by Marisa Yerace, WIC GTA, and Matt Fuller and Alex Werndli, WIC Interns
Sarah Perrault received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Nevada, Reno. Dr. Perrault comes to OSU from the University of California at Davis, where she was an Associate Professor of Writing. Her writing and research focuses on writing pedagogy and scientific writing. Her book, Communicating Popular Science: From Deficit to Democracy (Springer, 2013), has been taught in classes at OSU. Her appointment at OSU will be half time in WIC (.50 FTE University Academic Programs) and half time in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, where she will be teaching courses in her areas of expertise at the undergraduate and graduate level.
When did you start teaching writing, and what kinds of writing have you taught?
I started teaching writing in 2001 when I started a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing at Northern Michigan University. I actually had never taken a composition class, I hadn’t seen a composition textbook until I got them in the mail a month before I started teaching. I still remember looking at one and thinking “Aha, this would have been really helpful when I was an undergrad.” I taught there, and then at University of Nevada, Reno where I was a grad student, and then for the years I’ve been here in Davis. I’ve taught comp at all levels from basic writing to advanced comp. I’ve taught a number of writing in the disciplines classes; writing in the sciences, engineering, technical writing, writing for business. I had actually worked as a technical writer between my bachelor’s and my MFA, so that one came pretty naturally to me. Here at Davis I’ve taught a couple of sophomore-level electives that have been really fun. One is called Style in the Essay. I’ve taught that with a focus on blog writing because I think blogs actually fill some of the rhetorical genre function of essays today. And I’ve taught a sophomore-level elective on research papers. I’ve taught Popular Science and Technology Writing, Rhetorical Approaches to Scientific and Technological Issues, and History of Scientific Writing; those three are classes I created here. And I’ve taught a Dissertation Writing class.
What do you wish more people knew about teaching writing?
I wish people knew that faculty in every field have something to offer when teaching writing. Faculty in all areas have something to bring to bear. I wish people understood that writing varies from one context to another–and this means everything from usage, to how to cite things correctly, to more abstract things like what even counts as evidence. What counts as “good evidence” is so incredibly disciplinary. I’d like people to know that, and know that what seems obvious to us is only obvious to us within our fields because we’ve gotten used to it.There’s so much variability in what counts as “good writing,” and we should recognize our own expertise but recognize that much of that expertise is tacit knowledge. Our job is to bring that to the surface and articulate that to our students.
Why teach writing?
Selfishly speaking, I love language and I love written communication. Teaching writing is the dream, I mean, I get to talk to people about writing, and language choices they made, and why they made those choices–I get paid to do this incredibly fun thing! I also really love helping people solve problems, and learning to write is basically learning a set of problem-solving strategies and meta-strategies: how people solve problems they’re having now and gather and practice skills that are going to help them in what they do next.
In terms of other people teaching writing, if I may tell an anecdote here: I came to college as a horribly underprepared student. I went to a small liberal arts college, I was a scholarship student, and there was a required humanities course we all had to take. I kind of floundered my way through my first semester, and in our second semester we had a new teacher named Edwin Gerow. He got my first paper that semester, and he brought me into office hours and he looked at me and said, “You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”
I still remember the combined feeling of, “Oh my god I’ve been found out,” and “Oh thank god, someone has finally noticed and maybe can help!” And he did. He brought me into his office for the next paper and had me come in three times a week. He would say “Where are you now with your thinking? With your writing?” and I would say, “Well, I’m thinking A and B and C,” and he would say, “Okay, well, A is good but not really relevant, forget about C, that won’t take you anywhere useful, come back in two days.” And we did this for a month. And at the end of it, I had actually written a paper and he had walked me through that process. This was not a professor of writing, this was not a professor of rhetoric: this was a professor who saw that a student was struggling with what it meant to write in college, what it meant to analyze and synthesize and so on. And it was absolutely transformative. If he hadn’t done that, I don’t know if I would have survived my undergraduate career and gotten my degree.
I think any professor who wants students to succeed needs writing to be part of that.
What drew you to WAC/WID studies?
I think it’s the interdisciplinarity of it. Like a lot of people in rhet/comp, I sort of am in love with… everything! I mean, I started out with a Bachelors in Anthropology because I wanted to understand cultures and communication and how people from different worlds get along. I did a lot of other work that involved communicating and sharing knowledge and understanding what people needed. I worked at a bike shop for a few years: I was really bad at sales, but I was really good at educating the customers. I was a technical writer for about 10 years. In my nonfiction MFA, I focused on natural history writing. So that bridge between worlds.
When I was doing my MFA, I asked my advisor, “Do you think I have what it takes to make it in this world?” And he thought about it, and then he said very tactfully, “I could see you running a writing program someday.” I found that when I was doing my MFA, and I felt down, I would just start doing research about writing: what writing does and how it does it.
And then I found WAC/WID, where you get to learn what writing does and how it does it everywhere! You don’t have to box yourself into a little niche.
What are the qualities of a successful teacher of writing? Are these qualities the same as those of an effective writing program administrator?
I think the answer is there’s an overlap, and there are obvious differences. The qualities of a successful teacher of writing, to a great extent they’re the qualities of a successful teacher of anything. You’ve gotta care about students, meet students where they are, learn where their strengths are and how to help them build from those strengths. I think good teachers don’t take a deficit mindset. They take a sort of, “Wow, these amazing people are here to learn and they’ve already brought so much!” mindset, having respect for students as people who want to learn as well as for their reasons for wanting to learn. Maybe they’re intrinsically motivated, maybe they’re here because it’s a requirement and because it’ll help in some other endeavor, and that’s something to respect too. Another overlap is that both a good teacher and administrator are always interested in changing understandings of pedagogy. Helping students learn how to identify their own challenges and equipping them with ways to overcome those is in some ways very similar to a WIC/WAC leader working with faculty. Obviously, WPA work and teaching both require being very organized. They both require keeping track of details while keeping track of the big picture; don’t be so visionary that you forget to pay the bills and keep the electricity turned on!
I think the larger goals are where the differences come into play. A teacher has to know how a course fits into a degree or a series of requirements, but a teacher is ultimately focused on each individual student’s success, whereas a WPA is focused on how a program fits into the educational infrastructure of the university. They’re focused on success at the program level, not the individual level: how well the program is doing its part in strengthening the educational aims of the university. Students and student learning are definitely the end goal for both, but for a WPA, there’s a degree of removal: you’re affecting student learning by affecting the things that affect student learning. It’s kind of like working with an ecosystem, and of course I think of forestry because OSU emphasizes sustainable practices and forestry is big in Oregon. Good forestry practices aren’t about an individual plant or animal species – they’re about fostering a healthy environment and healthy ecosystem where all the plants and animals can thrive. You’re looking holistically and trying to keep the system healthy so that everything within it can be healthy and grow.
How does your research in scientific communication inform your approach as a WAC administrator?
WAC/WID is really about understanding how writing works in a specific context. As a humanities/social science person, studying scientific writing has really driven home to me how deeply disciplinary writing practices are – because, man, they are really different from one area to another! What they do, how they do it, why they do it… I mean, obviously, there are things that carry over, but studying science writing really drives home that writing is part of a disciplinary epistemology, disciplinary norms, and disciplinary values. It’s also given me a lot of chances to work on interdisciplinary teams and learn about how people in other fields make knowledge and communicate knowledge, as well as what their values are in their teaching. Ultimately, that’s most important because it has helped me shift my mindset into different contexts. WAC is about faculty empowerment; it’s about going into other peoples’ contexts, learning how things work there, working in those contexts to help them make changes. Even having that awareness of how different a world another discipline might be, even if it’s only in the next building over, really helps me walk in with that “Okay, I’m not gonna assume things” mindset while at the same time having an understanding of the range of things that I might encounter.
What else should people know about you?
I would like to say what an incredible honor it is to have been chosen for this job. At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, it’s basically a dream come true. It’s not even a dream I knew was a possibility until I saw the ad back in October. I am incredibly excited and deeply grateful for this opportunity, and really, really looking forward to it.
More information on Sarah Perrault can be found on her website.
Above picture description: Sarah Perrault (left) with WIC Director of 25 years, Vicki Tolar Burton (right), at an annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication.