Teaching All The “Write” Things: A Spotlight on the USF English & Foreign Languages Department
Sometimes things don’t change much over the years, and other times, they change drastically. Take, for instance, the profile of the traditional college English major, to whom practical, prudent parents once dutifully asked, “But what will you do with an English degree?”
Today’s college English majors, however, can answer that question in a flash. Their horizons are filled with a myriad of enticing career options. They become teachers and lawyers. They work in museums and libraries, in journalism, publishing, politics and in educational administration. They are poets, stand-up comics and cultural critics.
Says Karen Duys, a 16-year veteran and former chair of the USF Department of English and Foreign Languages at the University of St. Francis, “The literary landscape that I learned to navigate as a student and young professional has changed radically. Back then, we dove into 19th century novels and hoped they would never end while professors gesticulated wildly about poetry in the background. But today’s students love poetry, especially when it is live and improvisational. And memoir rules.”
“The dominant medium of their stories today is visual: film and television series. Classes draw students into the conversations and conflicts that current cultures are having with each other and with their pasts,” continued Duys. “Writing instruction has changed too. We now take a much more imaginative and creative route to persuasion and argument. Our new writing program includes creative writing and writing for business and industry, new media, and freelance writing. And we look forward to adding screenwriting and legal and science writing before too long. Programs like this didn’t exist when I was in school!”
Collaborating with a team of part-time instructors, the department’s four full-time professors—Duys, Anna Ioanes, Beth McDermott and newly appointed department chair Kevin Spicer ’03—know that the ability to communicate ideas and information is one of the most valuable attributes a person can possess. They know that the English language is a powerful and broad platform from which to launch many careers that depend on astute thinking, critical reading, excellent oral and written communication, confidence and authority.
English majors at USF can choose one of four concentrations: English Literature, Writing, Comparative Literature and English/ Language Arts Secondary Education with Teacher Licensure. The department also offers four minors in Literature, Writing, Foreign Languages and Spanish Biliteracy (USF is an official testing site for SIELE, an internationally recognized Spanish proficiency certificate issued by the Spanish government’s Instituto Cervantes). Students in all programs are trained to develop sophisticated abilities in communicating, listening, speaking, reading and writing. They learn about the importance of critical thinking, information gathering and understanding within a broad spectrum of human cultures. This happens both in the classroom and through internships, where students can use their skills in real-world settings.
USF’s professors believe that to do all of this, students must first find their voices. Through spontaneous and focused exchanges that entertain wide-ranging ideas in a reasoned and respectful way, USF English majors become secure with their ideas, and are confident speakers in formal and informal settings. Critical thinking skills are honed in every class and assignment, enriched by discovery, originality, humor, creativity, and the pleasure of reading.
Said Spicer, “The thing we try to do most often is help students become autonomous readers, writers and thinkers. We help them find their voice, which means helping them understand how their voice never exists in a vacuum. So the more ways we can make the classroom a space where they are able to hear more than one voice, the better. Karen, Beth, Anna and I can serve as mouthpieces for numerous other voices to speak to our students…voices from the past…voices from past traditions and canons of wisdom.”
FOUNDATIONS AND SKILLS FOR LIFELONG LEARNING
USF feels it’s essential to instill the importance of writing in new students as soon as they walk in the door. That’s why freshmen participate in the university’s Foundations program, which prepares them for USF success and helps them improve their writing skills. The program is comprised of two semester-long courses: Foundations 1 and Foundations 2.
In the fall semester, Foundations 1 acclimates students to USF’s Franciscan culture and prepares them for the academic rigors of college. It also allows them to start exploring their place in the world. The course uses service learning and interdisciplinary approaches to lay a foundation for students through history, liberal arts and Franciscan practice, with a focus on identity, values and relationships.
During the spring semester, Foundations 2 focuses on research writing. College Writing II credit is awarded to those who complete it. Foundations 2 is inquiry-based; students are taught to do research in a digital world and hone their evidence-based argument skills, as they develop skills in summary, analysis and synthesis.
“We’re facing kids who are learning in a world where people have biases and agendas and are part of institutions that ‘create’ knowledge,” said McDermott. “We want them to be able to recognize truths by interrogating how language is rhetorically constructed for select audiences.”
For instance, as more and more publications and resources are going digital, it may seem like technology—or more specifically, the internet—has become the soul of our culture. It must be remembered that there’s always going to be a human mind behind the endless stream of binary digits we see on screen.
“Computers are taking over many jobs, but they will never be able to generate the compelling writing that surprises us in creative ways. Writing is a highly marketable, professional skill that is not going to go away,” said Duys.
According to Duys, Foundations 2 is working quite well. In fact, a writing assessment from 2017 showed that what the English Department is doing in Foundations 2 might help instructors in other courses and disciplines. The senior capstone course, in particular, may see improvement.
“Even at the senior level, some students have a tendency to describe what they’ve read. That’s not showing any increase in knowledge,” said McDermott. “We want them to engage with the text, own their stance, and understand that with their words, they are taking their place in a community of professional thinkers and do-ers.”
Writing is so fundamental to professionalism that a committee called “Writing is Learning” was recently formed at USF to increase knowledge about writing on campus. It’s doesn’t just benefit students—it also encourages faculty members in all disciplines to strengthen their writing and research, so that they have the skills to teach students about good writing.
“We want to help faculty to use writing as a tool for learning. Then they can help students develop polished writing pieces across disciplines that could go from Portfolium to publication. We want them to have the belief that writing makes a difference,” said McDermott, who recently discovered that a nonfiction essay by one of her memoir course students, David Hensley, was accepted for publication this summer.
Sophomores, juniors and seniors grow exponentially in their English courses, too. Things actually tend to get more exciting as students progress in the program, not only because they start to feel part of the English major community at USF, but also because their instructors get the freedom to create compelling new courses according to their personal areas of interest and research. Recent courses taught include Story Circles, Poets Look at Painting, Road Trips, Legal Fictions and Poetic Justice and Dystopian Lit. Senseless Violence in American Literature will be offered next semester.
This freedom also satisfies professors, who are passionate about their interests. McDermott is the poet and creative writer. Ioanes, the newest member of the department, has a knack for blending art and literature. Spicer is the Shakespearean and the genre-fiction guy who likes to dive into dystopian fiction and sci-fi fantasy. And Duys, well, you might say that she covers space-time. In her classes, storytellers from across centuries and continents use everything from quills to keyboards and podcasts to tell their tales. “Storytelling is the secret weapon of everything,” she says. The department also gives students the opportunity to give input on the courses and their required reading. Spicer will sometimes present a Shakespeare class syllabus without a reading list, then polls his students so they can share what they’ve already been exposed to and what they’d like to explore before he chooses the semester’s plays. And what they read is importan tfor their writing because, as Duys points out, students have to read if they want to write. By reading, students learn to recognize good writing and what makes it thrilling.
In terms of the future of the English program, Spicer sees continued teamwork and collaboration on the horizon, as well as advanced study offerings. But he would be remiss not to mention those who helped to shape the department over the years.
“The English department can boast a number of wonderful professors emeriti— Fr. Warren Carlin and Drs. Marcia Marzec, Randy Chilton, John Bowers and Vin Katilius-Boydstun—who offered a large portion of their careers to USF and who influenced countless numbers of students. Their fingerprints and their legacies are still visible today,” he said. “This nice mixture of old and new also describes our current faculty team. I’m quite excited to see precisely what we, as a group, will come up with in terms of future plans. The most common thing our graduates tell us is that they wish they could stay and obtain an M.A. Therefore, a big dream for the department would undoubtedly be the creation of a master’s degree program that could perhaps serve both writing students and the more traditional literature students who might want to come back in order to strengthen their teaching credentials.”