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Detweiler et al. Feminist-Sophistic Leadership. CE, May 2017. Posted 05/21/2017.

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Detweiler, Jane, Margaret LaWare, and Patti Wojahn. “Academic Leadership and Advocacy: On Not Leaning In.” College English 79.5 (2017): 451-65. Print.

Contributing to a special issue of College English on “English and Leadership Studies,” Jane Detweiler, Margaret LaWare, and Patti Wojahn examine current models of leadership in academia and advocate resisting these models in order to re-envision how leadership can enable a more inclusive, collaborative institutional structure. In particular, they take a “feminist-sophistic” approach to consider how a feminist lens enables critique of current models and points to possible alternatives (460, 463).

They find this feminist approach important because of the degree to which decades of critique have not led to a re-valuation of the kinds of service and relationship-building largely undertaken in the academy by women (454). Re-envisioning what leadership can look like and what it can do differently, they contend, will require attention to “intersectionlity,” which they define, drawing on bell hooks, as “the intersections of gender, race, sexual identity, and class that shape the embodiment and enactment of leadership” (453).

The authors note that scholars in the humanities may be inclined to see the devaluation of women as less egregious than it is in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas, but the article presents statistics to support a claim that, in fact, for women, “recruitment in the more advanced ranks in our field” is as problematic as in STEM fields (452). Although humanities faculty may be reassured by the finding from a 2009 MLA study that “women make up 67 percent of associate professors” in English and foreign language departments, as compared to only 42 percent across institutions, women in the humanities account for just “43% of full professors—the rank that is a prerequisite for many leadership positions” (452).

In the authors’ view, current models of leadership do not accord with the realities of women’s positions within academic institutions. According to Detweiler et al., the kinds of contributions made by women within the academy are not seen as “leadership” and do not earn access to “decision-making” processes related to governance (455)). These contributions involve mentoring of students and faculty, running programs, and developing relationships and collaborations across institutions (454-55).

On the whole, the authors contend, the expertise required to perform these important tasks is not recognized, with such vital contributions relegated to “maintenance” rather than “leadership” (455). Women, often non-tenure-track, “are disproportionately pressed into service” (455), where “service” is considered secondary to “the ‘real work’ of research” (457).

In addition to devaluing the essential roles women tend to play within institutions, Detweiler et al. argue, current conceptions of leadership do not mesh with the reality of women’s lives both within the institution and in their roles beyond their careers. They note studies showing that women report more time on service and teaching than men, even though men tend to perceive the time investment in these activities as equal (456). The MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession reports that women far exceed men in the amount of caregiving they perform (457); as a result of such discrepancies, women are “not just less likely to advance to full professor levels but also do so more slowly—advancing, in fact, 24 percent more slowly” (454). In another study, “women with children were 38 percent less likely to procure tenure than were their male counterparts with children” (457).

A feminist response to such conditions, in the authors’ view, involves rejecting the call from writers like Sheryl Sandberg to “lean in” to existing leadership structures that feminist scholars “want neither to enter nor accept” (452). Extant leadership roles focus on individual achievement and on maintaining current exclusionary hierarchies that continue to denigrate much of what women are called on to do as service (459). The authors contend that traditional advice about advancement within institutions is “rhetorically savvy but ethically suspect” (459), urging as it does that one exploit one’s opponents and consider advancement as a competitive victory (459), with leadership “as a birthright or as mastery to be achieved by conquest or coercion” (456). Detweiler et al. argue that simply increasing the numbers of women in advanced positions within departments will not suffice (459); instead, women who achieve these levels in governance structures must act on an “ambivalence” about those structures that fuels change (463).

Such change, the authors urge, should embrace collaboration and inclusion meant to create “well-being for all” (461). They advocate Krista Ratcliffe’s “rhetorical listening” as a means to develop “responsive leadership” that acts on the needs of teachers, students, and the community (456). In their view, such leadership will recognize and reward the skills women bring to academic institutions, such as the ability build relationships across diverse communities and to form coalitions (457). In such an environment, service will no longer be seen as a “necessary evil” but rather understood as vital work that keeps programs and institutions running (456-57).

The authors note the difficulty experienced by members of marginalized populations as they use their “considerable rhetorical skill” in the cause of their communities yet risk “being subsumed into the polity and losing identifications with their own constituencies” (459). This risk associated with “leaning in,” they suggest, is related to a “public turn” in composition; in response, curriculum design can encourage students to see themselves as actors, in the words of Mark Gellis, in “polis-like organizations” so that “the teaching of rhetoric becomes, to an extent, the teaching of leadership” (qtd. in Detweiler et al. (459).

For Detweiler et al., such leadership through teaching meshes with Ernest Boyer’s “scholarship of engagement” in which “applied research, the scholarship of teaching and service in leadership” emphasizes the “integral relations” among these activities (461). Adopting this view of leadership will, the authors contend, advance the goal articulated in the MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession by bringing academic advancement “directly into line with the numerous, essential, and vitalizing activities that sustain day-to-day life in colleges and universities” (qtd. in Detweiler et al. 461).

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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