Freddie deBoer's description of American academia is vivid and depressing

Freddie deBoer has published a lengthy piece on his Substack site about his time in academia. In 2009, with a BA in English and Philosophy, he found himself doing odd jobs, making no money and having few prospects for a stable future so he decided to go to graduate school. He was admitted to the University of Rhode Island to pursue an MA in Writing Studies.

If you’ve never heard of writing studies that’s actually a major focus of deBoer’s tale. Writing studies was a kind of breakaway faction within the English departments at many universities. It was originally created by academics who believed the English faculty had abandoned the teaching of writing for more esoteric pursuits.

Teaching college students to write papers has always been seen, by a large chunk of the world’s English professors, as a kind of academic scutwork best fobbed off on the academy’s hordes of contingent and powerless labor. In the late 20th century some tenure track professors disagreed, though. They were mostly at large state universities in the middle of the country, far from the prestige and power of elite academia. They cared about student writing, took it seriously, and wanted to receive professional credit for caring about it. But English faculty would not give it to them, fearing that rewarding writing pedagogy work would devalue their field. It was from here that rhetoric and composition was born. A small but growing movement of faculty worked to break writing away from the broader umbrella of English, whether in new departments or programs within English departments.

But by the time deBoer was finishing his MA at URI a decade ago, the ground had shifted. The academics who made up writing studies departments, which he also refers to as rhetoric & composition classes, seemed to have largely lost interest in teaching writing.

What is writing studies/rhetoric & composition, really? You can get a good sense of what a field values by asking what graduate work it rewards. Who’s getting the awards at conferences? What dissertations are resulting in TT hires? Back when I was grad school for rhetoric & composition, it was, like, the rhetoric of Dr. Who, endless arguments that “playing video games is a form of writing,” papers about how white cishet people take up too much space in academia and need to step back written by white cishet people, tired screeds about how comic books are just as deep and real and also less racist and more cool and smarterer than the canon, dissertation-length case studies of three Appalachian women’s journaling habits that somehow could render sweeping generalizations about literacy, treatises on business writing that curiously had nothing to say about corporate practices and everything to say about Andrew Pickering’s theory of “the mangle,” lots of disdain for the concern of teaching students how to arrange sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into papers, relentless insistence that any attempts to correct a student’s English is the hand of imperialism, “ethnographies of place” that entailed the author spending four total hours in the library and writing about whatever they fancied there, and sundry other topics that could function as parodies of useless academic writing…

I cannot tell you how many of my peers teaching freshman writing had excised out almost all actual writing from their syllabuses, replacing it with stuff like web design and podcasts and, literally, playing board games in class. They loved that shit.

There’s an obvious problem with abandoning the original justification for your entire academic field. It leaves it without any justification but also without any clear focus. If writing studies academics aren’t focused on writing then what’s the point of having them around? According to deBoer, he spent much of his life as a grad student trying to warn others in his field that they were leaving themselves open to being shut down entirely.

At some point, when I was really in the throes of despair about it all, I started asking everyone I could think to ask: what do we know, as a field, that we didn’t know ten years ago? What new knowledge could we say with confidence that we had gained? I asked grad students and faculty, at my institution and at others, over beers and at conferences and via email. The only consistent and shared answer was, again, that society/the university/the humanities/the classics/writing are racist. This was the story everyone wanted to tell. But this wasn’t really new, at all – the dissertation topics from ten years prior were choked with white academics nervously borrowing from the history of racial oppression for the purposes of employability. And absent that, there was quite literally nothing that different people offered as new knowledge that was broadly agreed upon. Asking specifically about student writing or writing pedagogy induced shrugs.

Eventually, deBoer sold a book about this to Harvard University Press but he never wrote it. He did wind up contributing something for a professional publication called College English but it was never published.

I expressed some of my worries in a vignette for a special issue of College English, one that promised to look at assessment and its potential impacts on college writing programs, guest-edited by Maya Poe and Asao Inoue. I was, in fact, invited to write such a vignette, so I did. The piece was accepted – I received an email saying so directly – and then, mysteriously, removed from the special edition. You can read it here. What I said was true and, I am willing to say, necessary. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes. Inoue is one of a number of scholars in contemporary academia who has realized that he can essentially hold the fragile white professoriate hostage by threatening them with constant accusations of racism, which has vaulted him to the top of the field…

Whether Inoue’s doing or not, the vignette was certainly spiked after acceptance because it said something the field simply does not want to hear: that the total abandonment of its core pedagogical function leaves it immensely vulnerable to the neoliberal takeover of the university, and the endless identity grievance-mongering that holds so much power within its culture will be powerless in the face of the Republican state governments that will inevitably come to defund its programs. The wolf is at the door.

And that’s sort of where deBoer leaves it. The humanities are obsessed with racism and language that makes their insights seem more obscure to anyone outside the field. Meanwhile, the actual teaching of writing to students is out-of-fashion with professionals in the fields of English and even Writing Studies. At some point, stressed academic budgets will force cuts and writing studies professors who don’t care about writing will probably seem like a good place to start. The wolf may be at the academic door but deBoer has made a convincing case that the wolf will be doing the taxpayers a favor.