Faculty on Writing

Professor: James Cantrill
Department: Communication and Performance Studies
Interviewed By: Tom Rich
Date: September 27, 2007

When I walked into Professor Jim Cantrill’s office to conduct this interview, he was putting the finishing touches on an email, and asked me to wait a moment while he proofread it. I patiently waited while he read through what he had written, altered a few words, and finally sent it off. This care, patience, and attention to detail forms the cornerstone of Professor Cantrill’s views on writing.

Holding a PhD in Communication Studies, Professor Cantrill approaches writing from the perspective of a reader. He describes writing as “[the writer] in two dimensions.” To a reader who has never personally met a given writer, the quality of that writer’s writing reflects directly on the writer as a person, fairly or unfairly. In addition, he argued “in most professions” sought out by college graduates they “will have to be writing.” Professor Cantrill understatedly concluded that possessing good writing skills is “very important.”

Professor Cantrill teaches a number of classes within the Department of Communication and Performance Studies, a list of which appears below. There is a written element to every course which he teaches, from short-answer essay exams at the one hundred level to written take-home exams and research papers at the three and four hundred level. Plagiarism is discouraged by requiring students to apply concepts from the class to specific problems; the assignments are “designed to make people think, rather than spit out” answers.

While he acknowledges that writing skills vary “from student to student,” Professor Cantrill feels that, in general, students’ writing abilities are “average at best.” He cites a lack of attention to the mechanical details of writing, an inability to structure an argument, and an inability for students to “take the perspective of their reader” as key facets of the problem. In many cases, he contends, students are being “self-centered in their writing,” failing to consider whether or not what they have written will make sense to a reader. Students who are unable to write clearly with the reader in mind will find that their “creativity will fall on deaf ears or, if [they’re] writing, blind eyes.”

Professor Cantrill notes that the problem is not limited to “raw recruits out of high school;” the deficiencies carry on to students who have completed EN 111 and 211. He feels that the classes place too much emphasis on writing as a process of multiple drafts with feedback after each draft; in many classes and the professional world, Professor Cantrill contends, students will only be given one chance to write something well. The writing process becomes collaborative rather than individual, and the student does not develop the ability to produce a polished piece without extensive outside input.

In his own writing Professor Cantrill works in many forms, from textbooks and academic articles to consulting reports for government agencies and bureaucratic paperwork and communication within the university environment. His current writing abilities are, in his own words, “light years beyond where [he] was as an undergraduate,” and he attributes this improvement to the solid foundation of writing he gained in Catholic grade school and the extensive writing he has done in graduate school and beyond.

While he does refer students to the Writing Center, Professor Cantrill feels that the tutors there are misused as a “proofreading service.” Writing Center tutors should be “collaborators” with the students, helping them work through problems of organization or clarity rather than checking for spelling and grammar mistakes. Professor Cantrill feels that such basic concerns are not the Writing Center’s responsibility, and that both students and tutors will be better served by focusing on the higher-order concerns of organization, argumentative effectiveness, and clarity. A firm stance from the Writing Center that it is not a proofreading service, coupled with an increased dedication from the university as a whole to reinforcing basic concepts of grammar and spelling would prevent students from using the Writing Center as a “crutch” for their own poor grammar skills. “We cannot,” he states, “shovel off on the Writing Center work that we, as professors, ought to be doing ourselves.”

Courses Taught

• SP 100: Public Address

• SP 110: Interpersonal Communications

• SP 250: Careers and Research in Communication Studies

• SP 310: Communication Theory

• SP 400: Persuasion

• SP 432: Environmental Communication