The Roles of WPAs: A Review of Sessions B13, E27, and G13
Reviewed by Garrett Arban, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL (email@example.com)
B.13: WPA Work 360: Examining the Risks and Rewards of Pre-Tenure Leadership
Chair: Thomas Sura, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV
Speakers: Julia Daniel, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV, “A Calligrapher’s Touch: Presenting Collaborative Work”
Thomas Sura, West Virginia University,Morgantown, WV, “Bad Pupils and Risky Moves: Spurring Faculty Evaluation Discourses as an Assistant Professor”
Cristyn Elder, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, “Embracing Risk and Maximizing Reward as an Untenured WPA”
Joseph Janangelo, Loyola University Chicago, IL, “Beyond ROI: WPA Preparation and the Mystique of a Jolt-Free Career”
E.27: The Risks and Rewards of a Large-Scale Data Project: Results from the WPA Census
Chair: Rita Malenczyk, Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, CT
Speakers: Jennifer Wells, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, “A WPA-Census-Driven Formula for Writing Center Health”
Brandon Fralix, Bloomfield College, Bloomfield, NJ, “First-Year Writing at Minority Serving Institutions”
Dara Regaignon, New York University, NY, “The Courses(s) that Define(s) a Field”
Jill Gladstein, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, “The Leadership Configurations of Today’s Writing Programs and Centers”
G.13: Risk or Reward?: Rhetorical Agency and the Administrative Call for Faculty of Color
Chair: Staci Perryman-Clark, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI
Speakers: Colin Craig, St. John’s University, Jamaica, NY, “The WPA as Collective Identity: Finding Cross-Cultural Spaces of Possibility through Collaboration”
Aja Martinez, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY, “‘You remind me of my tia/niña/prima/sister’: Administrating, Teaching, and Mentoring Underrepresented Students as the Untenured Chicana WPA”
Respondents: Staci Perryman-Clark, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI
Samantha Blackmon, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN
David Green, Howard University, Washington, DC
For the 2015 CCCC, I focused my attention on attending sessions dedicated to those addressing issues related to the work of Writing Program Administrators (WPAs). One thread I picked up on across multiple sessions related to the competing roles of WPA and faculty member within a department, along with how different WPAs formulate identities in order to maneuver between those roles. Each of the three sessions I intend to discuss here—B.13: “WPA Work 360: Examining the Risks and Rewards of Pre-Tenure Leadership,” E. 27: “The Risks and Rewards of a Large-Scale Data Project: Results from the WPA Census,” and G.13: “Risk or Reward?: Rhetorical Agency and the Administrative Call for Faculty of Color”—illuminated for attendees the difficulties in navigating a department when no clear definition exists of the WPA position.
Roles as Researchers
Cristyn Elder (B.13) explained her own experiences with navigating roles in “Embracing Risk and Maximizing Reward as an Untenured WPA.” Elder focused her talk on beginning her work as a WPA at the University of New Mexico and the ensuing feedback she received during her mid-probationary review. She discussed the risks that she took in extending her institution’s first-year writing course into a two-semester sequence, the Stretch/Studio Practicum, and how it was met with both positive assessments and negative reviews from her colleagues. Despite her innovative work for the university, Elder acknowledged that her self-determined role as a WPA was in contrast with her institutional role as a researcher in the eyes of those who were evaluating her for tenure. While she felt like she was an indispensable part of her department, there was no clear distinction at her university for how program innovation was categorized, as neither service nor research.
Given the three areas of work required of tenure-track faculty—service, research, and teaching—Elder suggested that WPAs run the risk of focusing on the wrong assignments when confusion and disagreement exists in categorizing their efforts. Another example of this was seen in Aja Martinez’s (G.13) talk about her work as an untenured Chicana WPA. Her work focused on creating a free, credit-bearing summer program for entering freshman students at Binghamton University in order to help them transition to the university. Assessments showed that this program improved academic excellence and social responsibility, yet it was still categorized as separate from her research requirements. Despite the impact of the program, her work was not valued as equivalent to the research of other tenure-track faculty members.
Even when WPAs conduct research, it appears that further clarification is needed regarding what is accepted as research for how much such research counts. Because WPAs are required to teach and research on top of their administrative duties, many presenters suggested that it was/is difficult to be productive in all three areas.
Thomas Sura (B.13) and Julia Daniel (B.13) both directly identified their roles as researchers in their discussions on the collaborative publishing of tenure-track faculty. Sura and Daniel advocated for the development of a system of evaluation for collaborative work that can provide appropriate recognition of the work that gets accomplished in such publications. At their universities, collaborative work is currently being treated as an inaccurate representation of the work done by researchers, with the assumption that they have not done an appropriate amount of work equivalent to that of individual researchers. To combat this, Sura and Daniel proposed a system for evaluation that requires active tracking of participation from all members which can prove how each particular collaborative piece of research is valued. While this proposition aids WPAs in legitimizing their research, as Elder and Martinez were criticized for not doing, it is clear that even the kinds of research WPAs do is critically, and often scornfully, evaluated.
Roles as Administrators
While the role of a WPA as researcher appears to be difficult to navigate, I noticed another thread across these sessions in the difficulty of defining the WPA’s administrative role(s). The term Writing Program Administrator identifies these individuals as having administrative and authoritative power, yet the WPA Census discussed in session E.27 gathered results that proved that such authority was not widely acknowledged across institutions. Dana Regaignon (E.27) elaborated on the data from the census and explained how it was both “messy” and “hard to assess” across institutions, because no single definition of a WPA existed. Jill Gladstein (E.27) built off of this understanding by analyzing how difficult it was to look at the field’s terminology outside of local contexts. With numerous definitions of first-year writing curricula and WPAs, she acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to accurately compare these roles across institutions.
Issues of identity are directly related to the administrative role of a WPA, and some panelists argued that their dual and often conflicting responsibilities make it difficult to fit into a department. While this work lacks the administrative and authoritative role of a department chair, it does require authority and agency. Colin Craig (G.13) entered into this discussion with reference to WPAs of color and how they struggle to place themselves in this departmental role. Craig called for WPAs, especially those of color, to locate mentors in their department to help combat feeling disengaged and disenfranchised. By maintaining these associations, WPAs can situate themselves as administrators with active support from peers.
One issue embedded in this role is that tenure-track WPAs run the risk of losing credibility and support when they fail to make meaningful relationships within their department. Martinez’s Enrichment Program and Elder’s Stretch/Studio Practicum both were met with opposition when classifying their work as something other than research, and they were criticized as administrators because of the risks they took in creating their programs. Martinez’s free summer program relied on unpaid labor and Elder’s program was enacted too suddenly without buy in, both of which led to resistance from their colleagues who were evaluating them for tenure. Without any associated authority, which could have been created from relationship building, they were left with feelings of alienation. Martinez and Elder both admitted to their mistakes in not creating strong relationships with both mentors and supportive faculty members before preemptively beginning their projects. Had they focused on this and taken the time to establish their role within their program, they would have, perhaps, been more identified as administrators.
The census proved that no definitive understanding of what a WPA is exists, which makes it difficult for those who are entering into this position to draw from the experiences of others. Creating an identity within the local context is difficult when no global recognition is in place. Not only do WPAs struggle to find their place within their program, but both the faculty they oversee and the faculty who are evaluating them are left without a clear understanding of what position they hold.
For the WPAs discussed here, creating an identity within their departments was difficult in terms of both their roles as researchers and roles as administrators. Through their need to research, serving the program for which they are responsible, and teaching in it, each identified their struggles in accounting for every aspect while simultaneously finding their place as a WPA. Based on the cumulative presentations from these three panels at the 2015 CCCC, there appears to be a pressing need for even more understanding across institutions regarding the work that WPAs do. These panelists explained the need to both form meaningful relationships and create an awareness of their own authority and administrative role within their programs. As Craig and Martinez explained, these needs are even more relevant for WPAs of color without tenure in order to effectively manage the dual roles of WPA and faculty member.