CCCC 2014 Reviews

E.17 "Polymorphic Frames of Pre-Tenure WPAs: Eight Accounts of Hybridity and Pronoia"

Reviewed by Polina Chemishanova (polina.chemishanova@uncp.edu)


Derek Mueller, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti


  • Matt Dowell, Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY, “Getting Up to Speed Quickly: The Untenured WPA and Curricular Change”
  • Rik Hunter, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, “Teaching the Teachers: Designing a FYW Curriculum for Non-Writing Specialists”
  • Kate Pantelides, University of South Florida, Tampa, “Why Won’t This Thing Open? Negotiating New WPA Identity”
  • Kristine Kellejian, University of Washington–Bothell, “Flight of the Bumblebee: Creating a Writing Program at an Interdisciplinary University”
  • Mike Garcia, Georgia Regents University, Augusta, “Everything’s a Moving Target: WPA Work in the Midst of Comprehensive Institutional Change”
  • Laura Davies, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO, “Boots on the Ground: Negotiating Military Contexts as a Civilian WPA”
  • Derek Mueller, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, “Assembling Handles for Divergent Grasps”
  • Alanna Frost, University of Alabama, Huntsville, “Axis and Allies: Strategies for Untenured WPAs”

Designed as a series of 5-minute presentations, this roundtable focused on the challenges and expectations that pre-tenure WPAs face daily. Specifically, the presenters discussed how institutional contexts not only shape their identities and work but also position them in relation to various constituents, including administrators, colleagues, and students. Employing the concept of pronoia or tactical foresight, the presenters offered practical suggestions for other jWPAs who find themselves in similar situations.

Laura Davies, “Boots on the Ground: Negotiating Military Contexts as a Civilian WPA”

Laura Davies from the United States Air Force Academy opened the roundtable with a thought-provoking discussion on how attempts to quantify the work that WPAs do traditionally separates teaching, administration, and research activities into easily calculable categories of hours worked. Such attempts, however, fail to recognize what it takes to transform teaching into critical engagement and administration into thoughtful leadership. Drawing on her personal experience as a Writing Program Director, Davies argued for a more robust system of quantifying the work WPAs do, which takes into consideration the importance of reflection required for critical engagement with students and colleagues, thoughtful leadership, and productive scholarly participation. Her presentation highlighted how influences outside of the academy, such as the 2011 Budget Control Act, have shaped her work and identity as a WPA and have simultaneously exposed the inadequacy of an hourly-based matrix for evaluating faculty’s scholarly, teaching, and administrative duties. When sequestration began on March 1, 2013, Davies (like all civilian workers in the Department of Defense) was furloughed and paid 80% of her salary for 11 weeks. Moreover, federal furlough laws stipulated that she could not work at 100% of her job during that period. The furlough, Davies explained, created a dilemma for her. For one, she had to consider what it might mean to be working at 80% as a WPA. What is left behind when a WPA can work only 32 hours a week? For Davies, cutting back to 32 hours required shifting her focus from activities that had long-term implications for her program and addressing instead only immediate concerns such as answering emails. Citing Bruce Horner’s (2001) argument about how credit-hour based matrices for scholarly work, teaching, and administrative duties do not take into account the fact that good teaching depends on material conditions, Davies argued that such a shift in focus created a ripple effect on her program, teachers, and ultimately students. Furthermore, if she had strictly followed federal furlough law, she would in effect deprive herself because, in the end, as a pre-tenure WPA, paid or unpaid, she needed to remain productive both in her administrative and scholarship activities. Ultimately, Davies called for a more sophisticated calculating matrix that does not separate teaching, administration, and research into neat easily quantifiable categories but instead considers the complexities of WPA work.

Matt Dowell, “Getting Up to Speed Quickly: The Untenured WPA and Curricular Change”

In “Getting Up to Speed Quickly: The Untenured WPA and Curricular Change,” Matt Dowell extended Davies’s argument that the practice of thoughtful leadership is undoubtedly shaped by institutional context. Drawing on his experience as a new untenured WPA stepping into ongoing curricular change at a small liberal arts college, Dowell examined the intersections of explicit and embedded leadership and how such leadership facilitates or limits a jWPA’s position within an institutional structure. Engaging embedded decision-makers—that is, people not explicitly designated as WPAs but who nevertheless exert significant power over writing-related curriculum—is an essential step for a new pre-tenure WPA, according to Dowell, in order to begin gaining authority and recognition for one’s expertise in writing. He explained how (as a result of a curriculum overhaul that introduced explicit writing instruction into lower level courses and created upper level writing in the disciplines courses) the position of WPA was transformed from First Year Writing Coordinator to Director of Writing, a move which required him to negotiate with various constituents and to establish authority while taking in to consideration how the current curricular initiatives extended institutional traditions. Emphasizing the concept of tradition as an active shaping force, Dowell recommended that jWPAs learn how to engage embedded decision makers by asking questions that allow them to learn about local context and to recognize that campus initiatives and decisions are rooted in processes and values that very often predate new WPAs. Dowell concluded his presentation with a reminder for jWPAs to consider the distinctions between power, authority, and influence and to recognize that sometimes it is easier to work within existing structures, even if such work requires navigating among embedded decision makers.

Alanna Frost, “Axis and Allies: Strategies for Untenured WPAs”

A recently tenured WPA, Alanna Frost emphasized the importance of translating the work WPAs do into tenurable narratives. Invoking Edward White’s (1991) argument that tenure remains the capital we need to make the changes we believe help our students and our departments, Frost offered her experience as one approach towards negotiating tenure expectations for a WPA position with ill-defined responsibilities. Because the work that WPAs do often remains invisible, Frost advocated articulating what WPA work is and how it aligns with one’s research focus. Early in her position as a pre-tenured WPA, Frost recognized how the list of seemingly random responsibilities she was given needed to be transformed into a tenurable story. Like many new WPAs, she spent her first two years simply reacting to various requests from across campus. At the same time, she was acutely aware of the need to translate each challenge and request she received along the way into a narrative in her tenure portfolio explaining the mentoring, researching, and bureaucratic skills required of the job. After struggling with bureaucracy and what appeared to be repetitive, time-consuming administrative tasks, Frost streamlined the information request process by creating a document that fielded advisors’ questions related to Composition I and II courses and transfer credit. She instituted an application and interview process for hiring contingent faculty, and (in an effort to mitigate the program’s reliance on adjuncts) she argued successfully for new GTA positions each year. Her tactical foresight to increase the visibility of her work as WPA and her ability to align her responsibilities with the traditional categories of teaching, scholarship, and service allowed her to articulate a tenurable narrative and ultimately successfully negotiate tenure expectations.

Mike Garcia, “Everything’s a Moving Target: WPA Work in the Midst of Comprehensive Institutional Change”

In “Everything is a Moving Target: WPA Work in the Midst of Comprehensive Institutional Change,” Mike Garcia further extended the conversation about the importance of examining the underlying values of our contexts. Through the lens of critical systems thinking, he illustrates how a jWPA can employ pronoia to identify points of leverage. His argument builds on Dan Melzer’s (2013) call for WPAs to find points of leverage within the institution’s priority where “the least amount of effort can enact the most amount of change” (p. 86). jWPAs, Garcia contended, are often not in a position to undertake a broad systemic critique of institutional initiatives (or lack thereof) even when they recognize the need for it. As the newly hired WPA in a regional, nearly open admission, school with a liberal arts focus, he quickly realized that he was not hired to change the culture of writing there. Furthermore, as a junior faculty member and the only tenure track faculty member in rhetoric and composition, he had very little visibility and influence. His ability to institute change was limited by his local context and institutional priorities until the state of Georgia decided to consolidate several institutions of higher education as a cost-cutting measure.

His university was merged with a nearby health science institution despite the fact that the two schools were rather different. This consolidation resulted in a rapid and comprehensive change, with the new consolidated university clearly emphasizing its health science programs. While some perceived this move as a threat to the liberal arts focus, Garcia maintains that it offered him, as the WPA, much needed points of leverage to change the culture of writing and secure support for his program. Because the graduate health science programs enrolled a large population of non-native English speakers, he explained, support for second language writers became a priority for the newly consolidated institution. As the WPA, Garcia identified the new mission of the university as the point of leverage he could use to expand the writing center, provide more funding to train ESL tutors, and secure a tenure-track faculty position in second language writing. Though his institutional context is unique, as most universities will not undergo so many changes in such a short amount of time as his, Garcia’s presentation nevertheless reminds jWPAs that institutions increasingly re-brand themselves and adopt new missions and values that present opportunities for WPAs to use tactical foresight and identify points of leverage within these new institutional priorities to enact much needed change.

Rik Hunter, “Rock and a Hard Place: My Journey to the Betweens”

Rik Hunter’s presentation, on the other hand, explored the value of personal narratives in understanding configurations of WPA roles through his experience in what he described as a Frankenstein position directing first-year writing, WAC, the writing center, and the academic accommodations program at a private, secular, nonprofit liberal arts and sciences institution that does not offer tenure. Drawing on McGlaun’s (2007) concept of working in the between space of the two extremes of feeling “wanted,” that is 1) wanted on the basis of one’s expertise and 2) wanted in the sense of being an outlaw, Hunter addressed the challenges he faced in attempting to negotiate his WPA identity from his positionality in more than one location of betweens. For one, his status as a faculty associate meant he was neither an administrator nor a full-time faculty member, which presented challenges in terms of connecting with faculty. His physical isolation from the rest of the faculty further marginalized him and positioned him as an outlaw. Whereas the administration and the faculty were on the same floor in the academic building, which afforded them opportunities to build personal and professional relationships, Hunter’s office location in the library separated him from the rest of the university community. “Watercooler culture thrives for those who reside in the right location, but physically, socially and politically marginalized those who do not,” explained Hunter. Drawing on his experience of working in “betweens,” he stipulated that in order for jWPAs to find a way to negotiate their position within institutional structure, they must first acknowledge the location they occupy within and between institutional spaces. Narratives such as Hunter’s, while deeply rooted in local conditions and institution contexts, offer jWPAs some understanding of configurations of WPA work. As no one narrative can map out strategies that can be applied across contexts, Hunter concluded with a call for a resource akin to the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN), contending that a digital archive of WPA narratives could lend itself to constructing knowledge by allowing many voices to be heard.

Derek Mueller, “Assembling Handles for Divergent Grasps”

Derek Mueller employed the concept of “handles” as the framework for articulating his experience as a first year pre-tenure WPA while simultaneously advocating for embracing data visualization as tactical foresight, a guiding concept for this roundtable. In basketball, Mueller explained, “mad handles” refers essentially to a flamboyant ball handling style that includes the ability to dribble the ball quickly and securely while pivoting and spinning—all the while building a more advantageous and prosperous position on the court. Mueller’s presentation translated the mad handles basketball analogy to institutional, departmental, and programmatic courts where, he explained, as a WPA he has the professional responsibility for handling the ball and calling the plays. For him, data visualization—that is the graphs, charts maps, etc. that temporarily simplify complex activity—is one form of mad handles that emerges from the crossover that jWPAs can embrace to demonstrate how they view and conceive of the first-year writing program. To illustrate his point, Mueller used the example of a pie chart that shows visually the number and distribution of GTAs in his department. Though rudimentary in terms of data visualization, this pie chart, or “handle” as Mueller dubbed it, has allowed them to determine where first-year writing GTAs fit within the larger departmental structure. His second example of a handle was a line graph showing the department’s budget for GTAs in 2004, 2010, and 2013. While the line graph indicates that budget has remained the same since 2010, it also reveals that fewer teaching assistantships have been awarded in the FYW program compared to previous years. For new WPAs, then, creating and circulating representational slices of data is invaluable for programmatic self-awareness and increased visibility. Data visualization, Mueller argued, allows jWPAs to extend Linda Adler-Kassner’s (2008) concept of creating stories and boost the tactical force required to support their writing programs.

Kate Pantelides, “Why Won’t This Thing Open? Negotiating New WPA Identity”

In the last presentation of the roundtable, “Why Won’t This Thing Open? Negotiating New WPA Identity,” Kate Pantelides urged new WPAs to harness the rhetorical potential of being new to transform both the open and closed spaces they encounter in their daily interactions. She considered how examining the genre ecology that constitutes our work as WPAs can help us identify what contexts create barriers, particularly when such closed spaces appear within our own programs. Understanding these closed spaces and the driving forces behind them is an essential step for jWPAs, Pantelides argued, if they are to capitalize on the kairotic moment of being “new.” Embracing one’s position of newness can yield strategic mileage in institutional culture and allow new WPAs to better position themselves in relation to both open and closed spaces, Pantelides suggested. With some tactical foresight, drawing on their new position on campus, jWPAs can frame the often dreaded “Why?” question as an expression of curiosity rather than confrontation. Questions emerging out of curiosity, Pantelides claimed, can open up dialogue about how institutional culture and context have shifted since initiatives were last instituted and ultimately transform traditional narratives of “this is the way it has always been done.” She advised jWPAS to harness the rhetorical potential of being new and open up new possibilities for collaboration and interaction while simultaneously closing down old-guard assumptions of how it has always been done.

As a jWPA, I found the issues highlighted in the presentations quite relevant and engaging and enjoyed the 5-minute format that allowed ample time for discussion. As a member of the audience remarked during the Q&A portion of the session, many tenured WPAs continue to face challenges similar to the ones the presenters addressed, including working with and often against the dominant lore of the institution. What made this roundtable particularly valuable, at least to me, was the advice that each presenter offered to pre-tenure WPAs who may one day find themselves in similar circumstances. While institutional contexts vary, as this roundtable demonstrated, pronoia or tactical foresight should be a guiding principle for all WPAs.


Adler-Kassner, Linda. (2008). The activist WPA: Changing stories about writing and writers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. (2014). Retrieved July 25, 2014 from http://daln.osu.edu/

Horner, Bruce. (2001). Terms of work for composition: A materialist critique. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Melzer, Dan. (2013). Using systems thinking to transform writing programs. Writing Program Administration, 36(2): 75-94.

McGlaun, Sandee K. (2007). Administering writing programs in the “betweens”: A jWPA narrative. In Debra Dew and Alice Horning (Eds.), Untenured Faculty as Writing Program Adminstrators (219-248). Clemson, SC: Parlor Press.

White, Edward M. (1991). Use it or lose it: Power and the WPA. Writing Program Administration, 15(1-2): 3-12.

CCCC 2014 Reviews

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