Critical Thinking and Composition in Contentious Times

Critical Thinking and Composition in Contentious Times

Critical Thinking and Composition in Contentious Times

Critical Thinking (CT) is a concept embedded in student learning outcomes attached to composition courses at many colleges and universities nationwide. At first, the concept may seem rather abstract, but when you start to unpack it it’s pretty clear that CT invites challenging assumptions, self-reflection, thinking through intrinsic and extrinsic values, and questioning beliefs and ideas, which may affirm, alter or negate them. One useful open educational resource (OER) maintained by associate professor Joe Lau, B.A. (Oxford) Ph.D. (MIT), Philosophy Department, University of Hong Kong, frames CT this way:

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

- understand the logical connections between ideas;

- identify, construct and evaluate arguments;

- detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning;

- solve problems systematically;

- identify the relevance and importance of ideas; and

- reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs and values.

CT in the time of a heated presidential election cycle may be particularly challenging to navigate in the composition classroom, face-to-face, hybrid or fully online. It also creates an opportunity for an unique class dynamic that is constructive and ideally student-led.

Approaching contentious topics critically is something educators should not, indeed cannot, shy away from, yet the reliance on and reliability of student evaluations as an indicator of faculty performance that may influence hiring decisions coupled with the pressure of extreme adjuncting weigh heavily on the majority of our nation’s part-time faculty who live and work in poverty with little to no job security. Just to be clear, this in no way suggests that part-time faculty are any more prone to arbitrary grade inflation or avoidance of difficult topics than tenured faculty. The point here is that the pressure is intense and there are little to no special accommodations or institutional privileges that I’ve seen or experienced that would allay the pressures of precarious employment.

On CT and democracy, Lau says: “The proper functioning of a liberal democracy requires citizens who can think critically about social issues to inform their judgments about proper governance and to overcome biases and prejudice.” I’ve written that quote on the whiteboard in my composition classes many times to set the tone of a potentially political discussion. Let’s admit it, many of the general themes and specific topics discussed in composition courses are political, with overlap into other areas.

For example, the Clark College English Department requires all faculty members use a common assignment, and the department approved 2015-2016 topics are: Environmental Concerns Regarding Drinking Water; De-extinction; Waste; Role of College in America. As you can see, these topics invite CT and political discussion. It’s hard to imagine discussing water without mindful consideration and analysis of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation struggle with the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Role of College in America—well, adjunct faculty and student debtors especially know this is a political, economic, and ethical landmine that’s sparked national outrage and legislative action to curb the abuses.

Supposing not all institutions require common assignments, the plethora of viable research topics are no less potentially hot; and this isn’t a bad thing, either. Tackling tough topics is something that should be deeply valued, though. Yes, on one hand teaching composition is about the nuts and bolts of writing, research skills and processes, but there is no denying the discipline also begs the discussion and percolation of complex ideas.

Though written and verbal communication are widely prescribed as necessary and desirable skills, the discipline is grossly undermined when composition courses are assigned to hordes of underpaid adjuncts. The truth is that composition instruction requires compassion, integrity and, yes, critical thinking—the same skills college values in the curriculum, but devalues on the pay scale. That’s not irony, it’s hypocrisy.

The humanities as a discipline is not shrinking, either. Indeed, the demand has gradually increased, as recent statistics reported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences indicate:


What’s happened to the profession is all too clear: the steady devaluation of academic labor has given rise to hiring schemes that are designed to fail faculty and students. This not only undermines the profession, but it is inexcusable and goes against the core mission to educate for freedom and success, and nearly everyone with a stake in higher education knows it. As Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth assert in The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Palgrave Macmillan), “the real crisis in the humanities is the large-scale employment of non-tenure-track professors with no academic freedom who are hired, rehired and fired relatively informally and noncompetitively.” This is unacceptable.

An extension of this crisis is that qualified, committed instructors are caught in the revolving doors, booted out with little or no advance notice, which forces them into hardship. The cyclical stress of this is unbearable, too. This is wrong and it’s intentional; cheap labor is addictive. Until we fix the crisis or force fair play, expect it to continue.

Meanwhile, many of our nation’s part-time composition instructors are charged with guiding students through the thicket of contentious times and topics. When an administration devalues academic labor it depreciates the quality of education, and this is a national disgrace. Nothing will change unless faculty and students are informed and stand up against the tyranny. Seth Kahn makes two crucial points: “(1) teaching gen-ed courses requires just as much subject knowledge as any other teaching, and I strongly believe that if you’re not finding it so, that’s a problem; and (2) every single time somebody devalues lower-division teaching, we make it easier for management to do the exact same thing.” Let’s not play into the myth that enables administration to devalue our discipline and profession. It’s time to take a stand for higher education; right now, that means we need to vote higher, too.

Tiffany Kraft

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