Writing Institute to offer support for faculty, writers with disabilities


The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences is updating its approach to its writing services by expanding resources and support for students and faculty working in writing-intensive courses.

The William S. Dietrich II Institute for Writing Excellence now houses the Writing Center, the College Writing Board and the Writing in the Disciplines Faculty Seminar. As part of the new program, it will offer more workshops, reading groups, resources for teaching writing in various disciplines, and feedback on draft proposals for writing-intensive courses.

In addition, the institute plans to explore opportunities to support graduate students or faculty working on research.

At the beginning of the month, the Writing Institute debuted an official website filled with online resources for the Pitt community, including reading lists, assignments, film recommendations, disability resources and more. 

Jean Grace, director of the institute, said she hopes the institute will offer strong support for writers in all disciplines.

“I hope that the Writing Institute will lead to a vibrant writing culture on campus, that teachers of writing-intensive courses feel supported in their work, that undergraduates learn how to write effectively in their fields, and that writers — whether they are students, faculty or staff — feel like they have the resources they need to support their process,” Grace said.

Talks about creating the institute began in spring 2019 when Grace spoke to Dietrich School Dean Kathleen Blee, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies John Twyning and Annette Vee, the director of the Composition program. Twyning had been a strong advocate for it for several years, Grace said.

This led to a successful grant proposal to the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust. Grace also was able to hire Associate Director Moriah Kirdy at the beginning of the year. She’ll be creating programming tailored to helping faculty and graduate student writers.   

Grace also is particularly interested in increasing support for writers struggling with mental health and other disabilities. In fall 2019, the institute brought post-doctoral associate Sarah Hakimzadeh on board to help with this goal.

The trust will provide funding for Hakimzadeh for three years. She’ll also lead on-campus workshops for teachers and students that will address disabilities. Eventually, she plans to offer educational programming for surrounding communities.

Hakimzadeh said she was particularly passionate about finding ways to assist writers struggling with disabilities.

“Part of the reason this subject interested me so much is that as a graduate student, I looked around and noticed how many of my peers, many of whom were brilliant and very motivated, were really struggling with their writing projects,” Hakimzadeh said. 

Further research into the issue showed alarming rates of mental illness among students, she said. Roughly 40 percent of graduate students suffer from anxiety and depression, according to a Science Magazine Survey, and the college dropout rates for students with mental disabilities is approximately 86 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Grace, formerly the associate director of the Composition program, said she had firsthand experience meeting with students in composition classes struggling with anxiety.

“We just don’t talk about this enough,” Hakimzadeh said. “In addition, I think it’s interesting to think about the ways disability challenges us to reshape our norms and to value different ways of being in the world.”  

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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