Graduate Student Academic Freedom and the Apprenticeship Myth

By Dan Colson

In fall 2009, my university’s newly hired director of programs in professional writing circulated a survey asking business writing instructors to note which of the long list of tasks, skills, and assignments they taught in their classes. Many of us blithely responded to the survey: what harm could come from his desire to know the overlaps and discontinuities amongst the program’s instructors, many of whom had been teaching these courses for years? By early spring 2010, we learned that he was not simply gathering information. He announced that he “likely [would] define the core content” of the two major business writing courses, a move that would impose “an instructional core ... of ten weeks.” The survey apparently had been either our only major opportunity to help shape this core or flimsy evidence to justify changes the new director already had planned. His e-mail did assure us that “the program is not proposing or adopting a single pedagogy for all sections”; he merely was dictating 70 percent of what we would teach.

A minor uproar tabled these changes for several months, but in November 2010, he outlined the far-reaching details of this “core content”: his “proposal” covered “genre” (a list of required tasks—including e-mail, cover letters, and résumés—and excluded assignments); “skills” (a broad category encompassing everything from “self-assessment” to “visual design”); and “foundational concepts” (which contradict his claim for pedagogical flexibility by listing a set of four underlying principles that each class must build from, even though it is obvious that these “foundations” are the subjects of reasonable disagreements amongst both business writers and pedagogy scholars). I do not dispute the pedagogical validity of the director’s genres, skills, and concepts. They seem an appropriate framework to structure a business writing course. Nor, though I find the opacity of the decision-making process inappropriate, do I wish to focus on how the director developed his personal vision for dozens of instructors’ classes. Instead, I want to highlight a comment he made to me in our one-on-one meeting to discuss his then-nascent proposal, a statement that explains not the content or process of the changes, but the attitude that would allow a single faculty-administrator to suggest sweeping pedagogical restrictions and, quite likely, to do so with no substantial resistance. While I defended the quality of our teachers’ instruction and insisted that no broad changes were needed, the director targeted our status as graduate students. As fledgling instructors, we have much to learn from him (though I likely have taught the course more often than he has). In fact, he angrily asked, “Isn’t that why you came [to this university]?” I quickly noted that no, I was not seeking a PhD in American literature so that I might learn to teach business writing. The absurdity of his position might be funny if it weren’t indicative of what I argue is one of the greatest threats to graduate student academic freedom: the apprenticeship myth.

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