At non-academic social gatherings, I often find myself talking with someone about their work and mine, and having then to answer a question sometimes posed with a considerable puzzlement, “Well, what exactly do professors do?” There are so many different ways I could answer that it’s hard to know where to begin. Some things the questioner is likely to know. We teach, we do research, we write and publish; we grade papers, design courses, supervise and conference with students, write letters of recommendation, and much more. Harder to explain is the “other” work that has become an increasing part of academic life for many faculty over the past few decades. Ivory tower scholars were probably always rare, especially at a state university. But the range of kinds of academic work that didn’t exist a few decades ago is remarkable, and is what we have chosen to profile through a few impressive examples in this issue of English Matters. For there are often surprising ways in which English matters in the modern world, and we can point with pride to influential examples of those efforts in our department.
We now teach in all sorts of locations—from the prison classes taught by Gillian Harkins, Roger Sale, and graduate students working with them, to the tutor-training and supervision of English 121 service learning (profiled in our 2009 newsletter) and the Phoenix Project, which place hundreds of tutors in Seattle-area public schools every year. Through UW in the High Schools (a topic for a future issue), we oversee college-equivalent writing and literature classes in dozens of area schools for hundreds of students every year, helping to ease the transition between high school and college. The Puget Sound Writing Project has for decades brought innovative methods for teaching writing to K-12 teachers throughout our region, offering summer institutes, in-service workshops, and perhaps most importantly, a long-term relationship with a network of colleagues dedicated to the improvement of writing instruction.
We are finding new ways for students to work together, too, as Rick Kenney has done in intensive creative writing workshops at UW’s Friday Harbor location (this will become a quarter-long course next fall). We are teaching an array of Early Fall Start classes, which, for instance, help non-native speakers of English reach “writing ready” status prior to fall quarter. What runs through these many programs is the persistent strand of dedication among the faculty and students who create and participate in them.
I’d like here also to announce an initiative we hope to launch next fall—an on-line book club for UW English Department alumni. Led each quarter by a different faculty member, this will be a forum for reconnecting with department faculty and fellow alumni, a way to extend our shared passion for reading. I’d love to hear from any of you who might be interested in participating in a pilot program next fall, or who have suggestions from your own book club experiences about how we might best implement this.
—Gary Handwerk, Chair