WPA Philosophy

In a recent episode of the podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell explored the past of Chester Wenger, a 98-year-old Mennonite pastor from Lancaster, Pennsylvania whose credentials were revoked by the church on account of his choice to officiate the marriage of his gay son. In an open letter to his congregation, Wenger cites his own faith in Jesus as one of his main reasons for doing it. He asks: “What would Jesus do with our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children?” In the podcast, Gladwell cites Wenger’s letter as an example of generous orthodoxy. Penned by theologian Hans Frei, Gladwell describes generous orthodoxy as an oxymoron that attempts to describe the difficult balance of being open to change while also staying committed to the traditions of one’s institutions; it means finding a middle ground, Gladwell argues, since “orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.”

Rather than conceiving of generous orthodoxy as a binary, however, I rather think of it as a powerful heuristic for reflecting upon the ways our personal experiences and beliefs are always enmeshed with the traditions and rituals of the various institutions we belong to; in short, this is one way of understanding our public selves as always already “becoming” something else. For WPAs in particular, it presents a way to articulate how we might come to terms with certain tensions that exist between the orthodoxies of university culture and the ideals of our profession, including working against the exploitive labor policies upon which writing programs have increasingly depended and documented. In my case specifically, this tension is informed by my experience working with a team of staff members for six years in the Syracuse University Writing Program.

Although I was hired as the director of the Writing Center, my administrative responsibilities reached well into the workings of the Program. Some of these duties included regularly designing timely and useful professional development seminars for instructors and consultants, observing and evaluating 2-3 part-time faculty per semester for contract renewal, teaching and developing curricula for required courses (including first-year composition), and quickly responding to crises by participating in the shared decision-making processes of our team. In addition to my programmatic duties, I had to effectively orient new consultants, coordinate Center schedules, pair first-generation college students with regular consultants, and follow up with faculty looking for writing support. My first few years were marked, then, by simply trying to understand the Writing Program, the Writing Center, and their relationship to the wider University, adjusting my work to the orthodoxies and rhythms of each as I became familiar with them. Above all, my allegiance was to the Program and I thus treated the Writing Center like a machine that had to operate as efficiently as possible. This led to dramatic increases in the number of visits to the Center and greater accountability among consultants, especially since the Program moved my office inside the space itself.

Over time, however, I began to see the limits of this orthodoxy and started to think more imaginatively about what we were doing. This meant reconsidering the borders of our space and reflecting on how the Writing Center could contribute to the wider culture of writing and teaching happening across campus. Working with faculty, staff, consultants, and students, the Center produced a three-year strategic plan, rebranded its image, created two online services, developed several writing-across-the-curriculum models, and implemented workshops on a host of topics. Despite these changes, the orthodoxies of the institution could not simply be ignored; indeed, they had to be confronted at every turn. Online services not only helped students who could not physically come to our Center, but they were also attractive to our consultants, many of whom were adjuncts who had families and and wanted to work from home. Workshops were useful to freshmen, sophomores, and those applying to jobs or graduate school, but they were also helpful to our instructors who wanted to know the types of questions students were bringing us. And the overwhelmingly positive feedback we got from students through the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment made us all feel good about all of this work.

Such generosity, however, tested the limits of orthodoxy. In order to grow, an organization needs stable resources — dependable budgets, working equipment, compatible schedules, and regularized labor. While adjuncts in our Program were compensated relatively better than other continent faculty, this approach required too much flux from them. I see this intimately now through the daily work of my partner Emily, who has been an adjunct in the Program since 2008. Changes to her schedule, which include teaching and consulting, affect us in ways I had not noticed as a staff member in the Writing Program. My philosophy is therefore influenced by the complex ethics that emerge from the tensions between one’s allegiance to the institution, the profession, and the material effects this has at home. Although my colleagues in the Program were equally generous as we pursued a new vision of the Writing Center, I realize looking back that there is an invisible cost to forging ahead without the resources required to make them stick.

While my responses to these tensions were complex when I was a staff member and cannot be easily reduced, my guiding approach was one that tried not to confuse the short game for the long. My own investments in social justice, informed by historical study of marginalized DIY communities, suggests this is important. As an “activist WPA,” this includes being transparent about the institution’s orthodoxies while explaining their effects to those who help produce them. It means approaching employees and colleagues generously, while communicating the fundamental tenets of the orthodoxies that drive decision-making at the institution. Above all it means developing a style of leadership where your colleagues can approach you to talk through these tensions, even if they don’t always agree with where you stand on them. It is a philosophy that accepts the realities of both, putting them in conversation to build a healthy, always-changing program that doesn’t lose sight of the larger struggles ahead.