Faculty on Writing

Professor: David E. Cooper                                                     
Interviewed By: Bobbi Nease
Department: Philosophy                                                       
Date: September 24, 2003

Dr. David E. Cooper has spent a whopping 31 years at NMU. He holds the rank of a full professor in the Philosophy Department, teaching courses such as the Fundamentals of Ethical Theory, the classes which follow it up (such as Medical, Legal, and Computer Ethics), Social and Political Philosophy, and is qualified to teach all philosophy classes. Since Dr. Cooper has spent so many years as a professor, he has practically perfected the curriculum in his ethics classes. A no-nonsense kind of guy, Dr. Cooper knows what works and executes his plans accordingly.

He often gives writing assignments to his students, and states frankly, “I assign them because it would be too time-consuming to give individual interviews.” He feels papers are the best way for students to communicate with him –in organized thoughts- their ethical knowledge and thoughts. When I had him for Ethics, Dr. Cooper assigned journals weekly, and, in Legal Ethics, we were assigned to write three separate papers, each on a different topic we covered in class. In both classes, we were also required to make up our own study questions and answer them thoroughly. That was the reason I chose Dr. Cooper to interview for this project.

When I asked him what he thought about his students’ writing abilities, he threw his hands up in the air dramatically and said, “They’re all over the board. Some students write very well, and some can barely finish a sentence.” He attributes that to the fact that Northern is an open-admissions University. He did make sure to mention that, although he comes across students at all levels, most students are pretty good writers. 

I had assumed that he graded mostly on content, because of the nature of his subject. He readily agreed when I asked, saying, “Yes, mostly content. I’ll correct grammar or spelling as I looks the paper over, but I don’t deduct from the grade for it.” He said he often will point out where he gets confused if the write is losing him. “Sometimes,” he said, “the grammar might affect the messages conveyed, and that might result in loss of points.” Dr. Cooper reassured me that he thought the nuts and bolts of writing (grammar, spelling, etc.) were just as important as the content, and just as difficult for students to nail down. He summarized this common problem well: “grammar can definitely affect the communication of thoughts.”

I mentioned that I was aware he wrote the book he uses for his Fundamentals of Ethical Theory class, and then asked if he did any other writing. Just as I thought, Dr. Cooper said he writes all the time. He has written one other book (it was lost in the sea of papers, books and plates in his office at the time of our meeting) and is in the process of writing a third.  He has also published about 25 articles. Cooper also writes novels and short stories in his spare time, but has never attempted to get any of these published.

“I’ve been told I write well by my colleagues,” he said shyly near the end of our interview. “They’re telling me it’s become too dense, too philosophical. But I feel that’s the nature of the subject.” It seemed to me he wasn’t interested in talking about his own writing, because he wasn’t too concerned with finding me that second book, or talking about his articles. He ended that part of the interview with the simple comment: “I’m … comfortable with my writing.” That was that.

He did get more excited when I asked him if he thought it was important to know how to write. He said matter-of-factly, “It’s the primary mode of communication.” He went on to explain to me that he once critiqued a number of speeches, and noticed that the speakers could get away with knowing much less. This is because, with speech, you can use body language, voice tones and still come away with relatively effective communication. But when you write, you “incorporate concepts” you don’t use in normal speech. “Written language requires organization,” he noted.

When asked if he’d heard of the Writing Center before my e-mail, he nodded and added, “I have been around a long time. I’ve kind of watched it come to be.” He was quick to admit that he didn’t know much about it, though. That seemed to be the understatement of the interview, because when I asked him what he thinks happens in the Writing Center, he said, “I  know there’s one-on-one sessions, it’s free,  and you help students with grammar and structure in their papers.” He very adamantly added, “I know they don’t write the paper for you.”

He also mentioned that he’s “sent students to the Writing Center before,” but then quickly corrected himself: “Well… recommended that students go there.” When asked why he’d do that, when testing is more important in most of his classes than the journals, he told me it’s because the tutors help with organization. Again, Cooper underestimated himself, by answering, “No, I don’t know enough about it,” when I asked him if he had any suggestions for the tutors at the Center.

Overall, the impression I got from Dr. Cooper during my interview was very similar to the one I got sitting in his classroom. Dr. Cooper believes writing is quite important and deems writing as very fundamental and extremely vital to a quality education.  And he should know; he’s been in the field for quite a while.