Faculty on Writing: Steven Leuthold

Instructor: Steven Leuthold
Department: Art and Design
Interviewed by: Shawn Brown
Date: September 20, 2005

Writing is an art that crosses the disciplines and is important to all majors and concentrations. When interviewed on his opinion about writing and his attitude toward it in his classes, NMU Associate Professor Steven Leuthold was clear in his answer: it is “a real problem in this university that people are not writing,” or at least not writing as much as they ought to.

Leuthold’s professional interests have a broad spectrum within the Art and Design Department. His regular courses include:

  • 17th-19th and 20th Century Art History
  • History of Modern Craft and Design
  • Honors Sequence—Sources of Modern Art
  • Japanese Art and Architecture
  • Japan and the West—Crosscurrents in Art and Architecture
  • Native American Art and Architecture
  • Survey of Western Art and Architecture.

In these classes—apart from the honors sequence—it is an unfortunate reality that the large class size prohibits longer writing assignments. Writing tasks in these classes are limited to one or two paragraph reaction papers. It is an “unspoken problem at Northern that people are not invited to write,” this problem being in direct correlation to the class size: professors are physically unable to grade lengthy papers from 80-95 students per lecture, even if they do wish to assign them.

When Leuthold is able to assign papers, he sees that there is a great variation amongst the writing skills of students in his classes. Some students come in not having written in years, while others are expressive and informative authors. The level of student competence in writing is usually expressed through open-ended assignments. When told to write their response to a piece of art in his class, some students produce two grammatically-unstable sentences, while others write several well-written and thought out paragraphs. Due to the broad spectrum of writing ability, Leuthold’s grading system for writing is based on a combination of grammatical and conceptual issues.

Leuthold’s own writing includes scholarly papers, a published non-fiction book (Indigenous Aesthetics), artist statements, correspondence, and detailed lecture notes (posted online) for his classes. Although his current writing consists mainly of academic non-fiction, he desires to write in a new style: creative essay non-fiction for the general public. Writing comes quickly and easily to Leuthold, though he still takes the time to push himself into new genres. He currently has a sabbatical application in to take time to write a second book.

Writing is essentially a way to “help discipline your thinking.” Its importance in a university setting lies in teaching students to structure their thoughts, and in adding depth and discipline to the concepts taught in lecture materials. “Sloppy writers are often sloppy thinkers,” Leuthold says, decreeing that both afflictions can be improved through instruction and practice. “There is a real danger of writing becoming a lost art… and not just correspondence,” Leuthold stated. With the advent of the Internet and short snippets of information bombarding students from every side, they are losing the fine art of composing a lengthy piece. To write such a work requires a “different level of engagement” and commitment, to work through the difficulties and create something original. Students are lacking in proper instruction, and graduating from universities without the skills they need, leading to their not being taken seriously in a working environment. If students were prompted to undertake more assignments of a greater depth than what they are now required to produce, and were given genuine critiques on those assignments, their writing and critical thinking skills would profoundly improve. Leuthold observes, “If you cannot write, you will never be able to excel in your discipline.”

When students find themselves in situations where their writing skills are not up to par, they have a resource on campus to which they can turn: the Writing Center. Leuthold believes that the Writing Center is a valuable resource for students. It is a place that allows students to come in and feel comfortable sharing their work in a peer environment, where they can receive help for both mechanic and conceptual issues in their writing. The individual instruction that students can receive in this environment is a valuable commodity for the university, and Leuthold states that if he were in a position to assign writing projects as he would like to, he would send many more of his students to receive help. In order to improve the effect of the Writing Center, and emphasize the importance of writing at Northern Michigan University as whole, Leuthold would like to see the university involved in a multi-disciplinary initiative to bring back writing, an effort that must be imposed in every department. Writing must be emphasized not only in English and humanities classes, but through learning, in math, physics, and more.

Writing is a skill that is much needed, and much neglected. It is up to us, as students and faculty of this university, to initiate the change. We need to not only improve writing on a personal level, making sure that we maintain and hone the skills that we have learned, but pass the knowledge of writing and the belief in its importance onto others. Without the art of writing, we are lost as a forward-moving society.