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Vidali, Amy. Disabling Writing Program Administration. WPA, Sept. 2015. Posted 10/28/2015.

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Vidali, Amy. “Disabling Writing Program Administration.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 38.2 (2015): 32-55. Print.

Amy Vidali examines the narratives of writing program administrators (WPAs) from the standpoint of disability studies. She argues that the way in which these narratives frame the WPA experience excludes instructive considerations of the intersections between WPA work and disability even though disability functions metaphorically in these texts. Her analysis explores the degree to which “these narratives establish normative expectations of who WPAs are and can be” (33).

Drawing on disability scholars Jay Dolmage and Carrie Sandahl (48n3, 49n4), Vidali proposes “disabling writing program work” (33; emphasis original). Similar to “crip[ping]” an institution or activity, disabling brings to the fore “able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects” (Sandahl, qtd. in Vidali 49n4) and tackles the disabling/enabling binary (49). Vidali’s examination of the WPA literature addresses its tendency to privilege ableist notions of success, to exclude access to disabled individuals, and to ignore the insights offered by the lens of disability.

In Vidali’s view, the WPA accounts she extracts from many sources focus on disabilities like depression and anxiety, generally positing that WPA work causes such disabilities and that they are an inevitable part of the WPA landscape that must be managed or “escaped” (37, 39). She uses her own experience with depression to discuss how identifying the mental and physical manifestations of depression solely with the stresses of WPA work impoverishes the field’s understanding of “how anxiety might be produced in the interaction of bodies and environments” (40) which occurs in any complex group configuration; recognition of this interaction removes the responsibility for the disability and its effects from “particular problem bodies” and locates it in the larger set of relationships, including inequities, among people and institutions (42). In other words, for Vidali, acknowledging the existence of disabilities outside of and prior to WPA work and their embodied influence within that work can allow scholars to “reframe WPA narratives in more productive ways” (41).

Vidali writes that the failure to recognize disability as an embodied human state interacting with the WPA environment is exacerbated by the lack of data on the number of WPAs with disabilities and on the kinds of disabilities they bring to the task. Vidali examines surveys in which researchers shied away from asking questions about disability for fear respondents might not feel comfortable answering, especially since revealing disability can lead to discrimination (44, 47).

Particularly damaging, she argues, are narratives often critiqued within the disability-studies community, for example, accounts of “overcoming” the burdens of disability, hero-narratives, and equations between “health” and “success.” Drawing on Paul Longmore and Simi Linton, Vidali writes that narratives of overcoming demand that individuals deal with the difficulties created by their interaction with environments in an effort to accommodate themselves to normal expectations, but these narratives refuse to acknowledge “the power differential” involved and increase the pressure to make do with non-inclusive situations rather than advocate for change (42).

Similarly, in Vidali’s view, hero narratives suggest that only the “hyper-able” are qualified to be WPAs; images of the WPA as miraculous and unflappable problem-solver deny the possibility that people “who may work at different paces and in different manners” can be equally effective (43). Such narratives risk “reifying unreasonable job expectations” that may further exclude disabled individuals as well as reinforcing the assumption that candidates for WPA work “all enter WPA positions with the same abilities, tools, and goals” (43). Vidali argues that such views of the ideal WPA coincide with a model in which health is a necessity for success and ultimately “only the fittest survive as WPAs” (40).

Vidali proposes alternatives to extant WPA narratives that open the door to more “interdependent” interaction that permits individuals to care for themselves and each other (40-41). Changes to the expectations WPAs have for themselves and each other can value such qualities as “productive designation of tasks to support teams” and acceptance of a wider range of communication options (43). Moving away from the WPA as hyper-able hero can also permit reflection on failure and an effective response to its inevitability (42). Vidali notes how her own depression served as a catalyst for increased attention to inclusiveness and access in her program and how its intersection with her WPA work alerted her to the ways that disability as metaphor for something that must be disguised rather than an embodied reality experienced by many limits WPAs’ options. She stresses her view that

disabling writing program administration isn’t only about disabled WPAs telling their stories: It’s about creating inclusive environments for all WPAs, not only at the time they are hired, but in ways that account for the embodied realities that come with time. (47)

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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