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An Ethic of Service in Composition and Rhetoric

Serving the profession through principle doesn’t mean teaching “service courses.”
By Linda Adler-Kassner And Duane Roen

Research, teaching, and service—the traditional tripartite division of academic work. The kind of institution and the nature of institutional priorities have some bearing on the arrangement of the first two parts, but service always comes last. From our shared perspective as faculty members and administrators in writing studies, though, the nature of service is both more meaningful and more complicated than this seemingly straightforward arrangement would suggest. For us, service is simultaneously an integral part of the teaching and research that we do (which, we should note, are also virtually inseparable) and a problematic label that is often attached to many of the courses that we teach, especially at the first-year level.

In our work, the term service applies to a range of activities. Certainly, it includes participation in departmental, campus, and cross-campus committees. But to conceive of service only from this perspective negates the principles that lie beneath our approach to activities in which we partake in the name of service. This approach affects both the choices we make when we serve and the perspective we bring to the sites of service. For us, service is an important practice that involves working from a set of principles. At their core, these principles are reflected in a portion of the mission of the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the organization that Duane currently serves as president and Linda as immediate past president. That mission, in part, says that we “believe in writing and writers” and “advocate for effective writing programs.” Extending from these principles, we see service as an opportunity to build alliances with others on campus and within the community, thus enlarging our experiences (which contribute to our research and our teaching) and, ultimately, the experiences of our students.

These principles have also led us to talk from a particular perspective with others in and outside our field about composition and rhetoric and the classes we teach. The content of our discipline involves studying how texts are produced, used, distributed, and circulated in particular contexts. In our classes, students study this content by analyzing and practicing textual production in context. Theory and practice are blended. Too often, however, composition courses—especially first-year writing courses—are conceived of only as service. They are seen as serving students, faculty members, and the institution by teaching writers particular kinds of skills that they will use elsewhere—in other classes and in other contexts such as internships or jobs. And although we do help students develop writing, reading, and thinking strategies that can be used across contexts, that development is grounded in the content of our discipline. Conceptualizing writing courses only as service, then, erases the content of our discipline. Thus, although we embrace the concept of service, we are careful to attend to the ways it is applied to our work as researchers and teachers and to the courses that we teach.

Advocacy for Writers

Our perspectives on service have led us to make a number of choices throughout our academic careers— for Duane, a career now in its fourth decade, and for Linda, one now in its third—that have involved advocating for students, courses, and our discipline as something that extends beyond conventional notions of service.

Duane has served the CWPA as an executive board member and an officer. In the Conference on College Composition and Communication, he has served as an officer, an executive committee member, and a member of numerous other committees. He has served on several committees for the National Council of Teachers of English. At the state level, he has served as an officer, executive board member, and conference cochair for the Arizona English Teachers Association. At Arizona State University he has held a wide range of administrative positions—director of composition, director of the Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence, head of Humanities and Arts, head of Interdisciplinary and Liberal Studies, head of Technical Communication, and assistant vice provost for University Academic Success Programs. He has served on scores of university, college, and departmental committees, and he conducts weekly professional development workshops for ASU’s Graduate College. He conducts regular workshops on writing family history for community groups throughout Arizona. In 2006–07, he served as president of ASU’s faculty senate.

Linda has served as a CWPA executive board member and officer; a member of a variety of committees for the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the National Council of Teachers of English; and a participant in and chair of several committees drafting policies, statements, or position papers that speak to the work of K–16 English language arts and writing teachers. At the campus level, she has served in a range of roles, from department chair to director of a writing center (twice) to assessment liaison, and she has been a member of too many departmental, campus, and cross-campus committees to count. Linda also has worked with writing in the community.

Threaded throughout this work has been our advocacy for the perspectives on textual production (writing) and producers (writers) that are embedded in the principles that underscore our work. Thus, the range of activities we describe—in the profession, on our campuses, and in our communities— is meaningful to us because these activities are integrally linked to that set of principles about the importance of writing and helping writers. We have seen all of them as means to act on our commitments to writing and writers by building alliances with others, or as ways of advocating for students, writing instructors, and the work involved with writing instruction. In the materials we have submitted for new positions, for promotion and tenure, or for merit reviews, we have also situated our service work within this broader frame, keeping in mind Ernest Boyer’s position in his 1990 report Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate and his 1996 article “The Scholarship of Engagement” that faculty members have responsibilities to engage in a full range of scholarly activity—discovery, application, integration, and teaching and learning. The CWPA elaborates on this position in its 1998 statement “Evaluating the Intellectual Work of Writing Administration.” As that statement and the Boyer documents suggest, this work is also driven by inquiry and conducted within a community. All of this work should be rigorous, and all of it should be rewarded if it is done well. It should be considered during annual merit reviews and during tenure and promotion reviews.

However, as contributors to Michelle A. Massé and Katie J. Hogan’s 2010 book Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces note, such work is often inadequately rewarded. In public institutions, rewarding service seems especially important because the public financially supports the work we do—even if that support is a small fraction of the institution’s overall budget. We can also look to the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole.”

Duane’s service reflects his commitment to the principles cited here. His annual performance reviews have consistently included comments about how his service benefits the department, college, institution, and community. Further, he has had administrative staff and graduate student support when needed. For example, when he served as local arrangements chair for the 1997 convention of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the English department chair at Arizona State University provided funding for a graduate student assistant. When Duane organized the programs for the 2011 and 2012 conventions of the CWPA, his dean insisted that a graduate student help with processing proposals and constructing the conference program. Duane has also been recognized for his service at Arizona State University. In 2008, he received the university’s award for graduate student mentoring. In 2012, he and three colleagues received the university’s award for curricular innovation. Although Duane consistently works eighty or more hours a week throughout the fiscal year, he has chosen to take on service commitments that require that many hours. Each year he serves on the university committee that nominates students for Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes scholarships. Reading those nominations is exciting, because the applicants have all performed at extraordinary levels. Duane also serves each year on the committee that selects the winners of the university’s graduate mentoring awards.

Linda’s service reflects the ways she has acted on these principles as well. At her previous institution she worked with faculty members, full-time lecturers, adjunct instructors, and graduate students to develop an award-winning firstyear writing program; she also worked with the same instructors to modify the work of the university’s writing center. Her advocacy for writing and writers informed her approach to other activities that blended research, teaching, and service, such as a long-term assessment project that brought together instructors, community members, students, faculty from other departments, and staff to discuss and evaluate features of “good writing” as they were reflected in student work. Linda has drawn on these principles in her new role as director of a large independent writing program, a position equivalent to being a department chair. She also has drawn on them as she has worked with faculty members across campus as the faculty assessment liaison for her campus’s regional accreditation review. In these roles she has been supported by the institution—her work has been recognized and, often, rewarded.

Intrinsic Rewards

Our lives certainly would be less hectic if we had chosen to focus exclusively on our teaching and research, which also consume substantial time each week and which we also find rewarding. However, service both provides a sense of satisfaction that is difficult to find elsewhere and reflects principles of our discipline that we find integral to our work and our lives. Service offers opportunities to make a difference in the lives of many people who are not necessarily affected by our teaching or our published research.

Activities construed as service also inform our teaching and research. For example, when Duane conducts family-history writing workshops for community groups, he is teaching people who are not officially students at his university. The same holds true when Linda works with student writers or teachers in the community. When we conduct workshops on teaching for faculty members at colleges and universities across the United States, we draw on our research. When we engage in program reviews at other institutions, we draw on our research then, too. In these cases, we come to appreciate more fully the practical applications of our research. However, we have enough selfawareness to realize that these intrinsic rewards would probably not be sufficient if there were no extrinsic rewards. We have been fortunate to work at institutions that value service and that see it as vital to the institutional mission.

“Service” is a complex label that can be doubleand even triple-edged. At some institutions service is seen as less significant than research and teaching— hence its position in the triumvirate. Thus, even though we have engaged in service throughout our academic careers, we are quick to caution graduate students and untenured assistant professors to engage in just enough service to demonstrate that they are willing and able to be contributing colleagues. We are also mindful that the “service” label can subsume or erase the content of our discipline when it is applied (erroneously) to first-year or other writing courses. At the same time, we recognize that service is a vital activity that runs through all elements of our work, and we strive to achieve a balance that draws on principle and brings together our research, teaching, and service practices.

Linda Adler-Kassner, past president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, is professor of writing and director of the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her e-mail address is Duane Roen, current president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, is assistant vice provost of University Academic Success Programs and head of Interdisciplinary and Liberal Studies at Arizona State University. His e-mail address is

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