Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dwelling in Disciplinary Possibility: The Poetics of Composition and Writing Program Administration

Andrea Scott, Assistant Professor of Academic Writing
Pitzer College
Claremont, California

I teach writing, but I don't write. My article published in the last issue of CEA Forum opens with a version of this statement. It was a running joke circulated among colleagues in a writing program where I taught for several years. Of course, it wasn't true. We all had writing projects in progress, but there were stretches of time when, given curricular requirements, most of our intellectual energy was dedicated to responding to student writing. If you measured by output, you'd find we were wildly prolific during those weeks. Each academic year every full-time faculty member composed on average five-hundred double-spaced pages of comments on student drafts and revisions—a sum worthy of a scholarly monograph. Yet, as I explore in my piece, the reasons for delayed disciplinary writing in such contexts can be quite complex.

In reading scholarship on how students acquire academic literacy, I can't help but see connections between our students’ development as scholarly writers and my own trajectory as a scholar-teacher-administrator joining fields new to me at the time: writing studies and writing program administration. I came to rhetoric and composition by way of literary studies in graduate school, changing paths as I read my way deeper into the field. And when I found myself in my first role as a writing program administrator a few years later, I began to register personally what I had long known intellectually from research: that writing program administration (WPA) is rewarding but also difficult because it requires us to be generalists in our expertise. To deliver sound arguments to stakeholders and to cultivate and sustain effective teaching practices in our programs, which become the basis of our research, we need to be familiar with a wide range of scholarly conversations in writing studies and dedicate time and resources to collaborations that appropriate that research to local contexts.

I'd like to focus on this angle here, because it's something that keeps coming up in conversations with colleagues who find themselves in similar hybrid roles that makes them seem, as Nancy Sommers puts it, "'neither fish nor fowl,' neither fully faculty, neither fully administrative" (508)—whether they are positioned in writing programs, community engagement centers, or dual institutional homes. I imagine a growing number of CEA Forum readers are negotiating complex disciplinary identities under the increasingly expansive umbrella of English studiesa phenomenon that can spark unproductive controversy this article aims to help redress.  

Defining Disciplinarity
I'll start with a given: being a WPA is thrilling because the work is collaborative and diverse and the results of one's efforts are tangibly visible. As Doug Hesse puts it, "[n]o other administrative position so commingles agency with disciplinary knowledge" (503). A well-designed program or center can make you feel part of a community deeply grounded in your discipline. The challenge lies in making this intellectual work visible to others.

Possessing a wide-ranging research agenda puts junior faculty in a precarious position because the tenure and promotion process is often still conservative in design. In the academy authority is defined by narrow but deep bases of expertise rendered visible through focused research agendas.
If a multidisciplinary identity remains central to how many of us define our work, how do we communicate this identity to multiple constituents?  

As a junior faculty member in her first year directing a Writing Center at a small liberal arts college as a solo WPA, this issue is on my mind. In my previous position, I served as an associate director of a multidisciplinary writing program, taking the lead on first-year writing and faculty development. When I survey my research agenda over the past year, it reflects these wide-ranging experiences, from collaborations between writing center tutors and first-year writing instructors to the international turn in writing studies scholarship, from the design of writing-centered courses in cultural studies to questions of socialization in the field.

As a result, my reading lists traverse multiple fields and subfields, where I am perpetually writing my way into a public assertion of expertise in the multiple and shifting institutional and intellectual contexts in which my work is situated. I am continuously in the process of deepening my expertise in the evolving dimensions of my position, which in turn provides an avenue for participating in disciplinary conversations about the nature of this work. The condition of always being a relatively new arrival directed by local institutional exigencies and opportunities has led me to cultivate a germane positionality that feels very familiar.

And here's where I think my original base of scholarly expertise comes in handy for the particular lens it offers for thinking about the epistemic possibilities in such curious positioning.

The Poetics of Composition 
A comparatist by training, I earned by Ph.D. studying the relationship between lyric poetry and social institutions in the early Cold War. Poets have long since articulated a complex relationship to traditional forms of disciplinary authority. As a genre, poetry tends to resist the boundedness of discourse; it’s a form of composition disquietedly at home with not knowing, embracing uncertainty and unsettledness as epistemological practices. Poets are less interested in constructing persuasive arguments than they are in generating propositional forms of thinking. Poetry particularizes experience, insisting on language’s potential to localize and thus trouble knowledge.

James Longenbach sums up this skeptical quality in The Resistance to Poetry, claiming that the lyric is the “language of self-questioning—metaphors that turn against themselves, syntax that moves one way because it threatens to move another, voices that speak because they are shattered" (xi). In other words, poetry partakes in the introspective game of its own negation. Lyric poetry is rigorously self-reflective. Where other genres of discourse produce declarative knowledge, poetry foregrounds the ambivalence inherent in ambitious assertion—the tension between reason and unreason, semiotics and sound, piousness and blasphemy, alienation and encounter. Poetry stages this drama and feels “true” precisely because it marks the difficulty of locating clear centers of conviction.

I’d like to suggest the value in seeing connections between our status as multidisciplinary scholar-practitioners and the dispositions inhabited by poets—even if we often teach and inhabit genres that may appear to be at odds with the lyric’s exigency. If this sounds like a stretch, let me be more explicit. To create knowledge is to practice productive forms of not-knowing from within what is known. The utopian aim of poetry is to transcend this state of paralysis with propositions that are as self-reflective about their partiality as their possibility. Poets can teach us about the value of remaining unsettled in our disciplinary understandings—so that we might paradoxically ask and see more. To those of us whose research, teaching, and leadership roles are multiple, poetry models dispositional thinking that views such slippages as generative.

Of course, poetry might invite us to recognize the impossibility of constructing coherent narratives of professional identities, but disciplinary departments (and other authority-granting institutions) may think otherwise. But here's where the lyric’s disposition comes in handy, too. It gives us agency to claim expertise in hybrid local spaces, insisting on the value of the contingent to accessing more global frameworks of understanding.

If Emily Dickinson chose to separate poetry from prose in her pronouncement “I dwell in Possibility—/ A fairer House than Prose—” (657: 327), perhaps our diverse positions within institutions allow us to hold both commitments in uneasy tension. In my research, teaching, and program leadership, I strive to cultivate in myself and others habits of mind promoting what Elizabeth Wardle calls "problem-exploring" (as opposed to "answer-getting") dispositions. Only from this place of possibility can we create homes for arguments that hit us—and others—where we live.

Works Cited
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1961. Print.

Hesse, Doug. College Composition and Communication 54.3 (2005): 501-7. Print.

Longenbach, James.  The Resistance to Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.

Sommers, Nancy. "The Case for Research: One Writing Program Administrator's Story" College Composition and Communication 54.3 (2005): 507-14. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth. "Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering 'Problem-Exploring' and 'Answer-Getting' Dispositions in Individuals and Fields." Composition Forum 26 (2012). Web.