the marginalized student’s own individual problem to solve. Tauber is profiting from those who face inequitable circumstances by asking underserved students to pay additional out of pocket to purchase the writing support that they need.

In a parallel dynamic, the private consulting model also places poorer schools at a disadvantage. Universities such as Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Minnesota already have thriving graduate writing support systems and wouldn’t need to hire a nonacademic consultant. However, a consultant who cold-calls a poorer school might be able to solicit their business; universities with fewer resources might opt for a one-time consultant-led workshop in lieu of systemic support for graduate writers. Indeed, as if to persuade those who would de-fund writing centers and slash tenure lines, Tauber lists among the benefits that independent writing consultants help universities cut labor costs (p. 638) and retain student tuition dollars (p. 641). And they do so at the student’s own financial expense and at the expense of writing experts who are already on campus, whose work can presumably be offloaded to the private sector at lower cost. Because they position poor schools and disadvantaged students as an untapped and potentially lucrative market, nonacademic consultants are poised to exploit existing equity gaps in higher education.

Ultimately, Tauber’s article should call university faculty to (re)consider the question that Tauber invokes early on (p. 236): Who is the client of education? Jeffrey Williams (2005) put this question another way when he asked whether educational institutions should benefit primarily the public good or the shareholders—boards of trustees, corporations, and private donors. Is the university’s mission to educate its students, cultivate robust cultures of research, and contribute to a more democratic and ethical society? Or is the university’s primary function to ensure the financial benefit of private interests? When uneven graduate support is viewed as a problem to be offloaded onto students or contracted to the lowest bidder, then education becomes just another land grab in which those who already have resources are better-positioned to benefit and those with less access get left behind.

Our next post will discuss how outsourced private graduate consulting, rather than helping to integrate writing across campus, actually prevents writing from being fully integrated across the academic curriculum. Join us!

References

Caplan, N. A., & Cox, M. (2016). The state of graduate communication support: Results of an international survey. In S. Simpson, N. A. Caplan, M. Cox, & T. Phillips (Eds.), Supporting graduate student writers: Research, curriculum, and program design (pp. 22–47). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Carter, M. (2007). Ways of knowing, doing, and writing in the disciplines. College Composition and Communication, 58(3), 385–418.

Casanave, C. P. (2002). Writing games: Multicultural case studies of academic literacy practices in higher education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Council of Graduate Schools. (2011). Data sources: Graduate students with disabilitiesRetrieved from: http://cgsnet.org/data-sources-graduate-students-disabilities

———. (2015). Doctoral initiative on minority attrition and completion.  Retrieved from: http://cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Doctoral_Initiative_on_Minority_Attrition_and_Completion_2015.pdf

Gere, A. R., Swofford, S. C., Silver, N., & Pugh, M. (2015). Interrogating disciplines/disciplinarity in WAC/WID: An institutional study. College Composition and Communication, 67(2), 243–266.

Golde, C. M. (2005). The role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition: Lessons from four departments. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(6), 669–700.

National Center for Education Statistics. Fast facts: Degrees conferred by sex and race. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72

Phillips, T. (2012). Graduate writing groups: Shaping writing and writers from student to scholar. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 10(2). Retrieved from http://www.praxisuwc.com/phillips-101/

Simpson, S. (2013). Systems of writing response: A Brazilian student’s experiences writing for publication in an environmental sciences doctoral program. Research in the Teaching of English, 48(2), 228–249.

Williams, J. (2005). History as a challenge to the idea of the university. JAC, 25(1), 55–74.

Zahl, S. (2015). The impact of community for part-time doctoral students: How relationships in the academic department affect student persistence. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 10, 301–321.

About the authors

Shannon Madden is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing & Rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island. She received her Ph.D. in Composition, Rhetoric, & Literacy from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. She is currently researching the lived experiences of dissertation writers in a cross-institutional empirical study. You can email her about that work at docwriterstudy@gmail.com.

Jerry Stinnett is an assistant professor of English and the Director of First Year Writing at Duquesne University. He received his Ph.D. in Composition, Rhetoric, & Literacy from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. His current research focuses the history of disciplinary composition and its relation to late industrial society as well as how pedagogical practices in first-year composition have been shaped by disciplinary history.

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