Professor John Hyman: Director of Freshman Year

Hey BTA Readers,

Another assignment from my Reporting class about Professor John Hyman, the director of the College Writing Program and his approach to teaching and directing. Read about it – he’s a great guy, not to mention one of the best professors I’ve ever had!

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Professor John Hyman shapes almost every student’s freshman year at American University.

As director of the College Writing Program, Hyman is in charge of the rite of passage students must take to fulfill university requirements.

“We help students learn how to do college,” Hyman said. “It’s a de-facto goal of the course.”

Arielle Klane, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, says that she feels that College Writing prepared her for her undergraduate career at AU. “I gained a lot more confidence,” she said.

Hyman came to the university in 1986 as an adjunct instructor. “I didn’t even know where it was,” he laughs. “I actually had to drive out the night before the interview just to make sure I could find it.”

Hyman stayed on as an adjunct instructor for two years, and then became a full-time instructor for five years. “At that time, they had a policy that limited full-time College Writing instructors to a five-year stay,” he says.

As his five years as a full-time instructor began to run out, the position as the head of the writing center opened.

Hyman served as the director for the writing center until 2000, when he took his current position as the director of the College Writing Program

“Whenever I visit other schools, and hear their complaints, I always return happy,” he said. “We have a really strong faculty that knows exactly what they’re doing.”

Professor Alison Thomas, who teaches College Writing, says that Hyman is “great to bounce ideas off of,” adding, “Students’ best interests are at heart, but he’s always attuned to helping professors.”

Thomas says that he takes the effort to get to know his faculty, and often sends her e-mails and clips articles out of the newspaper he thinks she might be interested in.

“He creates a nice sense of community,” Thomas said of Hyman. “He really does get to know people. We ride the Red Sox roller coaster together.”

Hyman has always been an advocate for professors and students alike. As director, he successfully made the argument to the central administration to get rid of the five-year cap on full-time faculty in the College Writing program.

Hyman said that getting rid of the five-year cap allowed faculty to become stronger instructors over the years, and gave the department a chance to “re-express our curriculum and give the program coherence.”

With a larger full-time faculty comes the challenges in making sure students are all learning the same key skills.

“Making sure students are graded according to a common criteria is not the tough part,” Hyman said. “The tough part is making sure teachers are always on the same page.”

Professors have grading workshops and look at each other’s teaching materials often in order to maintain program coherence. Coherence is key in the program, where students are expected to emerge with a common skill set.

The College Writing Program, however, has one of the lowest grade point averages out of all the departments and programs at American University.

Hyman sees this as a testimony of how successful the program is. He believes that when students are consistently given strong, valuable feedback, they will be more concerned about improving their writing skills instead of getting the best grades.

“Even though our GPA is often the lowest or one of the lowest, our Student Evaluations are usually some of the highest,” he said. “Students appreciate the consistency and feedback.”

Klane said she learned a lot about how to adjust to a College setting through the feedback she received in College Writing. “College is an entirely different ballpark,” she said. “There are a lot more rules to follow just to write a research paper.”

Some students can place out of the program by achieving a high enough score on an Advanced Placement Exam or an International Baccalaureate Exam in high school. Those who do place out experience a different freshman year.

Leah-Michelle Nebbia, a sophomore in the School of Communications, said she was afraid of missing out on the common college experience of taking a class with fellow freshman and figuring out the college world together, as well as the skills College Writing teaches when she placed out.

“I sort of made my own College Writing program,” she said. “I sought help from the Writing Center as a sort of safety precaution.”

“I don’t feel I missed out, per say – I just had a completely different experience,” said Courtney Klamar, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs who also placed out of College Writing.

Klamar says that she had to jump right into her college career not only in skipping the warm-up course of College Writing, but in general. Klamar came in with a full year’s worth of credits, so she began at AU as a sophomore.

A major feature of the College Writing Program is Writers as Witness, where an author of a required book speaks to incoming freshmen before classes begin every fall.

“It began as an experimental program 11 years ago,” Hyman said. “It was kind of a, ‘We have an idea! We’d like to do this wacky thing!’” The program is now a regular tradition for AU students.

“It’s a year-long process [to choose an author],” Hyman said. A council of full-time faculty debates the books and writers on the list and narrows it down to a shorter list to present to the dean and the provost.

The toughest part, Hyman says, is working through the layers of ‘people’ many authors have working for them– but usually, it’s worth it.

“I loved this year’s author [Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway] especially,” Hyman said. “He really helped students understand the process of going from an idea to a piece of writing. Not to mention, he was one hell of a writer.” Hyman added, “He was terrific, really enthusiastic.”

The same thing could perhaps be said of Hyman. He and makes it clear to whomever he is speaking to simply through his mannerisms that he truly loves his job.

Thomas said that Hyman is “very energetic” about all of his classes, and that he “really relates well to his students.”

Hyman said he couldn’t just pick one favorite aspect of teaching. “I just love all of it,” he said. “When I was a coach for my kids’ little league teams, I didn’t particularly like the games so much, but I loved the practices,” he says. “I can remember pushing one kid in particular who didn’t want to slide and get his pants dirty to do just that.”

Hyman takes the same kind of approach with his students. “I want to help students become writers,” he says. “I find it’s not hard to teach a student who just has a few issues with writing. It’s the students who come from a wordless world who present a challenge.” For Hyman, students who come from a “wordless world” are those who don’t read often or have a low comfort level using language.

He says that those students who don’t have a lot of experience with language benefit from the two semesters of College Writing. “After two semesters, students begin to really conceive of themselves as writers,” Hyman said.

Hyman’s favorite book to teach is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolfe. “It’s easy to read, but it’s still very complicated – and the understanding of those complications is only earned with class discussions and close attention to detail,” he said.

“I couldn’t pick just one book that students should read to make them a better reader,” Hyman said. “Students should read as much and as often as they can.” He says that students who read gain a better understanding of language, and a better ability to manipulate it themselves, and manipulate it well.

Looking around Hyman’s office, you can tell that he views reading as a key element of learning. Bookshelves line the room, crammed with title upon title from a number of different genres.

“Force yourself to read outside the ordinary,” he said. “A student who’s read a thousand novels still hasn’t read enough non-fiction. Everything has something new to offer and make a student a better author.”

Hyman said he doesn’t worry about the future of literature, despite naysayers who predict the end of literature thanks to the new digital age. “As a generation, students have read hundreds upon thousands more words than I have,” he says. “Some are writing all the time and have honed a comfort with language.”

He said the use of e-mail and the Internet is simply a different kind of reading and writing, which boosts some key skills. “Honing those skills is what’s important,” he added.

Just as the future of writing and reading is changing, so is the College Writing Program – but only slightly. Hyman says the changing university requires the program to flex with it.

“The core isn’t changing,” Hyman said. “We simply have to do a better job of explaining what we’re up to.”


Listen to Professor Hyman himself speak about his favorite aspects of teaching!

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A special thanks to Professor John Hyman, who graciously gave me an hour of his time to talk about teaching and directing the program!

College Writing 101

More info about the College Writing Program at American University.
Ed. Note: the word “smester” above should be spelled “semester”. Please forgive the error.

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About beckawall

AU Alumni, feminist, master of peanut butter brownies. Lover of Teddy Roosevelt, politics, analyzing popular culture, and general nerdery.

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