A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Queering the Institution: Politics and Power in the Assistant Professor Administrator Position

Tara Pauliny, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/queering-the-institution
(Published: March 21, 2011)

Although queer theory is most often recognized in relation to sexuality and gender identity, it is, at its heart, about disruption. It is an approach that most often encourages subjects to recognize the shifting and unstable nature of their positions and identities and to work toward an unveiling and ultimately, destruction, of regulatory norms.1 At first glance, such a perspective seems at odds with the daily demands of the Writing Program Administrator (WPA). Although queer theory dictates an anti-institutional stance and oppositional politics, administration requires the opposite: directors must work within the constraints of the university and conform to its mission. To be effective program leaders, WPAs must function within the institution and be a regulatory force in their own right.

What I argue here, however, is that while the role of the WPA and the queer theorist may at first seem incompatible, they are actually quite congruent. When the WPA is untenured, or an assistant professor administrator (APA), she finds herself in an inherently queer2 position: she is an administrator who is both authorized and de-authorized; she is an integral part of the institution and a potential means of disruption; and she has an ethos that is mobile and shifting as she moves through her daily roles. As a subject who inhabits multiple roles and who exists within various nodes of power,3 the APA is not merely constrained by this variance but enabled by its possibility. Therefore, instead of seeing such a fraught position as a detriment—which is how the APA has often been conceptualized4—this space of instability can be seen as productive and full of potential. Thus, I contend that if the APA's ethos is recognized as specifically queer, its disruptive potential can be recognized and deployed.

As I see it, the APA position affords an opportunity to upset institutional norms and perform a queer intervention. Rather than inhabiting dichotomous positions—such as those noted by William Banks and James Alexander in their essay “Queer Eye for the Comp Program” where “the WPA is either a ruler or a victim; she either wields power or she experiences the artificial power of running of program over which she does not have the final say”—the APA who embraces such queerness can often infiltrate the very norms and structures that constrain her.5 These interventions, which I explain more fully in the anecdotal part of this essay, include revising established knowledge structures (such as the belief that APAs are always, already unauthorized and in a space riddled by roadblocks), upsetting binaries (such as administrator/faculty and homosexual/acceptable), and revealing the unstable essence of institutes of higher education (by showing that through advocacy, visibility, and coalition building, the institution’s most vulnerable members can become both authorized parts of the community and effective agents of change).

To elucidate the queer potential offered by the APA position, then, I follow the work of Jane E. Hindman, Elizabeth Flynn, and Eileen Schell. Hindman, for instance, has written that “it is in recognizing …tensions…[and] in authorizing multiple positions and multiple gestures that [we] discover and recover agency and meaning” (106) while Flynn and Schell have articulated the ways WPA work has often been productively influenced by feminist agendas and how a social feminist position can enable WPAs to critique contingent academic labor conditions, respectively.6 To show how the APA is a kind of queer aggregate, a position constructed of myriad and often disparate elements whose structure is loosely formulated, I showcase how this academic identity can have an ethos that is at once layered, dissonant, and productive. Ultimately, my analysis reveals that when the APA roles of teacher, scholar, administrator, and assistant professor combine and interact, the shape of their original formulations is altered and their promise revealed. More specifically, I argue that the APA position can—in and of itself—be considered queer, and that it is through just such a lens that its disruptive potential is realized.

To understand how the APA role can be reconceptualized through a queer lens, one must first examine how the APA identity has been represented. A particularly instructive example is Laura R. Micciche’s evocatively titled essay, “More Than a Feeling: Disappointment and WPA Work,” which highlights the hybridity of the WPA position and laments its potentially devastating effects. “WPAs,” she writes, “have become increasingly vocal about the disappointments entailed in administering writing programs. [For although] current efforts to professionalize WPA work…have become commonplace, WPA’s authority and power are challenged, belittled, and seriously compromised nearly every step of the way” (434). As the now familiar narrative tells us, untenured WPAs often find themselves in uncomfortable positions where they need to negotiate between their administrative responsibilities and their precarious status as junior faculty. This troublesome position is further exacerbated when the APA herself is either aligned with queer politics and/or has a non-dominant sexual identity since the conjunction of a queer sensibility and institutional authority pose a further threat to the APA’s efficacy. In this case, her queerness is doubled: she is at once at risk because of her non-normative sexual identity and in the precarious and fraught position as an inherently queer APA. This particular dilemma arises because, as William G. Tierney and Patrick Dilley note:

queer theorists seek to develop a theoretical and political project that challenges a social regime that perpetuates the production of subjects and social worlds organized and regulated by the heterosexual-homosexual binary. [As such,] . . . the stakes of queer affiliation cannot be separated from those of institutional affiliation. . . . Rather than
concentrate exclusively on what they claim to be surface-level issues—faculty appointments, an inclusive curriculum, a gay-friendly environment—queer theorists argue that structures need to be disrupted. If one assumes that the structures of knowledge in part have defined normalized relations . . . then one needs to break those structures rather than merely reinvent them. (49)

Taken together, Micciche and Tierney/Dilley’s comments crystallize one of the most salient problems currently faced by all APAs and, more specifically, by queer APAs—professionals who identify their politics as anti-foundational and in opposition to institutional normalization and who may identify their sexuality as non-normative. That is, an apparent impasse is created when an one is both part of an institution and working to upset that institution, or when one is both authorized and de-authorized by an institution. For example, when Tierney and Dilley follow their above remarks with Audre Lorde’s now famous comment regarding the inefficacy of working for systemic change within institutions—“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—they claim that institutional change must come from outside such a structure (65). This proposition suggests that the WPA—and certainly the APA, whose pre-tenure status makes her especially vulnerable—cannot be an effective administrator and enact queer goals since an alliance with queer theory necessitates a rejection of disciplining structures, and a job in administration compels an engagement with and furthering of those structures.

This oppositional perspective is predicated on the understanding that, by its very nature, queer theory is opposed to simple categorization and foundational definitions. As noted queer theorist Annamarie Jagose explains, “part of queer’s semantic clout, part of its political efficacy, depends on its resistance to definition, and the way it refuses to stake its claim” (1). However, even with such a refractive impetus, queer theory is often allied to particular political approaches. These goals exceed a disruptive interest in the homo/hetero binary and encompass a totalizing challenge of the social order. For most queer theorists, sexuality is but a single node—a point of convergence upon which social, political, historical, and institutional codes and hierarchies collide. Although sexuality, especially in non-normative formulations, is of vital interest to the now vast body of queer theory, as a whole, the field’s concerns center on the means and methodologies by which the prevailing social order interacts with institutions and ideologies.

Here, I do this work by employing a queer lens to better understand the complexities of a position that has been heretofore omitted from discussions of queerness and disruption. By focusing on the intersections of queerness and program administration, I bring to light both the hetero(and)normative expectations of the university system and the space of possibility represented by the APA position, which has often been coded as powerless and apolitical. Concurrently, I deploy the term queer in a number of ways. I name it as an identity, as in the case of APAs who identify their sexuality and gender as non-normative; as a subject position, as in the conflicting role of the APA; and as a strategy, as in the way that APAs (regardless of their sexuality) can work to upset the norms of the institution.

A Queer Divide: The Rhetoric of APA Identity

The productive relationship between queer theory and APA work was not, however, immediately clear to me as a new faculty member. In fact, given what I knew about the field and the academy, I was concerned that I would be forced to abandon queer theoretical goals when I found myself, having just earned my PhD with a focus on queer theory and feminist rhetorics, in an APA position. As a graduate student, I internalized the belief that writing program administration generally, and APA work particularly, should be ancillary to the teaching and research sectors of rhetoric and composition. I had, after all, entered graduate school in 1996, the same year Theresa Enos published Gender Roles and Faculty Lives in Rhetoric and Composition, and consequently, one of my earliest understandings of the discipline reflected the very notion that informs her work, namely, that “Rhetoric and Composition studies as a whole is devalued” (vii). I likewise internalized the sentiment that even more precarious than the position of the rhetoric and composition scholar was the rhetoric and composition scholar who also worked as an APA. For Enos warns that “Administrative positions do not lead to as many promotions for women” and, given all the “horror stories about putting a new untenured assistant professor (usually a woman) in as director of composition and then expecting her to meet traditional P&T criteria for research and publication, it’s surprising how often the unfair practice goes on” (67-69).

Enos, however, does not offer the only cautionary tale. In 2002, for example—the year I accepted my first faculty position—Roxanne Mountford described the end of her first day as a junior faculty administrator in a simple image that stands as a grim warning for other would-be APAs: “I close the door, put my head down on the desk and cry” (43). Faced with such evidence, I understood the APA to exist in a space of heightened vulnerability, and I had no intention of becoming lost there. As I prepared to enter the job market, I was concerned that the time demands, institutional expectations, and the lack of power associated with an APA position would jeopardize my career and embed me so tightly within the institution of the university that it would be nearly impossible for me to critique it.

My concern, however, went beyond the APA’s lack of disciplinary recognition or fiscal reward. I worried, as does Micciche, about the negative climate surrounding administrative work and the emotional toll it exacts. As she notes, professionals who inhabit writing administration positions are at a distinct disadvantage to their colleagues who are located more firmly within the research and teaching sectors of rhetoric and composition, since administration burdens its practitioners with the challenges of disciplinary obscurity and institutional neglect and exacts a psychic fee (434). The WPA, she reminds us, is compelled to convince her department and others that her administrative work exceeds the boundaries of “service” and that it contributes significantly new knowledge to the field—while she simultaneously convinces herself that she does more than carry out the orders of a sometimes politically suspect university administration. Aware of the ways academics are already implicated in the politics of the university, the WPA is especially cognizant of this relationship. And since, as an administrator, she often implements university policies and enforces institutional rules, she must also wrestle with her political and ethical opinions of these situations.

For an untenured academic administrator who is also invested in a queer theoretical agenda, this “psychic fee” extends beyond the boundaries of disciplinary legitimacy and emotional costs (again, she is doubly-queered). Being an APA firmly positions one in the hierarchical and, very often, politically problematic space of institutionalization; as an APA, one does not simply work within the institution, but as the institution. Such an arrangement situates the APA in a role prescribed and constructed by the university as it also reminds the administrator that she is not yet a confirmed member of that institution. So, while it is typical for writing program administrators and assistant professor administrators in general to need to balance their values and beliefs with the goals and policies of their home institutions, when such an administrator is also dedicated in both body and theory to queer goals, another layer of complexity is added.

The queer APA position represents a particular conundrum because sexuality holds an often unprotected status at universities and because institutionalized forms of normalcy are typically so deeply embedded within the culture of institutions that it takes a great deal of work to simply reveal them, never mind alter them. Even though some universities offer recognition to queer employees in the form of domestic partner benefits; harassment protection; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ) resource centers, many more schools offer no benefits or protections at all. Nor would (or does) such a policy necessarily alter the larger culture in which the university exists. At an historical moment in which a Federal Defense of Marriage Act is in place, and many States have rewritten their constitutions to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, it is clear that the normative demands on all citizens and institutions is especially high. The mere existence of DP benefits and policies that acknowledge and openly accept sexual diversity, therefore, do not immediately signal a victory for queer politics or queer people.7

Thus, this melding of two sites of powerlessness—that of the overworked, underappreciated APA and that of the at-risk queer in a heteronormative society—at first glance may seem to offer little potential for the role of the queer APA. But, instead, as I’ll demonstrate in my examples, I found that the position of queer APA actually opened the door not only to productive intersections where the performance of queerness could disrupt institutional expectations, but also to the possibility that institutional expectations of the APA could further shift conceptions of queerness. I found that not only was there potential in being a queer APA, but also that the APA position was itself, queer.

Disruptive Bodies: The APA and the Institution, or, Breaking Binaries and Upsetting Expectations

My earliest experience with the queer APA role—and my first performance as an APA—took place during the new faculty orientation for my first tenure-track job at a four-year comprehensive mid-western state university. After various representatives from programs across campus spoke to the incoming faculty about institutional matters such as personnel polices and parking permits, I introduced myself as the new Writing Center director and discussed the goals and services of the university’s Writing Center. In so doing, I moved from my place in the audience where I was new faculty member/observer to a location in front of that audience. Both literally and metaphorically, as I jostled by my aisle-mates on the way to the podium, I disrupted, albeit in a minor way, the hierarchical expectations of the university community members gathered in the auditorium that August day.

After a morning of observing presentations from such readily identifiable administrative representatives of the institution as the chancellor, the provost, and the dean—who were, unsurprisingly, all male, white, and appropriately suited—it was my turn to represent the Writing Center. With as much trepidation as eagerness, I rose from my seat, took a deep breath, and walked down the stairs to the front of the lecture hall. Once there, I turned toward my new colleagues. Greeted by their quizzical and slightly surprised expressions, I thought of how I might look to them—as a woman who is 5’2” on a good day, who appeared far younger than those speakers who preceded her, and who, I’ve been told, aesthetically (if essentially) “looks like a lesbian.” I was not, I imagine, the speaker they were anticipating. As I stood there in my button-down shirt and gray men’s pants, I became aware of the marked contrast between my appearance and the suited—and suitable?—institutional representatives from the university’s central administration. I spoke only briefly, defining the Writing Center, explaining its purpose, and inviting my colleagues to encourage their students to take advantage of the Center’s services. With that, I thanked them for their attention, picked up my belongings, and headed out the door. I could not attend the rest of the orientation because I needed to return to Ohio and graduate the next day. I was, it seemed, in the middle of numerous transitions.

In the year that followed, numerous colleagues reminded me of this moment. They told me how surprised they were that first day of orientation to see someone move from the audience to the front of the room; they complimented me on my “efficient” and “refreshingly direct” presentation and laughed with me as we relived the scene. Such conversations have led me to believe that this small administrative act actually signified a moment of productive disruption—for me, for my audience, and for the typical day-to-day business of the university. Within that brief engagement, a number of binaries were upset: audience/presenter, expert/novice, administrator/faculty; furthermore, the normative expectations of the university were interrupted. Because my status as an APA authorized me as a valid speaker, my somewhat deviant gender expression was incorporated—or at least allowed—into the institution.

This seemingly mundane activity of standing before the university as a queer APA is therefore more significant than it first appears. When viewed in context of the larger structure of university hierarchy and power, this moment becomes a tangible marker of the process whereby a subject—here, the queer APA—is incorporated into a system yet also alters that system. By participating in orientation, new faculty are being absorbed into the university—it is the point at which they are, in effect, reproducing the university—but they are also forcing the university to adjust to their incorporation. Because the unstable structure of the university is due, in part, to the fact that those who inhabit it and constitute it, the act of orientation signifies, both literally and figuratively, the potential for disruption of institutional codes and regulations. When I made visible my position as both institutional subject and institutional representative, I illustrated that any inclusion into the university system, as “normal” as it may appear to be, actually signals the degree to which the university can be altered by the subjects who compose it.

Thus, as my colleagues made clear in their comments to me, my performance as a queer administrator tampered with audience expectations—including those of new faculty and senior administrators. Although it could be argued that I had merely been assimilated into the institution—that the institution takes and absorbs difference—this view ignores my agency and my ability to resist the reproductive power of the university. It does not account for what Michel Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” or, in critic Tamsin Spargo’s words, the ability of the subjected to “speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy. . . be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was. . . disqualified” (21-22). Moving from observer to actor, I was simultaneously indoctrinated into and authorized by the university. I became not only the administrator surrounded by norms but also the administrator capable of upsetting those norms. And, strikingly, it was precisely my position as an APA, as an accepted part of the university hierarchy, that compelled the audience to acclimate to what was in this institution an unfamiliar representation of queer authority.

Reading the Gap: Administrative Identity and the Classroom, or, Queerness Infiltrates and Echoes the Institution

My second example of the intersections between queerness and the identity of an APA comes from my first semester at my second tenure-track position as an assistant professor and Writing Program director at a small, east coast engineering and science university. What I will show with this anecdote is how the actual power of the APA position in the university hierarchy can disrupt students’ expectations about queerness. That fall I taught a section of first-year writing to a class of 20 students—most of whom were engineering or science majors, all of whom were traditional-aged college students, and all but one of whom was male. The students came from a diverse set of ethnic and racial backgrounds, local urban and suburban areas, and a number of foreign countries. The course was a fairly typical composition class: the students read texts about the humanities (we were using Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg’s Negotiating Difference reader followed by the novel The Kite Runner), drafted and revised a variety of essays, and practiced techniques of college-level prose. All in all, the beginning of the term proceeded smoothly; I had a good rapport with the students, class discussions were mostly lively, and their writing was progressing well.

Around the mid-way point of the semester, my students became aware that I was not only their teacher, but also queer. I was out in the general university and the classroom and our interactions were marked by that reality. This occasionally led to jokes, conversations, or questions that either implicitly or explicitly referenced queerness. Interestingly though, I was not yet “out” to them as an APA. However, as the semester progressed and I worked with students from across disciplines to resolve placement issues, evaluate their transfer credits, and hear their concerns about particular instructors and assignments, the students in my class began to discover that in addition to being their instructor, I was also the director of the university’s writing program. And although this was a hybrid position I was quite comfortable in, for my students it clearly became a marker of my increased institutional authority, and my difference from other writing instructors. Thus, the role of APA began to slowly and subtly queer the classroom. Once they learned of my dual role, they no longer restricted our in-class conversations to local concerns; instead they began ask me questions about administrative issues such as placement (Why am I in this class when my friend is in a different one? Are all the writing classes the same? Why couldn’t I place out of this class?) and instructor status (Are all the writing teachers professors? What kind of degrees do college teachers hold?), while they also commented on my (often perceived) administrative authority; “You’re the boss,” they’d say, “You’re in charge,” and “Since you run the ‘writing department’ can you…?”. Interestingly, they also spoke to me a bit more formally than they had before—I was now always addressed as Dr. or professor, especially in email exchanges—and students became even more compliant with my class policies (late work and absences became an extremely rare event). Thus, demonstrating that the perception of the APA position as powerless is not necessarily the case. While undoubtedly my students' heightened awareness highlights the regulatory power of the institutional hierarchy, it simultaneously speaks to the disruptive power of bringing queerness to the APA position. When their existing knowledge of my queerness merged with their expectations about the power of an APA position, their understandings of both were necessarily shifted.

What I find remarkable about this shift is that in addition to highlighting my students’ rhetorical adaptability—how they positioned themselves and their arguments in response to their knowledge of their audience (in this case, me)—their responses also illustrate the persuasive power of a queer ethos; the layering of seemingly disparate positionalities which, when combined, create a space of uncertainty or instability where expectations are shifted and responses altered. When my students found out that my authority reached beyond the classroom and then tied that authority to queerness, a moment of reflection appeared. With expectations about the ties between power and heteronormativity unfulfilled, a gap was created—an undefined space were the students were no longer tethered solely to their preconceived notions but where they were free to re-conceptualize my position and, more importantly, their understanding of the ties between queerness and institutional authority. My theorization of this moment reflects Kenn Gardner Honeychurch’s understanding of bodies’ disruptive potential, of the ways that bodies marked by culture act not simply as “representations” of difference, but also as means through which alternative conceptions of thought are transmitted. Specifically, he argues that bodies

in all their sensing and sexual capacities, become central rather than marginal, not only to the theoretical connections of sex and knowledge…but to the day-to-day…wherein this social knowledge is constructed and tested. Such an admission of sex and bodies allows for altered knowledges and a recognition and powerful shadow of an exclusive masculinist and heterocentric perspective. (270)

With this contention, Honeychurch argues that bodies have the ability to queer—to challenge—heterosexist and disciplining norms and practices. Placed in an administrative context, this theorization emphasizes the sexual and sexed body as a kind of interruption of institutional discourse. When a subject’s body, in addition to his or her politics, becomes a visible marker of deviation from that which is dominant and expected, it becomes another means by which the institution can be critiqued and potentially altered. To see the “deviance” of queerness embodied not only by their teacher, but also by an authorized member of the university produces a pause—a moment when my ethos as an APA interrupts their expectations about the abject nature of queerness. Thus this interruption offered a useful site for the revision of norms.

Administrative Meetings and Queerness Incarnate, or A Coalition Confronts Institutional Heteronormativity

As my time as an APA continued, I began to be convinced that it was not moments of exceptional disruption, but rather the daily realities of administration that lent themselves to queer intervention. The practice of APA politics, as my graduate school education had suggested, was located more in the mundane than the exceptional. What was ultimately surprising, however, was that rather than constraining my politics as I’d feared, it was in the meetings, committee work, and the constant professional interaction with faculty, staff, students, and other administrators that the position of the APA could enable the queer identities to shift the heteronormative politics of the institution.

One of these experiences with the potentially disruptive, rather than merely reiterative, possibility of the APA’s daily responsibilities came with the start of my first fall semester out of graduate school, when I began to participate in weekly department administration meetings. These were meetings in which everything from the cost of pens to the future teaching schedule of department members was discussed. Attended by the department chair and vice-chair, computer lab director, first-year writing program director, the department’s three administrative assistants, and myself, this hour-long meeting appeared to be, on the surface, a benign activity. However, I soon realized that it afforded me not only the authorization and visibility described in the first scenario, but also the added benefits of inclusion and information. As someone who identifies as personally queer and also identifies professionally with a queer theoretical agenda, my position enabled me to bring my queer politics to every meeting and informational session I attended, as I also (of course) brought my body—my physical presence and all that it signified. So just as in my initial example at faculty orientation, my gender performance inflected the queer possibilities of the APA position. As a lesbian who often wore a baseball cap over her shaved head, sported masculine clothing, and carried a bag that showcased queer slogans, my appearance presented an epistemological alternative to the gendered and sexed norms in place at the university. When I spoke, my comments were reflected by my corporeal presentation: as I questioned the rationale and reasonability of institutional practices, my physical body and those ideologies it represented reconfirmed my position within such an institution. When discussing, for example, state budget cuts and their impending impact on students, department programs, and ourselves, I not only reminded my colleagues about the financial and political burden already felt by queer faculty whose personal relationships were ignored by the university’s lack of domestic partner benefits, but I also continually signified the problem. My presence magnified the impact of my argument. While it is possible for an APA to have these productive effects and not be queer, a queer APA doubles queer visibility and therefore reinforces the material and theoretical implications of queerness within the university; following Judith Butler’s argument, the queer APA functions not only “as an example of ‘citational politics,’ but also as a specific ‘reworking of abjection into political agency’” (Butler, qtd. in Williams and Bendelow 126). As a queer APA on this committee, therefore, my example demonstrates how queer issues were not only discussed but also embodied: thus queerness was made incarnate.

The queer potential of the administrative position comes, then, on a daily basis and in unlikely spaces; to be administratively queer means that one can appropriate the ordinary and reshape the mundane into tools of activism. As a final example of this, I offer one more scenario: in the spring semester of my first year, I was included, as the Writing Center director, on a university-wide committee convened for the purpose of crafting a plan in response to the undergraduate students’ approval of Differential Tuition funding. This funding, which is supplemental to tuition, is earmarked for the purpose of increasing advising and other student services. The committee was composed of directors and deans from across the university who had been charged with constructing a plan—subject to student approval—that would allocate this money to various university programs and initiatives. One of the ways I used my membership in the Differential Tuition group was to find political allies with whom I could build coalitions. Rather than figuring myself as the lone voice speaking back to the institution, I became part of a collective response that argued for, among other things, the university’s need to explicitly define its notion of “diversity,” and the establishment of a LGBTQ university-wide committee. This new group of people from across the university also became allied with the university’s affirmative action office, women’s center, and diversity initiative. As a result, rather than being constrained by our institution roles—as the work of Micciche and others has documented can often happen—we employed the existing hierarchy of the university and the related institutional norms to generate radical discourse and action. By asking for more than the mere acceptance of difference, but for institutional changes compelled by these differences, our work echoed William F. Pinar's definition of queer theory’s effect on political and academic interests. In his edited collection, Queer Theory in Education, Pinar notes that queer theory is not a neutral term, but a perspective that displaced and decenters as it challenges the reproduction of sameness (3, 13). Thus I argue that the APA position enables such coalition and therefore has the possibility of being an inherently queer force in the institution because of its productive, challenging, and disruptive potential.

The APA and its Queer Potential

Clearly, my main concern with my new APA position rested with my identification as someone who centers her politics—both professional and personal—on a queer agenda. I was concerned that I would be unable to reconcile my institutionally sanctioned position with my identification as a queer and my adherence to queer theory. Reflecting the realities of being a queer academic in “Out in the Academy: Heterosexism, Invisibility, and Double Consciousness,” David L. Wallace, whose work focuses on composition research and pedagogy, offers an answer of sorts to this potential dilemma. He posits that, for queer people and others who have been marginalized by dominant culture to be “transformative” subjects of culture, they must find ways to produce discourse that “break[s] apart the usual ideologies that have accrued as ‘the effects of fixity’” (53). He suggests that queer academics use their institutional positions as a means of disruption rather than an impediment to disruption. In his essay, which joins rhetoric and composition studies, identity studies, and queer theory, Wallace uses Butler’s theorization of performativity, which he defines as “any act of discourse, any action taken in a cultural context, [that is] . . . not an independent act ‘but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production’” (53). Wallace presents three moments in which he “saw a set of conditions that invited [him] to speak or write as a gay academic in the service of beginning to make political interventions into dominant culture,” and he then uses these moments to argue (among other things), “that the connections of theory and practice are . . . relevant [even] to such mundane encounters as meetings with administrators or participating in e-mail listserv discussion” (54). They are relevant, he contends, precisely because they provide opportunities that enable subjects “to engage in and produce discursive strategies that may help bring about institutional and social change” (65-66).

I take Wallace’s invocation of performativity in the academy and extend it to the analysis of queer APA work because it describes the point at which untenured administration and queer politics coalesce. If institutions like the university maintain control by compelling their subjects to enact (to make literal, to perform) preordained discursive codes and hierarchies, then it is those same individual subjects who can, by their interruption of such reiteration, disrupt the normalizing function of the university. In other words, when an APA simultaneously performs her administrative role and also enacts a politics of queerness, she works, as Karen Kopelson says in a more general sense of queer theory, to “move beyond rather than into the governing structures of available, and oppositional, designations” (19). Interestingly, as an untenured, marginalized, potentially oppositional, and “odd” subject of the university, the APA could even be said to be innately queer—whatever her sexual object choice. The power-dynamic she encounters as an APA, which forces her to constantly negotiate the normalizing function of the institution, mimics the very nature of queer struggle itself. By meeting queer theory’s challenge, therefore, “to resist . . . to reorganize or, perhaps more accurately, to disorganize,” the queer APA is not only reconciling those seemingly disparate positions but exploiting them (Kopelson 19). The queer administrator is not merely conforming to institutional expectations for herself, nor enforcing such normalization on others, but by actively questioning, revising—even disrupting—these codes, she is exploring the queer possibilities offered by administration and thus making visible the performative structure of the university itself.

When queer is thus understood not only as an identity mis/designation or a political descriptor, but also as an analytic methodology, it has the capacity to challenge dominant ideologies and normative, repressive structures— complications, it just so happens, which present themselves daily in the life of an APA. Fortunately, as I worked my way through my first year, I came to recognize that these sorts of political benefits are associated with administration—benefits surprisingly enough, that allow queer work to be accomplished. I am not trying to negate the work of scholars like Diana George, Eileen Shell, and Edward White, who have done important work in highlighting the potential difficulties of administration; as well, I am not claiming that my first year (or continuing years) as an assistant professor was easy. Predictably, I faced difficulties no doubt familiar to many first-year administrators, such as negotiating new teaching responsibilities, overseeing a staff I didn’t hire, running a program with an already small budget in troubled economic times, finding my place in a new department, and, indeed, trying not to get lost between my apartment and school. What I came to realize, however, was that being an APA also adds a layer of access to the institution and provides a way for queerness to engage the university. For along with the extra meetings, deadlines, day-to-day responsibilities, and planning associated with being a Writing Center director, I learned about the department’s and the college’s priorities and plans. I was privy to conversations that, while not of immediate concern to my non-administrative colleagues, may someday become important issues, and I came in contact with like-minded people from across the university.

As a result of my administrative position, then, I have been integrated into the workings of the department, college, and institution and have automatically become an authorized, yet queer, element of this structure. I now know that being an administrator does not mean my hands are always tied by institutional bureaucracy or conservative agendas. Although the university as a structure may have a problematic history and less-than progressive practices, this institution is also composed of subjects capable of remarkable change and achievement—it is a structure of power always in process. I suppose, then, that this is where I deviate from the cynicism expressed in Lorde’s famous axiom. While I share her distrust and outrage at the events taking place in the master’s house and her desire to raze the very structure itself, I do not believe the house belongs to the master alone. The codes, regulations, and strictures proliferated in/by the institution belong also to those who inhabit and reproduce that structure. The institution only remains (seemingly) intact when those who comprise it reiterate its strictures.

And importantly, if regulation is produced and disseminated by institutions, so too are political struggles. As Michael Warner reminds us, “Political struggles over sexuality ramify in an unimaginably large number of directions. . . . Contests over sexuality and its regulations are generally linked to a view of social institutions and norms of the most basic sort” (xiii). Perhaps most importantly of all, Warner also reminds us that political struggles are, ultimately, “embedded in institutions” (xiii). It is in this embedded, performative nature of both political struggle and institutional regulation that I find the possibility for resistance. It is through the refusal to reproduce sameness and the commitment to disrupting normalizing codes that queer theory finds a place in APA work. When the APA chooses not to reproduce expected versions of the teacher/scholar/administrator, she is also refusing an identity-based formulation of her professional self. She makes clear the innate hybridity—and innate queerness—of her professional identity and refuses “the fixity of location and the dominance of one identification over another. She contests and complicates society’s monolithic construction of her [and…] ‘exceeds the place into which she would be put’” (Talbert, qtd. in Kopelson 24). Such an excess of definition allows for the politics of queer theory to infiltrate the administrative realm; it privileges not only difference but also distinction—that is, rather than finding ways to maintain order and normalcy, a queer lens focuses on and then privileges the peculiar and the noteworthy in administrative contexts.

So while the APA position encompasses obviously precarious, but nevertheless dynamic and disruptive, opportunities, it is also a space of possibility where the demands, regulations, and normalizing tendencies of the university institution can be upset. Recognizing the multi-valent and resistant relationship that exists between institutions (the university), their subjects (the APA), and the codes surrounding them allows not only for flexibility in administrative roles but also uncovers the very ambiguous and unstable nature of the university itself. Just as queerness, according to Marla Morris, “digresses from normalized, rigid identities” and “challenges the status quo,” so too can administration diverge from norms of acceptability and uncritical reproduction (277). Being a queer APA, then, even with its attendant lack of power, multiple roles, and often conflicting epistemologies, offers a place of possibility where institutional paradigms can be challenged and institutional subjects can answer back. It is the very innate queerness of the assistant professor administrator position that allows for—encourages even—the APA to call existing paradigms into question and to refuse to replicate oppressive power structures.

It is my hope that the work of all APAs—queer identified or not—will, like queer theory itself, “function as a mode of analysis and as a strategy of opposition that circulates in culture . . . [and that] understand[s] culture as a range or repertoire of codes, symbols, and signifying practices” (Spurlin 10). For queer agendas are not only useful to queer theorists; rather, they are valuable to all APAs dedicated to challenging institutional norms, to critiquing the rote reproduction of disciplinary knowledge, and to exposing the inherently changeable nature of academic structures. Even when one is untenured and trying to produce scholarly and administrative work that is deemed both accepted and valuable, it is possible to function as an effective, participating member of a coalition that challenges binaries and speaks back to normative demands. APAs are positioned in a place of professional hybridity where administrative, scholarly, pedagogical, and theoretical concerns coalesce; as such, they are especially suited to exploiting these queer overlaps and to working toward sweeping, progressive change.


1 For a comprehensive discussion of queer theory’s disruptive impetus, see Nikki Sullivan’s text, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, especially chapter three, where she reviews the sentiments of numerous theorists. She notes, for example, that “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant” (quoting David Halperin in Saint Foucault), that “Queer theory does not simply develop new labels for old boxes, but rather, caries with it the “promise of new meanings, new ways of thinking and acting politically—a promise sometimes realized, sometimes not” (Quoting Lisa Dugan), and that “Queer (Theory) is constructed as a sort of vague and indefinable set of practices and (political) positions that has the potential to challenge normative knowledges and identities“ (43-44).

2 I am thinking of Foucault’s use of this term here, namely that power circulates continually and coalesces at various points into “nodes.” For his discussion of this concept, see History of Sexuality, Volume I where he writes: “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one hold on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations” (94).

3 Numerous WPA theorists have made this claim, some of which I detail later in this essay. More recently, many contributors to the collection The Writing Program Uninterrupted: Making Space for Critical Discourse, Donna Strickland and Jeanne Gunner, eds, reinforce this sentiment. See, for example, John Trimbur’s Forward, where, after he reviews the history of WPAs from the 1970s on, he concludes that “writing program administration is a congested and contradictory space to work in” (ix). Additionally, when highlighting the difficulties faced in an effort to change writing policies on his campus, Tom Fox tells us that “the excruciating and precarious process of change left me and my colleagues more certain of WPAs’ limitations than hopeful about the power of ordinary professionals to effect change” (15).

4 I also want to note that, in their essay, Banks and Alexander do much more than observe the problematic positionality of the queer WPA. Importantly, they elucidate the instructive conjunction of a queer identity and a professional role as a WPA. Toward the end of their essay, they specify these effects. While not precisely the argument I make here—since they do not explicitly name the APA position as queer itself—our arguments, I think, are certainly in conversation with one another. For example, the effects they list work well with the queer interruptions I myself note. See Banks in the Works Cited.

5 For a specific discussion of Flynn and Schell’s points, see Laura Bartlett Snyder’s essay, “Feminisms and the Problem of Complicity of Writing Program Administrator Work” in Strickland and Gunner’s collection. I also want to note that many others have convincingly argued for the potential interruptions/interventions offered by WPA work. A recent example is found in Strickland and Gunner’s collection, but such claims have also been made elsewhere. See, for example, Jonathan Alexander’s work on queer composition and queerness in the composition classroom, and Debra Dew and Alice Horning’s collection, Untenured Faculty as Writing Program Administrators: Institutional Practice and Politics.

6 Although progress has been made in the Gay/Equal marriage movement in the United States lately, much work remains to be done. For instance, if we look at the statistics offers by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), we see that while 12 States offer some kind of legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples, the vast majority of States either make no mention of such rights or have enacted laws that specifically prohibit such recognition. As of May 2009, 29 States have a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, while 13 of those States have codified this into law. Similarly, while 20 States prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, only 13 prohibit such behavior based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. For a list of these and other statistics, see http://www.hrc.org/issues/marriage.asp. More to my point, however, these kinds of civil rights do not necessarily constitute a change to a heteronormative society. Gay and lesbian couples may be allowed to marry, but the normative discourse and codes surrounding sexuality, gender, and gender expression remain substantially intact. Consider, for example, the kinds of gay and lesbian couples chosen to represent the “community” in HRC’s work toward marriage equality: overwhelmingly, they are middle-class couples whose monogamous and long-standing relationships mirror those of their acceptable heterosexual counterparts. For an example, see HRC’s publication “Family Matters.”

7 Kopelson provides a lucid description of Butler’s theory of performativity in her 2002 College English article that is useful to review here. She writes:

Subverting common-sense beliefs that gender and sexuality are fundamental truths of the self, Gender Trouble . . . tells us instead that both are always acts, expressions, behaviors, which, like performative speech acts, bring into existence that which they name, and, through their repetition, come to constitute the identities they are purported to be. . . . Repeated and reified over time, the specific acts of gender and sexuality become (mis)perceived as the general facts of gender and sexuality. (17-18)

In the same way that gender is performative, so too is the university and the positions we inhabit within in. The performance of the institution thus creates the institution and provides the illusion of its stability.

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