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.


  1. I think your question about gender is a good one. Maybe I'm being cynical, but after taking that feminism class, your question makes me think of the gender discrepancy that originally took place as composition became its own field. Most composition instructors were women because it was a work-intensive job that wasn't considered to be very intellectual work. I wonder if some of that naturally transfers to the WPA position. Historically, if women have been writing instructors, maybe it makes sense that they would be writing administrators. I'm also thinking about some of our conversations about how the work of a WPA was originally seen as being not very intellectual. It was seen as administrative busy work without any true authority. I wonder if those dynamics and attitudes have persisted.

    1. I agree that maybe the feminization of composition has translated over to the WPA position in some institutions. However, I am also wondering if this tendency toward female WPA's that Shirley K Rose, Lisa S. Mastrangelo, and Barbara L’Eplattenier discussed is reflected at a range of other institutions which were not included in the survey.

      There also may be more complex power relations in the institutions' writing programs than the survey could reveal. Sometimes a WPA has official responsibilities, but is assisted heavily by staff members, and there is quite a bit of power sharing happening administratively.

      In any case I think the lack of diversity in writing program administration that this survey revealed is problematic. Having a WPA from a racial minority background could be a major asset to a writing program in terms of bringing in a different perspective and would help reflect the racial diversity at many universities as well.

    2. After last class period when we discussed the lack of diversity in field of Rhetoric and Composition, I began to wonder why this is, especially since Rhetoric and Composition has so many sub-fields and interest groups that are very devoted to bringing attention and raising awareness in support of marginalized/oppressed peoples. I wonder if it is a reflection of English department administrative practices. In other words, as Alyssa points out, there seems to be a disconnect between the theories and values that we discuss in our scholarship and what transpires at the administrative level, especially between the department chair and WPA. My though is that this disconnect probably (in some cases) extends beyond just the department chair and the WPA.

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  3. Accidentally deleted the post...oops. So here it goes again. From what Alyssa and Cara have said I feel like the hierarchy that gets set up between the Chair and the WPA can be severely influenced by the different identity markers that a person may present. As Alyssa mentioned, female WPAs are often viewed as being more collaborative, which can be beneficial, but it also disrupts the views of power and authority. Looking at David V.J. Bell's types of political instruments, there would be less of a chance for a female WPA to be able to use power to make changes in the program. SHe maybe be able to wield some authority if the the position of WPA has traditionally come with certain decision making capacities, but more than likely she would have to rely on influence to persuade others that her changes are necessary. This is especially true if there is no official WPA position in the department or the WPA is not a tenured member of the faculty. It seems that the more marginalizations a person has to deal with the lower in the power structure they will fall. And as long as the department is set up with traditional hierarchical structures that's probably how it will remain.

  4. I think it might be interesting to put this post about power structures in which the WPA is involved and Cara's post about writing communities into conversation with each other... If we think of the Writing Program (or the department, or the university--pick your scale) as a community, we can think about the ways in which that community is fostered (or not). Hierarchies, communication, shared values/goals, and so on might take on a new meaning.

    How, for example, do we come to identify with our colleagues, as well as understand the things that make us different from one another, respecting other people's perspectives and rethinking our own? How can we use "community" as a tool to improve our program and our practice? And that question even ties back to our conversation from last week. If we value each other and collaboration for the sake of the bigger picture, surely we would also value an effort to improve working conditions for everyone (which would include affirmative action practices and fair pay/rewards for workloads).

  5. Response to Rose et al.

    Alyssa, I second your curiosity about the demographic information and how one’s ethnicity, gender, or sexuality may complicate or make more complex the power dynamics between WPAs and department chairs. That would be good follow up research ☺
    In addition to finding Rose et al. discussion about gender interesting, I also thought it was interesting how power, influence, and authority shift and morph depending on the tenure status (or even age) of a WPA. The authors wrote that the responsibilities of a junior faculty member seeking tenure were sometimes different than what that same faculty member might be expected to do after receiving tenure. This struck me at first as good and supportive for the junior faculty member, that her colleagues would find her tenure important enough to shoulder some of her responsibilities as WPA. Then, it struck me as potentially problematic once the WPA gets tenure, which is discussed somewhat in their article. Rose et al. write that junior faculty members are more likely to do labor such as review textbooks, which the authors attribute to a greater likelihood that the faculty member has training in rhetoric and composition. I am curious what study would look like to compare labor of WPAs before and after tenure is received.

  6. I agree that the lack of diversity in WPA/chair work is problematic. I think it is useful to consider that often white males are treated as more authoritative and powerful than their equal female peers and colleagues. I would argue that this is perhaps why more white males occupy the WPA role than others, but the data in the Rose reading suggests that white females occupy this space more than anyone else. Perhaps, then, the recurring trend of white females being WPA has something to do with, as Sara and Alyssa point out, essentialized gender. We think women are generally better at collaboration and communication, so we put them at a position that needs it. However, if the position is already fighting a historically-entrenched uphill battle in regards to perception of role and importance, then putting women in that position on the basis of collaboration and communication might perpetuate the issue of power and authority. I wonder how we might reenforce authority and power for the WPA position without taking jobs away from women and giving them to men on the basis of essentialized gender roles and traits. If we consider the politics of the local institution in which each WPA works, we might think about how we can, if only in our own individual work places, break down antiquated theories (<— little t!) of gender and race. I think we do this through creating diversity in our faculty as much as possible, especially at the chair position.

    Instead of having white males in power positions and seeing more diversity as we go down the line, we might consider an attempt to reverse this trend. Having a female chair is one way to start such a trend. The reading talked about the tendency to have female WPAs and male chairs. What would happen if we consciously made an effort to flip this tendency, and refused to hire white male chairs on the basis that it confirms attitudes already existing in work place communities. I know this sounds radical, but it might be worth outright denying a male-chair female-WPA relationship. Or, in a less radical move, develop some way to monitor the relationship to ensure it doesn’t fall into a gendered male boss female secretary type relationship.