Monday, January 25, 2016

Intersectionality and WPA Authority

Reading Shirley K Rose, Lisa S. Mastrangelo, and Barbara L’Eplattenier’s “Directing First-Year Writing: The New Limits of Authority,” I wanted to know more about the ways intersectionality affect power and authority. I found the section providing the demographics very interesting. Most of the WPAs (89/92) and chairs (91/101) described themselves as of European descent, Caucasian, or white. Only 1 chair identifies as African American, which suggests its own sort of problem within English departments, especially if many of these institutions have special missions like historically black colleges and universities/predominantly black institutions, women's colleges, Hispanic-serving or Native American schools, or religiously affiliated schools (49). Where's the diversity in administrative positions? Even if schools don't have special missions, most of them argue that they value diversity, but the English department administrative positions do not reflect diversity--at least according to this study.
Not only does this study highlight issues of ethnic or racial diversity, it also raises questions regarding how gender factors into administrative authority and power. Rose et al. point out: "Chairs were more likely to identify themselves as male than as female whereas directors at all levels were more likely to identify themselves as female, suggesting a female WPA working with a male chair is a common configuration and may have significant implications for the power relations between chair and WPA, as well as the rest of the institution” (49). I wonder why there tends to be one male and one female in the WPA--department chair relationship. Because the two people must work together and have open communication, perhaps it seems like the two might have skills that complement each other. While this is simply a hypothesis, I hope that it’s an incorrect one because this line of thinking essentializes gender. However, this might also explain why many WPAs are female; according to the study, WPAs should have strong collaborative and interrelational skills (skills frequently associated with women). Again, this essentializes gender. I’m curious what everyone else thinks about why the female WPA--male chair combination is so popular at institutions. I’m also curious about the respondent who said that when stakes get high, it is suddenly not good for the WPA to make a decision alone and it often becomes a decision for a committee. This is likely to be a challenge that many WPAs face but I wonder if this happens equally for men and women or for WPAs who identify as a member of a minority group. I suppose my interest in this topic was about how this study could be developed in the future in order to take intersectionality into consideration more in relation to power/authority. I think it made large strides compared to Olson and Moxley's questionnaire in regards to asking demographic questions. I would like to see that expanded upon to explore how intersectionality (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) affects a WPA’s power or authority within a program, department, and institution.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Phenomenological Existentialism

I was particularly interested in Tom Hemmeter's essay "Writing Programs as Phenomenological Communities" and the ways that he examines the label of "writing community" which we are often quick to assign to our writing programs. He questions the terms itself, and I think one of his main points in the essay is that a writing community doesn't automatically form just because there is a classroom full (or program full) of student writers. In his view, a community goes beyond the interest in writing or the shared experience of being in a writing course. I agree with this point, and I think the truth of it seems obvious when I think about my experiences in different classes and the effort that I have to put forth in developing a community. It isn't automatically there. From my perspective, it has a lot to do with the students' personalities and openness to each other and to the activities I have planned. It has to do with the ways that they interact with each other and their attitude as they interact.

However, Hemmeter's article focuses on the idea of community through the lens of existentialist phenemenology, which is still a bit fuzzy to me. I took away a couple of key concepts, and I'm hoping that others in the class will help me further understand his point. One important aspect of his argument is that writing communities are formed through the lived, concrete, day-to-day experiences of the participants and the work that they do. Community isn't a generalized concept or one that can be equally assigned to every writing program. It is dynamic and specific to each situation. It is also formed by the lived experiences of the participants in their daily lives outside of the university as well as within -- their whole selves. I think we often ignore these realities as we generalize student writers and writing communities, which doesn't produce an accurate picture. Another concept he discusses is the idea of struggle. We form communities not only by recognizing the things that make us similar but also the things that make us different. The act of trying to negotiate these differences through dialogue is one way community is formed. He says, "We, as teachers, engage students, one by one, as an Other — expecting the same engagement from them — trying in concrete encounters between selves to locate common ground in communication experiences, efforts opening us to respect challengingly different perspectives and to expand our own."

I found this reading to be challenging and interesting, and I'm interested in thinking more about ways that an expanded definition of a writing community can help us develop one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Collaborative Reflection

Popham, Neal, Schendel, and Huot state, in “Breaking Hierarchies,” that by “encouraging… [the incorporation of reflection] in a multitude of processes and forms, [WPAs] develop stronger writing programs for everyone involved… Administration and programs become contextually based, fluid, mutiplistic [sic], and dynamic” (28). The authors emphasize the importance of practice, reflection, collaboration, and theory working in tandem to improve writing programs (and pedagogy and student writing, etc.).

When the authors mentioned that they viewed simple conversation as a kind of collaborative reflection (20), it made me think about how often I make collaborative reflection an explicit part of my teaching and administrative practice. I think Ball State’s Writing Program does a good job of building in some required collaborative reflection with things like the practicum course for new TAs, Speaker Series meetings for professional development, and the Blackboard “community” page, but I also feel like I could/should be doing more things to better motivate myself to do frequent, informal reflection with my peers to improve my work even more.

I’ve taken steps on that this semester with Kelsie. We designed our 104 course together, we co-teach in each other’s classes on occasion, and we have scheduled bi-weekly meetings for check-ins and further planning. This collaboration will benefit my teaching, but what about my writing program work? I think I could have more frequent meetings with Mary, the other WP assistant director, to talk about our progress on projects and bounce ideas off of each other. I also think we could seek more informal feedback from people involved in the writing program—students, TAs, and faculty.

For both teaching and administration, I think I should be carrying a notebook of some sort and writing down my reflective thoughts so that they don’t just come and go with the wind, and are instead useful to me because they are documented. We kept a journal like this that all consultants could contribute to in the writing center at my former place of employment. They wrote questions (and answers), concerns, and ideas for improving what we were doing. I wonder now what’s something our writing program could be doing to encourage more of this ongoing, informal, collaborative reflection for the purpose of improving our program and our practice. Thoughts?