Spotlight on: ‘Sound Writing’ at the University of Puget Sound with Julie Christoph

The Publications Committee is pleased to present the fifth entry in a monthly series on SLAC writing programs. The goal of this series, and of the blog in general, is to make more visible the practices and experiences of those working in WPA roles at SLACs so that we might understand the SLAC WPA community more fully as we learn from one another. We thank Julie Christoph of the University of Puget Sound for her contribution and invite you to look forward to next month’s feature from Justin Hopkins of Franklin & Marshall College.


The Quick Facts on Sound Writing, a publication of the Puget Sound Center for Writing and Learning

Describe your program in 100 words or less.

Julie Christoph (JC): Sound Writing is an open writing handbook authored by peer tutors from Puget Sound’s Center for Writing and Learning, in collaboration with faculty mentors. Sound Writing includes advice on academic writing, as well as advice on research, speaking, time management, and student success. There are two editions of Sound Writing: the Puget Sound-specific version that includes references to local features like the rainy Pacific Northwestern winters, and the Universal version that uses general terms (e.g., “the school mascot” rather than “Grizz the Logger”). Both versions of Sound Writing, along with teaching resources and other information are available at https://www.pugetsound.edu/sound-writing.

Julie Christoph of the University of Puget Sound

Describe your role.

JC: I am currently on hiatus from my role as director of the Center for Writing and Learning (CWL) to serve a term as Dean of Faculty Affairs, and Sound Writing is one piece of CWL work that I have retained for sheer enjoyment. I have been at the helm of Sound Writing throughout the journey from its inception as a vague idea of a common writing handbook for Puget Sound students, through campus exploration of custom handbooks by commercial publishers, through collaborative writing and editing of the first draft of Sound Writing, to its current Puget Sound and Universal editions published with a Creative Commons open license


The Interview

What is new and/or distinctive about your program or project?

Cody Chun, Kylie Young, and Kieran O’Neil of the University of Puget Sound

JC: So much of what is written for college students is literally and figuratively inaccessible to them, and the accessibility of Sound Writing is what is most distinctive. Commercial writing handbooks are hugely expensive; even within the relatively privileged context of SLACs, students struggle to afford textbooks, and the fact that Sound Writing is free is really important. Beyond that, Sound Writing is written by students, for students; although I have provided leadership, mentoring, and editorial support, students have been the ones doing the actual writing—and they have made important contributions. Students have incorporated elements of their daily lives in such gestures as the social media reference in section 2.1 “Finding, Skimming, and Reading Sources” or the cat meme homages throughout the book. They have also provided progressive leadership: in 2012, Puget Sound faculty identified the use of “they” as a singular pronoun as a grammar pet peeve, but students were increasingly advocating it as a matter of gender inclusivity. Ahead of other handbooks, when we piloted Sound Writing in 2016, the student authors chose to use “they” as a singular pronoun and to explain that choice and document the growing acceptability of such practice (e.g., 6.3.2, “Pronouns and Correctness”).

Sound Writing is framed as a reference for writers to use within their specific contexts and histories, rather than as a universal rulebook to which they must inflexibly adhere. As part of that framing, Sound Writing describes conventions of Standard American English while simultaneously addressing relationships between language and power. And the PreTeXt platform on which Sound Writing is published offers an unusual range of accessibility features. The online version is designed to be compatible with screen reader tools and programs, for people who prefer or need those features, and it scales easily to screens of different sizes, from phones to laptops. It is also available in PDF format and is easily exported into BRF (electronic Braille) format for embossing in Braille.

What are you especially proud of?

JC: Sound Writing is the official handbook of courses at Puget Sound, and I’m proud that I was able to help faculty see the need and to adopt it in their classes, but there are now more users on other campuses and around the world than there are on our campus. It’s always fun when I overhear a student talking about how useful the handbook is, or when I see in weekly usage reports that someone is using Sound Writing in Bangladesh or Tanzania. Sound Writing is truly out there in the world, and I’m excited to have developed something that writers want to use.

What sorts of challenges does working within a SLAC present for your program or project? What sorts of opportunities does it offer?

JC: At SLACs, we all wear a lot of hats, which is a challenge, but the through line in all that we do is promoting undergraduate students’ learning and development; that through line created the demand for Sound Writing and has offered immense opportunities. When the idea about a common writing handbook arose some fifteen years ago, faculty wanted something that would help them feel comfortable teaching writing. We looked at commercial handbooks, but the examples and disciplinary references in them didn’t match well with our work at a SLAC. Colleagues encouraged me to write a handbook tailored to our needs, but I knew that I couldn’t afford the time away from the other writing projects that I needed to do for tenure and promotion.

In the end, students were the most appropriate authors of Sound Writing, and I’ve been able to mentor them to do that work and to have my involvement recognized as important teaching and leadership on my campus. I think it’s only at a SLAC that this kind of undergraduate student-authored project could happen. We continue to revise and improve Sound Writing, and I’ve been able to collaborate with and mentor students for over six years on meeting their peers’ evolving needs. All of us in higher ed have faced challenges in the past few years that none of our graduate training prepared us to meet. Undergraduates are there in the thick of it, and they have tremendous insights that are too often overlooked.

As you’ve developed your project, what has been your most productive collaboration with another group or office on your campus—and how have you built that relationship?

JC: Sound Writing has involved many meaningful collaborations across campus. Rob Beezer, a now-emeritus professor of Mathematics at Puget Sound, developed the PreTeXt platform on which Sound Writing is published, and he has been tremendously generous in working with me and a series of students. We’ve also worked with the Communications office on adapting the campus style guide to the specific configuration of PreTeXt and with Collins Memorial Library on joining open education repositories.

But the section on disciplinary writing has been our most productive collaboration. We have engaged many academic departments in conversation—and surprising consensus—about disciplinary writing values. Sound Writing student authors have facilitated these conversations using a set of common questions, and the students have then used the conversation transcripts to draft concise sets of guidelines for review, revision, and approval by departmental faculty.

What specific readings, activities, or practices would you recommend to directors who may be working with programs similar to yours?

JC: I would recommend getting involved in open educational work. Working on Sound Writing has made me aware of how inaccessible most of the writing we do is. So many academic publications are behind paywalls that most people around the world can’t scale, and too little of our work considers accessibility in a holistic way. Collaborating with Rob Beezer and librarian Ben Tucker has opened my eyes to the possibilities for greater accessibility. I encourage you to read the information about Open Educational Resources that Ben has curated here on our Puget Sound library website: https://research.pugetsound.edu/oer, and if you’re interested in becoming a PreTeXt author, there’s a lively online community eager to welcome you: https://pretextbook.org/.

Questions curated by the SLAC-WPA Executive Board and the Publications Committee.

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