Q&A with Brian Harrell, NEOMED’s Writing Specialist

In yesterday’s Pulse, we introduced the Writing Center, a pilot program that helps students, faculty and staff with high stakes writing. See Center Helps Students and Employees with High Stakes Writing.

The Writing Center lead is Brian Harrell, a writing specialist in Student Services. Harrell has taught classes at NEOMED since 2018. He has a master’s degree in English Composition and his research interests are online pedagogy, writing center theory, first-year composition and the rhetoric of health and medicine.

Below, we asked Brian about the Writing Center, the effect texting is having on writing and the standouts who write about health topics.

Brian let’s talk about your background. What is appealing about working at NEOMED?

The students make NEOMED an amazing place to work. When I was first hired as a part-time faculty member teaching for the medical ethics and humanities master’s program in 2018, I realized that NEOMED is filled with students who wanted to learn. The students soak up the information disseminated to them. That said, 2018 was the time I realized there was a need for a writing center on campus. Many students voiced to me that they need help with writing. In fact, I remember one student saying to me, “The last time I had to write an academic paper was freshman composition and I took that my junior year of high school,” making it more than four years since writing an academic essay.

In addition to the students, the faculty and staff are the best at what they do. I am connected to several national organizations, and without a doubt, my colleagues at NEOMED are the most passionate about their charge of teaching medical students. Daily, I listen to stories of success and opportunities to learn from the faculty.

When the Writing Center opened on February 22, 2022, we had a vision of what would make this center successful. Since then, after five months, based on experience and research, we have changed many aspects of the original plans. The autonomy afforded to the Writing Center to make these pivots is the most appealing part of working at NEOMED from an administrative standpoint.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received?

Writing is never done; it is only due. I think students and faculty struggle the most with the revision part of writing. When a student submits a paper to the Writing Center, they sometimes get disheartened when it is returned with suggestions that will take a lot of time to revise. I like to tell students and faculty that the first time they submit a paper to this office, it is the zero draft, or rough draft. Many students and faculty are surprised to hear from the Writing Center that they should resubmit the paper after making the suggested revisions. A session in the Writing Center is more than just 50-minutes, one time. It sometimes takes two sessions and sometimes it could take 4-5 sessions. Therefore, I suggest to students that they should not wait until the last minute to submit their papers for a Writing Center session. Mainly because the first session is rarely enough.

Are people in the health professions generally better or worse writers than in other professions?

As with all professions, there are great writers and not so great writers. I think many people who work in the health professions spend much of their education and careers focusing on science and not writing. Writing, like any other skill, must be practiced.

When I taught at the University of Akron, the first paper a student had to write for me was, “What is Good Writing?” Students would discuss many ideas when it comes to writing, mainly structure, ideas and correctness. They would often miss the most important concept. Good writing communicates thoughts with a specific audience. To fully answer your question, health professionals are usually great oral communicators. By working with them on their written communications, the Writing Center helps produce a well-rounded physician.

For those in the health professions, how does better writing lead to better outcomes?

Great writers are great communicators. When a student is given a spot in medical school, there is little doubt that they are an excellent student. They have been able to rhetorically analyze an audience and create a resume of accomplishments that makes the audience believe they can be successful in their college, and ultimately, in medicine. This ability to analyze an audience, and communicate with this audience, is an important skill to master in the health professions. Before taking this position, I did not fully understand what high-stakes writing was. High-stakes writing is not the writing done in a classroom. High-stakes writing is personal statements and CVs put into ERAS that determine where you will be hired after completing NEOMED. These are not for a grade. This is real-life writing. The goal of the Writing Center is to partner with students and faculty in high-stakes and low-stakes writing.

Is writing generally getting better or worse? What are some of the reasons for this? What effect is texting having?

This is a loaded question; as a social media linguist and academic writing center specialist, I am constantly battling the two theories. If we believe that good writing is about Standard Academic Language correctness, then perhaps writing is getting worse. Often, students come into post-secondary and post-graduate programs unable to capitalize proper nouns. It is true that many students lack a foundational knowledge of what Standard American English would say is proper grammar. This is where audience awareness comes in. In much of academic writing, SAE is required. At the Writing Center, we can point these differences out to the student or faculty member. However, I believe there is way more to this than just students writing is getting worse. In fact, this leads to my theory on language.

Spearheaded by linguist John McWhorter around 2010, many of us have heard that texting is the scourge of writing, that the smart phone has created generations of bad writers. Frankly, I think this is false. If you believe the research that McWhorter and others have done, including myself, texting is not writing at all. In fact, it is a written form of speech. Therefore, all the rules of speech apply to texting. For instance, are there spelling rules in speech? No. Therefore, there are no spelling rules in texting. There, their and they’re are the same sounds from the mouth. Therefore, regardless of how it is spelled in texting, it is correct. Are there capitalization rules in speech? No. Therefore, “i” and other proper nouns do not need to be capitalized. In speech what is the job of punctuation? Often it is sighs, patting of the leg, empty pauses or laughter. In texting, we have words like LOL, OK, and emojis that serve this purpose. If we truly believe that the highest function of writing is communication, then are there many who argue that texting is an inferior form of communication?

What happens, then, is students and faculty struggle with what linguists call “code-switching,” which is the practice of alternating between two or more languages. It is not that writing is getting worse. It is that they have not been able to code-switch effectively. Essentially, it is the same as if a native Spanish speaker is asked to write in academic English. The native Spanish speaker is not a worse writer. She just struggles with some of the rules and falls back to her native language.

Now to completely melt your mind. By definition, language is malleable. Language is also rules based. In other words, the rules are always changing. We see that every year when the dictionary adds words. We also see it when looking at the different languages. In English, there are British English, Australian English, American English, South African English, African American English and several others. There was Old English that became Middle English that became Standard English. Spanish, French and Portuguese all come from Latin. Many of the African languages come from one of four language families. As colonialization occurred, languages spread and continued to change. I believe we are amid a major change in language, specifically Standard American English. I believe that by the time my grandchildren (two generations from now) are in the work force, the rules of written English will be so different than today that it will be a new language. We are part of a major language shift because of computers, smart phones and electronic devices.

Therefore, the Writing Center is the bridge between the old and the new, respecting the rules and need for academic writing rules (I love formatting), and understanding the reason these rules are not always followed.

How will students benefit from the services provided by the Writing Center? What are some signs that I might need help with writing? What is the range of challenges you can help with?

All forms of writing can benefit from having someone look at it and suggest revisions prior to it being submitted. The Writing Center can help with all forms of writing: CVs, personal statements, grant writing, literature reviews, systemic and meta-analyses, dissertations, theses, essays for class, creating poster presentations, creating slide shows for presentations, speech writing, academic journal writing, peer-review and any other types of writing a student or faculty member does.

If you have writing, you need help with it. While this is a tutoring center, the Writing Center is much more than that. We must get rid of the stigma surrounding “tutoring.” The best writers in the world have people who read and provide revision and editing suggestions. The Writing Center collaborates with students and faculty in all stages of the writing process: brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, editing and polishing. We look at writing through a rhetorical lens of purpose, audience, organization, ethos, pathos, logos, language and evidence.

If I come in for assistance, what does that look like? How should I get started?

The process is quite simple. When a student or faculty member has a writing project to complete, they can make an appointment with the Writing Center at any point in the process. Some may come in to discuss how to start the project. Others will come in after the research is complete. Still others will submit a draft of the assignment and ask for revision help or editing. Others will need assistance with the formatting. I always say it is never too early to make an appointment in the writing process, but after it is due, it is too late.

There is a QR code, or link, available for students to make an in-person or synchronous Zoom appointment. We also do asynchronous sessions with students who ask me to look at their writing and provide comments. With many of the asynchronous sessions, a student is emailed a 10-minute screen share video where I discuss the paper.

What made NEOMED decide that a Writing Center would benefit students? What’s changing in the world of medical education to drive this? How does this fit with the other services provided by the Learning Center?

Writing centers have been around since the 1970s. Most universities and colleges across the country have a writing center. This means that graduate schools attached to undergraduate schools have access to a writing center. There are several stand-alone schools for the health professions that have writing centers. Nothing has changed; the need for writing tutoring in medical education has always been here. In the past, the individual teachers and course directors would be the ones charged with teaching the writing aspects of the course. This is not always the best-case scenario for the student or the faculty member. In the last few years, the Director and Assistant Director of Student Affairs in the College of Medicine were tasked with tutoring the COM students through writing their personal statements and CVs for Match. This was not always in their wheelhouse. That is where the Writing Center can help. And has helped.

During the pilot years of the Writing Center, we will continuously be assessing how we are doing things and what is best for the students and faculty at NEOMED. We have made several pivots already since February and plan to make several more through May 2023 when we hope to have a grasp on the writing needs of NEOMED.

My goal for the Writing Center is to be a place where students and faculty can feel safe discussing their writing and for the Writing Center to be a campus leader in creating transformational leaders.

If I want to be inspired, who are some exceptional writers in the health professions space (or nonfiction)?

There are so many great writers in the field of medicine. I would start with modern rhetoricians and humanists Cathryn Molloy, J. Blake Scott, Lisa Melonçon, Elizabeth L. Angeli, Erin Gentry Lamb, Craig Klugman and Lisa Keränen. I would also read Atul Gawande, Eric Topol and Sandeep Jauhar. Finally, we have several amazing writers here at NEOMED. Julie Aultman, Joseph Zarconi and Matthew Smith are all inspiring writers in their fields.

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