Saying the world needs better writing, GMU adds PhD in writing and rhetoric

By Jay Patel
George Mason University

Business woman typing on keyboard. Shallow dof.Adding to George Mason University’s strong and comprehensive writing program, the English Department is now offering a PhD in writing and rhetoric. In the works for quite some time, the program matriculated its first students for the fall 2013 semester.

The program is full for the fall, but interested students may apply for the spring semester.

“There is a severe underproduction of experts in professional writing,” says Mason English professor Doug Eyman, director of the new degree program. “The demand is very high.”

The PhD program will prepare students to run writing centers and writing programs and do writing consulting and research in industry and in academia.

“Writing happens programmatically; it happens within organizations and institutions. It’s not just a question of education. And so, all the core courses, composition rhetoric and theory, professional writing, and public rhetoric are all wrapped up in this idea that writing happens in all different places. To think about writing as an organizationally and institutionally specific occurrence . . . is different from other programs, which tend to focus on teaching rhetoric,” Eyman says.

Eyman is joined by writing faculty members Don Gallehr, Shelley Reid, Paul Rogers, Michelle LaFrance and Eve Weiderhold, and Writing Center director Dawn Fels. In addition, new professors Heidi Lawrence and Steve Holmes joined the English Department and the Writing faculty members this fall.

A place of expertise

The English Department currently offers a BA in English with a concentration in writing and rhetoric, a master’s degree in professional writing and rhetoric, and a graduate certificate in writing and rhetoric. So, why a PhD?

“Mason has been known as a place of expertise in composition and rhetoric for some time,” Eyman says. “The way I see it, we have a series of great writing programs, from undergraduate to the master’s degree. Adding the PhD program strengthens those programs and helps draw those programs into a coherent whole.”

The new degree program plays to the strengths of Mason’s already established writing curriculum, such as the flexibility of the program, emphasis on real-world applications, and students driving how the program will be shaped.

“We want to allow students to have a fairly high degree of flexibility in approaching their education. We have areas of expertise that we want them to work in, but we want them to be able to pull from different strands. We also want them to take courses outside of the department, which adds interdisciplinarity and builds on strengths that connect to their research projects directly,” says Eyman.

Another unique aspect of the program is a minor area that lets students focus on an outside discipline and examines that through the lens of writing and rhetoric. For example, students could focus on anthropology or methods. Students would take three graduate courses in anthropology, or, for methods, students would take a statistics class and a research methods course in anthropology, sociology or another discipline.

“Students can do these interdisciplinary approaches, or if there is another area of interest for them, for example, museum studies, which cuts across several different disciplines, students may do that,” says Eyman.

Not just academia

Students are encouraged to take their expertise to create writing programs in businesses and nonprofits, run writing programs for government agencies, and research writing for outside organizations. The curriculum is built around fulfilling the needs of not just academia, but the world at large.

“We want students to have a strong voice in making the program, and we want them to have the opportunity to be on committees and do service work. Really, in our field, people develop their own projects. We want people to be able to focus on their own thing,” says Eyman.

Being new, the PhD program offers many possibilities to expand and develop the curriculum further to better reach students, academics, and businesses. Eyman hopes to eventually build an entrepreneurial consulting firm with the graduate students, putting them into workplaces and having them do some of that work and gain experience. Another goal of the program is to eventually have students pair with faculty in other departments and help them build their writing programs by conducting research, helping refine and build writing curricula, and possibly creating a writing course for that other major.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the English Department newsletter, Not Just Letters.


About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.