WAC, Contingency, and Gender

In Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation, Elaine Maimon (2018) noted that writing across the curriculum has long been informed by feminist principles. That's not a surprise given the number of women leaders of the movement. WAC has typically been seen as transformative, rather than transactional, depending on shared ownership rather than on bartering, buying, and selling.

That said, WAC has not escaped the routine oppression of women, faculty members in contingent positions, and members of minoritized groups. In 1981, after applying for a position in which she could have continued to lead WAC work at the institution that employed her and her husband—and after bringing in a major grant to fund development of a WAC program—Sue McLeod was told that it would be foolish to hire her for a tenure-track position since, as a faculty spouse, "she wasn't going anywhere." This proved to be a bad move for the institution. McLeod subsequently found a tenure-line position at Washington State University, where she became a department chair, an associate dean, and one of the early leaders of the WAC movement.

Video: Sue McLeod reflects on the challenges of working on WAC as an adjunct faculty member and a faculty spouse. Not long after being turned down for a tenure-line position, she took a tenure-line position at Washington State University and became one of the leaders of the WAC movement. View the video at https://youtu.be/ETsGl0YV43Q.

McLeod's experiences as an adjunct faculty member were far from unique. When Joan Mullin was hired as "professional staff" to start a Writing Center and WAC program at University of Toledo, she was told that it would eventually turn into a tenure-line. While she was grateful to have a job in a typical downturn year for academic hiring, she eventually spent twelve years in that contingent position in an English department that was largely resistant to viewing writing studies as a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry. Writing at that time was seen as an upstart area claiming to be a discipline. Moreover, she was a woman. Within the first two years, she was advised by a senior male colleague in the department to (1) "wear jeans more often and schmooze around a lot," (2) "don't call the president by his first name"—which everyone else on campus did by the president's insistence, and (3) "watch who you eat lunch with." That last one was unexplained, but the advice offered was "you aren't really faculty" (personal communication, February 25, 2019).

For Joan, working in a contingent position in a traditional English department in the early days of WAC proved problematic: her class in writing theory was canceled after two years because she was "stealing graduate students from other classes." When she walked into the room for a department meeting, one male colleague would typically sighed loudly and say, "What's she doing here?" No one ever called him on it, neither the women sitting there nor the department chair. Joan observed:

While, by all means, not everyone in English, nor all males, were exclusionary and sexist, by far that was the norm at my institution and, as I became a member of professional WAC and writing center organizations, I heard this was the norm overall: sexism, low pay, exclusion from opportunity. I have been told of WAC professional staff (all female stories) being asked to leave the room when decisions are voted on; as with Sue McLeod's story, all have been tagged "trailing spouses" or as non-research faculty who lack the wherewithal to vote on hiring decisions, even of their own supervisors.

Luckily, while devastated by the treatment, I was naïve enough to think if I proved myself it wouldn't matter, and in some ways, it didn't. While the exclusion from English hurt and created a defensiveness it took a long time to shake, a victim mentality I recognize in a lot of WPAs. I just acted like the PhD/academic that I thought I was. As involvement in the profession grew, so did publications and my CV. As the programs on campus succeeded and my own networks solidified, I was included on faculty committees across campus, even those not usually open to professional staff like search committees and program reviews, because of how I was, not how English constructed me or males (and there are more stories from those outside English). Or even females.

Overall, gender prejudice seemed closely tied to the lack of understanding of our field. I think of the male sociologist who took my picture from a news item, posted it on his office door and wrote across it in red "She will teach you to rite rite." While female tenure-line colleagues in Biology or history were equitably treated and treated me as such, female colleagues in English treated me according to my rank. (personal communication, January 23, 2020)

Stories of inequity formed common complaints within the field in the late 1980s to early 2000s, and Joan's experience seven years into her position was not uncommon: given a strong record of publication and leadership in professional organizations, one of her colleagues, a nationally prominent English department rhetorician, urged his colleagues to vote on moving her position onto a tenure line. When he realized that the vote was clearly going to be "no," he successfully persuaded them to "vote not to vote on the matter of Joan Mullin's tenure." Rhetorically smart, he explained that the vote would allow a subsequent attempt to move her into a tenure line. Eventually, disgusted by the tenor of the conversations about Joan and the field of which he considered himself a part, he left the department.

A few years later, another attempt was made to convert Joan's position to a tenure line. This time it was successful, but not without complications and unnecessary drama. As has been the case with many in the field of writing studies, Joan's work in service and administration—and the nature of the scholarship that emerged from that work—complicated her promotion and tenure case. Nonetheless, she earned support from her department, her college, and the university's personnel committee. Then it was rejected by a new provost, a woman, who questioned the value of "service work" in what she viewed as a still-emerging field. Joan recalled what happened next:

The procedure was that, if a case was rejected at any level, it was closed—but whoever rejected the case had to explain to the previous committee, dean, or chair the reason for rejection. The head of the university personnel committee who had passed my case was a prestigious male scientist—the university's top NSF grant receiver by millions. The provost argued to him and the committee that I didn't deserve it, that this wasn't a valid field, that rolling my position into a tenure line wasn't policy. After arguing the committee's case to no avail, the chair told her that it was her right to reject, but that everyone on the committee, and a majority of faculty would openly protest the decision. She approved my case. (personal communication, January 23, 2020)

Joan observed that "the professional humiliation and emotional toll—sometimes indefinable and unperceived—that such treatment causes cannot be overstated. The saddest part of tales like this are how our defenses and the damage done by colleagues cause many of us to self-destruct on personal and/or professional levels" (personal communication, January 23, 2020). Despite the inclusiveness that WAC has professed to embrace since its founding, we can point to similar situations—and too often situations that do not end well—for colleagues who seem to be working in conditions that vary little from those typical of the 1980s and 1990s. This is as true for minoritized groups as it is for women. While attention to this issue, to the point of public shaming, has led to improvements, one of the key issues faced by members of the WAC community—inadequate knowledge of writing studies as a disciplinary field worthy of respect—continues to cause undue pressures on too many of our colleagues. Joan argues, however, that it is possible to relieve that pressure:

Equity and visibility are areas we need to push as an agenda for the future. We start by making these issues explicit, calling them out, using our allies, and remembering that there are models, and there are those who have gone before and succeeded—and many of them are in powerful positions now. Anyone still struggling should reach out because, in so many ways, WAC and the many who have built WAC have resources to offer, support to give, and a robust field behind which more can stand. (personal communication, January 23, 2020)