Illuminating Visual-Rhetorical Work in Writing Program Administration
In their 2011 edited collection, GenAdmin: Theorizing WPA Identities in the Twenty-First Century, Colin Charlton, Jonikka Charlton, Tarez Samra Graban, Kathleen J. Ryan, and Amy Ferdinandt Stolley offer a term that they utilize to describe and theorize an emerging identity in writing program administration, GenAdmin, which “refers to a historical positioning that isn’t bound by chronological placement or cultural positioning as much as by an intellectual posturing toward the work…. We are a generation of WPAs [Writing Program Administrators] whose identities are emerging from a philosophy of life and work” (Charlton et al., 2011). In other words, GenAdmin signifies an approach rather than a job title, highlighting the agency provided by such an approach.
We posit VizAdmin as a term that performs a similar function, signifying a philosophical orientation to the work of writing program administration, one that understands, accounts for, and embraces the rhetorical potential in the creation and circulation of everyday visuals. This edited collection explores the implications of adopting a VizAdmin stance in WPA work. The visuals we share in this collection are graphics created by our contributors within their own contexts, for their own purposes. They are objects of analysis (rather than presentation), objects that, read collectively, help us understand better and differently the utility of visuals in administrative endeavors.
While contemporary WPAs take on the task of working with program data using a variety of appropriate forms, genres, and visualizations, the routine creation and circulation of data visualizations is an underrepresented area of intellectual inquiry in WPA scholarship, particularly in open access digital scholarship that can be accessed and shared in an instant with current and future WPAs. Radiant Figures: Visual Rhetorics in Everyday Administrative Contexts responds to this crucial gap at the intersections of writing program administration, visual rhetoric, data visualization, and activist institutional service. As such, it contributes to the continually expanding body of visual rhetorical work by underscoring and theorizing how visual artifacts enhance and make possible the activist and advocacy work of writing program administration in ways that, as a field, we have yet to centralize and privilege.
Rhetoric and writing studies scholars who have taken an interest in visual rhetorics have keyed in on the inventive, humanistic, and production-oriented potential of design for change leading to emboldened messages, heightened attention structures, and bolstered circulation. A selection of these contributions includes Kevin DeLuca’s (2005) “image events”; Amy Propen’s (2018) theorizing images of ocean plastics and marine seabirds in service of environmental advocacy; Diana George’s (2002) articulation of a necessary and overdue pedagogical move from visual-rhetorical analysis to design; Anne Wysocki’s (2005) analysis of image-text ambiguity in timely response to Gunther Kress and the New London Group’s treating image and text as contending forms; Cynthia and Dickie Selfe’s (1994) breakdown of the politics of the interface; Sam Dragga and Dan Voss’s (2001) detailing of the cruelty in graphs and charts; Laurie Gries’s (2015) application of “iconographic tracking” methods to Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope image; Marguerite Helmers’ (2001) study of popular icons and contemporary memory; and Jason Helms’ (2017) use of comics to examine their rise as a complex visual-rhetorical form. Interwoven among these and other visual rhetoric scholarship are models for advocacy and activism in pedagogical contexts, on college and university campuses, and in domains far beyond the everyday working lives of academics. However, visual rhetoric scholarship has to date done little to engage with the intellectual purview associated with administering writing programs.
At the same time, in practice, WPAs create a great deal of visual rhetorical artifacts for multiple audiences, yet not enough WPA publications reflect the ubiquitous and diverse nature of our VizAdmin work. In an examination of the last decade of WPA journal’s (2008–2018) oft-cited monographs and edited collections, and popular readings currently assigned in WPA graduate courses (for a total sample size of 226 articles, chapters, and books), we found that 60% of the WPA scholarship examined has no graphical figures present at all. In the 40% of WPA scholarship that does include VizAdmin figures (Figure 1), the predominant form of visual-rhetorical artifact is (perhaps unsurprisingly) the table, which accounts for 56% of all figures present, followed by screenshots (12%), graphs or charts (12%), original diagrams (10%), and photographs (8%). In other words, when we do include VizAdmin figures, we tend toward a kind of tabular grammar that enables us to tell certain stories, yes, but that also sincerely constrains the kinds of data stories we might tell. As such, WPA publications that do make VizAdmin work visible may not proportionately reflect the variety or diversity of VizAdmin WPA creations.
Figure 1. Types of figures in a sample of WPA scholarship published in WPA, 2008-2018.
In addition to illuminating certain kinds of figures, WPA scholarship also attends to certain aspects of program administration to the occlusion of others. Often, for instance, we focus on curriculum and supporting the multimodal practices of undergraduate student writers. In the decade since Carrie Leverenz’s call to remediate writing program administration (2008), WPAs have greatly expanded visual-rhetorical practices in first-year writing by foregrounding digital and multimodal composing in curricula and program designs. Such expansions have targeted curriculum in needed ways: expanding the definitions of composition (Dryer et al., 2014), increasing students’ rhetorical possibilities (Wysocki & Lynch, 2003), bolstering curricular innovation (Bourelle & Bourelle, 2015; Khadka & Lee, 2019; Lee & Khadka, 2018), honoring myriad stakeholders’ emerging discourse practices (Bowen & Whithaus, 2013), and keeping our programs visible and responsive to challenges in the 21st century (Leverenz, 2016). Yet curriculum is only one possible area of inquiry in our field’s capacious characterization of what counts as intellectual writing-program work and how this work might be furthered through the creation and circulation of visual-rhetorical artifacts.
Just as importantly, WPA scholarship, as a collective body of work, offers sparse examples that privilege VizAdmin figures as central objects of analysis that perform the visual-rhetorical work of interpreting and representing data (Roen et al., 2002; Anson, 2002; Glau, 2002). Though we create complex VizAdmin artifacts as a matter of everyday WPA work, we would do well, as a field, to value VizAdmin practices by making them a central object of analysis in our scholarship and illuminating the intellectual practices surrounding their distribution and uptake.
Radiant Figures addresses these multiple gaps by centralizing the creation, circulation, and reception of visual-rhetorical artifacts that perform a diverse range of VizAdmin work across a variety of institutional contexts. Each of the 12 Radiant Figures chapters takes (at least) one focal visual-rhetorical artifact, created and analyzed by the author, as its locus of analysis and departure point for future iterations. Visual-rhetorical artifacts across chapters reflect and contribute to the myriad representations of VizAdmin WPA work: alluvial diagrams, pictographs, program banners, infographics, event and network maps, representations of learning outcomes, and more. Collection contributors are scholars at two- and four-year colleges whose work involves bridge programs, English as a Second Language (ESL) and international student placement, writing centers, digital studies, and both first-year and upper-level writing programs and curriculum. In each chapter, contributors directly address the affordances (by which we mean benefits and limitations) of the tools and strategies used to perform VizAdmin work within their particular institutional contexts.
To be clear, Radiant Figures does not present polished, or sometimes even revised, artifacts created for this (or any) publication. Instead, it offers WPA VizAdmin works in progress (or abandoned for now) that contributors created in/through situated practice for particular institutional purposes and audiences, highlighting the questions they raise and the insights they reveal. We consider them representative of the messiness of VizAdmin work with all its accompanying challenges. Contributors to the collection have attempted to humanize statistics, to make sense of byzantine structures, and to illuminate specific junctures of institutional inequity. In doing so, they have also risked misrepresenting bodies, producing visuals that require new literacies to interpret, and failing to change junctures of inequity (or worse, reproducing them). Many artifacts illuminate how actual WPAs use rather humble genres to do essential advocacy work, attaching to those genres and artifacts a great deal of expectations for their uptake. The artifacts “alone” cannot do all of the WPA advocacy work we need to do, but we hope that laying bare the intersections of WPA and visual rhetoric in this collection will open up necessary, explicit scholarly conversations: about the challenges of accessing institutional data within and beyond our immediate spheres of influence (much less visualizing it), and about how WPA training and working conditions do not anchor us in visual design or support refining visual-rhetorical artifacts in the specific socio-temporal moments of our work.
As a collective volume, Radiant Figures underscores the situated rationales, media affordances, rhetorical performance and delivery surrounding artifacts, and flexible adaptation of visual-rhetorical strategies for administrative advocacy. For a scholarly audience of WPAs, each artifact can function as both demonstration and invitation: visually displaying the importance of this work and inviting readers to take up the work in their own contexts as well. Thus, we hope that readers will engage with the visual-rhetorical strategies used to produce, distribute, and circulate each artifact—in addition to the stories surrounding their situated uses, successes, and failures—as much as with the artifacts themselves.
Ultimately, Radiant Figures seeks to make contributors’ diverse work visible, accessible, and shareable to an equally diverse audience. We hope that Radiant Figures will prove useful not only for those who are directors of writing programs or writing centers, but to any faculty, staff, or administrator stakeholders who contribute to and shape campus cultures of/about/for writing. Broadly construed, we see this collection as a valuable resource for any writing and literacy scholars invested in administrative innovation and efficacy, data visualization, and data advocacy. Just as importantly, the implications for better understanding and enacting VizAdmin work are vital for future WPAs and newcomers to our field who are already pursuing various administrative professional trajectories. As a collection that illuminates not just what needs to be done, but how to go about doing it—responding to a call from Virginia Anderson and Susan Romano’s Culture Shock and the Practice of Profession: Training the Next Wave in Rhetoric and Composition (2006)—Radiant Figures meets a crucial disciplinary need for future WPAs not only to see invisible labor made visible and valued, but also to theorize and contextualize the performance of visual-rhetorical work in writing program administration.