Popular English Department Program Gets a Makeover

Posted: January 2, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Art Taylor

“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet. Well, everything, of course, which is why the English Department’s undergraduate concentration in nonfiction writing and editing and graduate concentration in professional writing and editing will change names this fall. The new names will be nonfiction writing and rhetoric for BA candidates and professional writing and rhetoric for the MAs.

But name changes are only the beginning. These concentrations will also get a freshly updated set of courses: new initiatives and curriculum changes that are the result of long-term planning that accelerated rapidly over the last year, thanks to the work of faculty members Doug Eyman, Byron Hawk, Susan Lawrence, Shelley Reid and Eve Wiederhold, with the assistance and input of Don Gallehr, Roger Lathbury and Terry Zawacki.

Doug Eyman
Doug Eyman

“These changes will help enhance the recognition of professional writing as a disciplinary field,” says Eyman. “Students graduating with these degrees can go out and market themselves even more confidently as professional writers and editors.”

In addition to augmenting current and incoming students’ educational experiences and future marketability, Lawrence says the curriculum changes also give these concentrations “the opportunity to be a nationally recognized program in writing and rhetoric.”

The addition of six new courses marks the most significant change for the 2008-09 academic year. The undergraduate concentration in nonfiction writing and rhetoric will get three of these:

  • Web Authoring and Design, the department’s first rhetoric-based web course, will explore how professional writing students can use the web to communicate with various audiences, emphasizing the production rather than the critique of digital texts.

  • Editing for Style, Audience and Voice will offer an undergraduate alternative to the popular graduate-level editing course. Beyond a focus on copyediting skills, the course will explore a professional editor’s wide range of activities, from assessing readers’ interests and expectations to negotiating with writers.
  • Topics in Rhetoric will examine a number of different subjects, including rhetoric in the public sphere, feminist rhetoric or argument theory, for example.

New courses at the graduate level not only cast an eye toward the practical and the instrumental but also turn attention to theoretical dimensions of these topics, providing greater context for various skills and applications.

Susan Lawrence
Susan Lawrence
Creative Services photos

“In the grad school, we have students who are already working writers,” says Lawrence. “We don’t have to sell them on a theory course because they know they need the analytical abilities taught there.”

Three new graduate courses will be introduced during the next academic year:

  • Digital Rhetoric and Design will theorize, research and work with tools such as e-mail, blogs, wikis, and other digital spaces — not just teaching how wikipedia works, for example, but also exploring the social, cultural, educational and ethical dimensions of such media.

  • Research Methods in Rhetoric and Professional Writing will address textual and empirical methods as varied as discourse analysis, case studies, field observations, usability studies and more, including both a “how-to” component and a focus on the ethical and disciplinary aspects of these approaches.
  • Projects in Professional Writing and Rhetoric will stand as a capstone course for the MA and offer an alternative to writing a thesis, providing students the option of directing their final projects toward either an academic or a professional audience — the difference, as Lawrence explains, between writing a analysis of the online research tool Zotero or writing a handbook for it.

“These courses acknowledge where our students are coming from and where they’re going,” says Eyman. “At both the undergrad and the grad level, we want to instill in students the ability both to understand the organizations in which they’re working and to contribute what they can. We want to teach professional writers to become powerful players in their organizations.”

Future initiatives will include more new courses, a realignment of the existing certificate program and the development of a PhD program.

For more information, contact Eyman at deyman@gmu.edu or Lawrence at slawrenb@gmu.edu.

This article has appeared in a slightly different form in Not Just Letters, the English Department newsletter.

Write to at