"WPA should..."/WPA can!

Several years ago, at a meeting with people from all academic disciplines, I mentioned that I was Vice President of CWPA. After the meeting I was chatting with one of the attendees, another writing teacher, who was encountering some challenges in his school. He opened the discussion of these challenges by saying, “WPA should…”

This conversation has really stuck with me, so much so that I remember many of its details three years later. These aren’t always easy times to be a writing teacher or a WPA. Even the most optimistic among us – and I’d describe myself as a mega-optimist – recognize that we’re encountering some pretty new challenges. Economic times are tight; issues related to race, class, gender, sexuality, and identity seem to be at once in flux and at the same time not changing quickly enough; our institutions are asking us to do more with less and encountering demands for the same… I could go on.

In times like these, it’s easy for any of us – and I certainly include myself! – to look outward and say, “This person or this organization should <do this thing to help with my situation>…” But one of the lessons we can learn from folks who have worked on issues related to and designed to affect social change is that there is no “them” – there is us.

When it comes to CWPA, this is especially true. WPA has no staff, no brick-and-mortar structure. We have an Executive Board of people with jobs and lives and families. We have a treasurer and a webmaster (the same person, in fact) and a secretary to help us manage the organization’s business, and we have journal editors. And all of these people also have jobs, families, and lives.

So given that we’re all in the same boat, our challenge as WPA members is to say “As WPA, WE should…” -- that is, it's to figure out how we can identify things that we want to happen, and then work together to figure out how we can affect that change in manageable ways -- keeping in mind the realities of our already overloaded lives.

In thinking about these “shoulds,” too, I think about one other lesson from those folks working on issues designed to affect change. It’s tempting to say that we (whoever “we” are) should jump into projects designed to tackle huge problems that we see – misperceptions of writing and writers, racism, classism, discrimination based on sexual preference, and other violations of our personal and professional ethics. I take a cue from the legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, who wrote over 40 years ago that:

Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change…. We will start with the system because there is no other place to start except from political lunacy. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. (Alinsky 1971, xxi)

Would that we could, individually or together, immediately address the HUGE things that are just wrong in this culture. But working together, we can work on issues related to those big-picture problems – and we also can build new alliances, friendships, and opportunities through those processes.

CWPA has been working on developing projects for all of us to address issues that are important to those of us who work with writing programs and their administration for thirty plus years, and that work is continuing through the WPA Directions initiative. I know I keep writing “stay tuned!” – and I’ll say it again. Just to update reader(s): We’ve now taken input from the WPA Directions Postcards and Town Hall Meeting and sent them to the Executive Board so that we can identify some specific projects we’d like to take up. By mid-late August we’ll let people know about these via this web site and WPA-L and ask you to join in in whatever way you can – because as I’ve said, CWPA is all of us.