About the shifting culture of WPA-l

A grad student who I don’t know posted a query on the Writing Program Administrators listserv last night about members’ experiences of the list. The post and subsequent responses got me thinking about how the culture of the group has changed over the years. [I’m putting this here instead of there because it’s pretty self-indulgent.]

Short version: three contexts (choose your own spatial metaphor for how you’d arrange these) have changed–the field of comp/rhet/writing studies around which WPA-l circulates; the profession’s labor situation; and the sociopolitical moment in which we marginalized/oppressed people increasingly boldly (and organized-ly) refuse to put up with it anymore.

When I joined WPA-l in Sept 1998 as first-semester PhD student, the list was mostly about two things: (1) WPA business, which I was interested in following because I didn’t know anything about it; and (2) doing what Joyce Locke Carter described as being “in the hotel bar and hallway at CCCC,” i.e., listening to people talk about what we do. Also, as a brand new PhD student, the “hallway” was full of famous people in our field being informal, sometimes just chatty, because for many (when a LOT of “lonely WPAs” worked with colleagues uninterested in what we do), the list served a social function along with its professional functions. I remember grinning ear-to-ear when Steve North responded to a comment about snow in Syracuse with a joke about snow in Albany.

Because the membership was smaller, and people on it really were needed each other, it was also more welcoming to new people–although in retrospect it’s clear to me that one reason I found it that way is my identity, and I hereby apologize to anyone who tried to tell me that without my hearing it.

Around the same time, it was becoming more of an expectation that members of the field talked about ourselves in “more scholarly” ways, so the discourse of the list started to change. It didn’t entirely move away from the business of WPA work, but it expanded to include a lot more theoretical debates/arguments. Especially as a grad student, and still (way back when) as a junior faculty member who was finding a place in the field, it was thrilling to be able to hear and to have those “hallway chats” with experts, and to do it all the time!

So we have, circa 2001, 2002, a list that’s adding a function (more intellectual debate) to its historic functions. Then (I’m truncating radically here) two other things happened/are happening: (1) as the field grew in numbers, so did the list membership, so the kind of we-all-know-each-other ethos didn’t hold anymore (and one of the problems is that some of us long-timers still act like it does); and (2) the academic labor context changed, such that people like I was in 1998-2002 (and other grad students who felt comfortable participating in vigorous conversations with “important people”) can’t assume a safe future (or, can’t afford to be as cavalier about their chances as I probably was). These two points are connected in ways I’m glossing over.

And now: the work many of us thought we’d been doing for years, working against bigotry, working to share power with people who historically denied it, working for equity and equality and justice, is coming home to roost courtesy of a new generation of list members who are bold enough to bring it.

Let me say very clearly that’s not a criticism of list members who have observed and been victimized by problematic and oppressive behaviors for years and didn’t feel safe saying so more publicly. That’s the whole damn point.

I applaud the individual courage of those who are pushing us long-timers to be better people, better mentors, and better co-workers.

 

Kairos matters. It’s time.

 

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