by Jessica Rose Corey, Kent State University, and Nicole I. Caswell, East Carolina University
Administrative assistantships or similar positions often serve as one way to prepare graduate students for the job market. For instance, at the institution where we attained our WPA role, and similar to many universities, graduate students can apply for a 1- or 2-year appointment as Assistant Writing Center Director, Assistant Writing Program Coordinator, Writing Internship Graduate Assistant Coordinator, and Assistant to the Director of Digital Composition. To better align ourselves with job market criteria, these positions serve as apprenticeships in which we work closely with directors, learn the ins and outs of different roles, and assert ourselves as individuals with experience in these lines of work. We find that these experiences as graduate student administrators situate us as job applicants who have concrete stories to discuss during interviews, familiarities with the demands of the job, and interactions outside of the classroom setting—all of which set us apart from fellow applicants without administrative experiences. And as one of the authors, Nikki, discusses later, this framework holds true on the job market. Though well-intentioned (as evidenced by the fact that they lead to many job placements), these roles put graduate students in ambiguous authoritative positions, positions increasingly unique for female doctoral students. In this article, we discuss the ways these positions move us to push the boundaries of authority, mentoring, and learning as they shape our identities as doctoral students in a role of inherently little power, though seen as powerful.
Some WPA research has addressed specifically the experiences of graduate students in writing program administration (Duffey et al, 2002; Mountford, 2002; Thomas, 1991; Willard-Traub, 2002), but we have found few studies that complicate the narrative of being a graduate student in an administrative position. The narratives we share in this article center around the notion of power. When graduate students become administrators, they inherit more power than that afforded to traditional graduate students with teaching assistantships and fellowships. Across the campus, administrative positions are assumed to be filled by individuals who are able to make decisions, solve problems, and mediate conversations. It remains easy to overlook, however, the fact that the capable, ambitious students occupying these positions of power sometimes struggle to enact that power. Since our fellow graduate students saw us in positions of power but others saw us as ‘just graduate students,’ we refer to this power struggle as a false identity of authority. Our article addresses two questions to further the scholarship on graduate students in WPA positions: How are graduate student administrators shaped and confined by Writing Program Administration (WPA) positions? What does a false identity of authority look like for graduate student WPAs? In addition to sharing our experiences in these loosely configured positions, we offer advice to graduate students serving in similar roles or in programs looking to develop administrative opportunities for graduate students.
In addressing these questions, we note the interplay of challenges, struggles, and social rewards that make graduate student administrative positions honest and strong preparation for a professional academic career. Therefore, we organize this article around a theme of power that takes into account the power we had to change others, the power the position had to change us, and the power we thought we held. We offer our stories as illustrations of these dynamics, as well as insight into how our stories respond to the limited literature in the field. In addition, embedded within our narratives of power, we raise the issue of our positions as female doctoral students. While many of our experiences hold true for all graduate students, certain components of power shaped us differently because we are women. We recognized certain dynamics of being females that informed our sense of the way that the position shaped us – that may or may not hold true for other graduate students. In essence, we offer our stories as a way to shed light on similarities and possible differences of what it means to occupy positions of authority as graduate students and women.
Institutional and Administrative Context
Enrolled in a Rhetoric and Composition PhD program at a 4-year, R2 university in the Midwest, we had both finished our first year of course work and were entering our second year in the program when we received our appointment in the WPA position. As we realized that no official job description existed for our WPA position, we came to understand it as including the following responsibilities: mentor, observe, and evaluate new graduate instructors; evaluate placement challenge essays; revise the Guide to College Writing I & II and the Instructor’s Manual; review writing minor portfolios and select finalists for a writing minor award; review syllabi; develop writing program materials, including website modifications; plan award ceremonies; attend Writing Program Committee meetings; and determine objectives, measures, and outcomes for university core standards and the assessment of these elements. Without an official job description and little training provided, this understanding came from our inherently learning about the work from the graduate students who held the title prior to us. Traditionally, since two graduate students split this position (10 hours per week per graduate student), a senior graduate student who has completed one year of the two-year rotation works with a newly appointed student in this role. The responsibility of sharing knowledge about the assistantship falls to the senior graduate student WPA rather than to a faculty member.
Our WPA position, however, goes beyond a job market mission and actually shapes our identities as doctoral student administrators who are given ‘power’ to make decisions, design materials, and shape the identities of other graduate students while also realizing that, in the true definition of power and authority in administrative roles, we have none. And, given that our jobs fail to require written contracts of any kind, let alone those that pertain to actual administrative positions, we operate under an assistantship to the department. At any point, the WPA, Graduate Coordinator, or Chair of the department could reconfigure our position or remove us from it. Yet, in addition to the duties described above, and despite the insecurity of our positions, we continue teaching, participating in other campus organizations, working on conference presentations or publications, and either completing doctoral coursework, studying for qualifying exams, or working on our dissertation studies. Serving as the assistant WPA comprises only one aspect of our graduate student lives. From this one aspect, however, stems a multitude of complexities and benefits.
‘Power’ to Change
Empowering change in others
One of the most challenging components of our position involves navigating our lack of power, which we recognize, with the perceived power that other graduate students attribute to us. We must remain aware of the limits of our power, but also of the ways in which we exercise the power we do have. As Reay and Ball (1996) discuss, in fulfilling our duties as Assistant WPAs, we have been shaped by the opportunity and continued desire to empower others. Reay and Ball state that women heading academic departments reported “use of power ‘as transformative capacity’ (1996: 141-2). For them, power was about empowering others…being able to make things happen by distributing resources, interacting in ways which left others confident in their actions, enabling others to do things…” (148). We see our sense of power in similar ways. The ability to use our power to empower others remains one of the most valuable and cherished aspects of serving as Assistant Writing Program Coordinator. In this dynamic, we find significance in the work that we do, and the role which shapes our identities the most.
For instance, as mentioned earlier, one of our responsibilities includes mentoring new graduate students as they teach in our writing program for the first time. While many argue, as our department did, that full-time faculty should mentor first-year master’s and doctoral students, our department has allowed the continued practice of second-, third-, and fourth-year doctoral students mentoring incoming graduate students. We argue that while doctoral students are placed in multiple authoritative struggles and asked to perform in multiple identities, we leave these positions with, and provide for other graduate students, a sense of community. This idea of empowering others remains visible in the weekly, hour-long meetings we hold with mentees, during which newly appointed Graduate Assistants (M.A. level appointees) and Teaching Fellows (Ph.D. level appointees) convene to listen to us present or to share their questions and concerns about grading, time management, difficult students, institutional and classroom policies, the incorporation of technology into curriculum, the generation of discussions and assignments, the choosing of reading materials, the conflicts between their personal values and the institutional culture, and any other matter they wish to address. During this time, we meet in a room reserved for our purposes, close the door, and create a space in which people can speak freely about their experiences. Mentor group members look to us for answers and approaches that their experiences have yet to afford them; and we appreciate the opportunity to put our hard-earned lessons to use in a way that contributes to their professional development and confidence. As other researchers have argued, “in the absence of the institutional power that accompanies the subject position of ‘teacher,’ we still were, by virtue of our teaching experience and other training, more expert than most (if not all) our group members. Indeed that absence of authoritarian power enabled us to enact, no matter how haltingly and hesitantly, a collaborative pedagogy in our [mentor meetings]” (Duffey et al. 83). While these meetings complicate fellow graduate students’ perception of our power, they also create one of the few instances in which power itself loses meaning and gives way to camaraderie and the social construction of knowledge.
New teachers at the university level, on the other hand, rarely have the opportunity to spend an hour each week reflecting on what happens in their classrooms. Nikki, as a graduate student who participated in this mentoring program, had a faculty member as a mentor, rather than a graduate student. She found discussions confined (as compared to the conversations she had with the mentor groups she led) by someone in a position of power to make real departmental decisions about the courses she taught. This confinement stifled the struggles she wanted to mention but, out of fear, did not mention. However, that experience with a faculty member led Nikki to think more about how she wanted to create an open space where graduate students could bring anything to the table without fear of repercussions. Through our mentoring experiences, both authors realized that our identities as doctoral student administrators were changing; and as mentors, the power to change others ended up shaping us.
Changing others changes us
After a few mentor meetings, Jessica realized her mentees’ need to reflect on their institutional identity, but also on their identity as individuals within an institution and their identity as craftsmen of the subject they teach (writing). This inspired her to expand the focus of their discussions and develop a study in which these new appointees constituted focus groups that explored their identities as writers and writing teachers. Furthermore, they explored how those identities influenced emotional responses to teaching and converged or diverged with their teaching practices. Jessica finds that her newly acquired job within WPA affords her access to participants with whom she can engage in reciprocal research (Powell & Takayoshi 2003) that aligns with a feminist methodology.
Similarly, Nikki found mentor meetings useful for research as she developed her dissertation study. After obtaining approval from the Institutional Review Board, Nikki used conversations between her and her mentees as a mini case study. At the time, she was grateful for her mentees’ willingness to assist her in the completion of such a large and important project. But as she continues to analyze that data a few years later, she realizes that the weekly discussions not only helped mentees reflect on their teaching practices but also help her, now as an Assistant Professor, modify pedagogical techniques and research projects.
While we both found that mentoring provided a rich site for research, our role as mentors functioned as one aspect of the WPA position shaped and confined by our status as graduate students. We were shaped into mentors who desired a place where teachers could freely share their thoughts, fears and concerns about teaching – as many had never taught before and had only completed an intense 3-week pedagogy course. But, we were also confined as graduate students who (hopefully) knew the answers but could not make changes to eliminate the problem.
For instance, on one hand, Jessica experiences reciprocity, a shaping of her feminist identity. Her mentees have yet to communicate a frustration or a problem that she has not already encountered. She offers group members insight; and they offer her a space in which she experiences appreciation, and on some level, validation. The “paying your dues” process of completing a graduate degree remains a tradition; one must carry a heavy burden with little in return. Jessica finds reward, however, in realizing her own knowledge and value to others, and in watching first-year teachers hesitantly and successfully begin to discover their own identities as instructors. On the other hand, to avoid dwelling on the issues which she lacks the power to change (i.e. fiscal issues and their influence on the classroom), this reciprocity must remain the focus. The frustrations and setbacks experienced by those in her mentor group still exist as issues Jessica faces, and with which she struggled to find any peace. She remains confined by the simple fact that these mentor meetings, offering advice and humorous commentary in response to first-year teachers’ experiences, serve as her only opportunity to have an influence in any manner on such politics.
Moreover, Nikki recalls an incident in her second year of mentoring when one of the teachers came to the meeting with a piece of student writing that caused alarm. The student made generalized threats and the teacher (teaching for the first time ever) had no idea what to do. Nikki, relying on what she knew from the Guide to College Writing (which, at the time, contained no information about disturbing writing), decided to push the writing up the ranks to the Writing Program Administrator. The issue quickly spiraled out of control, involving the police and eventual placement of the student into a different writing class (3/4 of the way through the semester). Nikki continued to meet one-on-one with the teacher (outside of the mentor group) to discuss the teacher’s feelings about the incident and how the teacher may respond if the situation occurred in another class. While later mentoring meetings did not seem to suffer from the incident, the inherent authority the mentor group attributed to Nikki had disappeared. She recognized that she had a false sense of authority, but also realized that it was the shaping of her identity by prior experiences as a mentee and mentor to other graduate students, not the authority of the administrative role, that created the positive outcomes for her and her mentees.
While faculty members mentor students in our program (and we value this mentoring), we recognize that our faculty shaped our program and positions in such a way that graduate students traditionally (and consistently) mentor one another. Our administrative assistantships rotate so that one senior WPA graduate student mentors the new WPA graduate student; these two individuals then mentor graduate students working as instructors for the first time. Because of this structure, former graduate students continue to mentor current graduate students and collaborate in instances such as this article. We present this information because we recognize that not every graduate program resembles this structure; and we have found the most valuable work in our WPA position conducted through mentoring graduate student teachers.
As a first-year Assistant Professor of English and Writing Center Director, Nikki still finds mentoring to be the most valuable experience of her two-year WPA appointment in graduate school. She continues to draw on the ways she learned how to talk about teaching and writing, and has found that she unofficially encourages the graduate students at her new program to think about designing a structure of graduate students mentoring each other. Nikki’s colleagues completely agree that the program needs to cultivate a graduate student culture, and have begun a process to offer more graduate student-to-graduate student mentoring opportunities.
For us, mentoring fellow graduate students is one way that we use the power of the position to share our knowledge with others. While we have encountered issues in our mentor group that we have needed to take to the WPA or Chair of the department, the majority of our meetings focus on cultivating a safe space for new teachers to talk through ideas and experiences in the classroom. While we hope that our presence helped shape those with whom we worked (and our research into this dynamic suggests that it did), these meetings were one place where we were shaped into female doctoral-student administrators who had power to empower others.
Administrative power creates campus changes and lack of power changes everything
While mentoring remains an ongoing component of our job, our graduate student position shaped us in other ways. The networking that accompanies the position also provides us with an opportunity to shape our identities as teachers and activists. For instance, Jessica ended up designing her Business & Professional Writing course so that it involved traditional business writing genres as well as business writing for non-profit organizations; this course also carried with it a service learning component, for which students produced marketing materials for a local center designed to educate the public about events and consequences of 1960s and 1970s social movements. This course design developed from a conversation between two administrators, one of who then inquired about Jessica’s interest in teaching a linked course. In essence, Jessica had direct access to people and information which she would lack outside of her current position. She remains aware of, and in some cases participates in, deans’ desired and/or implemented institutional changes, assessment statistics, evaluations of teachers’ performance, budgetary concerns, curriculum development, etcetera. Admittedly, this creates a burden, a burden with which she must learn to come to terms. But again, this access to information also provides her with moments to contemplate, think critically, and in some cases, respond to the culture of the academy and her own values. In all of these ways, then, she begins to develop a sense of confidence, a sense of authority which she knows she must assert to persevere in the field. Furthermore, her experience differs from that communicated in prior research in that she calls on her values as a feminist and an activist to examine the ways in which her attempts at collaborative construction of knowledge with mentees and supervisors actually lead to action in the field.
Nikki had a similar experience when designing her service-learning courses. Her students worked to create a free online tax clinic site on campus. Through her service in the WPA office, she connected with the Office of Service Learning. With the help of the AmeriCorps VISTA on campus, Nikki and her students made significant progress on bringing a tax clinic to campus, including having completed research to determine the location and marketing of the clinic, and the necessary education to become tax clinicians. Using what she knew about networking and positions, Nikki used her Assistant Writing Program Coordinator title to organize meetings with members across campus. Only if necessary did Nikki refer to herself as a doctoral student; and not until she needed to obtain permission from a Dean to use campus space for a few hours each week did her project came to a halt. While in the middle of a presentation at a meeting with a Dean and cabinet members, one of the members said, “But you are ‘just’ a graduate student. Who is in charge?” After a year and a half of planning with her students, Nikki realized that she could not follow through with her students’ service-learning project because of a false sense of authority. While she had authority in the classroom, in the Office of Service Learning, and in the assistant WPA position, she lacked power as a graduate student to follow through on the work that her students had done.
While Nikki’s first response wanted to be that of anger, she answered the question by name-dropping who she had worked with during the past year and half of planning. The simple act of name-dropping seemed to please the committee, since the names were of equal status to the positions of those at the meeting; but the comment “‘just’ a graduate student” significantly shaped Nikki’s perception of academia and brought her a sense of reality that she has now used in her current administrative job. Nikki went into that meeting excited and proud of the work that her students had done. Students, using what they knew about audience, had gone so far as to create a document of the concrete ways the university would benefit from the program. At the time, Nikki thought of the meeting as a formality; this meeting remained one of the last things to complete in order to establish the clinic. However, excitement became replaced with the realization that no matter how much authority a department, office, or position may give to a graduate student, graduate students hold little to no power, and always need to find someone with real academic authority to make projects into a reality. Unfortunately, because Nikki controlled the project and had seen it from start to finish (almost), finding an academic authority to make the project a reality proved impossible. The university’s end-of-the-year service learning report showcased the work of Nikki’s classes; while she lacked authority to make the tax clinic a reality, she apparently had done enough work to be valued and showcased in the university report. Painful as it was at the time, it gave Nikki a real experience to talk about during her job interviews, and positioned her identity as a doctoral student administrator who exercised caution in choosing projects and understanding how others in the academic community see and value her position.
That which Lacks Transparency: Administrative, Doctoral, and Female Identity
While many of our experiences in our administrative positions apply to all graduate students, there were some moments that influence female graduate students more specifically. In the next few sections, we share some of those experiences and discuss how our identities as female doctoral students were shaped by our administrative position. In 2010, researchers in the field of education pointed out the “exceptional lack of research documenting the lived experiences of female doctoral students” (Mansfield et al. 728). Three years later, we find that observation to hold true while also supporting the notion that discussion of women in further education neglects issues of authority, or speaks of these issues in misleading language of temporality (Leathwood 388). Some work has addressed the experiences of females in education administration (Acker, 2012; Christman & McClellan, 2012; Leathwood, 2005; Reay & Ball, 2000; Sherman et al, 2010), while other work has addressed specifically the experiences of graduate students in writing program administration (Duffey et al, 2002;Mountford, 2002; Thomas, 1991; Willard-Traub, 2002). In the earlier part of this article we address the experiences of graduate students in administrative positions; now, we would like to expand on the scholarship presented by Mansfield and her colleagues (2010), scholarship that specifically addresses female doctoral students in such roles. Specifically, in this section, we aim to address Reay and Ball’s observation that “the power of women to change structures is emphasized at the cost of failing to understand how structures change women” (159).
Jessica, as she continues to work within an administrative network of people and shared knowledge, has come to realize how the WPA role further shapes her identity as a female who values feminist approaches to administration, pedagogy, and research. The job and her female identity as someone who holds the job, however, confine opportunities for success and equality, as also expressed by Nikki. For instance, this role places Jessica “in the spotlight” within the department. She frequently meets with faculty from regional campuses and administrators in the English department, office of the Provost, Student Multimedia Services, library services, Project Management Office, and Faculty and Professional Development. Despite her role in the WPA, or perhaps because of her role in the WPA, as a woman, a feminist, and a graduate student, she has difficulty navigating the differences between authority afforded to men and that afforded to women. Interestingly, though, Jessica’s experiences mirror those of some males in academia, as reported in research that found that participants attributed positions given to male students as the result of informal social connections formed with male faculty members. (Females, meanwhile, communicated their appreciation for the “informal mentor” relationships they had formed among themselves (Mansfield 731).) Recently, a female colleague commented to Jessica that she would continue to do well because she is “well-liked—by faculty and students.” Of course, this communicates the message that Jessica does well because she is “well-liked,” rather than that she is well-liked because she does well. In this sense, she exists as an “Other” (Leathwood 394), in terms of her position, but also in traditional notions about gender that some reason must exist for her success other than the fact that she has earned it.
People may perceive Jessica as an “other” in both positive and negative ways—someone who has successfully taken on a position and, therefore, experience which they have yet to gain, or someone charged with the task of carrying out whatever duties her supervisor assigns to her and which support the university’s interests instead of the interests of the teachers. As mentioned previously, she often has information which she knows affects teachers and which holds great potential for upsetting them and invoking a sense of “felt difficulty” (Young). Yet, she must keep this information confidential because of the possible uproar upon releasing information prematurely. In this sense, boundaries remain blurred. As an assistant administrator in the Writing Program, she has knowledge appropriate to fulfill that duty. But she is also a teacher and a graduate student who has fellow teachers and graduate students as friends. She feels guilty when she must form alliances with the job rather than with the people who spend time with her in the trenches of a PhD program and/or a classroom every day. After all, these people spend hours on the phone with her talking about shared research interests and exchanging teaching ideas. They give subtle looks or comments that communicate that she has an ally when going up against opposition. These people hug her when she feels overwhelmed and when she’s managed to stop panicking and accomplish something. And she returns the favor. Yet, these are also the people from whom she keeps information that she anticipates will cause feelings of discouragement and anger—not as a means to protect them, but as a means to safeguard the department and her supervisors. Such actions, however, go against the nature of “Jessica the individual” and “Jessica the feminist.”
Carole Leathwood writes about a female teacher in an administrative occupation, saying:
She struggled with the demands that she perform as the all-giving, constantly
available mother, a role familiar to women teachers (Walkerdine, 1990; Acker,
1995; Morley, 1998), although her resistance to such a role was not without guilt.
The ambivalence and difficulties of occupying a managerial subject position, yet
still maintaining her own values and positionings as a feminist teacher are
evident; in Prichard and Deem’s (1998) terms she is ‘wo-managing.’ (403)
This statement, as we might expect, speaks of a woman’s struggle to nurture others yet “[occupy] a managerial subject position”; but for Jessica, as a graduate student, the nurturing in which she engages with others also serves as a way to nurture herself. When she must withhold information, when she must be an Assistant Writing Program Coordinator even in the midst of her identity as a friend, her friends lose the chance to fully engage with her, as she loses the chance to fully engage with herself via talking about issues in a way that welcomes valued feedback from the people who know her professionally and personally.
Finally, this shaping and confining of Jessica’s identity also includes facing a false identity of authority, by which we mean a perceived authority that fails to hold up in practice. Tasks such as having to attend Writing Program Committee meetings and revamping Academic Quality Improvement criteria demonstrate this false authority. In the case of Writing Program Committee meetings, which she attends with her supervisors and faculty representatives from regional campuses, she must evaluate instructors’ proposals to develop and teach distance learning courses. Though her evaluations and comments remain implicitly expected, they literally do not “count” when it comes time to vote on the approval of these proposals. In the case of her duties for Academic Quality Improvement, she must decide upon objectives, measures, and outcomes for the Writing Program curriculum. That said, she lacks access to some of the measures she decides upon (such as statistical records that she must request from the secretary), and if her decisions lead to a poor evaluation of the Writing Program at the end of the academic year, the university holds the overall department accountable. But there lies the problem. She has the authority to make important decisions, and to make poor decisions. Does failure to hold her accountable give her too much or not enough authority? In some cases, administrators will fail to bother with her because of her status as “just a graduate student” (an idea Nikki addressed earlier); in some cases, however, her “just a graduate student” status makes her an easy scapegoat. As with her status as a woman, her status as a graduate student in WPA makes it easy for people to justify paying attention to her thoughts and actions on the basis of convenience.
With all three of these identities—woman, graduate student, writing program administrator—Jessica and Nikki gain more authority. In gaining more authority, they also become more vulnerable, more prone to the attacks that will come their way from people who perceive them as “other” and see Jessica and Nikki as an opportunity to meet their objectives, rather than as individuals with whom they can work to help meet their objectives.
A Permanent Display: The “Typical Female” Identity
To borrow from Willard-Traub, “all of these [dynamics] raise compelling questions about the degree to which authority is constructed in an ‘all or nothing’ category within the institution” (66). Our desire for collaborative, reciprocal, activist research and semi-informal relationships with colleagues may invoke an undesired perception of us as “typical” females, not as individuals who engage in a form of “authentic leadership” (Acker 416). To engage in leadership different from that just described, however, may welcome a perception of us as a “single-focused academic…comply[ing] with masculine discourses of competitiveness, instrumentality, and individuality, which conflicts with feminine discourses of empathy, supportiveness and nurturing” (Acker 418). As women who desire to stand as empathetic, supportive, nurturing, instrumental, individualistic, highly productive feminist scholars, Jessica realizes that she remains one of the few people who view her in this holistic manner, and Nikki struggles to balance her desires in an administrative occupation where power is no longer a false identity but a reality of the position.
As Jessica remembers the comment recently made to her by a female colleague, implying that some sort of charm allows her to achieve success, she also remembers a conversation she had with a male professor last year, a conversation in which he congratulated her on securing her new title and warned her of what she had already come to know; he said that “ as a woman who’s smart, successful, and attractive, you’re going to be everybody’s prey.” She also thinks about her very first administrative position in education, in which she was the 26- year-old female supervisor of an all-male staff, with men ranging in age from their 30s to their 50s. Prior to the first staff meeting she ever held, her best friend (also a successful career woman) cautioned her of the possibility that they would pass the time by looking at her as an object of desire—rather than as a subject of her own experience with a contribution to make to their work and the organization.
This sense of sexuality and beauty fails to go away once we leave our graduate student status. When preparing for interviews and campus visits, Nikki remained well aware of the “beauty advantage” (Bennett) and used that knowledge when selecting what clothes and accessories to wear. Nikki and the other female graduate students on the job market spent hours debating skirt or pant suits, the new “power color,” how much personality to bring to the outfit, how many outfits to wear for campus visits, glasses or contacts, shoes and makeup. These beauty conversations held just as much value as the conversations about interview techniques and job talks. And even beyond the job market, Nikki spends time deciding what to wear and when, depending on who she’s meeting with in her new faculty administrative position. Nikki realized that intelligence, success and attractiveness will always constitute a package that brings comments from others, and that the “beauty advantage” acts as more than a few articles or pop culture movies. We have both heard many times, from those in and outside the academy, that we have the “whole package”: brains and beauty. Our options to either embrace this narrative or reject this narrative place us, as female doctoral students, in a new position to be viewed as “that woman who [whatever someone wants to say about us].”
At times I felt self-conscious about my appearance and was very aware of being a manager in a female body… The people that are, you know, in the very high up
positions, I’ll never feel like I’m one of them…[The women] must spend most of
their income on these suits and it’s not only the suits. They have the high heels
and the scarves and the earrings, and it’s just, you know, something I couldn’t
aspire to if I wanted. (419)
Here, appearance remains something to “aspire” to, yet appearance remains something for which Nikki and Jessica have received both fair and unfair comments about their professionalism. Both enjoy playing up their looks with fashionable, eye-catching clothes, shoes, and accessories. But attractiveness and professional attire are symbols of authority that strip one of her authority. But so are many of the other experiences described in this paper: reciprocity, collaboration, “otherness,” and tokens of authority that don’t really count.
Chiseling Change: Final Reflections and Words of Advice
While Jessica came into her WPA assistantship as a feminist, her position in WPA has helped move her from a feminist theorist to a feminist activist. The position has also confined her in unexpected ways, ways in which, in part from writing this article, she has had to realize and try and conceptualize in a manner that meets her larger purpose of using writing and research as agents of social change. Through all of this, she gains sensitivity to the notion that, to some extent, all of her authority is a false identity of authority—because that which builds her up can easily be used to tear her down.
Nikki left her WPA work jaded by her experience as “just a graduate student,” but grateful for the opportunity to mentor other graduate students. Nikki’s experiences as a WPA helped solidify her desire to stay true to a feminist administrative philosophy. But how to define what that means for her now as an administrator becomes clouded with experience as a graduate student. Looking back and looking forward, coupled with reflective practice and conversations with new female graduate student WPAs (like Jessica) and new female administrative colleagues, help Nikki reframe and redefine her identity.
While occupying graduate student WPA positions, graduate students gain power; but we also set ourselves as a target to have that power undermined. Because of others and outside forces, we stay mindful of the shaping of the structure of our identity; but we must also remain mindful because of our own need to realize our affordances and limitations, and practice self-restraint when looking to construct writing programs and, on some level, all the people who enter that structure. In this sense, as discussed by Christman & McClellan, one might say we exhibit resilience:
Much has been written about resiliency and its contribution to identity development, but little of it explores how it contributes to the shaping of leaders, specifically leadership in higher education. Yet, leadership rests upon the development of self awareness and identity (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002; Christman & McClellan, 2008; McClellan & Christman, 2008; Komives,2005) (Christman & McClellan 651)…[Women in Christman & McClellan’s research] attributed their resilient leadership to ‘favorable feedback and recognition from others’ and of a responsibility of ‘supporting students’ and encouraging ‘diversity.’ Climbing the ladder could come at a cost and could be overcome with the support of others, although careful attention had to be paid to potential obstacles along the way. (“Discovering Middle Space” 651)
Graduate students who seek administrative positions in graduate school need to have a strong support base, and a strong network of other graduate students to help bring us back to the ultimate goal of PhD programs – to graduate. The dynamic of a senior graduate student WPA informally mentoring a new graduate student WPA works for the day-to-day tasks; but the ultimate shaping of our identities while in these positions requires further mentoring. With awareness of the fact that we will undergo change, failure to engage in informal mentoring and conversations with other graduate students creates the risk of getting lost in our own minds and experiences. More conversations also need to address the transitions from a role with a false sense of authority to a position with real, inherent authority.
Graduate students in administrative positions automatically complicate the power dynamics of the academy, but that is not a reason to withhold these opportunities from graduate students. We encourage other graduate students (and other graduate programs) to offer this experience. While many of the lessons we learned (and continue to learn) were difficult, they helped shaped us into the professionals we are or want to be, and brought to life real academic identity and power issues that we would otherwise not experience until our first job. Our experiences allowed us to be involved in large university projects (service learning), and helped us think about ways the university could create a positive presence for graduate student administrators. If graduate student administrative positions are not possible, we suggest graduate students create a community for graduate students (if one does not already exist). The issues facing graduate students are, as we have discussed, unique and complicated. This community could also expand on the issues facing all graduate students and be a space for speakers to provide information on what to expect as a female administrator.
A key factor to our successes in these positions was mentoring. While we, of course, desire more mentoring from faculty on some of the administrative issues, we learned through doing and through conversations with other graduate students – helping to prepare us to mentor incoming graduate students when we advance to faculty status. The true value of these positions is found in experience for the job market. We encourage other graduate students to create an internal mentoring structure; seek graduate students ahead of you for advice, and share that knowledge with graduate students behind you. A mentoring community will not develop overnight, but we believe you will gain knowledge, camaraderie and support – just like we did.
Instead of letting others talk about us or for us, we have shared our thoughts and concerns in this article. We have tried to address the intersection of power, identity, and writing program administration from the perspective of female graduate students, a perspective which calls for further attention. The more we tried to simplify our thoughts and stories, the more we realized how complicated and intertwined our perspectives of power, identity and administration were, and even more so when we brought in gender. How others think and talk about us, no matter how much we push back on the conversation, will persist. In the same way, no matter how much authority we think we have as graduate students, in reality, we have little power. How we situate ourselves to empower others matters, as mentioned earlier with our experiences mentoring new instructors. Conversations about standards need to occur in our mentoring groups, classrooms, and graduate student outings. Administrative positions held by women in higher education suggest that we can break the “glass ceiling” (Sherman et al. 751), at least in some spaces of the larger structure. But without a place to share our stories, and do so devoid of fear of judgment from those that try to write the female doctoral student narrative without our voices, we become subject to remain within glass walls. We will settle with the idea that we can move up without recognizing that which confines us from all sides of what it means to be a female scholar with the qualities earlier described by the authors. We have communicated our lived experiences in ways that expand the already existing discussion and contribute just one more effort to figure out the meaning of these intersections. Despite the complicated, tricky and messy nature of these positions, they offer all graduate students valuable opportunities and experiences difficult to acquire without them. While we long for more stories of female doctoral students, we hope more graduate students seek out these positions and contribute their stories to an ongoing discussion of what it means to be a graduate student administrator.
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