A little more than two years ago, when I was first interviewed for the position of Chair of Writing Studies at Montclair State University, the first question I was asked was “why do you want to be our founding chair?”
Desire is a funny thing. I always wanted to be in a freestanding department, where I imagined not being held subservient to literature, screen studies, creative writing, linguistics, and so on, where I imagined not having to be in the same room every department meeting with people who did not see composition, rhetoric or technical writing as real disciplines, where I imagined not having to continually fight the battle within my department for new hires. And in a really particular way I wanted to work with the faculty and administrators who were interviewing me.
But perhaps most importantly I wanted to lead a department using a consensus model. Oklahoma State had in place a Head system, where the Department Head is contractually defined as administration rather than faculty, and being the associate Head of that department, it was clear that OSU’s structure did not encourage a consensus model of leadership, even though I had seen some examples of consensus leadership while there. But for me, even down to the metaphor, being a chair (instead of a Head) meant that I would be sitting at a table with my colleagues.
But I had concerns about making the move to a free standing writing program. As outlined by Justin Everett and Christina Hanganu-Bresch, writing studies programs continue to wrestle with whether they should market themselves within the rhetorical tradition of the liberal arts or emphasize the more practical tradition of rhetoric, and even in my first interviews with Montclair State it seemed that tension was a source of dissonance for the department.
At the time, though, my concerns about moving were less theoretical and more practical. The English department at Oklahoma State could often be a contentious place, but it was a large department that was not used to being pushed around by upper administration. That is to say that as a comp/rhet person, I discovered that if I could get something through my department it would pass through the Dean and Provost with very little pushback. As my rhet/comp colleagues at Oklahoma State would likely tell you, though, there were many rhet/comp initiatives that did not make it past the departmental stage.
Montclair at that time had 4 TT faculty, 23 Full Time Instructional Specialists, an established minor, and only the promise of a major. I was concerned that it would be in a position to be pushed around in ways that a larger program could not. But going to Montclair’s campus and getting to know both the tenure stream and instructional specialist faculty made it clear to me that I wanted to play a part in this new department’s self-definition. And perhaps more important than the way that the department would define itself theoretically was the clear fact that this department wanted to define itself as a model of collaboration.
One of the first big tests of this model would come in establishing the way that we would frame the makeup of our department in our bylaws. How would faculty be named, who would have the power to vote? It was clear that our department wanted to include all full time faculty, but what about the power of adjuncts? There is a story in that, but I’m not really going to focus on it except to say that we succeeded to come to an agreement that gave full time Instructional Specialist faculty the power to vote in our department and perhaps subversively the power to be called “faculty” in our bylaws. We also, and to some degree more controversially, gave adjunct faculty the power to vote at our department meetings, and put into place a structure that would inform adjunct faculty when there would be issues that would most directly affect them.
What I want to focus on in this presentation, though, is the various ways that a consensus model of leadership has proven to be at direct odds with the kind of leadership that drives the university. As a way of merging the practical concerns with some of the theoretical ones, I will focus on the story of getting our major passed because it brings together issues related to leadership, the role of Writing Studies as a discipline, with the function of rhetoric as a practical discipline.
Toward the end of my first semester of being department chair, I was given the news that the President of the University had read our Program Announcement Proposal for our major and was going to block its moving forward. That semester the department had already pushed the major through the college and university curriculum committees, and I had incorrectly assumed that the Board of Trustees meeting was only going to be a formality.
The President’s concerns, as delivered to me by the Provost, were that there were too many remnants of our connection with the English department in our current course offerings and that there were not enough efforts in our new major for us to collaborate with other colleges. Although I did not agree at all that any of our courses sounded like they should be in an English department, it seemed wise (or strategic) to take the opportunity to revise some course titles and descriptions, and even take the opportunity to create some new courses. In the big picture, this part of the process was relatively painless.
What was more disconcerting was the imperative to collaborate with other colleges and schools across the campus. The provost told me that they had just spent 5 million dollars on new equipment in the school of communication and that we needed to collaborate with them. I explained that our courses in technologies of writing, digital and technical writing did not require 5 million dollar equipment to teach and that we had quite a few departments that we were already forging meaningful collaborations with, but it turned out that this particular collaboration was a deal breaker.
Seeing us primarily as a service department, the upper administration was, it appeared, more than happy letting us be a department that provided first year writing and a minor, they were more than happy to let the major proposal die in a file somewhere, so I set out on the long, rather tedious process of scheduling meetings with the Dean and faculty of people from the school of communication, a group that had no organic interest in working with us, and who–understandably, I’d say–resisted the imperative from above to quote unquote “collaborate.” And, truthfully, there is not a lot of story to tell. I waited outside of offices for scheduled meetings where no one came. I met with people, but when it comes down to it I never got anyone to agree to anything, but I did explain the situation to people when I met with them. Understandably, both the Dean and the faculty I met with explained that they did not want to move forward without further faculty input from various departments within the School.
One day, though, I received an email that our revised major would be approved at an upcoming board of Trustees Meeting. And so our revised major was born, a year later than we had expected, and as far as I am able to tell, without additional signatures from anyone.
This non-story would be perfect for Latourian analysis, but I only want to focus in this moment on the ways that the practical imperatives–rewrite, collaborate–refocused the curriculum and the department itself. With the required revisions, our core courses in our major became 30 credits plus 12 from another school, creating a major that becomes interdependent on more marketable colleges (business and communication, primarily).
In short, the university pushed us in the direction of practicality with the cognate areas designation. But at least from my perspective rhetoric as a subject matter is flexible enough to remain connected to its humanistic mission as long as the teachers of the courses remain attuned to its flexibility. What is troubling is the way that this particular anecdote illustrates how writing studies as a discipline continues to be marginalized, but now from a more distributed place. On balance, though, I’d say this particular brand of marginalization is preferable because we are now in a position to move forward and to grow, if not towards independence then toward a model of interdependence that will work its way toward, I hope, a basis in mutual trust and sincere need.