Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Writing Fellow Interview Series Part II

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed a colleague of mine, Greg Peterson, about his experiences working as a Writing Fellow in a Communication Disorders class. This interview made me even more curious, and I decided that I just had to know more about the Writing Fellow program.

Luckily my Writing Center Director, Dr. Tim Taylor, had a wonderful suggestion for me: "Why don't you interview Professor Fahy (the professor who Greg works for as a Writing Fellow) and see what she has to say about the program?" 

Sometimes I wonder where I would be without my wonderful faculty mentors...

So, I contacted Professor Fahy, and she agreed to be interviewed for the blog. This is the very first Writing Fellow program that has been offered at EIU, which I think makes these interviews extremely exciting (nerd alert, I know). Let me introduce you to Ms. Fahy a little more:

Jill Fahy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches courses in Acquired Language Disorders, Executive Functions, Right Hemisphere Disorders, and Neurology.  Ms. Fahy lectures nationally on the assessment and treatment of executive function disorders and associated communication impairments. She recently delivered the keynote address for an international conference of speech-language pathologists from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.  Ms. Fahy also supervises clinical practicum at the EIU Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, focusing disorders of aphasia, executive dysfunction, social communication disorders, and cognitive-communication disorders.  Ms. Fahy has co-authored an article on the clinical implications of neuroscience research in Broca’s area, published in Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation, and is co-author of The Source for Development of Executive Functions.  Prior to teaching at EIU, Ms. Fahy provided services to populations with acquired neurological deficits in medical settings.  She also happens to be an alumnus of EIU, with an undergraduate degree in French.

What follows are the fantastic responses Professor Fahy provided to my questions.

1.  What interested you in participating in the Writing Fellow program? 

I have always been interested in how students develop into educated, articulate, thoughtful professionals.  I am interested in how students learn, think, process information, draw conclusions, explain information, and defend their suggestions or conclusions.  One of my favorite things to ask students, in class, is Why? … or, How do you know that? And, although it may sound strange, one of my favorite things to do is grade writing assignments because it lets me see how students craft their thoughts and choose their words.  Students’ written work is almost like a picture—a snapshot into their evolving ability to think, organize, and articulate big ideas.

The opportunity to participate in the Writing Fellow program just evolved, really, following some ongoing discussions about student writing with Dr. Tim Taylor, Director of the EIU Writing Center.  Tim and I both happen to serve on the CAA Learning Goals Writing Sub-Committee, and one day he asked if I might be interested in participating in the first round of a new program he and his colleagues were crafting.  A few conversations later, and we were situated to have the first embedded Writing Fellow on campus integrated into a junior level CDS class that I am teaching this spring.    

2.  I recently wrote a blog about the importance of writing in plain language. My son was born with a hearing disorder, and I had a lot of problems understanding the literature that our doctors gave us. I found myself longing for literature written in plain language. Do you think that students in the CDS field should learn to write for multiple audiences (colleagues and the layperson)?
Absolutely. And yet this can be a challenge, for many reasons.  Students working towards the required graduate degree in Communication Disorders & Sciences must not only master a vast array of disorder-related knowledge, but must also develop critical thinking skills sufficient to support the ability to, eventually, make accurate diagnoses, and generate defensible recommendations. And, clearly, we also must foster students’ ability to communicate those conclusions and recommendations in the language of the consumer—whomever that may be.  In any given day, a speech-language pathologist or audiologist may need to communicate information to a neurologist, then the spouse of a patient with a traumatic brain injury, followed by the radiologist, and then the patient himself.  If we are working in an educational environment, our audience might range from the classroom teacher to the one-on-one aide for a student with disabilities, followed immediately by a conversation with parents, and then a group of six four-year old children.  We must learn to convey information clearly, accurately, tactfully, and honestly.  In plain language.  For the consumer. 

3.   What type of writing assignments do you usually craft?

I try to give students the opportunity to practice communicating complicated information to a particular audience for a specific reason.  For example, two of the assignments I have given in class this semester have required students to explain various aspects of traumatic brain injury and protection of the brain to parents of children or adolescents.  The assignments required students to write this text as though they were hired to write educational brochures—the kind of reading material you pick up when you sit for an hour at the doctor’s office.  Learning to think more deliberately about the audience, and the tone, of my writing assignments has definitely been one of the advantages of my collaboration with Greg (Peterson), the Writing Fellow dedicated this semester to my neurology class (CDS 3500).  

4.  Have you noticed a difference in the quality of writing that your students are producing since having a Writing Fellow in the classroom?

YES.  Students meet with Greg at least once, and sometimes twice, as they are working on each of the writing assignments.  One specific change I have noticed is the tremendous growth in students’ ability to craft clear, specific, meaningful sentences. In past years, there were times when I truly could not discern the meaning of a simple sentence.  I could talk with the student about this, and ask them to try, verbally, to explain to me their intent, and there, buried amongst the confusion would be a nugget of clarity, but it rarely came out in the writing.  I have also noticed improvement in students’ ability to organize information into a purposeful, cohesive structure.  Papers turned in to me have a clear opening purpose.  The body of the paper transitions from one relevant point to the next.  Conclusions have become more useful.  As Greg says, students final paragraphs actually answer the “so what” question that anchors the entire purpose of the paper.  As I grade my students’ writing this semester, I feel relieved, not frustrated.  I feel as though I am reading the product of an actual investment in time, energy, and thought—not something written blindly the night before. I feel hopeful that our students are leaving this class with the tools to become skillful communicators. 

5.  What do you think the difference is between scientific style writing and the type of writing often seen in an English composition classroom?

It has been a long time since I had an English composition class, so I may be off-base, but I would say that scientific writing primarily requires the use of objective language and statements of fact.  There is little room for subjectivity or personal opinion. Depending on the audience, scientific documents may expect certain procedures for formatting and inclusion of data.  Expectations must also be met for how well diagnostic conclusions and recommendations are supported and defended.  Students learning to write in our particular discipline have plenty of opportunities to master the brief progress note for therapy, or the lengthy diagnostic report, or the scientific article review.  But they may benefit from more specific opportunities to learn the art of explaining complicated information about the brain, or the trachea, or developmental linguistics, in plain language.  Parents, teachers, family members, or even policy makers and advocates—these are the people with whom our students also need to write and speak. 

6.  Do you think that each discipline would benefit from teaching their own writing course, one that is solely suited to the discipline being studied? Or do you believe that learning to write in a multitude of methods (interdisciplinary) is the best?

That’s a good question.  I suppose my initial reaction is to suggest that we need to develop students’ higher-level writing skills within the discipline.  We worry a lot about whether or not students in our upper division classes master the content required to meet certain requirements.  It may be that we could spend a little more time deliberately teaching discipline-specific writing to help our students assimilate, synthesize, analyze, and apply their content-knowledge in new ways.  Communicating information to various audiences is perhaps the most critical skill we can foster in our students.  It really doesn’t matter if our students leave here as experts in the content of their work, if our students cannot convey that knowledge or expertise to the people with whom they work.

7. Will you do the Writing Fellow program again? If so, would you change anything about it?

YES.  I would love to work with the Writing Fellow program again. The collaboration and benefits are such that I would gladly have a Writing Fellow in this class every year.  But I also anticipate a surge in faculty applying for this opportunity, and now that I’ve had my chance, it is someone else’s turn.  And no, I wouldn’t change any aspect of this program.  I do intend to compare our assessment data from last year’s class, to this year, in terms of the quality of writing. I’m curious to see what objective changes appear, in addition to my own subjective perceptions about the quality of writing.  It would also be helpful to track the long-term benefits of the Writing Fellow program across the campus, and to support the Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum programs, as they continue to develop ways to support both faculty and students.  

Special thanks to Jill Fahy for taking the time to respond so wonderfully to my questions.

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