Composition, the Speedup, and the Stretch-out

Olivia Wood | City University of New York

In early March, the FEN Blog editors asked if I might like to submit a post about something to do with labor organizing and composition. I’ve been a graduate worker organizer for the last five years, serving as a department steward and delegate to my union’s delegate assembly for much of that time, and from 2022-2023, I was a part of the bargaining committee for the contingent faculty union at my other job. I also cover higher ed labor struggles regularly for Left Voice. For this piece, I tentatively thought I might write about the strategic position of composition instructors in the academic workforce. We collectively teach most of the students that graduate from our schools, our courses are required for graduation, and they are often prerequisites for upper level classes. This puts us in a particularly powerful position for labor actions. Composition teachers are also more likely than instructors in other disciplines to face precarious working conditions, since composition classes are far more likely to be taught by contingent faculty and graduate student workers, compared to other subject areas. I had planned to write the post this morning (today is March 30). 

Then, last night, I got an email from my department chair: the Dean wants to change our composition classes from 4 workload hours to 3 workload hours, effective this summer. As a full time lecturer with no research expectations, my workload requirement is 12 credits per semester, so this would mean I go from teaching a 3-3 load to a 4-4. Our composition classes are capped at 26 (for Comp 1) and 28 (for Comp 2) — for me, this change means an additional 52 students per year, the equivalent of raising course caps by eight students per class. Professional recommendations developed by the Conference of College Composition and Communication suggest 15 students per writing course, with 20 as an absolute maximum, and that no writing instructor should teach more than 60 students at a time — for the students’ own pedagogical benefit. We are already far above these recommendations (an average of 27 students per class, 81 per semester for full time faculty). The proposed changes would make things even worse. 

These changes would be part of the mandatory “savings plans” imposed by the Chancellor across the entire City University of New York (CUNY). Each college was instructed to find over 5% in budget savings, but how to do it was up to the local administrations. Cutting the workload hours (and therefore cutting adjunct pay) would reduce the cost of offering composition courses, and other departments like math and architecture would face other forms of cuts. Originally, the Dean told us that this was a “done deal” handed down to her by the Provost and no amount of negotiating or protesting would change it. This, of course, turned out to be untrue — shortly after we began organizing against the proposal, the administrators became open to negotiation. This claim was a scare tactic designed to discourage us from trying. But my colleagues and I are committed to trying.

Instead of writing my intended post today, my morning was occupied by labor organizing: emailing my union chapter chair, vice-chair, grievance counselor, and delegate assembly; emailing my department chair with thoughts about how she might convince the Dean to change her mind; emailing the other lecturers in my department, and reaching out to the cross-campus lecturer organizing group; emailing with adjuncts in my department. For the adjunct faculty, who are paid by the credit hour, the change means they’ll make about $1,400 less per course — in a city where the median rent for a studio apartment is over $2,900 per month, even in more affordable boroughs like Brooklyn. It also means there will be fewer sections available for adjuncts to teach since the full-timers will be teaching more. 

As I’m writing this first draft, we’re trying to plan a grade-in in front of the Dean’s office. So, instead of writing my intended post, I’m going to tell you about two labor concepts instead: the speed-up and the stretch-out. Any workload increase or pay cut is frustrating, but these concepts help explain why this is happening, and they’ve been on the forefront of my mind since I got the first email about the administration’s plans. While “speed-up” and “stretch-out” are typically used in reference to factory labor and aren’t used very often in relation to white-collar jobs, they are useful in understanding how the same political-economic forces that squeeze workers in other sectors play out in higher education. While our work is different from working in a factory, we are all exploited by our bosses in the same basic ways. It’s easy to forget this, even as a contingent faculty member, because our work is still high-prestige with a high level of personal flexibility, and we want to be aware of our privileges in how our circumstances differ from others. But as the slogan goes, no matter the sector, we’re all in the “same struggle, same fight.” And I’m feeling the squeeze.

Companies want to make profits. Public institutions (with some exceptions, like the military and the police) are perpetually pushed to cut costs in the neoliberal era. In either case, the task is to generate the greatest possible amount of goods/services for the least possible amount of money. When profits are declining (or your mayor, governor, and state legislature want to let your university’s budget lag behind inflation), employers have several different options. On the personnel side, one option is to extend the working day (stretch-out). Another option is to increase the amount of work done by each worker within a given unit of time (speedup). 

The term speedup comes from factory work, in which bosses would literally speed up the pace of the assembly line, and/or increase quotas expected by the end of a shift. Within academia, the speedup can take many forms: staff covering for the duties of coworkers who left but were never replaced, increased class sizes, new assessment requirements, expectations for learning and using new technologies, and more. Adapting to Covid-19 was in many ways a speedup, even while many people tried their best to slow down. Teaching in a new modality and learning new technologies means an enormous amount of extra work all within the context of the same unit of time (one class, one semester).

As college instructors, we get a great deal of flexibility in arranging our work schedules compared to other jobs — we need to be in the classroom during certain hours, but when we hold office hours, when we do our prep and grading, and so on, is often up to us. This flexibility is often one of the things people like about academic work, but it also creates a great deal of room for exploitation. It also means that very often, a speedup is also a stretch-out. If this intended change to composition at my school does become a reality, I have three options: I can find ways to become more efficient in my work (speedup), I can work many more hours per week to provide the same services to 133% as many students as before (stretch-out), or I can redesign my classes to reduce student (and therefore my) workload. In practice, the outcome will likely be a combination of all three. In every case, students are harmed: if I’m more efficient, I’m probably giving them each less individual attention; if I’m working more hours, I’m more exhausted, with fewer emotional resources and less flexibility to give to the students; if I’m redesigning the class, it probably means leaving out things that would benefit them. 

I want to present this struggle using the framework of these terms from political economy and the labor movement to stress that we are first and foremost workers who face the same kinds of struggles as every other worker. Our employers want more from us, for less. Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerline argue in Mother Jones that these terms have been replaced with the concept of “productivity” a euphemism more palatable to workers, who want to view themselves as “productive members of society.” But increases in productivity only benefit us if they are accompanied by an increase in wages — otherwise, it’s only our employers that benefit. 

It’s very easy for high-prestige workers, like college faculty, to view ourselves as separate from “the working class” — after all, pollsters define “the working class” as anyone without a college degree. But the Marxist conception of the working class means anyone whose primary relationship to capital involves selling our labor in exchange for wages. That’s us. And while our workplaces look very different from the factory floor, we’re still subject to the same economic forces, the same system of exploitation. For those of us in the public sector, our work pertains to social reproduction — while we don’t directly generate profits for anyone, we provide services to society (in this case, education) that help to ensure the continuous production and maintenance of workers. My particular college specializes in science, engineering, and architecture — these are the types of workers that I am by and large helping to produce. This is where I fit into the economy.

My university used to be free. It used to be entirely funded by a collaboration between New York State and New York City, and ever since tuition was first imposed in the 1970s (not coincidentally, at about the same time that open admissions meant the student body was increasingly working class people of color), it has been increasingly defunded. Currently, our Mayor is proposing huge cuts to just about every city agency, and our Governor’s budget proposal leaves our funding far behind the rate of inflation and would raise tuition on students to boot. Now that Covid-19 relief funds from the federal government have run out, upper administrators have demanded that the colleges develop “savings plans” of around 5% of their annual budgets, rather than the state or the city picking up the difference. This change to my workload, and the pay cut for adjuncts, is part of my college’s plan. It’s a speedup and a stretch-out intended to keep the university running while investing as little as possible in public higher education, especially in a university system historically dedicated to serving the proletariat. 

While I was writing this article, my office neighbor poked her head in to say hello. I told her the bad news. She laughed and said, “We’re not a university, we’re a corporation.” She told me not to be mad because anger isn’t helpful, that this is just how it is, and she gave me a hug. But I am mad. And I’m a worker, a union organizer. So I’m going to send this off to the FEN Blog editors, and then I’m going to do the rounds of the English department, looking for adjuncts to invite to our grade-in. Because speedups and stretch-outs are forms of class struggle, and the very least we can do as workers is to struggle back. 


There weren’t any adjuncts around the department that I could find, but after I sent in the draft, I created a flier for the grade-in, made 100 copies, and taped them up around our building. The grade-in took place on April 4, and we circulated an Action Network letter that sent hundreds of emails to the Provost and university president. By the end of the day, we had a tentative deal with the administration: we could keep the hour of workload, and adjunct pay would remain the same, but we’d need to get approval from faculty senate to extend the length of composition class periods and increase class sizes, so that savings could be found in reduced sections offered rather than reduced pay. I first wrote this postscript on April 15. At that point, the deal was that all composition classes at my school would be capped at 32 going forward — more than double the recommended size of a writing course. This deal protected adjunct pay and the workload increase for me and other full-timers was half of what it would have been under the original proposal — a partial win, but still very much a speed-up. Between then and when I got my second set of feedback from the editors, we learned that the Dean was trying to undermine the deal and promise to defer to the will of faculty council by imposing the original plan of cutting the workload hour for summer adjuncts. Right before I began working on these revisions today, April 22, I got another email saying that the Dean has once again changed her mind and is proposing a different savings plan entirely, unrelated to composition workload. The limited details in the email I received seem positive so far, but I’m wary. The struggle continues.

1 See also “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” by David Harvey, “On New Terrain” by Kim Moody, and “Austerity Blues” by Steve Brier and Mike Fabricant.

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