As director of a large first-year writing program, first at Eastern Michigan University and then at Virginia Tech, I have over the past eight years enacted an administrative philosophy guided by the following principles and tenets.
I am a proponent of network studies, a transdisciplinary field concerned with discerning patterns manifest among links and nodes in many different areas of interconnected activity (from physics to marketing, authorship to anthropology). As such, networks hold promising explanatory power both for how a program's design interacts with many other entities on campus (writing centers, WAC initiatives, General Education, college and university mission, assessment, and accreditation) and also how its constitutive parts, importantly including people, materials, and activities, are themselves interdependent and co-operative. Networks offer ways of modeling accessibly both the simple and the complex, whether such figures express links in the ways one course's outcomes bear inflection in another course, or when mapping a curriculum, or when illustrating an organizational chart. Further, because network studies consider scalability (i.e., the extent to which what appears at one scale of activity bears consequence or insight for other scales) and dynamism (i.e., the extent to which network structures are relatively fixed or fluid), they offer a framework with which to better address a range of issues, large and small.
My commitment to infrastructure bears out in the effortful, intentional design and development of accessible curricular materials, the curation of digital archives of exemplary teaching documents (e.g., award-winning teaching portfolios), and the open-ended creation and maintenance of listservs and wiki entries tailored to emerging needs expressed by students and by instructional staff of all ranks. Paradoxically, program infrastructure must be adaptive but also sustaining; it must, as much as possible, respond quickly to contingencies while also forecasting ahead to a longer horizon. A successful, durable program infrastructure listens to its constituents and, as well, to wider institutional stakeholders. Stwardship for a robust infrastructure must be shared widely, and for such an infrastructure to sustain, it must have continuous advocacy because as it gains hold, it is prone to drawing less and less attention to itself, and thus being taken for granted.
Relations and Collectives
Whereas networks favor structural interconnection and intermixing at differentiated scales, relations and collectives prove to be powerfully complementary principles in their emphases on slightly more human-focused sociality, alliance, shared history, and culture building. Malea Powell's work has helped to shape my thinking here, particularly where she asks us to consider students not as isolates but as collectives who are entangled in complex webs of influence, heritage, and significance. I extend this to my approach to program administration, seeking continuously to boost opportunities for professional and social interactions, e.g., incentivizing in right measure self-sponsored and ad hoc forms of pedagogical support, such as teaching circles and conference panel proposals. In effect, foregrounding relations and collectives also inflects a program with an ethic of horizontal resourcefulness, which entrusts instructors to turn toward and seek generative interactions together.
Pragmatism and Phronesis
Identifying pragmatism and phronesis as closely related principles means that I frequently return to questions—when presented with an opportunity or an administrative charge—that ask what difference it will make. This is an earnest and important tenet in that it underscores administrative work as difference-making. I believe in fostering an aspirational program, yet one whose initiatives are sensibly devised, astute about resources, and concerned primarily with the positive differences that serve students and instructors. Pragmatism, as I have read it principally through Louise Wetherbee Phelps (and also William James), gives continuous attention to the interplay between theory and practice. For James, using an aquarium as an allegory, pragmatism reminds us that theory oxygenates practices (i.e., although theory may be limitedly observable, without it, practice stagnates). Phelps, in her work on phronesis, or practical wisdom, contends that theory and practice sustain one another as a dialectic in an endlessly forward-feeding loop. Drawing on these perspectives, I believe in administering a pragmatic program, yet a program whose theory and practice is up to date (i.e., responsive to contemporary exigencies) and mutually informing.
Finally, I value goodwill, and urge others as a function of collegiality to value goodwill—being generous with co-workers and administrators, encouraging positivity in interactions with and characterizations of students, and mediating as much as possible instances of discord, misunderstanding, and related frustration. The potential for goodwill begins with routinely reflecting on our own dispositions, whether as administrators or teachers. It is sustained by acknowledging—as I often do with instructional staff—that it is expected to have difficulties and it is reasonable to commiserate, as long as we regain focus on our charge and on the integrity of our working with students. With instructors of all ranks, I return to three-part stabilizers, such as kindness, patience, and lightness (or good-humor). That is, as a response to frustration or rankle, wherever it surfaces, I invite others to remember these, and I do so because I believe a program with a commitment to goodwill stands greater likelihood of being a just and equitable program, one whose students and instructors are genuinely respected and who thereby benefit from being in a safe, progressive, and supportive environment.