on the value of being a WPA for research

I think it’s easy to say there’s little or no scholarly value in the administrative burdens of running a writing program for a rhetorician, like me, whose area of research is not related to program administration or assessment or even really composition studies. That’s what we would likely say of the many administrative jobs academics might take on in departments. It’s easy to say, and probably true, that the book I’m still working on would have been published years ago if I hadn’t spent the last six years as a WPA.

So perhaps I am just looking for the silver lining.

But I have another, long and clunky title for this post: the longer I do this, the more Latourian I become. And the reason for that has much to do with the obligations of being a WPA. So here’s a detour through Latour.

In We Have Never Been Modern, he tells the following story of what happened when science studies started doing its work at the Edinburg School:

What had started as a ‘social’ study of science could not succeed, of course, and this is why it lasted only a split second -just long enough to reveal the terrible flaws of dualism. By treating the ‘harder’ parts of nature in the same way as the softer ones -that is, as arbitrary constructions determined by the interests and requirements of a sui generis society -the Edinburgh daredevils deprived the dualists -and indeed themselves, as they were soon to realize -of half of their resources. Society had to produce everything arbitrarily including the cosmic order, biology, chemistry, and the laws of physics! The implausibility of this claim was so blatant for the ‘hard’ parts of nature that we suddenly realized how implausible it was for the ‘soft’ ones as well.

Amusingly, these implausible claims persisted long after Latour wrote this, and indeed the Science Wars hadn’t even begun in earnest when this book was published. I wonder if Latour could have guessed that he would have been held up as an emblem for those making these claims he found so implausible? In this passage, one can see elements of the arguments Latour would make far more directly (at least in my reading) in more recent years about “matters of concern” and “a second empiricism.” Really though matters of concern are hybrids or “quasi-objects” (which are the subject of this quoted passage) and a second empiricism is an approach to empiricism that permits the study of hybrids.

The key point in this passage though is that science studies set out to demonstrate that science was strictly a social-discursive phenomenon, reducible to social explanations, like religion, politics and so on, but an unexpected reversal occurred. Rather than demonstrating that science was social, they discovered that society couldn’t be strictly social either. It’s fairly straightforward to bring this realization into the context of rhetoric and composition. Beginning with the linguistic and cultural “turns” of the late 80s/early 90s, we were in a similar situation to that of the Edinburgh sociologists of science. We expected social-ideological-discursive explanations, but we have discovered something else.

As WPA here every semester there are 80 or so instructors, 2500 students, over 100 sections, dozens of classrooms, technologies, administrators, budgets, policies, etc., etc., etc. Anyone whose ever done the job knows the story. It’s a complicated mess: a matter of concern. But would we imagine that most other discursive environments lack similar entanglements? So often, we tend to narrow our disciplinary focus to the solitary writer or a single text, (or a small group of writers and texts that can each be treated independently). And Latour would likely say that we need to begin in such places, rather than with preconceived notions of big pictures. But where do we go from here? I’d imagine the typical composition student isn’t seeing the same matters of concern that I do with all of these institutional and bureaucratic matters, but is that network any less complex?

So I circle back to the original claim about the value of being a WPA. The job has insisted that I confront the reality of my views on writing and pedagogy. It’s not about being pragmatic or “nuts and bolts” in some pejorative sense. Instead, it’s about insisting that my scholarly-theoretical work helps me understand the rhetorical, media-ecological contexts in which I’m working in productive ways. In other (Latourian) words, can I build knowledge that is strong enough? That’s why I think being a WPA has made me more Latourian. It’s the methodological approach that has produced the knowledge that has done the most work for me.

And all of that has shaped my scholarly thinking.