“It was like your family, your home, and not just a place to learn.”

The RTC PhD Turns 20

by Dennis Walikainen

From its beginnings, the rhetoric and technical communication (RTC) PhD program has prided itself on breaking the mold.

Indeed, it seemed an odd fit twenty years ago, a high-end degree in a rarified field at a university best known for engineering. But since the Department of Humanities established the program in 1989, the RTC PhD has propelled dozens of graduates to rewarding careers. It was "the consistent caliber of people" in the department that drove the program's success, says Johndan Johnson-Eilola '93, a professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, and the program's first PhD graduate.

Former humanities department chair Cindy Selfe, now a professor at Ohio State University, was there at the beginning. "Colleagues from other institutions always assumed that Michigan Tech was much bigger than it was, that we had extraordinary funding, or that we had cutting-edge technology; what we really had was outstanding faculty and graduate students," she says. "The profession recognized the efforts of these folks and noted what a marvelous community had been assembled at Tech."

"There's nothing to compare it to," Johnson-Eilola says, remembering his years as an RTC graduate student. "It was like your family, your home, and not just a place to learn. It was a tribal thing. Frankly, it has something to do with the isolation in Houghton and the humanities department existing in a largely engineering school. But, the administration and others discovered that we were successful in what we were doing."

The RTC faculty members were taking the lead in studies that were just beginning to take root, says Cheryl Ball '04, now an assistant professor at Illinois State University. "We were at the forefront of things like academic literacies," which view reading and writing as social practices that vary with context, culture, and genre.

Johnson-Eilola agrees that they were "making new meanings on the edge of the discipline. It was sometimes messy, but that made it exciting."

The RTC tradition of researching nearly anything continues. Johnson-Eilola recently finished a National Endowment for the Arts project with Clarkson professor Steve Farina and drummer Juma Sultan, who played with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Telling Sultan's story is a direct reflection of his RTC education and culture, Johnson-Eilola says.

It sounds like a broad area, and it is. Colleges and universities have hired RTC graduates in fields that range from English to business to social sciences. RTC alumni routinely pop up at conferences, where they get the rock-star treatment.

"It's true," says Johnson-Eilola. "If you are from Tech, you are part of a big name in the field. Tech has an excellent reputation, and it carries influence: everyone knows the faculty."

The program has provided unexpected opportunities for area residents, who had never dreamed of earning a degree from Michigan Tech. "I can't believe I found a degree like this in Houghton," says Karla Saari Kitalong '99. "As a local, I had no idea I could get such a well-respected, esteemed even, degree, which has really opened doors for me."

Her first door opened at the University of Central Florida, where Kitalong helped establish a similar doctoral program. Now, she has returned to Tech as an associate professor in humanities. She is among the next generation of new professors in philosophy, emergent media, literature, and gender studies, offering new viewpoints, research interests, and classroom innovations.

Rhetorical question: Why a PhD?

"[Department Chair] Art Young asked [former professor] Billie Wahlstrom to lead the effort to develop a graduate degree," Selfe recalls. "The profession of rhetoric and composition was maturing; the market for graduates hoping to teach in the area at the collegiate level was growing."

But not everyone wanted the humanities department to offer a doctorate, remembers Professor Beth Flynn, who chaired the department from 1987 to 1989.

"When we were developing the proposal for the program, there was some resistance on the part of the faculty who did not have strong research profiles and felt that it would exclude them," she says.

However, far from excluding faculty, the PhD program drew them in. "It has made all the difference in terms of our own intellectual development," she says. "Those students really pushed us, and still do. It amazes me that I took a job in 1979 that necessitated teaching primarily first-year writing, and now I direct the graduate program."

George Meese, formerly on the humanities faculty and now at Eckerd College in Florida, also remembers when the PhD program began to take shape. Master's and PhD graduates were needed, not only in academia, but also in civic and corporate settings.

As he predicted, students and faculty would eventually weigh in on rhetorical topics as far-flung as computers in composition, portrayals of diverse populations, and ethics embedded in technical manuals.

"People benefited from our program's engagement with the technical communication sector of human endeavors—what else would a graduate studies program want to boast?" says Meese.

He also knew a good RTC program would be good for the University, attracting top graduate students from other schools and providing the humanities faculty two welcome challenges: to conduct research and mentor excellent students. Many of those students have now become faculty in their own right.

Good references

Monica Torres, chair of the English department of New Mexico State, hired Jenny Sheppard '03 and Kathryn Valentine '03. "They've been great," Torres says. "They are both directors, Jenny of the Design Center and Kathryn of our Writing Center, and they've both brought different knowledge to our department, in addition to their teaching."

"It'll be interesting to see them discover what else is possible here," Torres says.

At Clarkson, Bill Karis, associate professor of communication and media, says, "It's been nearly a decade now since Johndan [Johnson-Eilola] arrived here, and he's had significant and positive impacts on our department's teaching and scholarly activities. But for me, his collegial demeanor and temperament has been equally valuable: always generous, serious, and pragmatic. Seems to me we made a good hire."

Selfe is not surprised by the RTC alumni's success. "The students with whom I got to work were among the very best I have ever met," she says. "No wonder we're all so proud of this anniversary."