Chidsey Dickson, PhD
For me, writing in any context is about strategic choices—about discovering new ideas and shaping them for a particular audience. Writing, in short, is problem-solving (and that's what makes it so engaging—there's never an easy answer!). In fact, what attracted me to the discipline of English Studies (I hold a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from The University of Texas-Austin) is that it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to an activity (analytic and persuasive writing) that is at the center of so many interesting jobs and vital civic projects. Everyone thinks of "English" as great novels and plays—and it's true that there is so much to learn from the towering achievements of world literature. But the discipline of "English" is also about learning to use writing to solve problems in the "real-world" contexts of business and democracy.
My main area of research is writing pedagogy—basically, how to teach writing in the changing contexts of contemporary deliberative discourse. That means: I try to understand how computers are changing the way we read, research, analyze and argue. I have published articles in various forms (book, print journal, on-line journal), and I regularly attend two national conferences: the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Allied Media Conference. My most recent article addressed what I argue is the mishandling of the concept of "bias" in first-year composition textbooks.
In addition to scholarly research on teaching, I also write "occasional essays" on the values and practices that comprise our complex social identities. In other words, I write short reflections on "who we are." I am at work on a book-length collection of essays on the uses of spiritual discomfort and aporia in a writer's life.
I teach a lot of first-year writing classes, and some upper-level expository and technical writing classes as well. All of the courses I teach offer instruction in invention, research, grammar/style, and revision. Many of my courses also require students to get involved in Service Learning, or some other form of Active Learning, like:
- Interviewing people off-campus
- Field trips
- Collaborative research
- Audio or web-text design
All of my courses require students to learn to collaborate—to offer and make good use of feedback on their projects. I do this because most of the writing that people do in "the real world" involves a number of people. You have to be able to talk about—and defend—your choices as a writer.
Here are some sample comments from students who have taken my courses:
"The assignments are much more ‘higher level thinking' [than what we did in high school]. It challenged my thought process more than the usual research paper or something like that. High school writing is regimented, monotonous and repetitious, whereas college writing is more about making our own ideas out of what other people have argued. It takes a long time to do that, but you have more time."
"In high school, you write what someone instructs you to write while in college you take control of your writing. It's usually a thesis-driven essay in high school. In this [college] class, it's up to you to generate original ideas/questions, or to come up with your purpose. There are many steps in building the final paper, but we do so much brainstorming work that its easier to write longer papers versus beating around the bush and writing just to write."
"I used to be consumed by trying to fill up the page requirement and go by the standard 5-paragraph format. In this course, I have more time and effort into making new discoveries and then thinking about how to make it work for my audience. It can get confusing, but having conferences with you [the professor] helped me understand what I was writing and sprouted new thoughts."
"High school writing is about completing the work. College writing is about learning to handle new writing situations. I don't like writing, but if I had to pick, I go for college writing."
I live with my two sons and our dog, Kumal, in Lynchburg. We enjoy camping, cooking, badminton, road trips, and, above all else, doing nothing on weekends (which interferes with the camping, cooking, etc.). Chocolate pastries are a favorite (for the dog as well).