Governors State University (GSU) Associate Professor Dr. Bradley Smith’s writing passion dates to his early teen years and helped shape his character. Now he wants to inspire others–especially young adults–to find their own voices.
“My mission is to get students to love writing,’’ said Smith, who teaches rhetoric and composition courses and serves as the university’s Director of First-year Writing. “Many of our students have been discouraged in high school, and I work to get them invested in their writing. Then, they are more likely to engage in other classes.”
Smith joined GSU’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2013 just in time to welcome the university’s historic inaugural freshman class, a situation which he called “a clean slate” for his expertise in developing freshman writing programs. Growing up near DeKalb, Illinois, Smith was inspired by his small-town teachers who demonstrated passion in their subject area and teaching.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English from Northern Illinois University, Smith went on to earn both master’s and doctoral degrees at Illinois State University. While earning his Ph.D. in English Studies, Smith taught at Wenatchee Valley College in the state of Washington and Columbia College in Chicago.
Now, he’s reflecting on the success of Governors State’s First-year Writing Program and looking forward to making it better and motivating more students.
GSU Newsroom: What is your role as Director of First-year Writing?
Smith: As the director of First-year Writing, I help coordinate the efforts of faculty who teach our freshman composition courses. Since all of the sections offered to incoming freshmen are taught by experienced, full-time faculty, my goal is to balance consistency across all sections with the unique expertise that our faculty bring to teaching the courses.
GSU Newsroom: What is an embedded supplemental instructor and how well has the program been received?
Smith: One of the initiatives we are working on with Dr. Jarrett Neal and Daniel Ferry is a supplemental instruction program for first-year writing. It involves students who serve as mentors and work as embedded tutors to help students inside class and outside class.
Last year, faculty reported their students were doing better because of the program. A number of students passed the course who wouldn’t have otherwise, and others improved their grade by at least one letter. In the next year, I hope that more faculty will include supplemental instructors.
GSU Newsroom: What is a conceptual metaphor, and how do they help students improve their writing?
Smith: Conceptual metaphors are unconscious perceptions we use to form our basic mental models and understandings of complex topics. The scholars who write about conceptual metaphors believe they make up the foundation of our thoughts, and in my dissertation I explore the role that conceptual metaphors play in thinking about learning to write and the act of writing.
For example, we often use the conduit metaphor, to think about writing. When we use the conduit metaphor, we imagine communication this way: I have ideas in my head and I’m trying to communicate them to you. To get ideas from my head to yours, I put them in a container, like an essay, that serves as the link between us. Students communicate the conduit metaphor in writing with statements like, “I’m having a rough time getting through to you in my writing.” You can see the metaphor there, the conduit.
If we use metaphors more consciously, we can help students reframe the way they think about writing. Consider the building metaphor. The student has a thought she hopes to communicate. I might say, ‘You are building something in your mind. You are constructing an idea out of materials you’ve collected from your own thoughts and experiences.’ This is a more active way of thinking about communicating instead of transcribing thoughts in your head.
GSU Newsroom: In the age of social media, our lexicon is expanding. Is there room for this new language in student writing?
Smith: Research shows people are writing more than they ever have before. In 1985, nobody wrote an email or texted or wrote on Facebook. Today, what we communicate on a daily basis is mostly writing. People are more literate, just in a different style of literacy. It’s a new genre—social media. LOL—laughing out loud—is part of that writing tradition and is allowed where appropriate. Part of our job as writing teachers is helping students identify the differences in language use for different purposes.
GSU Newsroom: You identify with the superhero Spiderman. What’s your super power and how do you use it?
Smith: I like that quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I think of my compassion as a super power. I take what I understand and put it into a context that is useful to my students.
Many of our students have been told their writing was not good enough, so it’s an uphill battle. With the power to judge people’s language choices and abilities comes a great responsibility to do so in ways that are encouraging, rather than discouraging. My hope is for students to feel better about writing by the end of the semester. That way, they are more likely to work at it.