Stereotypes exist for every profession. Theres the absent-minded professor who looks for his glasses when theyre perched on his head. The Type-A stockbroker whose idea of a romantic evening is snuggling up with The Wall Street Journal. The engineer with the calculator strapped to his belt, whose conversation, peppered with equations and technical jargon, floats over the heads of listeners.
Its that last stereotype that the College of Engineering would like to change. With the advent of the Center for Technical Communication, coordinator Scott Coffel and his staff of professional and peer tutors are working to create a corps of articulate technologists. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a professional with five years of experience as a technical writer for Boeing Corp. in Seattle, Coffel helped bring the program to life in April 2001, in response to a request from industry.
Give us an engineer who can speak and write is what we kept hearing, says Fred Streicher, the colleges director of external relations. Engineers must communicate clearly and persuasively, in order to share their expertise with those both inside and outside the industry.
Of course, undergraduate writing instruction is nothing new. All University of Iowa first-year students receive a solid foundation in communications skills when they satisfy the rhetoric departments core requirements; they also can avail themselves of a University-staffed writing lab for help with specific problems or questions that might arise while writing papers or preparing presentations. Far from duplicating such efforts, Coffel and his counterparts in other University departments adapt their writing programs to suit the special needs and purposes of their respective students. These days, University of Iowa engineering, business, history, Spanish, and other undergraduates interested in becoming better writers also can take advantage of communications programs in their departments.
Groundwork for this specialized instruction was in place for several years. Since 1989, the College of Law has taught legal-brief writing through a curriculum developed by the Iowa Law School Writing Center. The first of its kind among the nations law schools, the colleges writing centerstaffed by a cadre taken from the best and brightest law students and a few handpicked practicing attorneyshas served as a model for communications programs at dozens of law schools around the country, as well as at other academic departments closer to home.
Offered for the first time in 2000, a program at the Henry B. Tippie College of Business propagates the fundamentals of good writing through tutoring and hands-on help with class reports and term papers. The idea for the Business Communications Center has roots in a writing initiative begun in 1998. Associate provost Lola Lopes (then associate dean of Undergraduate Business Administration), in cooperation with accounting department chair Dan Collins, developed a writing-improvement strategy for the colleges 200 accounting students. By mid-year 2000, Nancy Hauserman, dean of the colleges Undergraduate Program Office, recognized the need to build a similar program that would reach the business colleges other 1,200 undergraduates.
We have to work from the premise that writing instruction is an indispensable ingredient in a professional degree program, says Jessica Renaud, a writer, editor, and the business colleges writing program director. A writing center that isnt integrated into the curriculum in some way is going to fail. Our communications program, therefore, is a nexus of training for students, tutors, and faculty alike.
Both the Business Communications Center and the engineering colleges Center for Technical Communication provide one-on-one peer tutoring and faculty involvement in designing writing assignments that dovetail with technical course work. Each semester, Renaud hires graduate students from the English education program to serve as consultants. Meeting with business majors for one-on-one sessions, these consultants teach the principles of good writing by reviewing copy-edited manuscriptsand by going into the classrooms of the business professors themselves. Coffel and his staff likewise team up with faculty to create writing-intensive assignments.
Both Renaud and Coffel rely on a group of undergraduate writers who have stood out as top-notch writers. Their feedback provides hundreds of their fellow students with peer-level voices to guide them throughout their writing assignments. Renaud believes that students talking to each other about the importance of writing well can only lead to a diminishing of the stigma attached to writing as a dreaded chore, and Coffel concurs that peer tutors add a touch of credibility to the whole process.
Talking about writing is very different from talking about engineering, says peer tutor Mike Keller, a junior engineering student.
Engineering junior Jenna Hetland has discovered an unexpected bonus to her role as a peer tutor.
When I went on interviews, my being a peer tutor always got lots of attention and questions from interviewers, Hetland says. Companies thought it was very important.
Students of all kinds, no matter what they become as professionals, must become agile writers, Coffel says. That may mean writing only a coherent office memoor it may mean writing a business proposal or an advertising nugget, or technical instructions, or an explanation of a project to non-engineers. Whatever the case, were here to help Iowas future leaders communicate their expertise.
by Linzee Kull McCray and Gary Kuhlmann