Scholarship and Practice
A Narrative of Discontent: On Interrogating What It Means to be a Scholar
Chloe de los Reyes
“Our survival depended on an ongoing public awareness of the separation between margin and centre and an ongoing private acknowledgement that we were necessary, vital part of that whole.” ~ bell hooks
Many of these chapters describe academics’ moves from practice outside of the academy to inside of it as scholars/researchers. However, I want to foreground an often-disregarded outsider-to-insider experience of moving from being considered a professional to being seen as an academic, a scholar, and a knowledge producer. For me, that has involved moving from being an undergraduate, graduate student, and then adjunct faculty member on a four-year campus to a tenure-track faculty member on a two-year campus. Very simply, as I moved along this trajectory, I saw myself continuing to grow as an academic and knowledge producer, while it became increasingly clear to me that in the eyes of most tenure-track faculty and perhaps the larger composition field, once I left my graduate student status, I was becoming only an increasingly professional teacher of writing. Even when I began my appointment as a tenure-track community college faculty member, thinking then that being on the tenure-track would cause me to be seen as an academic, I still felt resistance, as four-year campuses and the larger composition field still seemed to struggle with the idea of two-year faculty as real academics.
And so my project uses my own trajectory in academia, how I came to be here, how I am experiencing it, and how I might “engage in my own imagination” to make a place for me, to explore what it means to be an academic, a scholar, a researcher (brown). I am asking these questions as someone who has inhabited, and arguably still inhabits, the position of an outsider—then, as an non-PhD adjunct at a four-year university, and now, as a newly-hired tenure-track faculty at a community college. I am asking these questions because I believe that our community’s prevailing caste system that relies on degrees, memberships, and affiliations seriously limits the contributions—and most importantly, the growth and development—of both faculty and students.
Both Donald Murray and Jan Blommaert speak helpfully to the ways we understand the interplay of our personal and professional lives. Murray (1991) maintains that all writing is in some way autobiographical, growing “from a few deep taproots that are set down into our past in childhood,” and Blommaert (2020) asserts that the professional and personal are always intertwined, sometimes in complementary ways and others in “uneasy or poorly balanced ways.” And so I begin with the ways my professional life is rooted in my personal history, in my observations, and in my experiences in making sense of the world around me, moving then to the professional questions that have troubled me into writing this chapter.
My story begins as a rather inquisitive child growing up in a devoutly Catholic family in Iloilo City, Philippines. Our lives centered on being Catholics: We went to mass every Sunday, every feast day, and every holiday of obligation. We prayed the rosary every evening after dinner during the month of October. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were quite active in the church—one would even volunteer my sisters and me for whatever activity she felt we ought to be part of. All three of us sisters, for instance, played the role of the angel who announced Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. My dad was part of a couple church committees. My mother, to this day, still often jokes about wishing for one of her daughters being called to serve as a nun.
For me, Murray’s taproots arise from always having been curious as a child. In fact, my inquisitiveness always got me into trouble. I asked a lot of questions—and what always seemed to be the wrong questions: “Why do we have to pray the rosary?” “Why is it an obligation?” “What does obligation mean?” “Wouldn’t God prefer that we pray the rosary because we wanted to rather than because we are obligated to?”
However, even though my family didn’t really discourage my curiosity, they didn’t really encourage it either—or at least they did so selectively. They encouraged reading, playing, trying new things, and actively playing a role in our community. They wanted me to do well in school and to be smart, even to question things—just not certain things, especially things tied to religion, cultural values, gender roles, and the like. Nevertheless, the underlying curiosity and eagerness to learn is at my core. I read as much as I could; I hung around and eavesdropped on the grown-up table as much as possible.
When I was around 12, my parents decided to move to the United States. This move only strengthened even more my inclination to figure things out, as the stakes are now even higher. When my family and I arrived in the US, we needed to figure out how to fit in and how to navigate this new country. I suppose a majority of my life was spent trying to figure things out—who I was and where I belonged. And that may be how I stumbled upon the field of Composition Studies.
Upon receiving my B.A. in English Literature, I decided to keep going to school and chose an M.A. in Composition program because it was local and because I thought it could help me improve my English. Little did I know that this field is far more rich than just learning about grammar and that writing and language is tied to our ways of seeing the world.
Composition Studies offered me ways of making sense of my experiences. Much like Christine W. Nganga in “Emerging as a Scholar Practitioner: A Reflective Essay Review,” graduate school was “a time when [my] passion intersect[ed] with opportunities for inquiry that lead to finding solutions for educational dilemmas” (p. 243). I learned about language acquisition, the ways people viewed multilingual students, and language politics. I learned that many would put under me the umbrella category called English as Second Language (ESL) and confirmed my earlier observations that there is a stigma attached to those who belonged in this category. Most importantly, my graduate program helped me realize that there was nothing wrong with me, and that I didn’t need to change. Instead, the world needed to change the way they see me and others like me.
And that’s how I fell in love with this field. Even though my entry to the field of Composition Studies was somewhat accidental, I stayed because it gave me an avenue to pursue my questions and turn them into research projects, and these research projects, in turn, helped me understand who I am and how I can best contribute to the world. I worked in my university’s writing center, where I was able to wrestle with what it means to be “ESL” from multiple points of inquiry: my tutoring practices, scholarship on ESL students or variations of it (Second Language Writing, Multilingualism, Translingualism, etc.), and my own understanding as a person who was labeled as ESL for most of her life. By then, I started to see how “[b]ecoming a scholar practitioner is a process that requires continuous discovery of one’s passions as linked to inquiry” (Nganga, p. 245). I wanted to understand language, writing, and labels, and how these have been powerful forces in my life.
My mentors—one in particular—was able to model for me what it means to be a scholar—how not settle for easy answers, how to continue to ask questions, how to ask the right questions, and how to reflect on one’s views and to be open to changing one’s mind. She did so by inviting me to work alongside her on projects or to help me develop my own. At that time, I was interested in learning more about how we can best tutor multilingual students. And so “[m]y learning curve has been a composite of spending extended periods of time at the university working on different projects with professors in addition to my coursework. These activities shaped my identity and the avenues through which I enact my scholarship and practice” (Nganga p. 245).
As a graduate student, I was presented with opportunities that allowed me to grow and to develop as an academic. In 2007, our writing center director arranged for two tutors to spend one term as visiting tutors, one in a writing center in Germany and another in Sweden. In Germany, I was able to get a different view of what it means to learn English as foreign language. I was also able to see language learning or acquisition from the perspective of an observer, which helped nuance my own understandings. The Germany experience then gave way to multiple conference presentations and a chapter in Bruce and Rafoth’s ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. I mention this not to list my achievements, but instead to show that I was constantly learning, that “I was involved in some kind of study, collecting and selecting writings from which I wanted to draw advanced insights, useful for the research projects I was engaged in” (Blommaert).
In fact, one of my favorite things to do was to listen in on my professors’ and other scholars’ conversations. Whenever an opportunity arose to participate in an academic conference, I was the first one to sign-up. I felt like a child again eavesdropping on the adult table. Moreover, this first-hand participation in the field allowed me to nuance my understanding and to move beyond what I learned from books and in the classroom. I saw for myself how ideas are teased out, challenged, and eventually evolve and spark new ideas.
In such contexts of collective sharing, conditioned by maximum generosity, changing one’s mind is self-evident. The very point of having a discussion or brainstorm – an “exchange of ideas” – is that ideas can be exchanged and changed, and that one leaves the session with better things in one’s head than before the session.
However, as I moved from graduate student to adjunct faculty member, my view of myself changed abruptly. Instead of being recognized for my move from student to faculty status, I struggled to be fully recognized as a “colleague,” as someone who is valued, has expertise, and who is welcome to all the tables, in the four-year institutional context.” After receiving my MA in English Composition, I stayed at my alma mater and continued to teach at several programs in that institution: in the English Department’s First-Year Writing Program, the International Extension Programs, and the Educational Opportunity Program. Over time, I was able to build my course entitlement to a full-time load; however, despite the arguably good contract (I had benefits and retirement) and an arguably adjunct friendly-English department, “even these good practices are beset by the challenges of the contingent system,” as Patricia Davies Pytleski points out.
In fact, although I was now “faculty,” I felt less like an academic than I did as a graduate student. My experience and observation have been such that most adjuncts “are defined by a work schedule (part-time) and by a single trait of teaching (lecturer) because [adjuncts] are not expected to be or do more than that” (Hanson and de los Reyes). Herb Childress (2019) said it best: “the peculiar cruelty of higher education is its third option — the vast purgatory of contingent life, in which we are neither welcomed nor rejected, but merely held adjacent to the mansion, to do the work that our betters would prefer not to do.” I’d been able to work around this and carved out a role for myself in the department through sheer doggedness—I just kept signing up for committees and projects that didn’t preclude adjuncts, and despite the scarcity of funding, I was able to attend conferences through the charity of friends (lots of frequent flyer miles donations and hotel room rollaway beds). I did so even, when at times, it felt like my contributions weren’t really valued, or much less heard. I needed to create “a dysfunctional story in which [I] have at least some role, in which [I] can name a way that [I]belong” (Childress).
However, in late August of 2018, while everyone was finishing up their curricula for the upcoming academic year, I was, instead, writing a resignation letter, filling out a leave of absence form, and crying my eyes out, because I had decided to step away from my adjunct position, even though it now included some administrative responsibilities. Very simply, even though I can cite the layers of explanation of how I arrived at this decision, I just felt deadened by the everyday politics and the uncertainty and marginality that came with adjuncting. I felt disillusioned upon the realization that the system is stacked against persons like me who are not tenured and who don’t have the right degrees.
During this time, however, I was encouraged by my mentor to hold steadfast and to not give up entirely on academia. She suggested I explore the possibility of working at local community colleges. After some consideration, I decided to make an inquiry and submitted an application to one closest to me; however, I was told that classes have already been filled for the upcoming spring semester and that I would need to wait to see if something else opened up in the following academic year. So I kept plodding along. I applied for several administrative support positions at various local universities and colleges and applied to a couple of parallel positions to the one I had left. I also thought of doing something completely different, so I also submitted numerous applications for everything and anything I was remotely qualified for outside of academia, including an application for a part-time position at our local nursery. I thought about going back to retail again. I even considered going back to school to become a librarian. Nothing really panned out. Maybe that was a good thing. Deep inside, I knew that I wasn’t going to be as happy anywhere else.
Fortunately, about a month or so into my job search, out of the blue, I was contacted by that close-by community college because two classes had opened up at the last minute. So just like that—I was back in academia once again. Only this time, in a completely different context.
My new context complicated my already convoluted professional life. I needed to start over, and I was not sure how to bring with me the professional and scholarly identity that I’d worked so hard to build over the years, as the community college context is much different than that of universities. Moreover, there wasn’t an established program that would allow me to continue my previous specialized work. However, by the end of that term, by good fortune, several full-time positions opened up in the English Department, and I was offered a tenure-track position.
Oddly, when I began my appointment as a tenure-track faculty, I thought that being on the tenure-track would allow me to do the work of, and be regarded as, an academic, but once again, I was wrong. Many of my community college colleagues had been conditioned to see their roles as teachers who looked at times at others’ research but were not expected to conduct or publish their own and who were expected to follow curricular designs handed down from the top. Moreover, my observations echoes Howard Tinberg’s (2010) in that I, too, “rarely witnes[s] campus discussions on scholarly or theoretical matters” as a majority of the conversations often revolve around the more practical ones: creating student learning outcomes, developing support structures, and such. This is not to say that the practical are unimportant, as they are an integral part in serving the needs of our students; however, it does foreground Tinberg’s questions: “Can research and publication enhance our teaching? I believe so. Can theory inform practice and practice shape theory? Absolutely” (p. 8).
In “We Value Teaching Too Much to Keep Devaluing It”, Seth Kahn (2020) writes:
In English studies, both faculty and those who practice in the field expend an abundance of energy attending to instruction and research. Despite all of this, we risk seeing our efforts undercut by a handful of recurring riffs, like those in jazz music, that reinforce a disparity in status between some kinds of teaching in relation to others, between teaching in relation to research, and between teaching faculty in relation to research faculty.
Reading Khan’s observations is disheartening especially as someone who has spent years working as contingent faculty. However, the conversations about such disparities, particularly with regards to contingent faculty, always revolve around pay and labor, but I argue that these conditions are mere symptoms of a larger issue, as similar symptoms are occurring at two-year institutions as well in the form of professional disparity. As Jeff Andelora (2005) writes:
Despite the fact that all of these two-year institutions were expected to provide a college-level curriculum, the very appellation of junior college designated them as something not to be taken too seriously, as almost as if they would forever be the university’s kid sibling. (p. 309)
Even though the label has since changed from junior to community college, the perceptions have stayed and so has the construction of the identity and thus the work of community college professors: teachers firstly and scholars rarely, and the “lack of participation in research, theorizing and knowledge-building” has only solidified existing academic class structures and hierarchy (Andelora).
Neither contingent nor two-year faculty are expected to contribute to the field, and this practice not only contradicts our belief that all teaching involves learning and creating knowledge but also severely limits our value to the field. Such disparities will continue to occur if we don’t support or encourage our colleagues to do the work that it takes to be a scholar, and by extension, to be a teacher. Once again, I amplify Andelora’s words:
Ultimately, if faculty stay divorced from their disciplines too long, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to meet the needs of their students. In our own field of composition, if faculty members have not kept pace with the changes we have seen over the last thirty years, what they have to offer their students is limited. (p. 315)
Faculty owe this much to those we are called to serve: our students.
To do this, it is imperative that we rethink the necessary intersections of teaching, learning, scholarship as embodied, fluid, and non-hierarchical. Along with Howard Tinberg, Seth Kahn, Jeff Andelora, and many others, I want to challenge traditional separations between teaching and research faculty and to rethink the narrative and the current structures we have created for ourselves. Simply put: If we believe that learning must always be a component of teaching, it follows that questioning and researching those questions must be a part of all teachers’ teaching. In turn, this means that we must reexamine the caste system or status markers that differentiate the work of two- and four-year college faculty, of adjunct and tenure-track faculty. It means that all faculty should be engaged in learning and creating rather than expecting that only select professors—the upper tier—and that the rest simply replicate their work or even follow decontextualized curricular designs handed down to them.
James Bordley in his speech at the Investiture of the Charter Members of The John Hopkins Society of Scholars in February 22, 1969 describes a scholar as someone who
possesses learning in depth in one or more fields, and whose activities include, on the one hand, reading, observation, experimentation and reflection; and, on the other hand, the communication of the acquired learning to others by teaching, writing or other means. This type of scholar is usually a student during most of his life, and a teacher during part of it.
Although James Bordley can easily be dismissed as applying fifty years ago to an elite group of Hopkins faculty, I want to use it today to challenge faculty in all positions to take seriously the rich learning, teaching, knowledge-creating circuit they encourage their students to hop into and to apply that same imperative to themselves. I am compelled to teach because the act of learning especially about writing excites me, and I hope to impart my knowledge and my excitement to my students. It is part of who I am. Taking this challenge means that each of us searches our own taproots for that eagerness to learn, that curiosity that we may feel has dampened.
I understand that re-reading Bordley’s words is complicated as it requires revision on multiple fronts: of academic, disciplinary, and institutional cultures, identity construction, professional development, workload, among others; however, the community college/four-year university as well as the contingent/tenure divide and the privileging of select voices in the field’s larger conversation can result in missed learning opportunities and an incomplete composition scholarship. It challenges those with institutional power to reconsider the educational caste system we have inherited so that faculty teaching whomever, wherever, and under whatever conditions can keep their own and their students’ curiosity and knowledge-creating lives vibrant.
Andelora, J. (2005). The Teacher/Scholar: Reconstructing Our Professional Identity in Two-Year Colleges. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 32, no.3, pp. 307-322.
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Bordley J., 3rd (1969). What is a scholar? The Johns Hopkins medical journal, 125(1), 1–7.
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