Following the collection of surveys from graduates, and the interviews with 18 of them mentioned in an earlier post, I did a necessary amount of work placing the results into digestible forms that could be used for assessing our writing programs here at SRU, and suggesting possible changes in curricular content and teaching approaches faculty members might make. But the study also wanted to create narratives of our graduates’ writing lives, based on the interviews and the interview questions, and so I don’t want to take very long before posting profiles of those interview subjects. The boiled-down results will be posted as well, but I suspect that readers of this blog will be most captured by the profiles we will begin today, profiles that I hope capture something of what it is like in our contemporary world to attempt persuasive and/or public writing within particular contexts. The profiles also explore the influences of our programs on graduates’ writing, and what the subjects we might add to those same programs to improve the preparation we give our students.
The interviews were conducted during the winter of 2008-09 but they were not my first attempt at using interviews to capture the life experiences of people who perform persuasive and public writing. From April to July, 2006 I interviewed five professional speech writers, and I have written up those profiles as well. Their stories make the argument that this blog should not narrow its focus to the stories of Slippery Rock graduates, especially when considering how best to prepare college students for the writing that will come once they leave our friendly confines.
I will begin with profiles of three graduates of our undergraduate professional writing program, which seeks to ground students in such tasks as technical, business, grant, creative, and promotional writing while also providing experience in editing, document design and production, and publication. The first two postings will feature the manager of programs and communication for an institute dedicated to promoting palliative care. Before I begin, here’s a shout-out for one graduate of our writing programs, Terry Conner, who patiently transcribed the interviews, putting up with rapid speech, ambient noise, and swallowed words while dedicating himself to rendering accurate representations of the conversations.
B.S. Professional Writing December, 2008
The subject is the manager of programs and communication for an institute dedicated to promoting palliative care for medical patients with “huge symptom burdens.” The institute is connected to the medical school of a large urban university. Towards the end of the interview the subject described how she got her position because of concern for the lack of palliative care for her terminally ill fiancé and her mother, who also had cancer. A letter she, her mother and the mother of her fiance wrote to the head of a cancer institute led to a meeting with the medical school’s head of a ‘clinical palliative care program,” who suggested a talk with his medical students. “And then back at my other job I was posting non-profit employment opportunities, and this coordinator for the institute came up and I applied.” It turns out that she had already, without realizing it, been in contact with the director of the palliative care institute, who was coordinating her talk to the medical students. In this case, it was the subject’s activism and concern that led to her receiving the position: “I think because of my background, but then also there was this whole connection, and a lot of it was because of this letter that we sent.”
The writing done by the subject is varied in terms of both audience and format. The genres include grant applications, brochures, newsletters, fund-raising letters, and an article in the journal of a county medical association. Her readers range from patients and family sitting in waiting rooms to doctors and nurses to a university vice-chancellor. One problem she confronts is writing items like brochures intended to reach both medical personnel and a more general public. “We want families asking doctors about palliative care and we want doctors to know what to say back.” The institute was in the process of creating a web-site directly intended for public consumption, to help patients and family “connect” to “palliative care resources in the region.” Much of the content is similar, however (“there’s a lot of repetition”), explaining the mission of the institute and advocating for the improvement of palliative care. In fact, she is passionate about overcoming palliative care’s “image problem, both with health care practitioners and the public, where it is often under-utilized and so associated with hospice and therefore with death that many people don’t access it and many doctors don’t connect their patients with it.”
This tension between the missions of the subject’s institute and of hospice plays out in the word choices she must make, seeking to avoid terms like “terminal illness” and “end of life care,” while also realizing that “anyone who works in hospice, they often get very touchy about pussy footing around the fact that people are dying.” Style is also important when communicating directly with medical personnel. The subject sometime relies on her director’s name on the signature (He has both a Ph.D. and a law degree.) to establish ethos, but at other times it gets tricky. “Even though there are clinical words that they like, …if you are not a clinical person and you’re trying to talk with clinical people and you try too hard to use their language, they sort of recognize you pretty quickly as an outsider and they sort of don’t hear it. But as a writer you can do that better.” In writing for a larger public she also tends to try for shorter sentences, along with the use of first and second person, although she complained that, when rushed, she sometimes will “cast sentences that go on and on forever, which is not what you’re hoping for. That’s like a not-having-time-to-polish writing issue.”
This profile will be completed in our next posting.