Name: Lisa Jackson
College & Majors/Minors: PhD in 19th Century British Literature, 2000, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas; MA in British Literature,1992, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas; BA in English, 1985, Austin College, Sherman, Texas
Current Location: DFW
Current Form of Employment: Director of the UNT Writing Lab; Principal Lecturer, Department of Technical Communication, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I oversee the day-to-day operations of the Writing Lab at the University of North Texas. I have 35 people who work for me at five different locations, and we see about 4000 students per semester. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun. We get to see students from all sorts of disciplines—business, sciences, arts, humanities, engineering, and so on. We work with students at every level, from developmental writers to students writing theses and dissertations. The great thing about teaching them is that good writing is the same across the disciplines. Format and citation style change, but a sentence always has a subject and a verb; punctuation stays the same. Our language is much more formulaic than we’ve been taught to believe. At the Writing Lab, we really focus on teaching techniques that students can use as they go forward in their writing.
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).
My first job was writing contracts for a copier company. I lasted six weeks at that job before going to work as a customer service representative for a corporate relocation company. At that time (1985), it was really hard to find work with just an English degree. I’d never heard of technical writing, and I really wasn’t trained to do anything other than read and analyze texts. While that’s certainly a skill, I was too inexperienced to know how to market it as an employable skill. I almost had to land in the wrong place to decide what I really wanted to do. After working at the relocation company for about 18 months, I realized that I missed the intellectual stimulation of the college campus.
I decided that I wanted to teach at the college level, so I went back to school to get my PhD. Because I worked full time, it took a long time for me to finish. I took one course a semester because that’s what I could afford. I’m rarely asked about that, but when I am, it’s a blessing because I’m able to encourage people that graduate school is do-able at almost any pace.
Eventually, I left the relocation company for a teaching fellowship at UNT. That led to a job as the graduate advisor for the English department. I was lucky because they offered me a full-time job when I graduated. Jobs in academia are hard to come by.
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
While I was working at the relocation company, I wrote a software user’s manual, although I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time. To me, I was just solving a problem. We had an old DOS computer system that we used to price relocations. It wasn’t difficult, but because we had frequent personnel turnover, I seemed to spend a good bit of time explaining how to use it. One day, when I had some time, I wrote how to use the program from “start.” A technical writer was born.
When I started working at UNT, the director of the technical writing program asked me if I would be interested in teaching a technical writing course. My initial thought was “no way.” But she pointed out that I’d been a technical writer for a long time and that if I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t have to do it again. A semester is only 16 weeks long. I tried teaching our introductory technical writing course, and I really enjoyed it. It’s not the same as reading Dickens all day, but that’s really okay. When a student doesn’t like Dickens, it kind of hurts my feelings. When a student doesn’t like where the commas go, he or she is just wrong. I’ve taught more than 100 sections of writing, and I never seem to tire of it. I’m endlessly in love with the infinite possibilities of words on paper. And I learn new things all the time.
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
Although I got a terrific education, I’m not sure that college really prepared me for post-graduate life. I had to wander and wonder for a while before I found my niche.
I can say that if I’d known how to read them, that most of my experiences were pointing me in a writing-related direction. When I was six, my parents took me to see a musical film adaptation of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Afterward, my mom and I had a discussion about Dickens. I walked away from that with the conviction that Dickens was the best writer in the world, and I have vivid memories of telling people just that. What’s odd is that no one pointed out to me that I couldn’t read yet!
Writing has always felt really natural for me. I won a prize for a short story in first grade. I think I always sought out writing opportunities, too. For instance, one of my friends and I used to beg our teachers to let us write a class newsletter. I competed in Ready Writing, a statewide writing competition on topical issues, when I was in high school. I was on newspaper staff in middle and high school. I kept journals, especially when I participated in study abroad in college. I was a prolific letter writer. Does anybody write letters anymore? It’s a dying art. I think I’ve just always strongly felt the urge to express myself in writing.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
Here are my top five tips:
1. Allow yourself to make mistakes. You’ll mess up. You will. It’s just part of writing, and it’s one of the best ways to learn.
2. Try something new. When someone asks you to try something new, say “yes.” I’ve spent far more of my academic career teaching subjects outside my specialty than I have teaching subjects in it. That’s given me options, and you can’t trade that for anything. I’ve been able to do some freelance work, and I’ve been able to turn work down. What a luxury!
3. Work on your craft. I’m a big believer in continuing your quest for writing mastery. Try to learn the rules behind grammar and punctuation. Learn about writing techniques. It improves your confidence and your writing because you’re making choices based on knowledge rather than on intuition. It’s also helpful when you’re asked to defend your choices to a client. In my classes, I can send students into a panic by simply asking them to identify the verb. ;) Of course, I always tell them where it is. If you can explain a grammar rule or a technique to someone else so that they can easily understand it, you’ve really mastered that concept.
4. Network! LinkedIn is your friend. You’ll be surprised at how many offers and queries you’ll get from that source alone. Upload some of your work to LinkedIn so that potential employers and/or clients can see what you can do.
5. Read, read, read. Read everything you can, from the writing on the Triscuit box to magazines, online news, and novels. I always tell my students that it doesn’t matter what they read, it just matters that they read. Reading is the best thing you can do to improve your writing.