Betwixt and Between, by Shevaun Watson
I remember the moment clearly: I couldn’t submit my revised chapter for Writing Program Architecture with the typical Here you go! email. Instead, I was filled with misgivings and doubts. I sat on it for weeks, wondering if I should pull my chapter. So much had happened between my proposal, the original submission, and the final revision. I was at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and in just the time between this book’s CFP and page proofs, I had gone from the exhilaration of rebuilding the architecture of the writing program to the dread of seeing its demise in the wake of Scott Walker’s austerity attack on the University of Wisconsin System. With the deadline looming, I crafted a very different email to the editors, Jamie White-Farnham and Bryna Siegel Finer, to accompany my final submission, relating my worries that the piece no longer accurately represented the program and leaving the decision to include it or not to them.
Fortunately, they could see what I could not. Jamie and Bryna perceived a broader relevance of my experience to WPA work and the book itself—an awareness that completely eluded me as I got swept up in the emotional turmoil of a campus in free-fall and my own decision to leave at such a critical time. Whereas I thought the disconnect between the present form of the writing program and its questionable future would appear misleading, and whereas I thought my departure would somehow make my accomplishments moot, Jamie and Bryna understood—were in fact arguing—that the architecture, “alongside its people, anchor[s] a program to the ground and keep[s] it standing.” As White-Farnham and Siegel Finer go on to explain in their introduction, “people are of course very important to the ecology of writing programs,” but it is also the “material, logistical and rhetorical elements that make up a program.” It is only with some distance now, from that time and place, and struggling to make my way in a new program with markedly different architecture, that I appreciate this central insight into the dynamic of our work as writing program administrators. The metaphor of architecture beckons me, and hopefully all of us, to contemplate the complex interplay between people and things, individuals and institutions, WPAs and programs.
I am happy to report that my dire prognostications about the writing program at UW-Eau Claire did not come to pass. Its increased funding levels, though somewhat reduced, remain steady enough to maintain smaller class sizes and improved staffing structures. The tenure-track lines for a WPA, writing center director and digital literacies specialist have all been restored and some already filled with bright new talent. Professional development, program assessment and curricular innovation continue. These changes endure because of the people who are willing to fight for them—the department chair, English faculty, and many others. The day-to-day advocacy of writing programs and centers by individuals on campuses cannot be understated.
But White-Farnham and Siegel Finer’s metaphor of architecture points to another key aspect of program change: the extent to which both minor adjustments and major transformations become part of the DNA of the institution, such that a program can survive for a time without a director. As I was working with colleagues across the Eau Claire campus to overhaul the writing program, I didn’t realize that I was, even in small ways, changing the institution itself—changing how it defined writing, literacy, competence, placement, and assessment, among other things. In order to get change done, I had to work at the level of institutional structure, bureaucracy and governance. As White-Farnham and Siegel Finer observe, “Since explanations of structure often precede argument, method, and solution, structure itself is important to highlight.” I see now that I had been engaging in a lot of explanations—and explorations—of structure, and in so doing, helping people imagine new structures that could take hold and yield different arguments, methods and solutions related to teaching writing. How else can this function? How can we make this better? This is the rhetorical and logistical work of an architect, the creative and material labor of a designer, the interpersonal and emotional labor of a planner, the everyday work of a WPA.