May 29, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 18

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    Quantrell Award: Lawrence McEnerney

    Director of University Writing Programs According to Lawrence McEnerney, Director of University Writing Programs, receiving a Quantrell Award "has confirmed to me what I already know about teaching at the University of Chicago -- that I am in an extraordinary situation."

    McEnerney, who has been involved with the writing program since 1987, splits lecturing in the "Little Red Schoolhouse" class with Joseph Williams, Professor in English; helps train graduate student lectors for the Schoolhouse; and teaches in the Humanities Core, most often in Introduction to Humanities.

    "In both my teaching roles, I get to work exclusively with students who want to be there," he said. "These students are extraordinarily motivated. They represent a broad range of interests and skills -- from English to medicine to social sciences -- and a broad range of personal backgrounds. "When I talk with high school teachers, however, I think to myself, 'Those people are teachers.' Those are the ones who have to deal with students' issues of motivation and boredom every day of the week."

    Still, McEnerney is proud and humbled to be added to the Quantrell list, alongside various teaching greats at Chicago with whom he has studied, including Wayne Booth, Stuart Tave, Edward Rosenheim, Gwin Kolb and Frank Kinahan, as well as Williams.

    After receiving his B.A. in 1976 from the College of William and Mary, McEnerney came to the University in 1978 to work toward a Ph.D. in English. But after receiving his M.A. in 1980, followed by what he describes as a "wonderful" experience as a graduate assistant in Williams' fledgling Schoolhouse course, he left Hyde Park in 1981.

    "I worked in industry, for my family's small manufacturing firm, for a few years while I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life," he said.

    McEnerney has worked as a writing consultant for a range of international law firms, businesses, government agencies and other organizations. He also is a principal member in UpFront Publications, a publisher of books, newsletters and other materials for business and consumer markets in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.

    But when Williams asked him to assist in developing an expanded version of the Little Red Schoolhouse course, McEnerney did not hesitate to return to Chicago.

    Each year, McEnerney directs the 60 staff members of the University of Chicago Writing Programs who teach writing at every level to more than 1,500 members of the University community, from entering undergraduates through post-doctorate fellows.

    Still, while he is best known on campus for his Schoolhouse work, McEnerney also pursues a different kind of teaching in the Core, especially in Introduction to Humanities.

    The course fulfills the College's general humanities requirement with readings from throughout history. The class then uses these works as the basis for much more intensive writing work than is expected in other Humanities core classes.

    "The Schoolhouse has grown so much that I'm not usually able to work with students individually, but I work intensely with them in the Humanities courses," McEnerney said.

    "The Schoolhouse focuses on how writing is shaped by the needs of specific readers -- it is pretty straightforward. But the Introduction uses writing -- both student-produced and 'classic' -- to explore the different needs of the students in class.

    "I want to see what the students come in with, determine what their goals are and then assess what they have done. As we go through the course, after we have worked on what I take to be the essentials of academic and/or professional prose, then I have the chance regularly to check in with the students to see where they are and what they should concentrate on next."

    Perhaps this is why he won the Quantrell?

    "Well, the students have told me that I have a fervor when it comes to teaching, and the Schoolhouse is sometimes accused of being a cult -- with the true believers so overwhelmed with the 'truth' that they seem to not care about undergoing critical examination.

    "My teaching style attempts to take the energy that I feel I bring to classes and use it to get students energized as well. When the students get it, they are as intense as anyone on this campus, never dull -- Chicago students are full of energy.

    "My job is not only to teach them the tools of writing, but also to teach them that tools are never value-free. Once you possess the tool, everything then depends on how you decide to use that tool.

    "Knowing the rules of writing doesn't begin to touch on this more serious issue, which is that actually possessing the tool can shape your thinking, and can even cause you to see the world as an opportunity to use the tool. What you see is shaped by what you're going to say.

    "I want my students to see that the writing skills that they have developed can be subject to powerful critiques, such as that of recent feminist criticism. We're ending the year now with such criticism. That's a cheery way to end the year -- by criticizing what you have spent months learning to do. But I hope the result isn't despair or paralysis or silence. Just an awareness of the ways that language shapes its writers as well as its readers.

    "If that's teaching, that's fine with me."

    -- Jeff Makos