Administrative work, in my experience, insinuates a contortional gravity into a career. This hypothesis from talking around, asking, noticing local noticings, observational. It’s not that admin wrecks you or explodes you to pieces, but its consequences can be harshly palpable. Sudden stress. Drone of email habits. Repeat questions. Repeat questions. The company you keep becomes less intellectually basket-o’-rangey-musical-instruments on ideas and possibilities; bureaucratic constraints, budgetary entrenchments, efficiencies talk–all of these shunt the counter-myth that administration can be intellectual work, guided by research and shaped by disciplinary experience (if not expertise). You check your pulse sometimes. Is this burnout I am feeling? Is this fatigue after ten consecutive years administering writing programs, first at EMU and then at VT, working under six department chairs, four deans, countless other interims and assistant-associate office holders, nearly all of them so new as to be striving on personal aspirations or so long in the rootrole as to be calcified and dreamless and forgetful. Graceless turnover; sandcastles not kicked but accidentally and clumsily stepped upon. Strikingest among the burnout symptoms in late May after year ten is the high saturation in what is motivating and what is not. Sharp contrasts, the outline of a work-life once forged around reading and writing, teaching and research. Sharp contrasts, yet another meeting with variations on title-holders late to a long-ago-begun conversation, intricate details about enrollment projections, about how labor advocacy is student advocacy, about a program’s becoming requiring (for it to go even middlingly well) horizons of development, mutualism, goodwill, and a reasonable forecast for resources. Reflection on a lull-ish early summer holiday weekend says look back and what have you become, what are you becoming–big you, polyvalent and yet-unfinished and imperfect–and then to ask is another year worth it. It had better be; it won’t be.
Turned in grades for ENGL6364 a day early, freeing up Friday the 13th for gauging under drizzlesky what tempestuous awaits in the second half of May–some administrative suspense!–as if months had halves, as if the just-in-time hiring practices over at the VPI&SU could be anything other than serial end of year nail-biter. What becomes will be, harrowing precarious at that edge of hot damn does time appear to be running short. Problems are for carrying and caring about; yet, they’re not all yours-mine.
Busy week at work. What day is it? Tuesday, even so. Emails crossing strike zone, many high, many low. Simultaneity is the complication. Batter facing several pitches at once. Never allow the emails to discombobulate. Filing them is easy. Drag and drop to “filed away.” Where they will never be seen again unless you go searching. Unless there is a FOIA request. Either I have not after a decade adapted to WPA rhythms, or WPA rhythms have not after a decade adapted to me. Mid-semester fire sale. Fire sale is a metaphor for frenzy and chaos. Only in this metaphor the fire that sent up smoke and flame that led to discounted goods now on sale (is this what fire sale even means?) is also a hair on fire scenario sale. Hair on fire is also an incendiary metaphor, only it’s more urgent because hair fires are significantly more urgent and potentially more harmful than ordinary fires. All of these fires are metaphors and should be taken with a grain of salt, which is an idiom for douse of baking soda, or water, or some other extinguishing matter.
This was the first summer to have gone this way: plague, medium incline boulder roll, grandfoolish grand-societal re-opening, redoubled plague, steeper incline boulder roll. Who even has the time or energy to imagine Sisyphus as anything at all?
Hey Siri, calendar check please. Since late May–the 26th. I picked a date just to size things up, snapshot tally, to figure summertime with whatever it’s been now that I’m in a week dialed intentionally to pausing–a rest before the tidals of August wash our way.
Since late May–the 26th.
- 1,415 vt.edu emails received
- 911 vt.edu emails sent
- That’s a 35.6% reduction, or interruption rate. I wish it was more like 50%.
- 3 tenure and/or promotion cases to review. One done; two to go.
- 2 article manuscripts reviewed
- 1 promotion narrative and dossier sent in (my own)
- 67 syllabi reviewed for equivalency requests
- 106 hours in the ENGL1105 Canvas blueprint–I almost wrote blurprint. Blurprint, indeed.
- 36 hours in the ENGL1106 Canvas blueprint
- With much help, the 2020 Corridors program built
- 2 lake swims; hopeful about adding to that number later this week
- 5088 words into The Big DATO Guide
- An OWI session for the CWPA virtual discussion conference
- Collaborating on the CWPA and CCCC Joint Statement in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Co-faculty-lead for the VT Community of Practice for Writing Intensive Courses, which has included weekly coordinating Zooms and bi-weekly community of practice Zooms
- Feedback (accepted with revisions) and next steps on the Radiant Figures collection
- 1 runner-up (or second runner-up) status for the CID faculty principalship
- 1 service rotation on Computers and Composition Book Award Committee
- 10 or so additions to the bestiary
That’s the list. I can see in it some things I’d like to change, some things I’d like never to do again, some things that signal follow-through and commitment, and some things that flag for skewing too too far into the faculty-administrative depths of a WPA position that still feels very new to me. Onward is August’s knowing, mumbling hum, and with August, here’s to hoping sky-high hopeshot, there will be space+time for achieving a healthier balance, like amoebas searching for more podia than pseudopodia.
I return to campus tomorrow, May 2, following a research leave that relieved me teaching and service responsibilities at EMU during Winter 2016. The four month leave allowed me to put the finishing touches on a collaborative monograph and to get the other book I have contracted with the WAC Clearinghouse #writing series substantially closer to a full draft. At the start of the sabbatical, the introduction and first chapter were already sent off, in the editor’s hands (these amount to 57 ms. pages). Over the past four months, I submitted three more chapters, which amounts to 129 ms. pages. I still have some work to do on Chapter Five, which I plan to send by the end of May, and Chapter Six, which I’ll turn over by the end of June. With that, a full draft of the monograph and then on to other things. I just turned off my email autoreply, and I’ll be in Pray-Harrold 613M tomorrow for most of the day, doling out numerous emails related to scheduling for this year’s first-year writing sections. Before the leave officially officially concludes, I wanted to capture a few impressions about the sabbatical, its accomplishments, and its occasional struggles.
- Winter 2016 was only the second semester in 18 years that I didn’t teach a class. And the summer ahead, which is filled with administrative responsibilities, will be only the second summer in 16 years that I won’t be teaching a class. These patterns crept up on me; as I counted them and as I write them here, it seems like too much. I understand better than ever before the risks of burnout (or call it boredom, disinterest, complacency, checking out, whatever), and I have realized this winter how precariously close I have been to shrugging off many of the priorities I held when I started began down this career path during doctoral work.
- As this was my first sabbatical, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect about work rhythms. The nearest I’ve come to having this kind of time to devote entirely to scholarship was all the way back in 2008 when I was working on the dissertation. A sabbatical takes some getting used to, and I suspect this is especially true when the leave is taken from a quasi-administrative post, such as directing a first-year writing program. The interim director and associate director did a fine job, as far as I can tell, but the hand off involved a fair amount of leading communication, pointers to where various documents were stored, how to handle everyday operations, and so on. Likewise, as the return from sabbatical approaches, there has been in uptick in email, requests for scheduling various things for the first half of May. I’m not sure I was especially well prepared for the fuzziness of transitioning onto sabbatical and back off again, particularly as relates to this administrative work. And the lessons about how to transition on and off more gracefully, although they are fresh with me now, probably won’t be especially helpful when my next sabbatical comes around.
- I’m reasonably pleased with my productivity on sabbatical. I didn’t travel much–only a couple of out of town trips, primarily for conferences and an invited talk and workshop. I asked around, and some colleagues said things like, “don’t expect to get anything done during the first month” and “remember to rest.” These were helpful reminders, and now looking back, I suppose I could have worked harder and gotten more done, but I am more or less still on track with the timeline for the book, and I don’t at all have the sense that I squandered huge chunks of time.
- Sabbaticals are isolating and on some days very strange. This much free time? I worked out. I read a few books that don’t have anything to do with my writing. I shitted around. Watched TV. Cooked. Dabbled at home improvement stuff. I regard most of this as run of the mill and routine–nothing here I would describe as radically transformative. The bouts of isolation got me thinking a lot more about social balance, about how much of my social world is constituted by work interactions, conversations with colleagues who are also friends. But sabbaticals are socially bizarre in that people want to leave you alone and respect your time, which is at the same time, of course, estranging from familiar routines and conversations that can prove supportive or generative. At one point I considered trying to convene some kind of writer’s group, but after talking to another colleague who was sabbaticalling at the same time as me, I decided better of it. No need to attempt to be a social leader at the same time my purest focus should be on the book’s development.
- I can’t say yet whether I am fully restored, recharged, rested, and ready for what’s ahead. I jump back into the directorship of the first-year writing program, and while I was away there were a handful of institutional changes that make my return cautious insofar as I can’t quite tell how some of these questions will settle out (most of them relate to labor; who teaches composition as well as how composition sections are weighted for equivalencies). I thought long and hard beforehand about extending the sabbatical for four months through September 1, the start of Fall 2016, and while I could have chosen this alternative, by returning early I am able to earn additional pay in the summer months and continue as director.
Now having listed these few notes, they re-read to me as banalities, though not as too banal to post, if only so I can return to them in a few years when I put in for another research leave. And I think I will. That is, I know people who swear they don’t want or need a sabbatical, but as I have been reflecting on this time for the past ten days or so (the reprieve window of repatriation and conserving effortfully to make the most of what remained), I regard this time as invaluable to my well-being, to my research and scholarship, and to my sense of reinvigorated responsibility as a tenured professor. It surprises me a little bit that I am both excited to return to campus and that I got as much done as I did. I suppose that in itself is as much conviction as anyone can have about a sabbatical’s worth.
In her 1990 “A Personal Essay on Freshman English,” revised and published in 1998, Sharon Crowley writes,
In fact, I wager that Freshman English will continue to exist in its traditional form for a long time to come, despite the efforts of leftist composition teaches to alter its focus toward social change. I have several reasons for suspecting this. First, the traditional required course reassures taxpayers that their children are getting one final guaranteed dose of “correct” English. Second, Freshman English is a cheap way for university faculty to salve their guilt about their own teaching, which is discipline-centered and which forces students to accommodate to the discipline’s ways of knowing or to fail. Third, the emergence of composition studies has enabled a few writing teachers to do research, to publish professional discourse, to get grants, rank, and tenure, and thus to assume power in English departments and university politics. Freshman English is our daily bread. Newly enfranchised professionals will want to think twice before tampering with a sure thing. In short, I doubt whether it is possible to radicalize instruction in a course that is so thoroughly implicated in the maintenance of cultural and academic hierarchy. (235)
I suppose one of the worst things a novice, yet-untenured WPA can do during the first semester steering a large-scale writing program is to read every last word of Crowley’s Composition in the University, again. Another worst: to bring the new cohort of first-time writing teachers along on that reading. Worst meaning best, of course.
The repetitive and repressive curriculum of Freshman English is directly linked to its institutional status as a required introductory-level course. Freshman English is attached to a huge administrative enterprise on almost every college campus in the country. Its very size subjects its administrators, teachers, and students to unprofessional and unethical working practices on a scale that is replicated nowhere else in the academy. (229)
But that’s where we’re headed this afternoon in ENGL596. Crowley’s rationale for the get-rid-of-it polemic resonate still today, and what better than an encounter-cum–dissoi–logoi (if you’ll please forgive the Latin-Greek mix!) with Crowley’s well-defined, hard-set stance to resolve, for now, why and to what ends we are doing what we are doing.
I changed offices this week, moved from the smaller, windowless interior office that is standard issue for junior faculty in my department to the larger, windowed outer office pictured here. This is one among the incentives for taking on responsibilities as Director of the First-Year Writing Program–a role I formally stepped into earlier this month. The larger office is warranted because it is spacious enough for meetings with small groups of 3-4 people, or that’s the main rationale for the up-sized office, I’m told.
There’s quite a bit of new work that comes with being WPA, and I have been daily trying both to tick items off a long task-list I’m keeping in Astrid for now and to keep short-term priorities in clear view. In the mix: (anti)textbook decisions, curricular fine- and coarse-tuning, drilling down on outcomes that read to too many–me included–as over-general goals, getting publishers to say anything-more? about their pricing and margins, scrounging for budget, setting up online spaces (e.g., WordPress and Mediawiki installs), scheduling for fall, prepping a summer materials PDF for new GA cohort, and on and on. I’m not sure how the size of this FYWP compares, but I’d guess it is larger than most with 140+ sections per year, more than 3000 students per year, and an instructional staff of more than 50.
Along with all of the challenges, the transition into this role is generative in that it is pushing me to re-think my research agenda, reconsider my teaching philosophy, formalize an administrative philosophy and plan (almost certainly rooted in chreods and chreodologies), and reflect on what worked well in my graduate education. I have every indication so far that EMU is a hospitable place for tending to the strength and solidity of the first-year experience and Gen. Ed. There are many smart, supportive people involved, which always helps.
I have half-kidded on Twitter that in addition to Writing Program Administrator, WPA means Writing Program Atavist and Writing Program Adhocrat: atavist for throwback tendencies (returning to my own TA training, unearthing relic teaching influences, leafing through the 1936 Sears catalogs as Jim Corder did, and finding it fixed, stale: “We mustn’t try to live forever with only the knowledge we now have.”), adhocrat for the gut-trusting making up of this thing as we go, leaning hard on practical wisdom and the proceed-as-way-opens Quaker maxim LWP has always been fond of. I’ve ordered a few other books about contemporary WPA thinking, but right now this is where I’m at.
Peeples, Tim. “‘Seeing’ the WPA With/Through Postmodern Mapping.” The Writing Program Administrator as Researcher. Shirley K. Rose and Irwin Weiser, eds. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1999. 153-167.