Can WPAs Align Their Beliefs With Their Practices?

Daniel Oines, 'Untitled' 2011

Daniel Oines, 'Untitled' 2011

When I asked the current editors of Praxis if they could dig out an old article I had written, they not only graciously did so but also asked me if I would be willing to reflect on the article. In particular, they wanted to know if my polemical 2005 piece, “Writing Centers as Training Wheels: What Message are We Sending our Students?" (3.1) still represented my thinking about writing centers.

The short answer to that question is “yes!” Here is my introduction to the 2005 piece:

Like North, I began this essay out of frustration, but my frustration is with my writing center colleagues. I have spent a good deal of my (albeit brief) academic career thinking about and researching the marginalization of writing centers, and I am tired of fighting the good fight for respect and recognition in composition studies, English departments, and the institution at large when writing centers sabotage themselves everyday by continuing practices that feed into our perpetual marginalization. I am tired of running up against practices that directly counter attempts I and others make to take writing centers seriously. In particular, I am concerned with the common practice of using “forced” labor in the writing center, especially when this involves using the writing center as “training wheels” for new graduate students until they are ready to ride solo in their own classrooms. (emphasis added)

I still whole-heartedly believe that the work that happens between tutors and clients in writing centers is simply too important to be relegated to B team status. I still think of writing centers as magical spots where the kind of teaching and learning that I idealize actually has a chance of succeeding.  But, despite their tremendous growth in the past 10 years, I am not at all convinced that writing centers have gained any more academic legitimacy.

In addition to directing writing centers and WAC/WID programs over these past 10 years, I have also been responsible for required first-year writing programs.  In 2005, I lamented that:   

. . .I still can’t see the connection between coming to graduate school wanting to read and criticize literature and the work many graduate students in English are asked to do in the writing center; so I’m sure that the connection for many of the tutors is, at-best, fuzzy. Of course, I’m dancing around a larger can of worms here, which is the insidious problem of the structure and staffing of first-year writing programs on an institutional level, but that is a discussion that needs to be continued on another day. (emphasis added)

It is time to open that can of worms.  For many of the same reasons I railed about writing center professionals’ complicity in their own marginalization, the same arguments can be made about first-year writing programs’ material actions.  What we do and what we say about first-year writing are often at odds. For example, most WPAs and first-year writing  teachers would argue that first-year writing is one of the toughest courses to teach.  Yet, we consistently hire the least experienced and most disenfranchised members of our field (and often, not of our field) to teach those courses. Because of our temporary labor pool, we spend a good deal of our time as WPAs training a constant, rotating stream of instructors which does nothing to insure programmatic or classroom consistency.

I could go on (and will in my book length project on this topic), but for now, suffice it to say that my initial thinking about writing centers and the pedagogical and ideological messages we send graduate students—not through our words, but through our concrete and material actions—was just the tip of the iceberg. I can best articulate my continuing angst by admitting to the following thought when I was wrestling with handling a difficult situation with a TA:

“Couldn’t I send her to work in the writing center instead of putting her in the classroom?”

Gulp. Yes. I thought that.  I may have even said it out loud.  Let me contextualize.

As any administrator knows, sooner or later you are going to have a problem with someone on your staff. In this particular case, I was struggling to find a way to find something—anything—for a TA to do besides teach a first-year course.  As a teacher, she was a train wreck: always cancelling class, not teaching from the required syllabus, saying things to make her students cry; not returning work in a timely fashion, etc., etc., etc.  Despite repeated attempts to mentor and support her, we were just not making any headway, and I was committed to not putting her in front of another group of first-year students. The problem was that the graduate program had offered her an assistantship, and if she didn’t teach, there were no other things we could ask her to do.  In this moment of frustration, I actually thought about putting her in the writing center to keep her out of the classroom. But in an institutional structure where I am forced to use TAs, regardless of their ability, desire, or interest in teaching first-year writing, I could not think of any alternatives.

Was I being hypocritical? Absolutely! And the ever-expanding list of situations where I feel my beliefs and my actions do not align makes me wary for the future of required first-year composition.

The more time I spend in the field as a WPA (in all iterations), the more I realize that writing centers and writing programs are imbricated in a corporatized institutional mega-structure that forces us  (WPAs) to make daily decisions that contradict our own knowledge and values.  

Of course, I’m not the first to think these things. In 1990s, in fact, our field seemed to be moving in the direction of a strong critique of our institutional structures; however, that moment of critique seems to have peaked in the early aughts, and in the meantime, we have just plowed forward with keeping our writing programs running—doing more with less: less people, less tenure, less money, less support, and, if I may be so bold, less sustained critique about why we do what we do.

For example, at the most recent CWPA conference, I attended sessions and heard presentations about how WPAs across the country were dealing with particularly tough situations.  If I have this right, at least 2 states have swung the doors of access to college education so wide that students could finish their first two years of a four-year degree before graduating from high school.  And we all know about the persistent and gnawing adjunctification of higher education.  WPAs could and should talk about these very real, very pressing, very in-the-moment issues. But it seems to me that we have to spend an inordinate amount of time creating solutions and work-arounds for problems that are created because of the very system we perpetuate by our acquiescence to a mega system that we sustain by our uncritical participation in it.

Required first-year composition—no matter how we frame it--is a hoop that students need to jump through. Required FYC has always been a hoop—from the moment it was introduced at Harvard in the late 19th-century to this very moment where we create a zillion ways for students to place out or be exempt from it.  To name just one gigantic issue: required FYC has the multitude of labor issues it has because we need to offer so many sections because there are so many bodies that have to move through the system.  The requirement has become its own raison d’etre, and we have become handmaidens to the requirement; it is in service to the requirement, not to composition or even necessarily  to the students, that we expend so much of our time and energy.

Melissa Nicolas is an Associate Professor of English and Core Writing Director at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript about the issues she raises in this entry.