Discussion: Roles and Relationships

How do WPAs invite students to participate in the work of program administration?

As this literature review demonstrates, WPAs solicit student participation within all major categories of their intellectual work. These contributions seem to be, in fact, ubiquitous, which likely explains the lack of focused examination this topic has received. It seems taken for granted that students' participation in writing courses extends into programmatic matters—and that students are considered de facto members of the writing program community. Students help WPAs develop programs that serve their needs; they help evaluate and improve pedagogical strategies; they help demonstrate programs' principles in action. In these ways, they are positioned as (more or less) active participants in writing program administration.

The preceding pages have emphasized the particular kinds of work WPAs ask students to do. Taken together, that list is impressive:

  • Students provide feedback on new initiatives.
  • Students evaluate curricular design.
  • Students could participate in program governance.
  • Students assess program effectiveness.
  • Students assess evaluation methods.
  • Students respond to assessment results.
  • Students reflect on their relationship with writing.
  • Students evaluate instructors' performances.
  • Students share views on pedagogical strategies.
  • Students evaluate their own performance.
  • Students collaborate on course improvements.
  • Students coauthor program materials.
  • Students contribute to program materials.
  • Students present their work at campus/community events.
  • Students represent student writers to local communities.
  • Students represent writing programs to local communities.

This list and the preceding pages highlight students' active contributions to WPA work. Clearly, writing programs are asking a good deal of their student stakeholders, and those contributions should be acknowledged, valued, and carefully examined. At the same time, by focusing on discrete tasks, such a list might obscure their broader implications for students and writing programs.

As Critel explains, student participation does not merely achieve clearly articulated functions. Like writing instructors, writing programs "communicate to students something about what it means to perform the role of student" beyond the classroom (5). When WPAs invite students to engage in program-level conversations, they communicate something about what it means to perform not only as a student but also as a member of that larger learning community. Those messages, though subtle, influence how students see themselves in relation to their peers, their institutions, and even their local contexts. For that reason, student participation in WPA work, as well as the community commonplace on which it rests, demands the same kind of rigorous examination Critel applied to participation in the writing classroom.

What roles do WPAs invite students to play within writing programs? What relationship dynamics result?

Here, therefore, I shift focus from verbs to nouns—that is, I consider how those actions may affect students by establishing certain roles within and relationships to writing programs. For the sake of classification, the roles students may play can be helpfully labeled as those of critic, reviewer, representative, consultant, ambassador, and associate; I have further organized these roles within three primary relationships they seem to establish between students and writing programs: involvement, membership, and partnership.

In reality, of course, neat delineations are impossible. Categories of programmatic participation tend to overlap. They also shift over time and situation. The roles WPAs ask students play will vary according to particular exigencies, as will the resulting dynamics among students, faculty, and administration. Nevertheless, the following organizational model provides a useful point from which to examine these issues:

Fig. 1: Visualization of roles and relationships. On the left side of the pyramid, relationships of students to writing programs are depicted; at the top of the left side of the pyramid pyramid is partnership, in the middle is membership, and at the bottom is involvement. On the right side of the pyramid are the roles played by students in writing programs, corresponding to the relationships depicted on the other side. At the top of this side of the pyramid are associates and ambassadors; in the middle, consultants and representatives; at the bottom, reviewers and critics.

This schema categorizes students' roles within and corresponding relationships to writing programs as a pyramid, with (in ascending order) students' performance as critics and reviewers constituting involvement; performance as representatives and consultants constituting membership; and performance as ambassadors and associates constituting partnership.

The shape of this visualization is not meant to convey a hierarchy of value but rather to reflect the frequency of these roles within the scholarship surveyed here. Involvement in program administration is fundamental, if only through course enrollment and evaluation. At the same time, as the following discussion makes clear, I do not mean to suggest that the role of critic is the best position for students, simply the most common.

Likewise, the narrowing of the pyramid indicates the decreasing frequency of students' participation at the levels of membership and partnership. The "pinnacle," therefore, suggests the rarity and perhaps improbability of true collaborative partnerships between students and WPAs; it is not meant to position such a relationship as the ideal. Indeed, it is possible that this point is where benefits extend to only a very few, if any, students and WPAs—and where the risks may outweigh the rewards.

All these (and more) qualifications notwithstanding, on the pages that follow I attempt to systematically identify and briefly consider the benefits and challenges that attend possibilities for student participation in writing program administration. This schema offers WPAs one way to approach these options critically. It provides a heuristic through which writing programs may analyze their current practices, identify desired outcomes, and develop context-specific strategies for productive student engagement.