Building tomorrow’s world with words

At first glance, writing and engineering don’t seem to have much in common. But the connection between the two is more than clear to Suzanne Lane, 85, who has been director of the MIT Writing, Speech, and Professional Communication Program (WRAP) since 2013.

“I came up with the motto for our program, Building Tomorrow with Words,” she says. “Writing and communication is an invention and it shapes our relationships. It forms our material world. Almost everything that happens in the world is first a plan, which then must be formulated.

WRAP, part of the Comparative Study of Media/Writing (CMS/W), improves students’ communication skills through four undergraduate requirements that require intensive communication. “We help students understand the main genres in their discipline,” she says. “How do you make these genres — say, a white paper or a presentation — work effectively? How do you develop text for your audience?

Trained as an engineer and writer, Lane has long enjoyed both pursuits. “As a child, I heard many times that I should become an engineer because I was good at math and often modeled and invented things,” she says. “I have always loved to read. In the summer everyone else will be outside. I would say, “Great. I can just sit at home and read all day.”

At MIT, where she majored in chemical engineering, majoring in literature, she found a vibrant community of like-minded people. “It was creative, exciting, incredibly outgoing, and just really fun,” Lane says. “I had the most wonderful instructor [for expository writing]Keith Burnett… it was a great joy for me that when I returned many years later, I had to teach the same class.”

Lane worked in engineering for several years before earning a Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of Colorado Boulder and a PhD in English with a focus on rhetoric from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Rhetoric, or understanding how writing and storytelling can be made to work better, is “a very engineering issue, but applicable to communication,” she says.

After teaching at Harvard’s narrative writing program, she returned to MIT in 2008 to join WRAP. When not teaching, she studies how to improve communication education with Archimedia, the research arm of WRAP. The overall WRAP effort recently received a certificate of excellence from the Conference on College Composition and Communications.

“In order for people to work together, they need to be able to communicate,” she says. “They have to be literally on the same wavelength.”

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