Teaching the Teaching of Writing at “The Writing University”
By Bonnie S. Sunstein, Ph.D.
Here in Iowa City, the words we cultivate are as famous and prolific as the corn we grow. “The Writing University” is a term we almost take for granted. When we rush down Iowa Avenue to a meeting, we don’t always notice our feet as they touch the brass plaques of writers’ words. We see the ever-shifting book jacket décor on the walls at Linn St Café and Prairie Lights, all authored by UI writers. We’re often too busy to go to all of the readings we’d like to attend over a given week, or to take in the regular demonstrations and exhibits in our libraries and from our Center for the Book. At Book Festival time in July, we might remember that Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature, the only such city in the United States. We see just about as many book sculptures around town as there are Herky sculptures. Like our relationship with the local crops that feed the world, we’re conscious and aware of this town’s writing heritage, but most of the time, it’s a fuzzy backdrop for our daily lives.
Even though I am a professor of both English and education, I forget how proud I am to be here until I show a visitor around town. When my historian friend Dan, a school superintendent, visited from Cambridge, Mass., he remarked, “Whoa, it’s like Harvard Square without the attitude!” My moviemaking, Oscar-winning brother from Hollywood couldn’t get over how many people he’d met in “the word business.”
“In two days, I had two cab drivers who were writers, the guy who sold me a bottle of wine had a Ph.D., and everyone I met was talking about a book. Not like that where I live.”
The College of Education’s Well-established Connection
So what about the College of Education? How do we figure into this “Writing University” community?”
We’re widely known for our role in the history of tests and measurements, but the College of Education also holds a distinguished legacy related to writing. I recently finished a book chapter for the historical book, Composition’s Roots in English Education (Patricia Stock, Ed. Heinemann, Boynton/Cook, 2012). I’d always known, even as a teacher and doctoral student in New England, that Iowa, like my own alma mater, New Hampshire, had a history of fluidity between its English and Education departments.
After over 40 years of teaching English there and here, I saw that book chapter as a symbol of my own career-long crossings between English and Education departments. It doesn’t happen for too many people in too many places. I’ve often joked about a campus I know in which there is a large old cannon on a vast green lawn, aimed straight from its school of education to its liberal arts building. The message is different here.
Ours is a legacy that began several teaching generations ago, with Professor John Gerber, longtime English department chair and first president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Here at the University of Iowa in the 1970s, fiction and poetry writing were already comfortably established disciplines. Professors Carl Klaus, Richard Braddock, Lowell Schoer, Richard (“Jix”) Lloyd-Jones, and others were defining writing-across-the curriculum and awarded a large grant to house college writing teachers from across the country for a year of professional development. These educational pioneers are always cited in histories of the development of teaching writing.
Since then, Iowa has enjoyed four more decades worth of other projects linking writing through English and education. I have been lucky to be a part of this collaborative work through the 1990s and into this century, with colleagues James Marshall, Anne DiPardo, who were jointly appointed as I am, Brooks Landon and Paul Diehl in English, Carol Severino and Mary Trachsel in Rhetoric, Kathy Whitmore and Carolyn Colvin in Education, and so many others. Our Ph.D. students in the Language, Literacy, and Culture program, as well as our master’s and MAT students in English education, have gone on to teach writing—and the teaching of writing—across the country and around the world. My guess is that many of them would long for one more stroll down Iowa Avenue, this time to read the writers’ words on the sidewalk, an extra half-hour at Linn Street Café or Prairie Lights, or a few minutes in front of one of those giant book statues.
One thing I know for sure, though, is that they’d all be able to write about it!
2011-12 College of Education Writing-related Projects
ePortfolios: Students seeking teacher certification create electronic portfolios, summary showcases of their writing and teaching. This practice began as a result of the English Education research on portfolios by Marshall and Sunstein in the early 1990’s
National Council of Teachers of English UI Student Affiliate: For twenty years now, UI has an organization of preservice English teachers, an affiliate of the national council. This year nine students spoke and presented on panels at the National Convention.
The Iowa Culture and Language Conference: Run annually in November by the State Historical Society and Iowa’s AEA’s, ten students involved in writing projects with ELL students were “fellows” at this year’s conference, supported by the Department of Teaching and Learning
Collaborative Writing Consultancy: New this year, this is a student-run tutoring and support service, established in 2011 by the Dean’s Office, staffed by our English Education graduate students, which offers attention and assistance to graduate students working on writing projects.
The National Day on Writing: Designated by an act of congress, October 2011 marked the third “National Day on Writing.” The NCTE student affiliate manages a permanent website in the National Gallery of Writing, and its third public reading of those writings, this year at Public Space One. Authors ranged from high schoolers to community seniors.
Writers Gone Public and the City of Literature Book Festival Summer Reading. Undergraduate student writers have the opportunity to read chosen excerpts from their writing, complete with formal introductions by their writing teachers, five times a year.
Research/Teaching/Service COE Projects related to Writing: A Representative Sample from 2011-12
Amie Ohlmann, Ph.D. Student in the LLC program, has organized the Derek Project, a collaborative effort to link Iowa high school students with poetry and the arts. In 2012, the project brought Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey to keynote at a festival of arts and writing at the Old Capitol.
Rossina Liu, Ph.D. Student in the LLC program, manages and staffs a writing program at Iowa City’s Shelter House, with weekly writing workshops for guests, an annual reading at Prairie Lights, and a published anthology.
Matt Gilchrist, Ph.D. Student in the LLC program and Instructor in Rhetoric, has developed and taught a new course called “Approaches to Service Learning in the Classroom”
Ph.D. students Heather Draxl, Steve McNutt, and Courtenay Bouvier tutor regularly in the Rhetoric Department’s Writing Center
Bonnie Sunstein’s Writing Across the Curriculum Project, “I Eat What You Grow” is in its fourth year, linking high school math students in Keota Iowa and Revere, Massachusetts, as they write about Geometry.
Bonnie Sunstein was one of two professors who initiated the Undergraduate Overseas Writing Workshop in Cuba during the 2012 Winterim Term.
Bonnie Sunstein has served this year on UI’s Collaborative council of Writing Centers, the College of Liberal Arts’ Writing Certificate, and the Executive Board of the Nonfiction Writing Program
About Bonnie Sunstein
Sunstein has been a University of Iowa College of Education faculty member since 1992, where she is the program coordinator of English education and teaches writing, research, and English methods courses. She also has a joint appointment in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of English, where teaches courses on folklore, ethnographic essays, and oral histories.
She is director the University of Iowa’s Undergraduate Nonfiction Writing Program and created the twice-annual Writers Gone Public, a popular celebration for UI nonfiction writing students where the undergraduates can share what they’ve written throughout the semester over two nights of readings. Sunstein describes the event as “an evening of celebration and homage to the value of composing and the importance of teaching.”