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There is No WPA Theory

posted: 11.27.13 by Barclay Barrios

I recently finished up work for a paper I’m presenting at SAMLA (“Well-Played, WPA: Promoting Growth in an Era of Budget Cuts”).  I open the paper with a number of “koans,” zen-like paradoxes that contain profound truths.  One of them is this simple fact: There is no WPA theory (yes, with a slight nod to The Matrix).

That there is no WPA theory is more than a paradox; it is in fact a common genuflection within most WPA theory.  That is, many discussions of theoretical approaches to writing program administration open with some acknowledgement that the actual practices of administration are inextricably bound to local conditions. I especially like Jeanne Gunner’s configuration of this fact in “Cold Pastoral: The Moral Order of an Idealized Form”: “general rules apply only weakly to varying local conditions (a WPA truism)” (29).

What makes it a koan is the fact that, despite that acknowledgement, we continue to theorize. But because any generalized theory is at best partially useful, we share narratives as well—a combination of abstraction and practicality, theory and praxis, why we did something but (more importantly) what we did.

I can’t help but think that teaching is much the same.  There are lots of theories, lots of pedagogies, but there is, balancing all of that, an equal (if not more massive) accumulation of lore.  That is, as with running a writing program, when we teach we often do what works without having to know why.

An odd discipline we are.  I sometimes wonder why all of Composition/Rhetoric doesn’t just implode.

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