The Transformative Power of Writing: A New Faculty Fellowship

By Tyler Carr

Before Charles “Chuck” Bazerman became a distinguished professor and UC Santa Barbara Gaucho, he spent his youth focused on the sciences in New York. It wasn’t until his undergraduate studies in English and American Literature at Cornell University that it became clear to him that  “teaching literacy was much more engaging and important.”

 Education professor Charles Bazerman, in his office, in front of his Doctor Honoris Causa degree, awarded for contributions to writing in Latin America. 

Education professor Charles Bazerman, in his office, in front of his Doctor Honoris Causa degree, awarded for contributions to writing in Latin America. 

Bazerman lights up with enthusiasm when he recalls teaching elementary school pupils at an inner city school in Brooklyn. When he discovered how success in literacy, and particularly writing, positively influenced the identities and futures of his young students his career took focus— so much so that after more than 50 years, his contributions have left a tangible effect on the international  community of writing educators.

UCSB’s Writing Program is celebrating Bazerman for his generous donation to fund the "Charles Bazerman Endowed Faculty Fellowship for Professional Development in Writing,” which will amount to $300,000 in support for continuing lecturers in the Writing Program to further their research in the field. 

Bazerman says his vision has essentially come down to this: “How can I advance writing in society?” Whether it be for third grade students or collegiate undergraduates, he's found that proficient writing can help students advance in society and prepare them to live more empowered lives. “It’s of value to all students and it’s important for social transitions,” Bazerman said in a recent interview. “[My vision] expanded to understand how central writing is for having a voice in society…the importance of written text.”

After his early experience teaching, Bazerman broadened the scope of his research to include the study of writing in historic terms, going back 5,000 years to the invention of writing all the way up to more recent work in higher education and writing across the curriculum. “When I first started, one of my earliest impressions is that people thought they knew what writing is, but they had no idea,” Bazerman said.

He came to believe that educators were teaching from cultural beliefs about writing without understanding the transformative power of writing in the lives or ordinary people. “We understand very little and we’re only teaching just a few conventional, culturally privileged aspects,” he said.  “It’s not necessarily the best way to teach writing. The more you understand about writing, the better you can engage people in it.”

The more you understand about writing, the better you can engage people in it.
— Charles Bazerman

That approach, he says, characterizes the trajectory of his career: “Increase our understanding of writing so that we can help support people’s use of it.”

Bazerman attained his master's and doctoral degrees in English and American Literature at Brandeis University. In his 20 years of teaching before joining UC Santa Barbara, he was a visiting professor at 11 universities in nine countries. During that time, he wrote and edited numerous books, articles and book reviews.

Bazerman’s first major publication, Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science, compared historical scientific research writing to contemporary forms. He also wrote The Languages of Edison’s Light, which examines the scale of Thomas Edison’s communication skills and how they helped him develop electric light and power across multiple—social, economic and political—systems.

These are just two among a career’s worth of publications that ultimately earned him numerous professional honors, prizes and fellowships. Not only does Bazerman hold the title of “Distinguished Professor” at UC Santa Barbara, but in 2016 he was awarded the highest distinction granted by the National University of Córdoba, Argentina, the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa.

 Education Professor and major donor Charles Bazerman  in front of his collection of books.

Education Professor and major donor Charles Bazerman  in front of his collection of books.

It was in 1994 that Bazerman followed his wife, the now-retired UCSB English professor Shirley Geok-lin Lim, to Santa Barbara to join the Gaucho family. He began here as an English professor and currently teaches in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, while maintaining a special relationship with the Writing Program.

“He is a tireless intellectual [who’s] always thinking,” said James Donelan, associate director of the Writing Program. “Charles Bazerman has always been this major figure. Both in the program and professionally. He’s a brilliant expert on composition and rhetoric and has made a number of major contributions to the field in research.”

Other Bazerman titles include Genre in a Changing WorldTextual Dynamics of the Profession, and the Handbook of Research on Writing. He also founded the Writing Research Across Borders conference and was the inaugural chair of the International Society for the Advancement of Writing Research.

Donelan beams with excitement over Bazerman’s decision to fund an endowed faculty fellowship for professional development in writing. Inspired by a model he observed during his time at CUNY, Bazerman has created an opportunity for a continuing lecturer in the writing program to take a sabbatical in which the lecturer can conduct research that will “enrich his or her teaching and advance knowledge in the field,” Donelan said.

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Continuing lecturers in UCSB’s writing department make possible smaller writing classes for undergraduates and work commonly with first year writing students.“They’re very central to the educational experience here,” Bazerman said. He describes the conditions for lecturers as rigorous. They go through numerous reviews, leaving little time for research, and are not eligible to take sabbaticals. The fellowship demonstrates his commitment to the success of entry-level writers by giving outstanding lecturers the space to re-think or focus on an aspect of writing curriculum. Bazerman says that will not only directly benefit undergraduate writers at UCSB, but could change the course of writing internationally for years to come.

A reception to honor Charles Bazerman was held May 15. Writing lecturer Katie Baillargeon gave a talk titled "From Writing Seminar papers to Writing a Book without Any Help: Dissertation Boot Camps and Transferring Writing Process Knowledge.”

Tyler Carr is a third-year UC Santa Barbara student, majoring in Communication.