Wide Angle

Writing excellence for everyone: New institute supports Pitt’s diverse writing community

From emails to research articles to clinical records, being able to write effectively is essential to nearly every modern profession.

Recognizing the importance of preparing every student, regardless of their academic program, to write with confidence and skill, the University of Pittsburgh is launching the William S. Dietrich II Institute for Writing Excellence. This new institute will support and enhance writing efforts among faculty and students across the Dietrich School.

“Writing is important because it allows us to move our ideas forward, to create knowledge, to figure things out,” explains Jean Grace, senior lecturer in the Department of English and director of the Institute for Writing Excellence. “Writing is the life force of the academic community—it’s how we communicate research and advance our fields, how we document our work, how we earn credentials.”   

The Institute is named for the late philanthropist and businessman, William S. Dietrich II. Dietrich, a double-degree Dietrich School alumnus, made in 2011 a historic gift of $125 million to the University of Pittsburgh to name the then-School of Arts and Sciences in honor of his father, Kenneth P. Dietrich. A generous gift from the Dietrich Foundation helped to establish the new institute.

Says Edward J. Grefenstette, President & CIO of the Dietrich Foundation, “You didn’t need much time with Bill Dietrich to learn that he’d mastered the art of economy of words, both in speech and writing. To steal a line from Cervantes, Bill offered wisdom in short sentences drawn from long experience.”

Naming the Institute in honor of William S. Dietrich II is particularly significant since he, himself, was the author of two books, "In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline" and "Eminent Pittsburghers: Profiles of the City’s Founding Industrialists," a collection of biographical essays.

Offers Grefenstette, “Bill believed deeply in the adage that ‘clear writing reflects clear thinking.’ He certainly made me a better writer–and a better thinker.”  

Rooted in the English department’s Composition Program, the Writing Institute will continue to build on the exemplary work of Pitt instructors to advance writing instruction. Existing initiatives that will become part of the Writing Institute are the Writing Center, the First-Year Engineering Composition Program, and the Writing in the Disciplines Faculty Seminar.  

In addition to the ongoing programs, the Writing Institute is pursuing new writing initiatives, including an undergraduate certificate focused on public communication of science and technology. The undergraduate writing requirement will also be administered by this new entity.

“I think the advantage that we have at Pitt is that we’re already building on the Composition Program… and it’s got a long history of innovative pedagogy in the teaching of writing,” explains John Twyning, the associate dean of undergraduate studies and the College of General Studies. “I think there are lots of exciting possibilities for this, and we are putting together a pretty good team.”

The Writing Institute will provide support for instructors to use writing in their courses. From writing intensive courses, like the “W” courses, to courses that incorporate writing techniques as pedagogical tools, the Institute will serve as a resource to support and develop effective writing efforts. Instructors from across disciplines are invited to take advantage of and engage with the institute.

“We will support faculty who want to develop new or revise existing writing-intensive courses,” says Grace. “We are developing workshops and online resources for teachers of writing-intensive courses and for teachers who just want to make better use of writing assignments in any course.”

An exciting strength of this new Institute is how instructors can sharpen and develop discipline-specific tools while sharing strategies with other instructors from across the school. In doing this, the Writing Institute will provide an environment for instructors to share tools that they have developed and learn from each other.

Grace explains, “Colleagues at Pitt have done significant work on writing assignments, and we see the value of detailed assignments that are written down and provide students with options for developing their projects from the beginning. These are conversations about the significance of writing and how we might more effectively teach it that we think can be productively extended to the teaching of writing in the disciplines.”

“There are lots of people in these different areas doing good things,” agrees Twyning. “What we need to do is find people who have developed—maybe in isolation—great techniques. Cross-reference them, bring them in and say: ‘that’s an interesting way you help students write, say in neuroscience, can bio students benefit from that?’”

The Writing Institute will also hold writing camps and small accountability groups to support faculty who are working on their own writing projects.

Twyning emphasizes how these efforts will help Pitt be “a place where people come with ideas and people go with ideas.”

Another exciting initiative of the Writing Institute, made possible by a gift from the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, is its efforts to support all writers, including those who experience mental, physical or technological challenges that present barriers to writing.

“A lot of people find writing to be an anxiety-provoking activity, especially evoking fear of judgment, but for writers with anxiety disorders, the demands of a writing-intensive class can be unbearable,” explains Grace. “Most of us who are teaching or mentoring don’t know enough about what we can do specifically for writers who have mental health conditions. There are several questions we would like to explore in this area. What can these writers do to help themselves navigate writing inside and outside the University? How can teachers and mentors most effectively support their writing process? And how can we improve practices in order to make the writing process better for everyone, whether or not they have disclosed a disability? We’ll be drawing on some groundbreaking work being done by scholars in composition and disability studies, many of whom are themselves writers with disabilities.”

“There are real opportunities for thinking about people who have some kind of writing disability,” says Twyning. “At the same time, we have developing technologies that could help us. So, what we need is to be continually updating our relationship with the needs of people who are differently-abled in terms of writing and the new technologies and pedagogies that would enable them to write.”

The Institute for Writing Excellence officially launches in January 2020. “Look for more news about the Writing Institute in spring term, along with a website that we hope will be immediately helpful to writers and teachers of writing on campus,” notes Grace. The website will provide digital resources including a quick start guide for teachers who are new to teaching writing-intensive courses. In addition, the Writing Institute will soon be hosting speakers and a corresponding book discussion group covering writing in the disciplines and supporting writers with disabilities.

Grace is “here and ready to talk” to support those who teach writing or use writing in their courses.

“We have a lot of wonderful, very well-established work and expertise to build on here at Pitt,” says Grace. “We are uniquely situated to launch an ambitious and multi-faceted Writing Institute.”

Hear more from Jean Grace in this short video: https://youtu.be/qGZtbe37YTk