Faculty on Writing

Professor: Paul Lehmberg
Interviewed By: Claire Abent
Department: English
Date: September 27, 2007

Professor Paul Lehmberg is at the beginning of his 29th year of teaching at Northern Michigan University. In total he has been teaching for 38 years. He teaches undergraduate and graduate non-fiction writing courses at NMU (EN 302-602). Occasionally, he teaches EN 211B and some American literature courses. He is also the author of various nonfiction pieces and the book, In the Strong Woods.

Obviously, as an English professor, Lehmberg knows how important writing is for everyone. One of the main points he stressed during the interview was that without exception, writing = thinking. He feels that often times students do not even know what they really think until the words are put down on paper. Thinking is the key to all writing. He believes that teachers of writing are also teachers of philosophy, because they are teaching students to think.

Lehmberg expressed concern that the students of this generation don’t have enough practice writing when they come from high school. He also noted that students these days don’t read nearly as much as students in previous generations, possibly due to the advent of such technologies as television and computers. Lehmberg maintains that extensive reading during childhood helped him develop into someone who could write well. Although he believes that there is a direct correlation between the amount a student reads and how well a student can write, he admits that it is still much a “mysterious relationship” to him.

A combination of factors make up a good writer according to Lehmberg. Some people just have a talent for writing. For those who are not so naturally gifted, he feels that about 90% (his own statistics) can learn to write competently. He also notes that while good writing is relative, competent writing is not. He feels that most students “grudgingly accept” the fact that Northern requires 8 credits of composition. He has not received any complaints from any non-English major students to that effect (at least to the best of his knowledge). He also feels that in order to improve in writing, a student must actually want to improve and have the discipline to do so. He feels that this discipline is missing from the current educational element. Also, the longer he teaches the more he realizes that with hard work, even the least naturally talented writer can turn into a good writer. For this he cites the example of James Joyce, who may not have been the most gifted writer among his peers, but through discipline and hard work, he made himself into a great writer.

Even after so many years of teaching the English language, Lehmberg admits that sometimes students still remain mysterious to him. The use, or lack thereof, of EduCat by his students seems to somewhat fuel this opinion. By requiring students to post responses to assigned readings, the theory is that they will gain knowledge from their peers. He says that this does not always work the way he intended. For the best writers, it doesn’t seem to do anything, nor does it seem effective for the worst writers. He feels that there is a middle range of students for which this is actually beneficial. Lehmberg is still trying to work out the kinks in this particular system and develop a way in which it can be beneficial to all his students, regardless of ability.

I also spoke to Lehmberg about an issue that I often face as a writing tutor. Students want to know what is more important to professors: the mechanics of a paper, or the actual content of the paper itself. Lehmberg said that he does not separate the two when grading a paper. Although, he did point out that when teaching a composition class he focuses on what the student writes, including mechanics. In a literature class he might read the paper a little differently, and not focus so much on the mechanics of the paper.

When it comes to his own writing, Lehmberg says that he likes it. He says that his writing has changed a lot over the years. He chalks this up not to trying, but simply to the progression of age. He also operates the theory that he may be smarter now than he was then. He is sometimes not confident in the things he writes, but also feels that most writers never really are. One of the things he learned while completing his own college education was to take the time to do things right. Furthermore, he also learned that about 90% (statistics also provided by Lehmberg) of all writing ends up in the garbage but that the hard work will usually pay off.

Lehmberg urges his students to use the Writing Center. Sometimes he requires them to go and in some cases to go back to get further tutoring. In his opinion, some students benefit greatly from the one-on-one attention they receive at the Writing Center. He feels that it is an affordable way for students on NMU’s campus to get the help they need. Also, he has seen obvious improvement in the students have been to the Writing Center for help. But again, he knows that students have to want to go and get help in order for it to really be effective. He feels that sometimes the students who need help the most are disinclined to go to the Writing Center because they simply do not care. He jokingly suggests that actually “dragging students in” might be somewhat beneficial.

This interview was relatively easy for me to set up and carry out. I had Professor Lehmberg last year for EN 371. I chose Professor Lehmberg because my options were somewhat limited. Of my current professors, not one of them requires any writing. Of my past professors, only a few have required writing, and of those few, most no longer teach here.  I also figured that Professor Lehmberg would have interesting, if not humorous, insight on the subject, especially because of his personal connections with the writing center.

After some serious procrastination, I set up the interview via e-mail and went during his office hours to have a chat. The professor was more than happy to let me pick his brain about the subject of writing. A subject that he seems to both enjoys and is knowledgeable about. He warned me that it would be impossible to fudge any of this assignment because my instructor would already know much about how he feels. All that considered and after having him as a professor, I still wasn’t sure how his answers would go. What I found most intriguing about the interview was his concept of writing = thinking. I feel like a lot of students might not understand that point of view. Personally, it was something I never really thought about and it was not until I sat down to type this out that I realized why. For me writing is thinking. I cannot ever distinguish between the two. The things in my head always seem to come out just the same on the paper. It just felt a lot more profound after Professor Lehmberg pointed it out. I also really enjoyed his theory about how 90% of writing ends up in the garbage. It was nice to hear someone with a little more experience writing say that the same happened to them, because it always seems to happen to me.

This project was actually quite enjoyable for me. I like interviewing people. Usually, people are not given the chance to really talk about themselves. It is always fun to talk to people who are clearly passionate about something. This is the same joy I get out of journalism. I really have a lot of fun just talking to people, observing and learning more.  It is also my opinion that the thoughts of Professor Lehmberg would especially resonate with students who struggle with writing.