The Importance of Writing and Digital Storytelling: Professor Heather Johnson on Writing Across URI

Writing is essential for almost everyone, whether it be doing tech writing, public relations writing, scientific writing, or feature writing. At the University of Rhode Island, the faculty believes it is essential for professors — not just students — to continually work on improving their writing skills, and that is where Writing Across URI comes in. Professor Heather Johnson, the Director of Writing Across URI, says it is “designed to support all faculty in all disciplines, and it has two main goals: to help faculty get their own writing done and, in turn, to support faculty in designing engaging writing assignments for students.” It’s related to Writing Across the Curriculum — a program practiced at many universities to promote the teaching of writing and critical thinking. Writing Across URI helps faculty incorporate more writing into courses and prepares them to support student writers across all levels and disciplines.

Johnson says her position as Director of Writing Across URI has been rewarding thus far thanks to the dedicated faculty of URI. “I have met such creative, open-minded, and hard-working faculty. It is such a privilege to brainstorm ideas with them and to learn about their courses and their research. At any of our retreats, seminars, or writing groups, you can see the camaraderie among faculty. I love that sense of a writing community,” she says. Notably, the work the faculty do in these retreats, seminars, and writing groups directly impacts the students in their classrooms. As Johnson says, “Faculty who give students many opportunities to write are helping students to develop as writers. And when peer review is part of those opportunities, those assignments or in-class activities, it also sends the message to students that writing is about re-writing — just as it is for faculty writers themselves.”

Aside from Writing Across URI, Johnson says she is extremely passionate about digital storytelling, something that has been especially prevalent amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic. “Storytelling is always important — especially if the storyteller is someone whose voice has been silenced or marginalized. And it is a key human practice to tell stories. It’s how we make sense of our experience, and crucially, it is how we can learn about other people. Attentive listening and empathy are key skills that students can develop when making stories together,” she says. In that vein, as a professor in the Writing and Rhetoric Department, the class Johnson says she enjoys teaching the most is WRT305: Travel Writing, in which students are able to embark on adventures and write about their experiences through blog posts or essays. Johnson says this class is her favorite because “it encourages curiosity and adventure” and shares her most recent example of “a young Eritrean-American woman who spent six months walking the Appalachian Trail. It was eye-opening and inspiring to hear about her experience.”

~ Written by Taylor Petrini, English Major, URI Class of 2021