Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Feminist Writing Program Administration and Its Effects on Authority, Power, and Influence

                As I read the articles about taking feminist approaches to writing program administration, I kept thinking back to Shirley K Rose, Lisa S. Mastrangelo, and Barbara L’Eplattenier’s “Directing First-Year Writing: The New Limits of Authority.” Since I already posted about that particular article, I will try not to repeat myself. But I think it’s impossible to talk about feminism and writing program administration without returning to the issues of authority, power, and influence. In Hildy Miller’s essay “Postmasculinist Directions in Writing Program Administration,” she reminds readers that WPAs often struggle for the power to make decisions about the program. They “feel a sense of powerlessness, more specifically, a sense of having enormous responsibilities” without accompanying power” (80). Power for feminist administrators means being able to enable others and thus, they might focus more on “being peer” rather than having “power over” (Schaef qtd. in Miller 81). There are consequences for emphasizing collaboration or “being peer.” As Miller points out later in the essay, others might view the WPA as not a leader or not assertive enough if they do not direct conversations and meetings with more of an authoritative manner. One of the participants in Rose et al.’s study stated that she was seen as the one responsible for the everyday decision making but that when stakes were higher, people thought decisions should go to a committee. This reminds us that even our colleagues may not respond well to our administrative styles when they do not conform to what is traditionally viewed as leadership.

            I’m interested in the ways WPAs have been received within our program when they have emphasized collaboration or have asked for input from people in positions with very little power (such as TAs). It seems as though BSU incorporates some of the feminist elements of writing program administration that Miller suggests. There is collaboration among many instructors to share teaching materials. We have a mentorship program that (in theory and hopefully in practice for the most part) focuses on support and not supervision. Our new TA pedagogy course is taught by the director of the writing program but it also includes voices of other TAs like Mary and Morgan. I am interested in what everyone else has to say about the way we can blend masculine and feminine administration strategies. What do we normally see as feminine and masculine? What does this blended practice look like? Do WPAs ever use completely masculine or completely feminine approaches? What are the strengths/weaknesses of using a blended approach? In what ways do these approaches relate to the authority, power, and/or influence the WPA has within the program, department, and institution?


  1. These are interesting questions about masculine/feminine administration styles. It gets complex to think about this because a woman could lead with an assertive and direct style, and then do we label that as masculine? Or do we call a man's leadership style feminine or feminist if he tries to approach people with lower rankings as equals and facilitate collaboration in the department? I think most leadership styles are, in reality, blended because I can't imagine someone's style being fully masculine or feminine, and I think there are clear advantages to using a blended style and even having multiple, but compatible, styles in the WPA team.

  2. You ask lots of good questions, Alyssa. I was thinking something similar about power and administrative practices as I read. As you pointed out, others who are more engrained in masculine ideologies might not have a positive view of someone who utilizes feminine administrative practices. They might view a WPA's effort to be collaborative as a sign they are weak or indecisive. I was thinking that female WPAs might be even more vulnerable to these negative judgments. Much like we've said occasionally about feminist teaching practices, it's easy to "decenter" authority when you have it to begin with. Since women are already often viewed as being softer and less capable, I wonder if they are putting more at risk than they implement feminist practices than a man would.

    I do think there are opportunities for blending the two styles -- maybe by having a greater awareness of when collaborative practices would be beneficial to the overall program and to everyone in it or when more traditional authoritative approaches might be more productive or beneficial. Since the program will likely still be evaluated based on traditional masculinist ideals, it's a difficult balance to find.

  3. When I read Miller's piece and your post, Alyssa, I couldn't help but think about the blending of masculinist and feminist approaches as a kind of code meshing. As Miller points out, feminism is all about the both/and, eclecticism, a little of this and a dash of that. The key is to be able to use different pedagogies or methods of administration or whatever strategically/purposefully/rhetorically. As Miller points out, our "personas have to change with context" (83). Same idea as with code meshing, right? We use different codes, languages, or dialects at once in order to convey our message in a way that both represents us and can be understood by others. This same idea seems to be a theme in a few of the readings we've read for class recently.

  4. As I read your post Alyssa, and after reading people's responses, I want to focus on the words masculine and feminine as problematic terms. I think 688 WPA gets at this when they talk about how to define a WPAs work when a WPA performs "masculine" administration--as a woman. I don't think we should use these terms to describe the work we do now and in the future because these terms are used in order to describe and generalize what has been. Do we work to reinforce this masculine/feminine binary when we choose to describe the work we do as either masculine or feminine (or a blend).
    I realize that it's not that easy--to just abandon these words and pretend they don't have real consequences in WPA administrative work. I don't have a clear answer for this. But, in my own teaching, for example, I like to see my teaching and classroom management style as a rhetorically effective style rather than a masculine or feminine style: one that pulls in all necessary means of persuasion and strategies in order to be an effective teacher. If that means I have to sit down and have a "come-to-Jesus" meeting with a group about managing their feelings for one another in positive and productive ways, I will do that. Or if I have to ask a student to leave my office because he's being disrespectful and aggressive, I'll fucking do that, too. But, in contrast, if that means being sensitive and empathetic to a student's personal circumstances and working with them to ensure their success in my classroom, I'm willing and sincerely open to be flexible and accommodating.
    My point is this: I don't feel bound--as a teacher--to adopt a gendered style; rather, I make choices that seem most effective based on the context.

  5. I think Kelsie's point is a good one. I wonder if the meaning(s) that we have assigned to the terms "masculine" and "feminine," specifically in composition pedagogies, could be transferred to new terms, in order to make them less gendered, but still useful means of categorization. I see these gendered terms as inherently, and immediately, problematic, for the same reasons Kelsie pointed out; we aren't enacting pedagogies that necessarily call for essentializing according to gender, so why the hell are we doing it? Does the practice emerge as a result of the culture, both in and out of academia, in which we teach/work/live in? Probably so...

    However, I think if we strip the signifiers of their gendered terminology, and instead use new terms, the binaries retain their usefulness.

    One question I find myself again asking, as I did in class, is why feminine and masculine are problematic, but feminist is not. Yes, I know the obvious answer--attributing styles of pedagogy according to male and female, or feminine and masculine, essentializes gender and trivializes personal pedagogy into something innate to one's sex. Feminism and feminist pedagogies, on the other hand, are shaped for and by women. Women have worked hard to build them, and they serve important functions. In Composing Feminisms, Kay Siebler makes an argument that other fields emerging shortly after feminism took many of their attributes and called them their own, and argues that many emerging forms of pedagogies, such as student-centered, democraticized, and so on, have taken credit for work that belongs to feminist. I wonder, though, if these other terms may help break down the tendency to categorize pedagogy according to gender...

    I guess what I am getting at is that while feminist pedagogical approaches are certainly valid, and are certainly historically and culturally important tenants to feminism in academia, they uphold a binary that MAY contribute to the problematic essentialized gender terms masculine and feminine. AGAIN, I want to express that I do understand that feminist is NOT the same as feminine, and that it may appear that I am conflating the two. However, as Siebler herself points out, much of what used to be called feminine (decentering power in the classroom, teaching less authoritatively and with more compassion and understanding for the student, bringing in personal experience), has been attributed to, and legitimized by, emerging feminist pedagogical approaches. If for no other reason than this historical reality, feminist approaches to teaching may strengthen this essentialized gender function rather than weaken it.