Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Strategic Disingenuousness: The WPA, the "Scribbling Women," and the Problem of Expertise

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Strategic Disingenuousness: The WPA, the "Scribbling Women," and the Problem of Expertise

Article excerpt

Let me begin by relating an anecdote about how I, a recently hired writing program administrator (WPA), failed to do my job. Freshly minted from the Expository Writing Program at Harvard, I had just become acting director of a writing program at a small liberal arts college, many of whose mandatory first-year writing classes were staffed by faculty across the college. It was my job to recruit them. But when I approached likely candidates, I was told regretfully either that their department was having trouble staffing its own classes or that they wouldn't know the first thing about teaching writing. When met with the latter response, I would tell them that I would be offering a workshop-in fact, many, many workshops!-that would teach them just what to do. I would tell them that I had a lot of supplementary materials-books, articles, handouts, websites!-to instruct them on how to teach writing. "There's a whole discipline devoted to understanding the relationship of writing to learning with subdisciplines devoted to first-year composition," I would add excitedly. "Don't worry about not knowing any of this material. You can learn it. Or at least enough of it to teach a successful class." At this point, they would switch to telling me their department was having trouble staffing its own classes.

It is easy to attribute this failure to my own cluelessness. I was violating the first rule of faculty enticement: do not emphasize how much work the commitment will require. But I want to look at the forces that led me to make such a blunder. In so doing, I hope to add a fresh perspective to the role that disciplinarity, with its attendant need for expertise, should take in rhetoric/ composition (rhet/comp). I do not want to deny the importance of disciplinarity in securing and maintaining rhet/comp's place in the university; instead, I want to suggest some problems that arise out of it and how we might avoid them. Other rhet/comp scholars, especially those involved in Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines, have also thought about the question of when and how much to deploy their disciplinary expertise; like me, some of them advocate minimizing it. However, I advocate a more radical position: a wholesale denial of expertise in at least one area of the WPA's work, an approach I call strategic disingenuousness. It requires the adoption of a particular persona, one suggested by the sentimental women writers of mid-nineteenth-century America: strategic because the WPA adopts it in particular situations for particular ends, disingenuous because it denies the disciplinary expertise the WPA possesses.

In order to move beyond understanding my failure solely through recourse to my greenness, one needs to understand the institutional particulars of where I was. Two years before I began working at this college, the writing program had broken away from the English department and become independent. The administration had even hired a tenure-track director, who was charged with mounting all the mandatory first-year writing courses. They were to be taught by people in the writing program as well as faculty from different disciplines across campus, with a majority to be taught by English professors.

The director, who had gotten his PhD in rhet/comp, soon tried to establish upper-level rhetoric and composition classes as well as a major in rhet/comp. He wanted the writing program to be recognized as the home of an academic discipline rather than a place of service to the rest of the college. He was in a defensive position, as many WPAs find themselves to be. My own insistence on the endless resources on teaching writing that I could provide faculty across the college dovetailed with his desire for disciplinary acknowledgment. It might not have been just the time commitment that was scaring off the faculty. The more I represented what faculty would be doing as learning a new discipline, the less successful I was in recruiting them. …

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