I recently got the chance to read Linda Adler-Kassner’s The Activist WPA: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers. I have very little (read: no) background in WPA work, so it was nice to have the opportunity to read about a position that most writing instructors will hold at some point. What I enjoyed most about the book was the idea that we can change the narratives surrounding writing, that if there is a story of writing and writing instruction that is circulating that we don’t like, we can use organizing as a way to reframe that narrative. Framing, here, is “the idea that stories are always set within and reinforce particular boundaries” (4).
Adler-Kassner poses three questions that frame The Activist WPA:
- “How should students’ literacies be defined when they come into composition classes?”
- “What literacies should composition classes develop, how, and for what purpose?”
- “How should the development of students’ literacies be assessed at the end of these classes?” (14)
These questions explore what shared values and goals undergird a writing program, which emphasizes the importance of individual principles that Adler-Kassner argues are necessary in order to enact change: “[Change is] about understanding one’s self, and then connecting with others around one’s own interests; ultimately, these connections lead to change-making movements” (23). However, Adler-Kassner also acknowledges that WPA work must navigate more than just these individual principles, operating in a larger social structure of academic work, “one that separates emotion and experience” (27). The issue, then, is determining the most effective frame for change, and Adler-Kassner offers three models of community organizing that may help with this endeavor:
In an interest-based model, an organizer facilitates the development of individual and group interests, helping individuals articulate the change-making process that best serves their interests (97).
In values-based organizing, which obviously emphasizes the values that a particular group shares, the focus is more long-term than that of interest-based (108). It is a model devoted to strategies, or sustainable practices, rather than tactics, the short-term attempts to disrupt a larger system or narrative.
An issue-based model is more like a blending of both interest- and values-based organizing. Here, a leader identifies an issue and forms a plan of action (taking into consideration interests and values of the group) that members of the group enact (117).
We had the opportunity to Skype with Linda Adler-Kassner about The Activist WPA and her experiences working as a WPA, and these are a couple highlights:
“Organizers develop strategies to become activists. I’m very much about organizing, and organizing for change. And I think when you organize for change that makes you more than an organizer.”
At the end of her book, Adler-Kassner describes WPAs as community organizers, writing, “I am deliberately using the word organizer, not activist, because organizing includes an explicit reference to deliberate, strategic planning and action that is sometimes not included in the notion of ‘activism'” (183). So when we talked to her and asked her why the book wasn’t called The Organizing WPA, the answer she gave focused on the role of change as a key goal of activism.
Any person going into post-secondary education needs to think about how to advocate for the programs and students and instructors. That’s why I do so much work with assessment, because I think assessment is a really powerful [form of] advocacy for that kind of work.
In the book, assessment is described as a strategy that is often overlooked. I found this interesting because I’ve never really thought of assessment as anything more than a Foucaldian mechanism of surveillance, a way of keeping checks and balances and knowing what both instructors and students are doing in the classroom. If we think about assessment in terms of showing what writing programs do, though, assessment can be a tool for changing the narratives about writing and writing instruction.
Adler-Kassner, Linda. The Activist WPA: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2008.