Open Letter from Comp/Rhet area group

Open Letter submitted by the Graduate Center Composition and Rhetoric Community (GCCRC)

As Graduate Center faculty and students who focus in full or in part on composition and rhetoric, we begin this letter by briefly highlighting historical and current contributions of our specialization to the Ph.D. Program in English and to the university as a whole. We conclude with five proposals that reflect both our own needs and new initiatives that can, we suggest, ultimately lead to a more cohesive program.

Historical Precedents and Current Contributions in Comp/Rhet Scholarship and Pedagogy at CUNY and at the Graduate Center

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, CUNY faculty implemented new structures, programs and courses to bring instruction in literacy to the students and working adults of New York City who entered CUNY as part of the rapidly expanding open-admissions policy. Within a few years, CUNY faculty[1] quickly established this University as the leading center of research and innovative pedagogy within the fledgling field of composition and its new subfield, Basic Writing. Although the early open admissions university system made missteps when designing policy (such as instituting a massive system of simplistic high-stakes writing tests), university faculty across the campuses developed forward-thinking pedagogical scholarship and classroom practice. These efforts resulted in cross-campus affiliations such as the CUNY Association of Writing Supervisors (CAWS) which met monthly for over a decade. More recently, the CUNY Composition and Rhetoric Community (CCRC) has taken on the task of reconnecting these scholar/teachers. In the past few years, the bi-annual Mina Shaughnessy Speaker Series has exemplified the activities that continue to make CUNY an intellectual hub for composition and rhetoric. These latter efforts are organized and led by faculty and doctoral students at the Graduate Center.

In the mid-1990s, Comp/Rhet became an official specialization in the English Ph.D. Program. In a relatively short period of time, our group has made significant contributions to the English program as well as to the larger university system. In the late 1990s, members of the Comp/Rhet concentration coordinated and compiled “Comprehending the Comprehensives,” a study guide to the departmental required first exam. still in use today. In addition, using the central pedagogical focus of composition studies, students within the Comp/Rhet concentration have developed and led twenty-years’ worth of teaching seminars for their peers in GC programs, all of whom had teaching responsibilities across university campuses. For the last six years, the DSC-chartered Graduate Center Composition and Rhetoric Community (formerly known as GCCRC) has run a program of bi-weekly lectures, workshops, and discussions open to all Graduate Center students focusing on both scholarship and pedagogy. The members of the Graduate Center Comp/Rhet group also actively participate in student government to an extent that belies our small numbers, including multiple ESA co-chairs, conference chairs, and members of the executive and curriculum committees, thereby contributing to the work and ongoing development of our program.

The Composition and Rhetoric Concentration and the Character of the English Ph.D. Program: A Symbiotic Relationship

Since the English program’s last self-study, we have seen a welcome shift in the way we describe and present our work, especially at open house recruitment sessions and new student events and orientations. Faculty and student area group leaders speak knowingly and appreciatively of the Comp/Rhet focus in the program: speakers describe writing workshops, discuss genre choices and revision strategies from seminar paper to article to dissertation to book, and highlight reading and writing as mutually connected and important processes. We believe a thriving Comp/Rhet area group has been a major source of this shift and will continue to act as a vital component in highlighting and enhancing this particular strength of our program.

The Comp/Rhet area group, while proud of its willingness to work in a ‘service’ capacity, is also comprised of writers, poets, researchers, DH innovators, and scholars who participate in the ongoing intellectual life of our field. Comp/Rhet doctoral students have recently created the Writing Studies Tree (WST), a digital humanities project that has made a major contribution to the field of composition and rhetoric and received two Provost’s Digital Innovation grants. The WST team was also honored as a featured panel at the 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), and was a part of “DH from the Ground Up” at the 2014 Modern Language Association conference (MLA). Members of the GCCRC have also participated in national conferences such as the Council of Writing Program Administration, the Conference of Computers and Writing, the Conference of the Rhetoric Society of America, and FemRhet. The presence of our doctoral students at these conferences not only highlights their individual talents but also underscores the vibrant intellectual work occurring at the Graduate Center in composition and rhetoric. In addition, former Graduate Center Comp/Rhet students have assumed important faculty and administrative roles across CUNY. Mark McBeth and Tim McCormack, for example, both faculty at John Jay, have created a writing program that has won two national awards, one from the Conference of Basic Writing for Innovations in Basic Writing Curriculum and the other from CCCC for Writing Program Excellence. Finally, the English Ph.D. program has a 100% success rate of placing its Comp/Rhet graduates in tenure-track positions.

Although many of our doctoral students come to CUNY with little background in composition and rhetoric, this specialized area group of the English Ph.D. program has offered them the opportunity to develop their interests and experience. Many English Ph.D. students have combined their interests in literature and literary criticism with a focus on Comp/Rhet. This cross-concentration focus offers a particular competitive advantage to English Ph.D. students. While still in the doctoral program, many have found themselves taking on positions as deputy chairs of freshman composition, writing-across-the-curriculum coordinators, or writing center directors. Without their familiarity with the theories and practices of composition and rhetoric, it is unlikely that they would have assumed such high-profile administrative/faculty positions within their institutions.

Furthermore, Graduate Center students who develop Comp/Rhet competencies enter the job market with more than a few recognizable strengths: scholarship in their sub-field of English studies; a deep and complex understanding of sophisticated, student-centered pedagogy; and rich experience in administrative know-how. In the current job market, the program cannot overlook the importance of its Comp/Rhet concentration in producing such highly qualified graduates. The most recent MLA JIL featured approximately 60 Comp/Rhet positions, or nearly one-quarter of the advertised positions.[2] Without the influence of Comp/Rhet within the Graduate Center English Ph.D. Program, our graduates may not have the hiring advantages that they currently possess and that the program can tout to incoming candidates. For a program that grooms scholars who will, through teaching, also guide the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students in writing and literature courses, the Comp/Rhet presence within the program remains an important and resonant influence.

Five Proposals to Enhance the English Program through a Robust and Sustainable Comp/Rhet Presence at the Graduate Center

In the next five years, we believe a robust Comp/Rhet focus will continue to serve the English program, will continue to produce strong and innovative scholarship, and will continue to attract graduate students who will enhance the Graduate Center’s national reputation and make substantial contributions to our field. To support this work, we offer the following five proposals:

1. Course offerings

Goal: Restore Comp/Rhet seminars to two offerings each semester.

Rationale: Given the complexity and time constraints on teaching schedules on various campuses, it can become almost impossible for doctoral students to take Comp/Rhet seminars if only one seminar is offered. This truly limits student progress in the program for Comp/Rhet specialists and reduces access to Comp/Rhet resources for all students.

Action requested:

    A.   Offer two seminars in Comp/Rhet each semester.

    B.   Offer the option of independent study when only one Comp/Rhet seminar is offered so that Comp/Rhet students can continue to develop their expertise and knowledge as well as advance their standing in the program.

2.  Faculty

Goal: Restore the Comp/Rhet Graduate Center faculty to four members.

Rationale:  As of Spring 2014, the Comp/Rhet faculty will be reduced to three members who are available to teach and guide students (McBeth, Perl, and Shor). With Jessica Yood on a long-term leave of absence, we are, once again, understaffed. Three faculty members are not sufficient to support the work and research interests of our students nor do three faculty provide a sufficiently broad range of expertise for students looking to do research in our field. At a minimum, we need four Comp/Rhet faculty members both to support the activities described above and to maintain a robust and sustainable Comp/Rhet specialization. For two decades, the comp/rhet faculty have also served on orals and dissertation committees of students whose scholarly interests lie primarily in literature, so sustaining the comp/rhet faculty will serve not only the specific concentration but also the needs of many other doctoral students in English.

Action requested:

    A.   An immediate campus search to bring our faculty cohort back to four.

    B.   A national search for two senior faculty to be held as joint appointments between a campus school and the Graduate Center. These searches anticipate future retirements over the next five years.

3. New Graduate Teaching Fellowship

Goal: Establish a new fellowship for entering English students with more than 3 years’ teaching experience as CUNY adjuncts in writing, with administrative responsibilities integrated into faculty development initiatives.

Rationale: This fellowship would reward and honor teaching as an important part of a professional life in English, encourage diverse GC applicants, and expand the ability of the GC to act as an institutional hub for thinking about writing, rhetoric, and pedagogy. Offering a path out of the contingent faculty pool, this fellowship would address labor inequities and bring new voices into our conversations about how best to structure undergraduate writing and reading programs. Adding an administrative component builds on and builds up both these teachers’ experience and our learning community.

Action requested:

A. Work with the appropriate administrators to secure four fellowships, funded at lecturer salary levels, with five years’ guaranteed 2/2 teaching load at the CUNY campus where the fellows already teach. Funding would be shared by the GC and the home college. Each fellowship would also include, in years 1 and 2, participation in the classroom intervisitation project proposed below, and in year 3 the four fellows would be the lead student coordinators of that project.

4. Cross-Campus Classroom Intervisitation as Preparation for Teaching Fellowships

Goal: As part of the existing first-year research assistantship for Chancellor’s Fellows, incorporate research in pedagogy via cross-campus visitation of writing and literature classrooms. Faculty and GTFs would arrange for students to visit a range of classes the first-year students could teach in years 2-4, and in turn these teachers could visit each other’s classrooms. This intervisitation program could potentially be paired with the Teaching Practicum requirement.

Rationale: This requirement would better prepare new graduate students for teaching as well as foster cross-campus collaboration and sharing of teaching practices. It would help create teaching networks for our graduate students. As a broader practice, it would serve to reimagine observations as collaborations and teaching of teachers, rather than policing. The Comp/Rhet student community has already piloted a similar program and would be instrumental in designing and implementing a more formal arrangement, thereby establishing the critical importance of the doctoral program in the rethinking of faculty development and pedagogical practice at CUNY.

Action Requested:

A. Set up a student-faculty committee to coordinate schedules and recruit faculty/GTF participation.

5. Ongoing Commitment to an Integrated English Studies

Goal: Continue to strive for program requirements that foster a comprehensive and integrated English program.

Rationale: The core principles that make up our collective identity and vision are nowhere more concretely communicated to prospective students than in the program’s required courses and exams. While acknowledging the important work the Curriculum and Exam committees have undertaken over the past decade, e.g. to increase the flexibility of the required course and the first exam, retrofits such as one swapped-out question for Comp/Rhet students suggest a program in which a baseline knowledge of literature and critical theory is indispensable, but familiarity with rhetoric, writing processes, and pedagogy is optional. We would argue that solid foundations in all these areas of English are mutually beneficial, and that their combination is an essential part of our program’s culture and future. Reflective composing practices, pedagogical consciousness, and rhetorical savvy will help students in their coursework, research, and teaching across all their areas of specialization.

Action Requested:

A. Conduct ongoing review and revision of requirements such as required course(s), the comprehensive exam, and language exams with an eye toward more thoroughly integrating the curriculum across literary and non-literary fields of English.

Thank you for your consideration.



Mark McBeth

Rebecca Mlynarczyk (Professor Emerita)

George Otte

Sondra Perl

Jessica Yood


GCCRC Co-Chairs

Andrew Lucchesi

Sean Molloy


GCCRC Former Co-Chairs

Amanda Licastro

Benjamin Miller


Doctoral Students

Erin Andersen

Hilarie Ashton

Joshua Belknap

Nolan Chessman

Melissa Dennihy

Diana Epelbaum

Robert Greco

Dale Katherine Ireland

Peter Khost (alumnus)

Anna Alexis Larsson

Jesse Merandy

Mikayla Zagoria-Moffet


[1] Mina Shaughnessy, Kenneth Bruffee, Robert Lyons, Richard Larson, Ira Shor, Sondra Perl, Donald McQuade, Harvey Weiner, Charles Bazerman, Richard Sterling, John Brereton and many others, all of whom contributed to the burgeoning field of composition and rhetoric.

[2] For information and statistical breakdowns of the MLA JIL, see the following link: