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Schell, Eileen. On Being a Woman Department Chair in RCWS. Peitho, 2019. Posted 04/20/2019.

Schell, Eileen E. “Is It Worth It to ‘Lean In’ and Lead? On Being a Woman Department Chair in Rhetoric and Writing Studies.” Peitho Journal 21.2 (2019): 308-33. Web. 4 Apr. 2019.

In her contribution to the Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies in the Peitho Journal, Eileen E. Schell draws on the feminist scholarship of gender and academic labor as well as her own experiences to address the challenges of serving as chair of a large writing program (309).

Schell contends that scholarship on academic leadership does not adequately take into account the different positions of the many laborers, particularly women, who are involved in supporting an academic unit (311). Any leadership role, she argues, depends on many actors and stakeholders whose contributions and influences may not be uncovered when the focus is purely on the “relative privilege” that is afforded leadership positions within “institutional hierarchies” (311).

Schell advocates “intersectionality” as a more productive lens (310). For example, she cites the work of Mel Michelle Lewis and Shannon J. Miller, who examine how their “intersections as Black queer women” (qtd. in Schell 310) inform their leadership roles. She presents her “embodied” position as an “able-bodied, cis-gender, white academic woman on the tenure track” as one window on the effects of taking on the role of department chair (311).

Schell provides a list of important questions, including “what is gained or lost” in accepting the many challenges of a chair’s role (309). She frames her own discussion “around timing, dual academic career couple issues, and family formation issues” (311).

The discussion of timing recounts how Schell was asked to take on the chair role far ahead of the schedule she had negotiated on being hired but was able to defer the appointment until a more logical point in her career (314). Issues included the importance of a developing research agenda and the need for tenure before taking on such extensive administrative duties.

Schell reports that saying no to service appointments can be an effective strategy, but it carries a burden in that many female academics see “service work as vital to the functioning of academic units and the institutional mission of colleges and universities” and feel a sense of obligation to their colleagues (314). Accepting other administrative and service duties while deferring the chair’s role allowed Schell to serve her institution and program as well as develop her scholarship toward tenure and promotion while resisting an early commitment to the chair’s role (314).

One aspect many women face in relation to the timing of demanding administrative appointments is family formation. Schell recounts the challenges of caring adequately for her young daughter, for example, the need to bring her to work (316). She cites scholarship showing that, for many women, working toward tenure and being asked to take on more institutional responsibilities tend to coincide with the years they want to begin a family; some research suggests that the struggle for tenure actually affects women’s ability to start families (315).

A third timing issue for Schell was coordination with her partner’s career. Originally forced to commune long distances, by the time Schell accepted the chair appointment, he had earned tenure in an institution that was much closer, easing this burden (314).

Schell draws on work by Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Kelly Ward to argue that institutions should not force faculty to negotiate each situation individually but rather should recognize that, for women especially, barriers to effective participation in leadership as well as teaching and scholarship should be systematically addressed by the institution. Policies should serve all “pre-tenure professors (both male and female) with family demands” by meeting needs such as those for “tenure stop clock policies, lactation support, access to affordable day care, family leave” (315). Schell notes how work by her fellow faculty to install a family leave policy helped her in the early months of her child’s life (315). Similarly, her institution passed a “tenure clock flexibility proposal” that, among other provisions, addressed the effects on the tenure path of extensive service (316).

During her appointment, Schell noted the number of women chairs increasing despite ongoing dominance by older white men (317). Though she could draw on her experience working with female leaders in the writing program, Schell contends that the chair’s role encompassed a much larger set of exigencies. “Guidebooks” on the chair position she consulted featured “a masculinist dominance-based model” that did not deal with the issues that she specifically faced as a female chair (318-19); her discovery of “interdisciplinary scholarship on intersectionality and department leadership” finally gave her needed direction (319).

Crediting her leadership experience “both inside and outside the department and in the community” (319), Schell lists some of the initiatives she was able to implement, while also acknowledging failures (320). The ongoing task of “Mentorship and Advocacy” involved such efforts as “negotiating for the resources” faculty members needed to do their work and scholarship and clearing the “backlog” of women who had not been promoted to full professorship (321). “Assigning Service” included determining how to allocate committee work effectively while keeping in mind equity in workloads and compensation (321). Schell recounts extensive interpersonal engagement as one of her “most favorite and challenging duties”: acknowledging colleagues’ accomplishments and empathizing with as well as helping to address their daily and professional struggles (322).

Schell notes that the “scope and scale” of the chair’s duties exceeded those of other academic positions: “the work touched on all areas of the department and the lives of every single faculty member” (322; emphasis original). She explores issues such as the need to prioritize interactions and the exigencies of the “second and third shift[s],” such as dealing with her family’s needs and then returning to administrative duties late at night in a “job [that] never turned off” (322-23). Effects on her health led her to address the difference between “work-life balance” and a “sustainable schedule and life” (323-24; emphasis original). Keeping up with scholarship (324) and insisting on “self-care” such as scheduled work-outs were among Schell’s strategies (329).

She offers “general advice and lessons of survivance” she gathered during her tenure as chair (326). Citing research showing that few chair receive adequate professional development for their roles, she urges networking and workshops (326). Further, she reminds potential chairs to be sure to arrange adequate compensation and manageable teaching loads (327). Under “Developing a Sustainable Work Plan,” she discusses establishing a well-functioning program infrastructure to accomplish departmental goals (327-28).

Schell reports being “surprised” to find herself advocating strongly that women take on leadership appointments such as chair (325). In her view, such roles allow women to pursue a “progressive feminist agenda” that can improve the lives and work of all faculty, promote diversity, and strengthen curricula (327). Ultimately, she writes, she hopes that

more feminists in rhetoric and writing studies will lead our academic departments . . . and that when we attend chairs’ meetings at our colleges and universities, we will look around the table and see a more diverse and inclusive cast of institutional leaders who also said yes. (329).


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

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).

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Staley and Leonardi. Teacher Education for Gender and Sexual Diversity. RTE, Nov. 2016. Posted 01/04/2017.

Staley, Sara, and Bethy Leonardi. “Leaning In to Discomfort: Preparing Literacy Teachers for Gender and Sexual Diversity.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.2 (2016): 209-29. Print.

Sara Staley and Bethy Leonardi present the results of a literacy methods course for preservice English language arts teacher in which practices for supporting LGBTQ students were foregrounded. The authors argue that the “disturbing number of lives lost in recent years among youth who identified or were perceived to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning” demands attention from educators who have failed to address “the resounding silence around gender and sexual diversity (GSD) . . . that has long pervaded teacher education” (209). The authors contend that LGBTQ students often report feeling that “school was often an unsafe place” (209). Staley and Leonardi discuss the results of a curriculum designed to help novice teachers make their classrooms more welcoming to such students.

The course was piloted in Fall 2012 and the study conducted during the Spring 2013 semester at a large public university in the Mountain West (214). Students in the course were about to commence student teaching (215). Primary data consisted of transcripts of
“two whole-class fishbowl conversations” conducted during weeks 4 and 16, and a blog that students began working with in week 4 (216). The researchers provided specific prompts for the blog. Of the seventeen students in the course, sixteen agreed to participate; three were eliminated as data sources because they contributed only minimally in the assigned venues, so eleven who self-identified as female and two who self-identified as male participated (215).

The researchers, both doctoral students, co-designed the course and the study (215). Staley was the “lead instructor” and Leonardi a “participant observer in three class sessions” as well as a facilitator of various components of the course (215).

The analytic framework for the course and study involved a “queer theoretical perspective on the problem of heteronormativity in schools” that urges teachers to disrupt dominant assumptions that sexuality functions as a binary in which heterosexuality is normal and other forms of sexual identification are deviant (211). The authors contend that such an approach is preferable to standard anti-bullying programs that “locate the problem in individuals, rather than in institutional practices that encourage bullying and oppress on the basis of sex, gender, and sexuality” (212). Staley and Leonardi combine this approach with that of Kevin K. Kumashiro, who casts anti-oppression education in terms of “desire, resistance, and crisis” (213, italics original) and of Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, who encourages “leaning in” as a way of overcoming the resistance that can derail the process of “unlearning” long-held views about topics like sexuality (222; italics original). The authors define “leaning in” as “a moving toward discomfort, rather than away from it, and inquiry into what can be learned from such energetic responses as emotional pain, fear, and discomfort” (223).

These analytical perspectives led Staley and Leonardi to focus on manifestations of emotion in their data, as well as reactions to the course’s emphasis on the role of teachers in disrupting heteronormativity (217). They identified emotional responses as “discomfort,” “desire to disrupt,” and “desire to resist.” A recurrent theme in students’ responses involved “how” to further GSD-inclusive curricula; this marker was labeled “wrestling with praxis.” As a result of this coding, students were categorized as “dedicated disrupters,” “discomforted,” and “resistors” (217; italics original). The discussion centers on the “discomforted” because this group of eight students exhibited significant changes during the course (218).

The emotional shifts experienced by the discomforted students began with “shock,” “incredulity,” and “disbelief” as they confronted claims in the course readings that school environments were not uniformly progressive and that teachers were often not protected when they attempted to incorporate anti-oppressive curricula on GSD issues (218-19). The students became aware of their own lack of knowledge about responses to LGBTQ concerns in schools and the failure of their own educations as preservice teachers to address these concerns (219). The beginning teachers’ own experiences in grappling with classroom incidents in which they did not know how to disrupt heteronormative oppression led to a shift to “wrestling with praxis” as they began to search for viable tools to protect students (220).

Staley and Leonardi report that these searches and discussions led to positive results as discomforted students in their class began to be able to articulate “specific examples of actionable steps that literacy teachers could take to disrupt heteronormativity,” including recognizing the need to move beyond simply including LGBTQ-themed literature in the classroom (221). The authors note, however, that this increasing practical grounding did not alleviate the students’ sense that there were no simple solutions or “path[s]” they could consistently follow but rather that learning to address oppressive behavior in the classroom was a matter of “ongoing labor” (Kumashiro, qtd. in Staley and Leonardi 222).

The authors provide two examples of students who responded to the emotional crisis generated by unlearning familiar assumptions by “leaning In” to their discomfort. These two students “each began to frame their discomfort as generative and necessary—not as something to be resolved, once and for all” (222). These two responses emphasized the importance of considering mistakes as ways to move forward and of recognizing fear in challenging situations as a necessary component of acting in circumstances where there will never be clear answers (223-24).

Noting that language-arts teachers are especially well-positioned to bring GSD concerns into curricula, the authors call for a deliberate focus on these concerns in teacher education (224), so that teachers have tools that allow them to “move beyond inclusion” to active resistance to heteronormative agendas (224). They note that their own curriculum might have productively incorporated awareness of the necessary emotional journey in their course framework, recognizing and “celebrat[ing]” early “glimmers of leaning in” (225; emphasis original). Student teachers, they argue, will benefit from learning a greater “tolerance for discomfort, uncertainty, and ambiguity” (225). Further, they encourage efforts to engage prospective teachers whose cultural values, for example religious views, make grappling with GSD issues even more problematic than for others (225). The authors endorse the concept of leaning in to discomfort as a way to draw preservice teachers into the “ongoing labor” of anti-oppressive education.