Writing Program Administration and Labor

I should be doing other work, but I have continued to struggle through Micciche’s Doing Emotion this morning. The reading struggle has changed as I have moved through the chapters. In the early chapters, I resisted her theoretical language. I felt as if she were reproducing high-fives in the field. Micciche notes elsewhere Peter Herman’s complaint that scholars in the field have reduced themselves in the tenure game to re-saying currently popular saids. I doubt that this trend is new. It might simply be an unannounced tradition of scholarship, mimicking a cultural phenomenon of resaying what’s au courant. And who can blame? We all want to be known (see my previous post on numbers).

Here’s how my reading struggle has changed. I strenuously resisted the  theoretical language in her first chapters, although I value, in my current emotional struggle with my dog’s cancer, much of what she claims. We might even be “on the same page” (please forgive me). In her later chapters, the overly nominalized, abstract phrasing merged into straight language. But her message shifted from theorizing the ontology of emotion to a kind of rant (the kind to which I am prone). I think she has inherited this rant. I am materializing it here because I think the rant disables effective writing program administration and productive theorizing and scholarship in our field (loosely, the field of Writing Studies).

The first one involves the derogation of writing program administration. I have been a WPA in three institutions, beginning in 1990. I admit I am male–and my gender distorts my perception, but I have never felt marginalized in my work. In the three universities in which I have worked, I have always felt respected, my work and responsibilities certainly equal to a literary scholar’s responsibility to acquaint students with Milton. Our responsibility is to help students with their writing, to make writing, like reading, a part of their personal, professional, and civic lives. I can’t think of a more important responsibility.

As Writing Program Administrators, we are embedded within a historical labeling of our work as grunt as opposed to the etherealized labor of our literary brothers and sisters, but this imbrication doesn’t mean we have to buy it. We can engage in the conversation, not be submerged by it. I have always been proud of my role in helping students make writing a part of their lives. I couldn’t have wanted anything else. I also know many colleagues who have felt this sense of mission: of our desire to bring the magic of writing into our students lives. Most readers of this blog will know the names–the people who have thought of writing as pleasure, discovery, communication. NOT argument.

We have been embedded within an historically institutionalized structure that has profited from the “Johnny Can’t Write” mythology. We require first-year writing and institutionalize adjunct labor as teaching faculty, paying low wages and no benefits. The hypocrisy is hardly obscure. I estimate that at my present institution, charging upwards of $50,000 a year per student, that we make about $40,000 a year per course by requiring this First-Year Writing courses. We try to imagine that our writing program is something no well-educated student could do without, but a little bit of self-referentially critique might seriously undermine that claim (that we spend hours teaching them about logos, ethos, and pathos and the logical fallacies? Please).

Let me get to the quick: WPAs don’t need to apologize for the work they are doing (unless they are fetishizing argument). We can be doing good work. We certainly don’t need to be whining about our own positions (or at least those of us who are tenured–actually, I’m in a non-tenured position right now). Our real problem is labor practices. We can certainly unite behind one clear objective somewhat based on logic: if what we are teaching is important, we need to have full-time teachers teaching what we pretend is important. Let’s call this a mission. And let’s stop complaining about our own positions (the thrust of Micchiche’s later chapters); Either we require first-year writing courses and then engage in responsible hiring practices; or let’s forget it.

I didn’t get to the second rant. 

4 Replies to “Writing Program Administration and Labor”

  1. Agreed. I'd like to know about what you see as responsible hiring practices, beyond full time with benefits (which is the first and vital goal, true). Is it responsible to constantly hire from outside the field? If not, can we chance it?

  2. I really mean hiring full-time teachers–even at 4/4 and allowing benefits. That should be our bottom line. Outside the field? Preferably not–but that depends on whether you mean rhet/comp people. I have a lot of first-class full-time (and part-time) teachers with MFAs and MAs in literature who have become great writing teachers. I'm really focusing on labor practices. I don't really think one needs a phd to be a good writing teacher. I know a log of great high school writing teachers. I know this comment edges toward heresy, but I also can't pretend to believe what i don't believe.

  3. By "in the field" I did mean r/c (and tech comm) but not necessarily PhD. I work with some incredible MA folks.

    I wasn't looking for dogma but your honest opinion. Thank you.

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