“A good administrator is not a supervisor. He or she
is a person who thinks creatively about how to help people do their work better
and enjoy it more.”
--Patricia Bizzell, “On Good Administrators”
The title of a book published at about the same time that I became a Writing Program Administrator suggests that WPAs are “Kitchen Cooks, Plate Twirlers, and Troubadours.” I have been each of these at one time or another during my administrative career, making it difficult to find a single metaphor that captures the spirit of my administrative philosophy. Instead, I offer a list of roles that I think every program administrator must play in order to be effective. These include being:
A program administrator’s first responsibility is to develop a vision for the program, one that is consistent with the missions of the university and the department within which the program resides. A second responsibility is to share that vision with others, working to achieve the kind of wide acceptance that will allow the program to function efficiently and consistently across constituencies.
Within the broader context of the university, each program exists within a complex web of other programs, units, departments, schools and colleges, serving a wide variety of constituencies that includes students, parents, faculty, staff, and administration. In addition, each program is home to a diverse population of students, faculty, staff, and administrators. In order to be successful, a program administrator must be willing and able to work collaboratively both within the program and beyond it. Program administration is not a task to be undertaken in a vacuum, nor can it be approached independently. Administrators must be willing and able to work well with others or they simply will not survive.
While it is important that program administrators be prepared engage in a wide variety of collaborative undertakings, it is also important that they be prepared to function as advocates for their programs. Being an advocate involves, not only protecting the interests of the program, but also promoting the program, its principles, and its practices at every opportunity. In order to succeed, the administrator must be willing to be a lively mix of table-thumper, cheerleader, and public relations specialist.
Some administrators see themselves as sentries, restricting access to opportunity; others see themselves as innkeepers, welcoming opportunity when it knocks. I feel it is important to be the latter, making every effort to remain accessible and open to new ideas, to encourage well considered initiatives, to make things happen, and to help things happen. While a firm “no” must always remain an option, a carefully considered “yes” is generally more productive and should, perhaps, be the default response to reasonable requests.
Role Model and Mentor
Just as teachers of writing should be engaged writers, administrators of instructional programs should be engaged in instruction. Their classrooms should model best practice, not only for the benefit of their students but also for the benefit of less experienced instructors in the program. In addition, program administrators must be willing and able to mentor future program administrators, serving as role models for the students and colleagues who will one day follow in their footsteps.
No matter how strong an existing program may be, it is never sufficient for an administrator simply to maintain the status quo. Administrators must be willing to push for innovation and change, not merely for the sake of change, but for the sake of developing strong, vital programs. Staying abreast of the latest developments in the discipline, keeping a watchful eye on the program, and looking for the opportunity to move forward, even when moving forward means taking a calculated risk . . . each of these is a vital component of successful program administration.
Every program administrator is, by definition, a researcher. Administering a program requires the constant assessment and re-assessment of both long-standing practices and new initiatives. Posing questions, designing methodologies, writing research protocols, interpreting data, and reporting findings has to be standard administrative practice. On-going program assessment provides more than reassurance; it also provides exigency and allows for intentionality.
The daily demands of program administration are such that it is easy to get caught up in logistics and the minutiae of day-to-day operations. In order to be a truly effective administrator, however, one must set aside time for scholarship. It might be easy to view reading, writing, publishing, and presenting as luxuries, but they are not; they are the lifeblood of the administrative role. A scholarly approach to administration is the foundation upon which solid programs are built and maintained and playing an active role in the profession gives the institution a face, a voice, and an ever-widening circle of influence.
It is important to note that none of these roles can be played in isolation. Instead, each of them must be seen as informing each of the others. A program administrator who tries to play the role of “visionary” without calling up the roles of “researcher’ and “scholar” is doomed to either re-invent the wheel or risk building “a program sure to fail.” Similarly, one who tries to be an “advocate” for a program without being a “collaborator” may well find him or herself stranded amidst the rapids of departmental or campus politics with no help in sight. Still, when these roles are seen as parts of a whole, and when the whole is seen as greater than the sum of its parts, this philosophy is one that can serve as a useful framework for the vital work of program administration.