English Professor Jim Kalmbach celebrates 20 years of teaching at Illinois State University this year, the same year as the University celebrates its 150th anniversary. And his professional writing/digital publishing classroom will celebrate its 20th anniversary this coming year.
While writing is one of the oldest disciplines in education, digital writing is a relative newcomer, but one which is seeing an increase in jobs due to the worldwide popularity of the Internet and the evolution of business and industry Web sites. Kalmbach teaches his students how to write for the Web rather than for print and also teaches them about Web site design.
Kalmbach says his teaching style has been termed “leadership by service” by his wife, Colleen Esch. “It’s what I do, and what I value,” he said. “I focus on paying attention to students and modifying courses in response to their projects and experiences with those projects. If students don’t feel they can approach you, then you can’t learn from them and their experiences.”
For one alum, Alex Skorpinski, learning from Kalmbach was hard work, a pleasure and a guide for focusing his career path. “One of the reasons I’m currently employed is because of Jim Kalmbach,” Skorpinski said. “I was aimlessly drifting through the English department, knowing I didn’t want to teach, but not entirely sure what else I could do. When I took Jim’s hypertext course, it married my academic experience in English and my interest (obsession) with computers and technology.” Skorpinski is an information architect working in the offices of Enrollment Management and Academic Services and Web Support Services at Illinois State.
After 20 years of teaching digital rhetoric, which focuses on writing online, technical writing and teaching with technology courses, Kalmbach said he has learned that writing with computers and using the complex software for digital writing and design is just plain hard work. He said classes can be very stressful for students, and the best way to help them is to get them interested in constructing a good plan for their projects. Planning is key to succeeding both in Kalmbach’s classes and in the field of digital writing and design.
Skorpinski said he worried that his lack of patience to write code and lack of interest in hardware engineering would prohibit him in working with technology, but “Jim’s instruction was invaluable to the work I do today. I started without any experience in Web design. By the time I finished the course, I’d developed four separate and functional sites.”
Skorpinski recalls Kalmbach walking behind him in class saying things like “That’s lame,” or “You’re out of control.” He would then explain where Skorpinski was off track or where he had surpassed project expectations. “Jim provides objective feedback allowing students to improve their work and keep ownership of what they created,” he said. “No one created a Web site for Jim; they would create their own sites in Jim’s class.”
After receiving his Ph.D. from Michigan State University, Kalmbach taught at Michigan Technological University for seven years before coming to Illinois State. In addition to teaching English students at Illinois State, he also teaches certified teachers who want to earn a post-baccalaureate Certificate in the Teaching of Writing in High School/Middle School. Kalmbach said he enjoys helping practicing teachers understand and act on their classroom experiences in using technology. He tries to instill a sense of what are the current best practices for using technology in the classroom and what practices can best fit with their own teaching style.
“I was fortunate to have Jim Kalmbach involved in my college career,” said Skorpinski. “He is an invaluable resource to the English department, Illinois State University and all of the students he’s encountered. I would not be doing what I am today if it were not for Jim, and I’ll bet you can find hundreds of other former students of his who will tell you the exact same thing.”