CCCC 2014 Reviews

B.16 "Composition in the Age of Austerity"

Reviewed by Paul G. Cook (paulcook@iuk.edu)

Chair: Lil Brannon, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Tom Fox, California State University, Chico Tony Scott, Syracuse University, NY
Nancy Welch, University of Vermont, Burlington

What burns these modern-day populists is that anyone has the arrogance to think that human affairs might be arranged any other way; that government might allow our neighbor to evade his part of the common disaster; that some mortgage remediation scheme or farm bill might let him out of the hard-times punishment that he clearly deserves. (Frank, 2012, p. 25)

There really are "two Americas" in 2014, only not in the way most people mean.

On the one hand, there are those who seem to grasp the historical reality that we are now in the beginning stages of widespread insecurity for most, with many college-age Americans being told that they can now expect to hold something like seven different jobs over the course of a lifetime. And many of these will be jobs, not careers. Jobs that will come with few (if any) of the traditional remnants of Fordist-era social and economic security. This America—just for fun, let’s call it the America of the "educated realists"—senses that we are witnessing the dawn of a new social-economic order, and they react to this cold historical fact with a sort of intellectual armor, not unlike those puffy Sumo suits you see at kids’ birthday parties and corporate retreats. Many in this camp would no doubt consider themselves good liberals and people of the Left, and they are noble in the sense of the Homeric hero: dutifully arguing and (where possible) voting for the side of modest economic gains, increased corporate regulation, tax reform, better public schools, equality in word and deed, and other durably humanistic ideals of the last fifty or sixty years of American political culture.

On the other hand is an America made up of those who, while they recognize a shifting of the socio-economic winds, have adopted as their response a bitter, neo-Darwinian "winner-take-all" fanaticism. These folks seek a sort of catharsis in the Aristotelian sense, one that can typically only be obtained through fantastic violence or tragedy (or both). A pundit’s go-to exemplar here would be your average, 55-year old white male Tea Partier, but I have come to believe that into this broad category you can stick most contemporary conservatives, and the violence to which I refer inheres in their confused, not-merely-metaphorical beating of the poor. Over and over and over again. None should escape punishment.

I jot these broad observations from within a cozy Panera in downtown Indianapolis, in town for this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), or the "Four Cs," as it’s known to those on the right side of the disciplinary shibboleth. As the flagship organization of the nation’s largest, oldest, and most powerful contingent of college writing teachers, scholars, and other assorted eggheads, CCCC, and its parent organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, is a clearinghouse of sorts for rhetoric and writing studies in the United States. As I sip my coffee and wait around for the panel to start at the gorgeously-appointed JW Marriott just down the street (Room 308, third floor), I can’t avoid noticing the hardworking baristas cheerily taking orders, bustling to and fro, and putting on a weary smile as they greet obvious conference goers and regular downtown denizens alike. The company refers to them as "associates," of course, no doubt another exhaustively focus-grouped facet of the corporate artifice that this place exudes.

And as they scurry about this quick-service coffee-and-sandwich chain with alarming speed, dexterity, and skill, I’m challenged, in the midst of all this activity, to think about my own professionalism and my own abilities as a teacher of writing. Do I do my job half as well as these $7.25/hour folks do theirs? Do I work as hard as these folks? Do I earn my keep? Tough questions. Then, inevitably, as I reflect on the luscious, $275 room my institution sprang for the previous night, my mind wanders to the fact that for those of us who exist more or less comfortably alongside this economic mess we’ve inherited from criminal bankers, high-finance robber barons, and crooked, clueless, or spineless (or all three) politicians, the plights of others—the unemployed and the underemployed, those who are no less hard working, no less deserving than anyone else—should really be our primary concern in the United States of 2014 and beyond.

Hustling back to the gilded beauty of the Marriott , its Starbucks permaline resembling the Bureau of Motor Vehicles on a Tuesday morning (with slightly better suits), I made it back to Room 308 just in time for the start of a packed session. Tony Scott, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Syracuse University, kicked off the panel with the somewhat familiar claim that the narrative of austerity is a purely ideological attempt to make belt-tightening a permanent reality in higher education, noting a 7.9% drop in overall funding for higher education between 2007 and 2012. Meanwhile, Scott went on to note, the Obama administration claims that tuition has risen by 250% in the last two decades, though another study places the increase nearer to 130%. Per-student support is, Scott remarked, at its lowest point since 1980.

An undeniably persuasive facet of Scott’s rhetorical appeal, particularly for an audience of academics and (one can assume) good, Homeric people of the Left, is that he lays much of the blame at the feet of the Obama administration, a ploy that has become mother’s milk for many on the Left in recent years. Of particular interest to Scott is the language of "accountability" and "competency-based education" (CBE), both terms that lard Obama’s and the US Department of Education’s much-ballyhooed ratings system that proposes to tie institutional performance to an ongoing funding model. Using terms like "fairness" and "equality," Scott pointed out how these tenets are neoliberal to the core, espousing a competition-based worldview that posits individuals (students, faculty, and even administrators) as so many entrepreneurs freely trading and selling on the "free market" of higher education.

In short, Scott suggested, terms like "austerity" and "core competencies" are not only wrongheaded in terms of how they portray higher education’s historical function and purpose, but they are also pregnant with a bald neoliberal ideology. Their intent is nothing less than bringing about a permanent sense of "crisis" in higher education on the way to permanently shifting the ground(s) of the debate. Concluding with remarks on the discourse of "adjunctification," Scott called for a re-vision of this discourse in light of the dominant economic and ideological narratives of our time. Adjunctification and contingency, in all their multifaceted complexities, can no longer exist discursively "contained" from the rest of higher education. There are signs that this situation is changing before our eyes.

Next up, Tom Fox, of California State University, Chico, zeroed in on the plight of the National Writing Project (NWP), another budgetary victim of the blanket austerity that immediately followed the 2007-08 global financial crisis. In 2009, Fox noted, the federal government defunded the NWP to the tune of $23 million, and with that signaled, along with dozens of other state and local governments, that the "age of austerity" had officially begun for programs, initiatives, and other organizations that rely rather heavily on federal and state funding.

Noting how the NWP’s overall response to this forced attrition was itself a strategic maneuver, Fox asked whether faculty’s "creativity" in times of austerity and belt-tightening (i.e., the preferred term for politicians and administrators who want to seem folksy) plays right back into the logic of austerity itself; that is, to what extent is the internal logic of austerity strengthened whenever we—whether faculty, WPAs, program directors, chairs, etc.—find clever and tactical ways to staunch the bleeding? Are we our own worst enemies?

Interestingly, Fox seemed to think that the NWP’s continued survival four years into the age of austerity indicates something positive or even "happy," but as he himself presciently asked, if an organization’s flexibility and institutional creativity plays into and in fact strengthens the logic of austerity, then what should our strategy be? In closing, and with a nod to Scott’s presentation, Fox noted how one of neoliberalism’s more cutting tactics is to create a marketplace where one does not organically exist, a point that has been echoed by other critics of the neoliberal turn in academic culture more generally. Thomas Lemke, for instance, made a similar point when he wrote that neoliberalism is not just an "ideological rhetoric or . . . political-economic reality, but above all . . . a political project that endeavors to create a social reality that it suggests already exists" (2001, p. 203; emphasis added). If we are to combat—or at least exist productively and ethically within—the belly of the neoliberal U, we must, as Fox remarked in closing, muster all of our "wit, nimbleness, and resources."

Nancy Welch’s contribution was a fitting way to round out a panel on "Composition in the Age of Austerity." Beginning with a well-known bon mot from Stephen North—"Everyone thinks writing is a good idea, but no one wants to pay for it"—Welch lamented the "corporate winds" now blowing through higher education, correctly noting that writing programs were both privatized and domesticated long ago.

Welch went on to detail the benefits enjoyed by those at the top of Marc Bousquet’s not-uncontroversial metaphor of higher education as an enormously-complicated pyramid scheme: the deferred compensation packages, the wardrobe and transportation allowances, the exorbitant salaries. A common jest around faculty lounges is that no one gets rich teaching college; true, perhaps, but a lot of people are getting richer as upper-level administrators.

When we talk about neoliberalism, Welch asked, saving the best for last, are we merely re-sharpening the same razor-thin blade? When we present, write, and publish about the academic labor system, adjunctification, or contingent faculty issues, aren’t we just preaching to the choir? What good is a finely-honed theoretical-practical praxis if you never actually use it? We engage in endless critiques of bloodthirsty textbook publishers, but even as we sit comfortably in Room 308, sipping our $4.25 Grande coffees and critiquing the exploitation of our students and contingent faculty colleagues, our textbook colleagues mill around the Grand Ballroom just two floors away. What can this proximity tell us? What does it hide?

A similar geographic and economic proximity exists, of course, in our home institutions, but there the knives come out, the politics more bitter, the stakes more real. Or more realpolitik?

It’s easy to moralize neoliberal culture. And it’s not exactly wrong, either. (Put differently, this is precisely what I was doing as I sat in the downtown Panera, treating myself to hearty helpings of middle-class academic guilt and non-dairy creamer.) However, moralism must be tempered with systemic critique and action, otherwise it risks becoming what Slavoj Ẑiẑek called "cheap moralizing": the familiar neoliberal tactic of transforming capital’s inherently exploitative machinations and lust for compulsive expansion into "a matter of personal sin, a private psychological propensity," like those economic Aristotelians who place blame for the financial crisis on the backs of those who "bought a house they couldn’t afford" or who delight in tales of art majors drowning in student loan debt (2012, p. 78). If you make it personal, critique loses its bite, and we all go back to being disconnected individuals trading our souls on a "free market" that’s anything but free. As Ẑiẑek wrote, in an uncharacteristically coherent sentence, "the point of emphasizing morality is to prevent the critique of capitalism" (p. 78).


Frank, Thomas. (2012). Pity the billionaire: The hard-times swindle and the unlikely comeback of the right. New York, NY: Picador.
Lemke, Thomas. (2001). ‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190-207.
Ẑiẑek, Slavoj. (2012). The year of dreaming dangerously. London: Verso.

CCCC 2014 Reviews

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