Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

April 14, 2005

Obituary: William E. Coles Jr.

Retired professor of English William E. Coles Jr. died March 21, 2005. He was 73.

A composition teacher here until 1998, Coles’s work touched hundreds of thousands of college and high school writers across the country, according to David Bartholomae, professor and chair of the English department.

“He was one of the most brilliant and influential teachers of writing of his generation and his work remains as a regular point of reference in the professional literature,” he said.

After he retired from Pitt, Coles continued to lecture, conduct workshops and write adolescent fiction.

Coles joined the English department in 1974 as a professor and director of composition, held a joint appointment in the School of Education and taught in the Honors College.

He also taught at the University of Connecticut, the University of Minnesota, Amherst College, Case Western Reserve University and Drexel University.

Coles earned his B.A. in English from Lehigh University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He received his M.A. in English from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

Coles’s wife, Janet Kafka, remarked that because her husband started college with an interest in engineering, he was able to work with students in the sciences and humanities, giving him range as a writing teacher at the beginning of his career.

Coles loved teaching composition so much that even when he was a senior professor, he still taught freshman composition.

Bartholomae elaborated: “Bill was extremely influential nationally in the design of the undergraduate writing program and, in particular, for the attention he gave to reading and valuing student writing, which was more often ignored than anything else.” Bartholomae added: “It was his vision and energy that made Pitt’s composition program nationally significant and we continue to be guided by his spirit and his wisdom.”

Coles’s books on writing include: “Teaching Composing: A Guide to Teaching Writing as a Self-Creating Process” (1974), “Composing” (1974), “The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing” (1978, later reprinted as “The Plural I — and After,” 1998), “What Makes Writing Good: A Multiperspective” (1985 with James Vopat) and “Seeing Through Writing” (1988).

Coles also directed a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar entitled Teaching Writing: Theories and Practices from 1977-1980.

His novels include: “Funnybone” (1992 with Stephen Schwandt), “Another Kind of Monday” (1996) and “Compass in the Blood” (2001).

“Another Kind of Monday,” a novel written for young adults, was selected as an American Library Association Best Book for Teens.

Describing Coles as the “bravest, most life-filled man I know,” Kafka provided additional insight into her husband’s life and creations: “I can tell you that Bill had an artist’s combination of passionate brilliance, fierce devotion and childlike wonder; that this energy was astonishing and he never went at anything with less than a 100 percent of what he had to give; and that he had little patience for those in the profession, or elsewhere, who seemed content to ask far less of themselves.”

—Mary Ann Thomas

Leave a Reply