Ann Dobie is professor emerita at UL, the author or coauthor of six college writing textbooks, compiler and editor of three literary anthologies, and author of numerous articles on literature and composition.

She is also one of the most popular teachers on the campus, and played a pivotal rôle in creating the Rhetoric Option in the English Doctoral program. Despite formal retirement, she continues to work tirelessly promoting her passions of literature, rhetoric, and writing. She spoke with ultoday.com recently.

Tell us about your research.

One of the areas I look at is the teaching of writing... I'm really interested in devising teaching strategies that make language skills the center of learning. If you can't use words-- and the most sophisticated instance of word usage is reading & writing-- you can't think. So you need a certain linguistic facility to be successful in school, and in most professions that follow.

You have other areas of research?

I have also worked in historical rhetoric. We look at different theories about arguments, and the tactics that historical figures have used to persuade audiences to their views.

Like some kind of neo-sophists?

In a way... but I'm more interested in the modern approaches, starting with 19th century writers. As an example, so many of the 19th & 20th century rhetoricians were philosophers.

In the modern period philosophy has asked some fascinating questions: What does it mean to think? How do we communicate? How does our language form our ideas and identities?

Language can form our ideas?

That's what we look at. For instance, would it have been possible for Thomas Jefferson to have been a native German speaker? Would an 18th century person whose primary language was German have written something like the Declaration of Independence? How did English, and in particular, how did American English, influence the ideas in the early democracy? German tends to be a bit authoritarian, not just culturally, but linguistically, even acoustically. French, on the other hand, is very lyrical.

How does that influence thinking?

The whole concept of relativity has become dominant in modern thinking. Current ideas have been moving away from absolutes. This isn't just a liberal arts idea... even science struggles with the concepts that reality may be a perception of the individual. Heisenberg and quantum mechanics suggest that an observer alters, and therefore determines, the system. Scientific philosophers have pretty much abandoned the concept that science is "true," but rather that science is a tradition, and a succession of theories, each of which is in constant jeopardy of being replaced.

Are you involved in any other areas of research?

In a more pragmatic area, I'm concerned that kids learn to love language. Mastery of language is a key to self-fulfillment, to self-knowledge, to the exploration of interesting questions, and yes, to careers. People can't do these things well if they don't have the language tools.

It gives one a source of entertainment & amusement while we're on this planet.

Oh absolutely, that's why I work with teachers. Working with extraordinary teachers to find better ways to excite kids about reading and writing is my passion.

There are plenty of studies that show that kids are almost never asked to write. And when they are, it's what we call transactional writing, just moving learned information from them to us.

What we used to call in school, 'dumping memory.'

Exactly. And students are almost never asked to write what we call poetic, literary works... self-reflection, stories, poems. And they are asked to do these things less and less as they go through school.

The fact is, when students are allowed to write, to write what they want to write about, and to choose the form, they take ownership. What they're writing becomes important to them, and it becomes important to them that their audience understand. That's when spelling is checked, grammar is corrected, punctuation is revised, before the teacher ever sees it.

Two weeks ago our Louisiana Writing Project [LAWP] teachers took 30 students to a camp setting for a weekend, as a writing retreat. The first year we only had 10 or 12 students. But after that first retreat, the students came back to us and said, "It was the best weekend we’ve ever spent, please do it again." So we did it again, and now the program is maxed out.

We get kids writing for a whole weekend, and they love it. They have campfires and videos, do a lot of kids' stuff, but they also produce a lot of writing. And they submit their work to national competitions.

And win.

The key concept at these workshops is that the students get feedback, not criticism. And the result is, the kids are begging to do what we can't make them do in schools.

Another key is that the teachers are also writing and learning, along with the students. It's a community, everyone is struggling together. A phrase we often use is 'A community of writers.' That's what we're striving for. Thats why I wanted the blog,* because we only have time for a limited number of meetings a year. I had to get my teachers to communicate more frequently. And the blog is working.

You started the Rhetoric option for UL's doctoral program in English.

The Department of English has three areas of concentration: literature, which is the traditional PhD; creative writing which is a very large program at UL, and attracts lots of students; and rhetoric which is very small, but critical.

How is it critical?

Some years back, the Board of Regents had decided to cut back on graduate degrees, including those in English. But they decided that rhetoric should be kept at UL, for a simple reason: every one of of our graduates gets an academic job.

Unfortunately, creative writing is a much more competitive field, and to a lesser degree, so is a literature. So despite being smaller than the other two options, rhetoric has been a critical component of the PhD program.

Explain the connection between rhetoric and the other two areas.

Rhetorical writing is deliberative, and deals with a flow of ideas. Literature and creative writing are narrative, and deal with the flow of a story, a plot.

How did you get the Rhetoric option started?

To create the option, we had to plead our case before the Board of Regents. They can be a tough crowd. But I took the advertisements for positions available through the Modern Language Association, listing all the universities that were looking for faculty all over the country. I circled all of them that required credentials for teaching writing. Schools everywhere are desperate for faculty who can teach rhetorical writing and analysis. I held up the newspaper to the Regents with all of these advertisements circled.

That convinced them... I thought we had lost it, but that convinced them.

Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.

Well, my undergraduate degree is actually in music, in pipe organ and sacred music.

Really? Where did you study?

The University of Oklahoma. I went there because they had one of the premier organ teachers in the country. When I first moved to Lafayette, I was the organist at several churches.

You also publish. Do you have anything in press?

I have two books coming out this Spring. The first is Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism, 2nd Edition,  updated & expanded. The second book is Fifty-Eight Days in the Cajundome Shelter, about the many people the Cajundome housed after Katrina and Rita. Pelican Publishing is coming out with that one.