The post WPA life: one year on

From the summer of 2010 through the summer of 2017, I served as the director of composition at UB. In the last year I’ve gone back to being a rank and file professor in the department. I’ve been thinking about writing this reflection for a little while but wanted to mark the occasion of a full year on. In my seven years on the job, I certainly learned a lot, and I’d like to think we accomplished a great deal (not that there isn’t always more to do). I’m not going to go into that here as this is not an epideictic post.

I will say that on a daily basis the job was basically an exercise in pissing into the wind. It was labor-intensive, stressful, anxiety-inducing, frustrating, and infuriating in equal measure. Though WPA jobs certainly vary from school to school I’d strongly warn against pursuing one if what makes you happy is accruing plaudits.

I think the easiest way to measure the professional impact–at least on me–of WPA work is in relation to scholarly production. As a WPA I had summer administrative duties (for which I received a stipend) and normal academic year duties (for which I received course release), but basically the expectations for scholarly production for me were not different from those of my other colleagues. I can compare my production over those seven years with my productivity at Cortland from 2002-2009. It’s worth noting that while at Cortland I worked a 4-3 and then a 3-3 teaching load. So during that time at Cortland I published 7 articles and a book. At UB, I published 12 articles. I also completed a book manuscript but that’s still in the works.  So the way I look at it, I was a little less productive as a WPA than I was at Cortland as a more junior scholar (which makes publishing more challenging) with a higher teaching load. In short, being a WPA had a significant impact on my scholarly productivity, which I don’t think is surprising to anyone whose done the job, especially if your scholarship is not related to WPA work or even composition studies (as mine is not).

The real effects though were more personal/mental. I don’t mean to suggest that it was continually miserable being a WPA. It really wasn’t. But over time I just got used to the regular role in my life of addressing complaints, solving logistical problems, strategizing, arguing/persuading/wheedling, and so on. I got used to planning to spend my day doing one thing only to wake up to some BS email that sent me down one rabbit hole or another. But beyond that was the constant awareness that:

  • the adjuncts and others I employed were getting screwed over
  • the TAs in my care were too
  • the administration was always giving me the runaround
  • the students weren’t getting what they needed or at least what they might have gotten if things were better, and
  • there was always more that could be done.

It was like a filter of unhappiness over the lens through which I viewed the world, one that I’d gotten used to and forgotten was there until one day a few months ago I realized that it was gone.

But anyway, the good news.  Thanks to the aptitude of my successor, I was able to extricate myself smoothly from the daily operations of WPA life. But it took my mind more than a semester to go through decompression. I think that, combined with the fact that I had completed my manuscript around the same time as I was ending my WPA stint, left me with an open space that has taken some time for me to figure out. So it’s really just been in the last four or five months that I’ve started moving down some new paths: doing new research, teaching new courses, picking up some new technical skills and renewing some old ones. Not for nothing I also took off 50 pounds this summer, so I feel like a new man with literal and figurative weights lifted from me.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year brings.


One reply on “The post WPA life: one year on”

Alex, I recognize what you describe. My family refers to the years I was acting WPA in the program as “the dark years.” With good reason!


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