Revolution Lullabye

June 23, 2015

White, Use It or Lose It: Power and the WPA

White, Edward M. “Use It or Lose It: Power and the WPA.” Writing Program Administration 15:1-2 (Fall/Winter 1991), 3-12. Print.

White argues that WPAs have positions of power, and they must develop ways to wield that power with other faculty, department chairs, and administrators in order to protect their writing programs. White uses his own experience, when his WAC program was attacked, to explain strategies WPAs might take to assert their power. White’s argument is laced with military metaphors. White rejects the notion that the WPA position is powerless: instead, he argues, the WPA has inherent power (whether it is “official” or “unofficial”), and those who are unwilling to take on this power should reconsider whether or not they want to be a WPA. White believes that WPAs should be tenured faculty members so that they might be in the best position possible to argue for their programs (and, in turn, for the teaching of writing.)

Notable Notes

White tells a story about coordinating a WAC program (outside the English department), and the Dean telling him that he was losing budget, release time, faculty development money. Explains institutional politics – without a WPA at the table of chairs, no one could fight for WAC. White moved the WAC program out of the School of Humanities to the Office of Undergraduate Studies, where it was protected.

Compares university politics to “foreign relations” (3)

Explains that power moves are explained passively, as if they “were the most reasonable and logical consequence of facts out of anyone’s control” (3).

Explains that many WPAs identify as scholars and writers, not “administration,” even though that is the work that WPAs find themselves doing (5).

Does give the caveat that he was tenured and “knew the ropes” (6).

In his argument, White explains that WPAs need to know “where the enemies of our program lurk, what their motives and weapons are, and how we can marshal forces to combat them. We also need to see where our allies are and find out ways to strengthen them and to keep them friendly.” (6)

Admits that his approach/perspective may seem “overly military” but acknowledges that this is the name of the administrative game (6).

lists the data WPAs should have (7)

Argues against jWPAs – don’t put yourself in a compromised position, power-wise.

explains how WPAs can promote the teaching of writing in their programs (9)

advocates as a WPA/WAC coordinator focusing on younger, untenured faculty rather than bothering with converting the “untameable” tenured faculty.

The kinds of power a WPA has with administrators: 1. Having a good program that satisfies students (and faculty); 2. Writing well-written memos, reports; 3. Gathering data about writing skills of students; 4. The national professional network of WPAs, which is very supportive

A WPA’s power in relation to English Departments mirrors the contested relationship with rhetoric and composition and literature, it depends on how the local English department has worked out that relationship.

WPAs have the final power – “to resign” (11)

Quotable Quotes

“So I had absorbed from the atmosphere [his previous experience as an administrator] certain lessons: recognize the fact that all administration deals in power; power games demand aggressive players; assert that you have power (even if you don’t) and you can often wield it.” (3)

“But my campus experience made inescapable the fact that my job as WPA included being canny with power; the WAC program would have been doomed if I had not fought back against that ‘real power’ and defeated it. I had discovered a kind of power that does not appear in flow charts, power that most WPAs have, and I was able to use it to save the program. What I did was refuse to accept the condition of powerlessness” (5).

“We must empower ourselves to do our jobs” (6).

“WPAs in general live schizophrenically, hating power yet wielding it, devoid of official power (for the most part) yet responsible for large and complex programs” (6).

“If we really don’t want to deal in power, we had better step aside, or we will be doing more harm than good” (6).

“A careful WPA will use the three basic weapons of bureaucracy to deal with these bureaucratic foes: good arguments, good data, and good allies, mixed with caution and cunning.” (7)

“The most difficult part of being a WPA is combatting those who only have scorn for our enterprise” (8).

“As every WPA knows to his or her discomfort, the staff tend to view the WPA as the boss, no matter how little power the position may in fact hold. Of course, some WPAs are the boss, with the power and the burdens that the term suggests; but most have only the responsibility of recommending hiring and changes of status. But the major power that comes with being perceived as the boss is the opportunity to improve the teaching of writing” (9)

“Certainly, the most important aspect of the WPA’s job (after survival) is the improvement of instruction. And most WPAs have substantial real and perceived power to accomplish that end” (9)

“Power is ultimately a matter of perception.” (11)

Administrators usually view faculty members who administer programs (WPAs) as more powerful than these faculty members view themselves (11)

“The WPA has much power inherent in the position.”

“This paper is, I notice, governed by military metaphors, not the kind of thing we are used to reading in these polite pages about writing and teaching” (12).

“The only way to do the job of a WPA is to be aware of the power relationships we necessarily conduct, and to use the considerable power we have for the good of the program” (12).


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