The University of Iowa

Writing across the disciplines: Among elite company

December 2, 2020
 
Iowa’s unmatched writing-related resources prepare its graduates for success in many fields. This level of excellence positions Iowa as the best public university for writing and communication.

Employers consistently rank strong writing and communication skills high on their wish lists when hiring. Professionals in all fields need to be able to clearly and effectively convey, among other things, important information, the impact of their work, and recommendations for how to proceed. This can be done through various mediums, including formal writing, presentations, public speaking, and social media.

Recognizing the importance of such skills, U.S. News & World Report this year added a new ranking that recognizes the teaching of writing and communications across disciplines. The University of Iowa was the only public institution to make the list, joining universities such as Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Princeton.

Iowa is known as the “Writing University” largely because of world-renowned graduate programs such as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the university’s commitment to helping all students build strong writing and communication skills is evident in every corner of campus and every field of study.

Whether Iowa students want to write the next great American novel, a successful grant proposal, a research paper for a scientific journal, or a clear and informative business presentation, they have access to a vast array of writing and communication resources found at few other universities. These include the English and creative writing major, Certificate in Writing, specialized curriculum within campus departments, tutors, and multiple centers dedicated to writing and communication.

“There’s no one that can compete with us,” says Daniel Khalastchi, director of the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing. “We are a big research university that values creativity and is located in a UNESCO City of Literature—one of only two cities in the entire United States honored with that distinction. Writing is literally embedded in our sidewalks, and no matter what our students want—whether it’s to be a journalist, a creative writer, or a strong business or science communicator—we are likely to have courses and programs on campus that support those interests or can easily create them because we have a talented pool of experienced writers living in our own backyard.”

Integrating writing and communication into all disciplines

“We want to offer every single student on campus, regardless of whether or not they are majoring in something that is directly related to writing, the chance to take advantage of the amazing opportunities at the University of Iowa,” Khalastchi says.

The Magid Center, located in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Division of Interdisciplinary Programs, offers students across campus the opportunity to enhance their academic, creative, and professional communication skills by focusing on the written word. In addition to sponsoring the Certificate in Writing, the center also publishes student literary magazines and is home to the Iowa Youth Writing Project, Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

There are 46 distinct majors currently represented among the students enrolled in the writing certificate program, from anthropology to microbiology and everywhere in between.

“We want to work with students who have a love for writing but are majoring in something that is not writing-centered as well as students who simply know that being a strong written communicator is going to help them be more successful when they enter the job market or apply to graduate school,” Khalastchi says. “We are a space where students can find a balance of academic rigor and professional resources and walk out of here writing and communicating better than ever before.”

The Magid Center also works with departments across campus to develop writing courses for specific majors. 

“For example, we worked with the Department of Health and Human Physiology to create Writing for Health and Human Physiology, which has become an extremely popular course, with multiple sections of it filling up every semester,” Khalastchi says. “We’re trying to remind people that while you might not love writing, if you can do it successfully, you’re going to be better off. And I think students are starting to recognize that and get excited about what Iowa has to offer.”

The importance of strong communication skills is built into the culture of the Tippie College of Business. In fact, its Judith R. Frank Business Communication Center was the first business communication center in the Big Ten.

 

Daniel Khalastchi, director of the Magic Center at the University of Iowa

“We’re trying to remind people that while you might not love writing, if you can do it successfully, you’re going to be better off. And I think students are starting to recognize that and get excited about what Iowa has to offer.”

Daniel Khalastchi
director of the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing

The center helps students hone their written, speaking, and visual communication skills through tutoring, the required core course Business Communication and Protocol, and working with faculty in writing-intensive courses to develop communication rubrics for particular assignments and targeted workshops.

“We see our role as helping students not to think of business communications as a one-and-done where you take the course and you never have to think about it again,” says Pamela Bourjaily, associate professor of instruction and director of the Frank Business Communication Center. “We get a lot of feedback from advisory boards and the academic departments about what they would like to see in new hires and what skills would help differentiate our graduates from others.”

While grammar and sentence structure are always important, Bourjaily says the center emphasizes macro communication skills such as organization of message and audience analysis.

“We really try to focus on storyline and the ability to convey a story about the numbers,” Bourjaily says. “That story is not, ‘How did you get the numbers?’ That’s usually boring. It is a story of what do the numbers mean. You don’t just give someone a data dump. I tell students that it’s your job to make the information as easy to upload in the brain as possible so that when someone finishes reading your document, they know what to do next.”

Isabella Volfson, a Davenport, Iowa, native who will graduate with a BBA in marketing in December, says she has seen the benefits of developing professional communication skills firsthand as a product marketing intern at Medidata Solutions in New York City.

“I had to come up with a lot of slide decks regarding products, write whitepapers, and send out important emails to sales reps,” Volfson says. “The experiences I had at the Frank Center played into that because I knew how to correctly address people, how to keep things short and sweet within a presentation but also get my message across in a professional manner.”

Bourjaily says the university’s rich writing tradition benefits business students as well as those pursuing writing as a profession, including providing an immense talent pool to draw upon when hiring tutors, consultants, and graders.

“Writing is taken seriously by people in leadership positions across the university, which makes them receptive to initiatives that are pertinent to writing and communication,” Bourjaily says. “In terms of services and programming, and our reach into curriculum development, we are at the forefront of all of it at Tippie.”

Similarly, the Iowa College of Engineering recognizes that engineers with strong writing and communication skills stand out among their peers. The endowed Hanson Center for Technical Communication provides students resources to help write, revise, and clarify lab reports, essays, résumés, and cover letters, as well as space to practice presentations and receive feedback.

Alyssa Schaeffer says she has used the Hanson Center to review papers for class as well as her résumé and cover letter. The fourth-year environmental engineering major from Nevada, Iowa, became a tutor at the center in fall 2019.

“A lot of times as engineering students, we get caught up in the technicalities and the logistics of the data and math and science. But at the end of the day, you have to report those results to somebody else or give a presentation or write a final report,” Schaeffer says. “Being able to tell other people about the work we are doing is important.”

Schaeffer says when she started her studies, she didn’t realize the amount of writing and communication that would be involved. But she says she puts the skills she has learned to use every day in classes, internships, and recent research work with a graduate student.

 

University of Iowa engineering student Alyssa Schaeffer

“A lot of times as engineering students, we get caught up in the technicalities and the logistics of the data and math and science. But at the end of the day, you have to report those results to somebody else or give a presentation or write a final report. Being able to tell other people about the work we are doing is important.”

Alyssa Schaeffer
University of Iowa engineering student and tutor at the Hanson Center for Technical Communication

“The idea of having a writing center was new to me when I got here, but it’s a really useful resource for students to have,” Schaeffer says.

Iowa’s appreciation and commitment to writing and communication also is evident in the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. The college’s Writing and Humanities Program gives medical students the space and time to pursue interests in the arts and humanities, as well as develop skills critical for their futures as successful physicians.

Cate Dicharry, director of the Writing and Humanities Program, says effective communication with patients is a skill that med students are expected to develop but isn’t always addressed in a formal medical school curriculum. 

“They go into an exam room as a whole person with stories, and they interact with someone who has a whole lifetime of stories and experiences,” Dicharry says. “Assumptions will be made about each other, and they have to find ways to communicate. Thinking through the elements of storytelling—whether it’s through literature or creative writing—is one way to make those tools available and to practice them.”

While the program prepares medical students for their professional lives, it also impacts their personal lives and helps them maintain a healthy work-life balance. High-quality health care requires the well-being and health of medical professionals, yet the National Academy of Medicine estimates that half of American physicians experience burnout.

“There’s a reason why a lot of med schools are moving in this direction, not just as an option but as a requirement,” Dicharry says. “The argument is that some of these elements are more necessary in a STEM program because they’re not necessarily part of the formal curriculum. But med students are still human beings, and they’re going to be engaged in vulnerable, high-stakes experiences. They’re going to go out and work on human bodies, and there’s more to it than what they learn in an anatomy lab.”

The writing and communication skills students gain at Iowa will benefit them long after they leave campus—both professionally and personally.

“Literature breeds empathy,” Khalastchi says. “It helps give an understanding to the world around you, and these are things everyone can take into their field, no matter what profession they choose. Literature and writing are taken seriously here, whether you want to be a bestseller or successful grant writer. You put those together and it’s the most unique writing environment in the world.”

Majoring in English and creative writing

For undergraduates who want to make writing a centerpiece of their professional lives, the university’s English and creative writing major combines a rigorous grounding in literary study with a workshop-style focus on writing. Started five years ago, the major’s popularity grew quickly.

“Creative writing has spread like wildfire across the country,” says Loren Glass, professor and chair of the Department of English. “I think we are creating what the new English major will be in the new millennium, placing a higher emphasis on expressive writing and content creation, but still based on scholarly understanding of literary history and literary criticism.”

Iowa has long been a destination for its graduate writing programs, and its undergraduates are able to reap the benefits.

“If you come here as an undergraduate and you major in English and creative writing, you have access to pedagogical resources and writers in cinema, theater, poetry, drama, graphic novels, and young adult novels,” Glass says. “We have all these adjacent writing programs that contribute instructors to the creative writing major.”

The major is designed to give students the tools to follow a variety of career paths, including creative writing, publishing, editing, public relations, marketing, advertising, social media communications, and teaching.

“It’s partly connected to the digital revolution; content is king now,” Glass says. “Writing is a valued skill, and our students build careers around that.”

And the emphasis placed on writing and literature extends beyond the classroom and campus.

“Not only do you get this great program, you get this great city, a City of Literature. Every well-known writer comes through here at some point,” Glass says. “You get this community of people who love and value writing. You can’t buy that. It’s an amazing benefit and invaluable resource for young writers.”

 


Story: Emily Nelson
Illustration: Sarah Florek