Message to undergraduates at a time of crisis

March 13, 2020

Dear English majors,

This is a stressful time for all of us. There’s a lot of uncertainty about how COVID will impact the university and beyond. You will have read announcements from the Chancellor and you are probably checking for updates.

I’m writing to offer reassurance about your English classes. We are helping English instructors move their courses online in order to ensure that that transition is as smooth as possible. We have a task force made up of faculty and staff who have taught online before, and they are able to offer English instructors guidance. The university has also provided us with lots of information and resources. Undoubtedly there will be some bumps and glitches during the transition, but we are committed to supporting you and helping you succeed in your classes.

We do not expect English courses to be easier or harder moving forward, only different. Your grades won’t suffer as a result of the transition. You will remain accountable for learning class content and participating in class activities and completing assignments – the same as before, only the class format, some activities, and some assignments may be altered. We have been assured by campus leadership that libraries will stay open and that access to computers will be available.

Moving forward, communication is key. It is important that once class resumes, you check your Wisc email or Canvas course site at least once a day for any announcements. Make sure your Canvas Notification Preferences are set to receive Canvas announcements in real time rather than once a week. If you leave campus, make sure you take your books and notes with you.

Your instructors will be sending more detailed information before courses resume on March 23. You will also hear from the English advisor, Chris Logterman, about shifting to modes of advising that do not require your presence on campus.

Again, we are committed to helping you perform your best in your English classes and to making this transition as smooth as possible.We all need to work together, and we will.

Best regards,

Anja Wanner (Department Chair) and David Zimmerman (Associate Chair)

50th Anniversary of the Writing Center

Notes delivered on the occasion of the Writing Center’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, Nov. 8, 2019

Decorative image

Dear colleagues, students, Dean Wilcots, friends and supporters of the Writing Center!

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Writing Center. That’s 50 years of developing, sharing, and shaping the field of writing pedagogy, with 35 years under the extraordinary leadership and vision of Brad Hughes.

When I joined UW-Madison almost 20 years ago, I came from a country where universities at the time worked on the assumption that either studens are born to be good writers, in which case they wouldn’t need any help, or they are not, in which case, writing instruction would really be a waste of time. I was thrilled to see that I had come to a place that thought differently. But my understanding of what the Writing Center does was limited. I thought the ‘Writing Center’ was a space inside HCW where people go in with questions about their writing and come out with better texts and a deeper understanding of writing. And, yes, that happens, but the WC is so much more. It is not just a suite of rooms in HCW (although I envy it for its state-of-the-art multimedia learning space), it is a network of programs and people that reach every corner of this campus and well beyond. Let me talk about some of these programs.

Brad Hughes founded the Writing Across the Curriculum program – a program that supports faculty and staff who teach writing across the university. He started the online Writing Center, whose free Writer’s  Handbook has millions of unique visitors per month (I know, I am one of them), and he established 9 satellite locations across campus to make it easy for students to get advice when they need it and where they need it. Brad Hughes founded the Writing Fellows program, now directed by Emily Hall, which offers unique teaching experience to 50 undergraduate fellows every year and which has been analyzed and recognized as one of the most influential student leadership models in liberal arts education in the country.

But there is more: Through the Madison Writing Assistance program, the WC partners with local libraries and neighborhood centers to provide free, one-on-one writing assistance to community members throughout the city of Madison, all in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea:  that the boundaries of the classroom are not the boundaries of teaching and learning. With all that, Brad still found time to teach workshops for faculty and staff himself. I took one such workshop a long time ago, on writing letters of recommendation. (Again, if you allow me a note on my background: I come from a tradition where “X is a good student and will more likely than not be successful in your program” is stellar praise.) I had a lot to learn in that workshop, and I did. But just when I thought I had kind of figured out how to write a meaningful and effective letter of recommendation, I found myself in the position of Associate Chair and in charge of the committee that selected students for teaching awards. Reading recommendation letters from Brad Hughes put my own recommendation letter writing in perspective and, as I publicly stated on Facebook at the time, made me feel as accomplished as a mountain troll again.

Brad’s letters of recommendation were not actually over the top: graduate students who work in the writing center are really, really good, thanks to the excellent training and mentoring they receive. We have two of these wonderful leaders – and many other of the terrific WC staff–  in the room: Emily Hall, the director of the Writing Fellows program,  and Nancy Linh Karls, who both now co-lead the Writing Center.

Former instructors in the WC and fellows in the WF program now direct and coordinate writing centers across the country and in Canada. Writing Center instructors win teaching awards and present at national conferences and publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. WC staff members are sought-after consultants all over the world and they are also just fabulous colleagues and people.

As chair of the English Department, I am proud and grateful to claim the Writing Center as “ours”, even though – or should that be ‘because’? – it is a center of excellence that we share it with the campus at large and communities in Wisconsin and all over the world.

The Writing Center is now led by a forward-thinking team of co-directors, Emily Hall and Nancy Linh Karls, who will make sure that the WC’s transition to its next permanent director will be smooth and successful.

Admin news

Over the past five years, I have sought out several shared governance and professional development opportunities. After serving as chair of the University Committee (the executive committee of the faculty) I became a fellow in the Big Ten Alliance Academic Leadership program, which gives faculty and staff from the Big Ten the opportunity to develop their leadership skills. That experience will come in handy as I transition to the role of chair of the English Department and also take on the role of Provost Fellow this year. It’s an exciting time to be in this position. Our department has gained more than 10 new faculty members in two years, we competed successfully in the Provost’s cluster hire and target of opportunity hire initiatives, and the number of majors is going up. Forward!

See also: New Chair Q&A for our alumni magazine, Annotations.

A big thank-you to our graduate students

The other day, as I was rearranging the chairs in our conference room for a meeting with our graduate students, I saw a plaque with my name and the year 2017 engraved on the wall. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me, I won the annual Graduate Teaching Award given by the Department’s Graduate Student Association. This is a coveted award in our department and it has never before gone  to a linguist, so I am extra grateful for this recognition and for our graduate student’s support.

Fortunately, since we were about to have our fall pizza meeting, a number of our graduate students were in the room and I could thank them right away. You are the best!

ELL pizza party, Nov. 2018

Greetings from London

This summer, I had the opportunity to present at ISLE5, the 5th conference of the International Society for the Linguistics of English, organized by the Survey of English Usage at University College London (right next to the British Museum). Every day I passed a myriad of famous sights (some captured below),…

..but this simple office entrance seemed to capture all linguists’ attention, in particular.

A very special commencement

My view of Camp Randall and speaker David Muire at Commencement! (For more pictures, not mine, follow the link.)

I had the honor to be part of the platform party one more time (representing the faculty as chair of the University Committee), which also came with certain obligations … or should I say ‘obligations’…
…3/4 through the ceremony:

As an added bonus, on the way out I managed to take a quick selfie with (most of) our AEL Class of 2018. What an unexpected surprise!

In and out of the classroom

It’s always great to have a speaker visit one’s class or to take one’s class to experience a different learning environment. I took my “English Grammar in Use” class to the Special Collections section of Memorial Library, where librarians Susan Barribeau and Robin Rider introduced us to early volumes of the Philosophical Transactions and other early scientific texts. (Fun fact: The pad thingies the books rest on are known as “book futons.”)

As part of their course work, students updated the Grammar Badgers website and added several new features, including an interview with linguist John McWhorter as well as with teaching assistants from across campus and, a linguistic listicle (“Linguist tell all“).

At the end of the fall term, I had the privilege to be part of the “podium party” at Winter Commencement. It was very special to see every graduate cross the stage from up close. (Since my alma mater, the University of Göttingen, doesn’t really do robes, I was handed a hood with German colors — not sure which college and degree it actually belongs to.) The person next to me in the picture is Lori Berquam, our fabulous Dean of Students.

During spelling bee season, speech language pathologist Beth Coppoc Gunshor from BCG Language & Literacy gave a guest presentation on the linguistic basis of spelling in my class “The Structure of English.” Beth shared insights from her work with students who struggle with reading and writing. She is passionate about teaching students how to analyze the structure of words — recognizing common roots and learning about the behavior of affixes. English spelling — it’s not as crazy as you think! (Bonus fact: “helicopter” and “pterodactyl” share a common Greek root.)

Beth Coppoc Gunshor

Eccles Professorship

I am grateful to announce that I have been named the new Mark and Elisabeth Eccles Professor in English. The Eccles family has long supported the mission of the department. Mark Eccles was a Shakespeare scholar and Elisabeth Eccles was an editor at UW press. Mark Eccles was particularly well-known for working with biographical data extracted from public records. Perhaps he would appreciate this picture (please click on link) owned by The Wisconsin Historical Society of his son Bob (currently a member of the department’s Board of Visitors) competing in the West High School Spelling Bee in 1961.

5th Prescriptivism Conference

Just back from presenting the Grammar Badgers project at the 5th Prescriptivism Conference, hosted by Brigham Young University in Utah from June 22-24, 2017.  The conference touched on topics such as the influence of style guides, the turn to ‘big data,’ the overall value of studying prescriptivism for the discipline of linguistics, and the questionable binarity of ‘prescriptive’ vs. ‘descriptive’ as such. Great people, great talks, great conference organization

… great place

…and great people.


Congrats, Class of 2017!

It was a glorious day for having one’s picture taken in front of Bascom Hall.

Congratulations to our fabulous Applied English Linguistics Class of 2017, pictured with incomparable graduate coordinator Robyn Shanahan: Vilcky Wu, Tiffany Xu, Jake Zhu, Neal Liu, and Jonathan Jibson (not in the picture: Glenn Starr and Christine Geng). We’re excited to see where they degree and their passion for all things language will take them.


Introducing “Grammar Badgers”

I am so proud to introduce Grammar Badgers, a website created by graduate students in English Language and Linguistics who took my “Bad Grammar” class this semester. As part of the class, students were tasked with creating materials that would be of interest for the general public. We called it the “Wisconsin Idea” project.

Students worked in four teams: One group created one-minute videos that address grammar issues people often feel confused about, one group created four-minute podcasts on “linguistic misfits” and on what we can learn from mistakes , one group created a grammar quiz with video explanations, and one group created teaching materials for ESL classes. Students learned about the ins and outs of filming on campus, figured out the best interviewing techniques, worked collaboratively on sound and movie editing (those phonology classes came in handy!) as well as website and logo design and had the brilliant idea to make Bucky Badger an ally. The result is a website that provides information, resources, and entertainment! Check it out!

Grammar Badger Website (Screenshot)

Linguistic Lunch Hour with Trini Stickle

It was my great pleasure this week to host Professor Trini Stickle (Western Kentucky University), an alumna of our Ph.D. program in English Language and Linguistics. Trina and I talked about our joint research on the grammar of persons diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s Disease (an article version of this talk has just been published in Applied Linguistics). Additionally, Professor Stickle gave a brownbag on the job market in linguistics. It was great to have her back in Madison!

Published: “Transivitity Patterns Exhibited by Persons with Dementia in Conversation”

My joint work with Trini Stickle (Western Kentucky University) on the grammar of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease has just been published in Applied Linguistics. Trini Stickle graduated from our Ph.D. program in 2015 with a dissertation on the linguistic and interactional competence of persons diagnosed with dementia and autism. At her proposal conference I suggested that someone take a closer look at underlying transitivity patterns…. and here we are.


Skype discussion with Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade

We had a great discussion with Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (Leiden) in our seminar on “Bad Grammar” this week – from preposition stranding to Robert Lowth to Professor Tieken’s usage guides data base to prescriptivism as an area of linguistic inquiry and Geoffrey Pullum’s anniversary note to Strunk and White. Four weeks to go until we will hold our end-of-semester symposium.