April 17, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 14

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    Professor Emeritus Williams influenced teaching of writing

    Professor Emeritus Joseph M. Williams, author of one of the most influential books on the teaching of writing and co-creator of the University’s pioneering writing program, died Friday, Feb. 22 at his home in South Haven, Mich.

    A Professor in English Language & Literature and Linguistics at the University for more than three decades, Williams wrote or edited more than 10 books, including a sweeping history of the English language. But he is perhaps best known for the 1981 book, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. The book, in its ninth edition, introduced an entirely new approach to writing pedagogy.

    What distinguished Style from other writing how-to books — from H.W. Fowler’s The King’s English to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — was that it focused on writers at a different stage in their lives, and it approached writers’ challenges from a different perspective.

    “Joe was interested in the reader’s perspective — what writing would do to a reader,” said Gregory Colomb, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and Williams’ longtime collaborator.

    Williams and Colomb pored through cognitive science research, decision theory, risk theory, attribution theory — all to gain insight into the reader. “Joe believed that if you understood how readers would predictably respond to particular features of a text, you could then help writers achieve their goals. He was committed to using his research to teach better writing.”

    Lawrence McEnerney, Director of the University’s Writing Program, said that a revolutionary contribution of Williams’ was teaching writing to experts.

    “Previously, writing was seen as something that you should have mastered when you were in school. Once you were beyond school, especially if you had professional expertise, then to think about writing felt remedial. But Joe changed the way we saw the problem. Experts face writing challenges that are created by their expertise. Helping them can’t be a matter of repeating what they heard in school. Joe taught us to understand the problems of writing about expert knowledge.”

    In addition to his books on writing, Williams helped create the University’s writing program known as “The Little Red Schoolhouse,” as well as a communications consulting firm, Clearlines, which worked with non-academics, such as professionals working for law firms, government agencies, foundations and major corporations.

    Williams’ maverick approach to writing pedagogy was not without its critics. Some people, even University colleagues, criticized his formal approach for imposing structural straitjackets that devalued creativity. But Williams believed his formal approach freed, rather than constrained writers, and that it enabled genuine creativity. “Our response,” Williams had told the University of Chicago Chronicle, “is that formal patterns characterize all good writing. And, in fact, formal patterns generate thought.”

    Williams also was bold in pinpointing the possible sources of bad writing. In 1981, he and co-researcher Rosemary Hake published a survey that found teachers of English at some high schools and colleges consistently preferred verbose, turgid writing to tight writing — in effect, rewarding bad, convoluted writers with better grades. Of this, he told the Chronicle, “Most college writing instructors have never had to write for a living. They base their values on extensively edited, belletristic or literary prose.”

    Born Aug. 18, 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio, Williams received a B.A. in 1955 and a M.A. in 1960 from Miami University in Ohio. He earned his Ph.D. in English and Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1966. There, he worked on a massive project to compile an encyclopedia of dialectology, Colomb said.

    Williams joined the Chicago faculty in 1965 as an assistant professor, remaining on the faculty at Chicago until he retired in 1999. He began his career as a researcher of the English language. His interest in studying the close connection between grammar and rhetoric resulted in his first book, The New English, in 1970. His next book, The Origins of the English Language, was a sweeping history of the English language from the evolution of man through modern English.

    He maintained an interest in linguistic research throughout his career, but it was in the 1970s that his interests increasingly focused on what would become his best-known work. According to a story in the Chronicle, Williams traced his interest in developing a how-to book for expert writers to a seminar he gave for the American Medical Association. After being asked to develop a writing program for doctors, he pored through medical journals and discovered what he called “medicalese.”

    “It was a baffling text. It would be for anyone not in the field,” recalled Colomb. “But what was critical was the question Joe asked. Not, ‘What’s wrong with these writers?’ But, ‘What would I need to see in this writing to understand it?’ It was a question about being a reader.”

    Williams tried to figure out the underlying principles of the medical texts, and his conclusion became the cornerstone of his pedagogical approach. “What I discovered was the importance of story,” Williams told the Chronicle. He believed that even abstract prose about highly scientific, medical or intellectual concepts could move toward story.

    In the late 1970s, Williams and his colleagues Colomb and Frank Kinahan offered a series of ad-hoc lectures on writing for graduate students and advanced undergraduates. The lectures were enormously popular, said McEnerney, a graduate student at the time.

    The surprising success of the lecture series spurred the three to create a writing class specifically geared to third- and fourth-years. Titled the “Little Red Schoolhouse,” it debuted in 1981, and once again, the faculty was shocked by its enthusiastic response. The class was eventually renamed “Advanced Academic and Professional Writing,” though it is still known on campus as the “Little Red Schoolhouse.” The “Little Red Schoolhouse,” Colomb said, is now widely known and used at colleges and universities throughout the world.

    Williams also wrote several other books aimed at helping writers. The Craft of Research, written with two longtime colleagues, Colomb and Wayne Booth, helped advanced students plan, carry out and report on research in any field. In The Craft of Argument, Williams and Colomb examined written arguments in general. Most recently, Booth, Colomb and Williams rewrote the book that for a half-century had been the Bible for dissertations, Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

    Williams received many awards throughout his career, including the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the Golden Pen Award in 2006 for lifetime contributions to legal writing from The Institute of Legal Writing.

    A longtime resident of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, he is survived by wife, Joan Steck; children Joseph Williams, Dave Steck, Megan Beckert, Christopher Williams and Oliver Steck; and grandchildren Katherine and Nicholas Williams, Lily and Calvin Beckert, Owen and Matilde Steck, and Eleanor Steck. He also is survived by his first wife Carol, brother James, as well as nieces and nephews.