digital rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

Reflections on serving as a WPA

I have served as the director of composition at UB for seven years. Technically I’m still director for another month, but at this point, I’m basically done. In a way it was a strange job for me to do because I have always been and remain something of an abolitionist in relation to FYC, though my views have shifted somewhat. I still believe that if English departments and/or colleges are unwilling to invest the resources for FYC to succeed then it shouldn’t be taught. I am also still concerned that the existence of FYC can lead the rest of the university to believe they have little or no responsibility for teaching students in their majors how to communicate in disciplinary or professional contexts. Admittedly it is a bizarre contradiction that one finds across English Studies and higher education. On the one hand is the idea that FYC isn’t really part of the intellectual/scholarly mission of English departments, and on the other hand is the belief that English can teach all kinds of writing and communication to everyone. For me, in choosing to take on this job (and not be an abolitionist) meant working against those two tendencies. But now that’s coming to an end.

So here are a few unstructured reflections…

Almost every WPA will tell you how much work the job is. The research expectations don’t change. Many of the typical service expectations don’t change. My teaching load was reduced by half, which, of course was helpful. By that measurement, I suppose you might expect that being a WPA was estimated to be roughly 20-25% of my job. Heh. This is how that manifested for me. There is a certain amount of work that is predictable and cyclical: creating a schedule of courses, staffing, assessment, committee meetings, etc. Another part is predictable but variable: these are the regular stream of emails–complaints, concerns, questions, etc. Maybe if you were hyper-efficient you could contain 90% of this work within two half-days a week, but I doubt it. Really there is always more one can do, so it’s really more a matter of deciding what work doesn’t need to be done.

For me though it’s another more nebulous part that needs addressing. Maybe it’s just the way my mind works, but honestly I don’t think I’m that special. Basically I’ve spent the last seven years trying to figure out how to make this program work better–for the students, the TAs, the instructors, the department, etc. The wheels are always turning. If you’re a typical English professor, those wheels are probably turning around some research question or maybe around a class you’re teaching, a class which is, more likely than not, connected to your research interests. Perhaps a more disciplined mind than mine would be able to turn this preoccupation on and off. But I devoted a fair amount of cognitive load to administrative, managerial, and curricular challenges: logistical matters related to workflow; handling the politics and ethics of overseeing 80+ TAs and adjuncts; driving large-scale changes such as building a writing center or rebuilding the curriculum; trying to understand and address the shifting needs of students and the university; navigating departmental and university politics. I’m not quite sure that it’s fully hit me that I don’t have to think about any of those things any more. Much as Douglas Adams recounted in Life, the Universe, and Everything this all becomes “somebody else’s problem” and thus effectively invisible to me. Now perhaps that seems unfair, that the reason being a WPA is so difficult is precisely because of this attitude. Maybe. Though I’m not sure having more people involved in trying to figure these things out would have made my job any easier or reduced the amount of mental space taken up in my head by these issues. In any case I know I need to be not thinking about these matters for a couple years.

In any case, my point is that it’s hard to quantify the amount of work involved in being a WPA once one starts to think about it in these terms.

This might be particularly relevant to me as an academic blogger: being a WPA has constrained the nature of my writing. The “good” thing about publishing scholarship is that one can feel fairly secure in the expectation that no one is reading it. However, here on my blog, I’ve taken care to be especially circumspect in writing about anything that could be construed as comments about the program, its instructors, and its students… like this post. Some things are obviously confidential. Other things, like the goings-on of curricular reform, would not be improved by a public discussion. So I’ve learned a lot of things over the last seven years that I simply couldn’t write about here for one reason or another. And I’m not talking about airing dirty laundry, though of course there’s always gossip and such. I’m talking about insights into how universities function, how decisions get made, and so on: in other words, sausage-making. Partly my activity on this blog has declined in recent years because of other work demands, but it has also declined because much of my work and thoughts pertained to things I thought inappropriate to be the subject of a blog post. I’m looking forward to that changing some.

The last thing I’ll say is the primary lingering concern I have for FYC. Undoubtedly it is shaped by my work as a digital rhetorician. This isn’t particularly about the program I’ve run, but it also certainly pertains to it. In the last decade, FYC has started to catch-up with the shift toward digital composing by thinking about multimedia/multimodality. It has recognized the role that digital technologies play in all the “stages” of the writing process for any kind of composing practice. That said, overall it struggles with that curricular responsibility–with adequate professional development for instructors, with appropriate support infrastructures, and with integrating this topic into existing FYC courses. But that’s not my concern. My concern is that the present/near-future of communication is shaped by mobile technologies, the internet of things, the increasing speed and volume of data, and the operation of algorithms and other “intelligent” machinic activity. Basically I don’t think that rhetoric and composition has the first clue how to think through these matters. At best, the relationship of the field to “data rhetoric” (for lack of a better term) might be analogous to where we were in relation to multimodal composing 25 years ago. We are barely in a place where we could talk about what one might teach. But if you could somehow solve that problem, at least provisionally, then I would suggest setting aside objections for a moment and as a thought experiment trying to imagine how, as a WPA, you would get from where you are now–with the instructors, curriculum, classrooms, etc. that you have–to where you’d need to be to actually deliver on a curriculum like that.

Thankfully I don’t have to think about that anymore. I don’t have to preoccupy myself with these thoughts or pester other WPAs with such arguments. I can go back to studying these technological developments and teaching specialized classes for students who are (hopefully) interested in such matters.

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