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‘Actively engaged in shutting us down’: Thompson Writing Program faculty continue fight for renewability

Last December, the Thompson Writing Program announced a comprehensive shift in direction, sparking a protest at the Duke Chapel. 

Instead of centering around “writing in the disciplines,” the program will now focus more on rhetoric and composition. The program’s shift will also result in new “professor of the practice of writing studies” positions with renewable contracts. 

These positions are slated to take the place of current, non-renewable lecturing fellowships as they expire. Faculty in the TWP have been fighting for universal renewability for fellows since 2016.

“We want to infuse our program with additional faculty who also have crucial expertise in areas of writing studies that are valuable for Duke undergraduates, including in areas such as digital and multimodal rhetorics, anti-racist rhetorics and pedagogies, multilingual rhetorics, oral communication, and technical, science, and professional communication,” wrote Denise Comer, professor of the practice of writing studies and director of the TWP, in an email to The Chronicle.

Lecturing fellows in the TWP feel that the program’s shift in strategy has no educational basis and is instead in retaliation to negotiations by the Duke Faculty Union in 2016, which resulted in an agreement that granted renewable contracts to a subset of the fellows. 

The fellows claim that the program’s changes are meant to bust the TWP cluster of the DFU, arguing that the new positions are regular rank and therefore cannot be unionized.

“I do feel like our jobs are being replaced with non-unionized faculty as a form of retaliation for the role that the TWP played in the 2017 negotiations, for centering our need for renewable appointments in the 2021 negotiations and for our ongoing attempts to use University channels to improve our work condition,” said a lecturing fellow in the TWP, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

Comer did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment regarding these allegations.

Current lecturing fellows also believe the program restructuring represents a major step backward from the original vision of the TWP. The program was founded to teach writing not as an end in itself but as a means for communication in a variety of fields, they assert.

“I really think that if Duke actually cared about the quality of its writing program, or student learning outcomes, that it would keep the awesome program that it already has,” said Miranda Welsh, lecturing fellow in the TWP and cluster representative in the DFU, in reference to the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of the TWP as number two among the country’s “Writing in the Disciplines” programs.

“These are the faculty that made the TWP so strong and effective in the first place. But those faculty are unionized,” she said. “And it seems like Duke is willing to shoot itself in the foot to get rid of them.”

Comer stated that Writing 101 classes will continue to be taught from a “thematic” perspective.

“Writing 101 courses will continue to be taught through a thematic lens so students can choose from a variety of different areas of inquiry—across disciplines—to develop as academic writers,” she wrote.

Current TWP lecturing fellows were hired specifically because their doctoral degrees were in a wide array of disciplines, allowing them to teach writing through the “thematic lens” that Comer referenced.

Now, when their non-renewable contracts expire, the current fellows will be “locked out” of applying for the new, renewable positions because they do not meet the educational requirement. These positions require a doctoral degree with specialization in rhetoric or composition, despite Writing 101 still being taught thematically.

“This department, in terms of program, was built with this premise of being an interdisciplinary department in which people like me—I am a cultural anthropologist—would go there, teach a class that is sort of content based … which is also a writing class,” said Paolo Bocci, lecturing fellow in the TWP and cluster representative in the DFU. 

The new positions, he added, “are carved so that none of us can apply because none of us have a [doctorate] in English, rhetoric or composition.”

‘We’re not postdoctoral anything’: Why TWP lecturing fellows fight for renewability

The TWP is the only department at Duke to have lecturing fellows with non-renewable contracts because these positions, at least on paper, have unique attributes compared to other lecturing fellowships across the University. 

These positions, Bocci said, are marketed to newly-minted graduates of doctoral programs in a variety of disciplines. The positions were described as being similar to postdoctoral fellowships—with opportunities for training, mentorship and preparation for a future academic career. And, like postdoctoral fellowships, they would be fixed in term length.

“The non-renewability was predicated upon this idea that [the TWP] was going to be a training program, like a [postdoctoral] lab,” Bocci said. “We would train you and then you will become something else.”

Bocci said that in reality, the lecturing fellowships came with very few characteristics of a postdoctoral fellowship.

“What were the postdoctoral aspects of our positions that would warrant non-renewability?” Bocci said. “We get an email once a month, a forwarded email or a listserv of grants. And sometimes we can do a bunch of peer feedback on our teaching statement.”

Bocci added that the promise by the TWP was that lecturing fellows would be assigned a mentor who would guide them in their research, which never happened. According to him, Duke doesn’t regard lecturing fellows as trainees and the vast majority of their duties involve teaching students. 

“We're not postdoctoral anything,” Bocci said. “We're faculty. Contractually, we're faculty.”

The anonymous lecturing fellow agreed with Bocci.

“By virtue of giving us a non-renewable appointment, the University is declaring that we're trainees, and how can someone be a trainee if they're not provided with training?” they said. “If I teach five courses per year, I'm full-time faculty.”

Welsh added that the DFU was able to successfully argue in 2017 that the characteristics which defined a postdoctoral fellowship were not present in the TWP lecturing fellowships.

According to Welsh, the memorandum agreement that gave the TWP lecturing fellows hired before July 1, 2016 the option to shift to contracts that were renewable every three years, contingent upon a “successful review of teaching, scholarship and service,” was an acknowledgement of their non-trainee status. 

“We have the same level of professional development that they do in any other [lecturing fellowship] program. We're not getting anything extra,” Welsh said. “So that is what we argued, and that did have some traction because we won some renewable positions.”

However, new classes of fellows were hired after that date and were subject to the same sort of job conditions—but without the renewability given to prior classes in the agreement.

The anonymous lecturing fellow, who was hired in 2017, said that the job postings were identical to those posted in 2016 and 2015—the same jobs that were converted to renewable positions. 

“It was also advertised as a postdoctoral program in the advertisement for the job. [It was] called a postdoctoral fellowship,” they said. “The text for the job ad, when I applied, was exactly the same as those in 2016 or 2015 … What they continue to offer today is very similar to what they already were told in 2017 was inadequate [for non-renewability].”

The DFU has been formally advocating since 2021 for renewable contracts for the classes of fellows hired after the 2016 date using the same reasons as they did in their previous negotiations. 

“We didn't win renewability for everybody. And that's kind of been a big sticking point ever since,” Welsh said. 

Bocci and Welsh, who are both part of these negotiations, said that they've been unsuccessful so far. According to them, this is because TWP has maintained since the 2017 agreement that “disciplinary diversity” in the program was necessary to its success—and granting renewability to everyone would get in the way of that.

Thus, the sudden turnaround from a disciplinary, fixed-term model to a permanent-term rhetoric and composition model did not make sense to them.

“They consistently argued that full renewability would jeopardize the disciplinary diversity of the program, which was so important to its success,” Welsh said. “And now out of nowhere, they decided that they don't want [the program] to be multidisciplinary.”

“​​How come we lose jobs both when the department wants multi-disciplinarity and when it doesn’t?” Bocci wrote in a follow-up email to The Chronicle. “Answer: union busting.”

Welsh added that posting ads for the new, renewable, non-unionized positions—without any notification to current lecturing fellows—was another red flag to her.

“Combine that with the fact that they posted the job ads for new faculty secretly without telling any of the current faculty, and they continue to be totally obscure about it, even when we ask them directly,” Welsh said. “The only logical explanation here is that it's an attack on the union. You know, I really did try to sort of withhold judgment for a long time.”

‘Actively engaged in shutting us down’

Since the changes were announced in December, the lecturing fellows have been seeking updates and explanations from the TWP administration. 

Bocci said that during the January TWP-wide monthly meeting, the fellows asked to discuss the changes to the TWP, but their request was denied by Comer because the topic was not on the agenda. 

“She came up with [a] strict rule that no one can talk about anything outside the agenda, and that we cannot add an item to the agenda on the fly,” Bocci said. “That's all her fabrication. But even if that was true, [we] requested to talk about it for the [February meeting]. She refused.”

The request for the February meeting was made in writing on Jan. 26—a week ahead of the meeting—to Comer by one of Bocci’s colleagues, and was obtained by The Chronicle.

“I am emailing because I was tasked with requesting if it would be possible to discuss the projected shift in the TWP Program during our next faculty meeting,” Bocci’s colleague wrote. 

Comer’s response, which was also obtained by The Chronicle, read, “Thank you for this request, but the [Dec. 2] announcement shares the decision. The February Faculty Meeting Agenda has already been set and I’ll be distributing it on Monday through the listserv.”

“She actively engaged in shutting us down,” Bocci said. “Honestly, at this point, firing me isn't even the biggest problem. To me, the way I'm treated … it's just a complete repudiation of dignity and respect.”

Comer wrote to The Chronicle that “plans to renew existing contracts directly to TWP faculty” have already been communicated. But Welsh, who has a renewable contract, is afraid that she will eventually lose her job.

“One of the reasons that they can use to not renew contracts, even if they are renewable, is if they decide to change the curriculum completely,” Welsh said.

According to Bocci, if the DFU is unable to achieve renewability for the remaining lecturing fellows hired after the 2016 date, they will all lose their jobs within the next couple of years. For six fellows—including him—that will happen this year; two others will lose theirs the year after.

“You know, the director of the program should fight for their faculty, not against their faculty,” Bocci said. 


Adway S. Wadekar | University News Editor

Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume. He has also contributed to the sports section.

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