Although writing in math may seem to be a contradiction in terms, for Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, the newly appointed director of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing, it embodies the goals of the highly successful writing program that spans across the entire university and every discipline. When Sawyer met Prof. David Henderson, mathematics, teacher of writing in math for 20 years, he could not have been more excited.
For most students, their primary contact with the Knight Institute is through the required First-Year Writing Seminars. With subjects ranging from “The Anthropology of Food and Cuisine” to “Legends, Fantasy, and Vision: Sex and the Supernatural in Epic and Romance,” there is something for everyone. This year, there are approximately 300 sections offered on 100 different subjects each semester.
However, the institute also includes Sophomore Writing Seminars and the Writing in the Majors program that continue beyond freshman year. One of Sawyer’s main goals is to expand these advanced writing initiatives.
“Every Cornellian should have the right to have a writing intensive course in their major,” Sawyer said.
He explained that the purpose of the program, for both freshmen and upperclassmen, is twofold. First, writing is integral to the learning of every subject, not a tedious “add-on” imposed from the outside. Second, every discipline imaginable teaches writing because that is still the chief way knowledge is propagated.
“There are as many forms of good writing as there are good thinking,” Sawyer said.
In many ways, this way of thinking typifies the uniqueness of the Knight Institute. Although Sawyer himself is an English professor, he readily admits, “no English department has the corner on teaching good writing.”
In most universities, writing programs are housed in the English department. Another aspect of the Knight Institute program that makes it special is the number of faculty teaching the small, intensive freshman classes. About one-third of First-Year Writing Seminars are taught by faculty.
Another of Sawyer’s goals is to find further ways to raise the quality of writing for all students. Concerned by a report recently published by Prof. Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, that suggests minorities at Cornell continue to graduate at a lower rate than whites, Sawyer wanted to learn how the writing program can help narrow this gap by reaching those students, minorities and others, who need continuing help.
In addition to what the Knight Institute can accomplish on its own, Sawyer was interested in supporting and encouraging programs outside Cornell. He saw his goals as corresponding to the five goals of President David J. Skorton’s inauguration speech. He was particularly excited about the first, which calls for “making Cornell the finest research university and provider of undergraduate education in the world” and the fifth which asks the question of how Cornell can impact the “world outside [its] gates.”
The First-Year Writing Seminar, “Exploring Common Ground,” that collaborates with local high school students and their teachers, is a step towards this goal. Sawyer’s own history, which includes Cornell at Auburn, a program where Cornell professors and students tutor inmates in a maximum-security prison, underscores the public service aspect that Sawyer hopes will increase at Cornell.
Katy Gottschalk, director of the First-Year Writing Seminars, has worked with three previous directors of the Knight Institute: Profs. Fredric Bogel, English, Harry Shaw, English, and Jonathan Monroe, comparative literature.
“It’s now exciting for all of us in the Knight Institute to work with Paul Sawyer, who has enthusiastically begun his position and who I’m sure will put his own stamp on the program,” she said. “We’re eager to help with the continued growth of the Knight Institute into important areas.”