CCS Spotlight on Karen Lunsford

May 21, 2020

Lunsford teaches her first CCS Course (STEM Stories) and publishes Toward Wayfinding: A Metaphor for Understanding Writing Experiences

Karen Lunsford. Photograph: Erika Carlos
Karen Lunsford. Photograph: Erika Carlos

In Spring 2020, the College of Creative Studies (CCS) welcomed Professor Karen Lunsford to the CCS Writing & Literature program where she is teaching STEM Stories.

Karen joined UCSB in 2003 as an Assistant Professor in the Writing Program after completing her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. Currently, Karen is an Associate Professor of Writing and the Director of the Ph.D. Emphasis in Writing Studies at UCSB. Karen had heard about CCS from her UCSB Writing Program colleagues. Then in 2015, an opportunity arose for Karen to become more involved at CCS by assisting with the College’s re-launch of its Literature major as Writing & Literature, which combines three disciplines: literary studies, creative writing, and writing studies. Karen continued to engage with CCS and became more familiar with CCS students when she presented her collaborative research on copyright law in writing studies at a Writing & Literature professional seminar. “What impressed me most about these students is their interest not just in the factual content of a discipline, but also in understanding the culture and history of that discipline,” Karen explained. “For example, students who attended the presentations about copyright had already encountered copyright issues in writing and producing their own texts. But they were also interested in the theories behind copyright.” Karen continued, “I can count on CCS students to be intellectually curious about a broad range of topicsintellectually rigorous in exploring those topics deeply and thoroughly.”

I can count on CCS students to be intellectually curious about a broad range of topicsintellectually rigorous in exploring those topics deeply and thoroughly.

Enthusiastic about a more established connection with CCS, Karen spoke with CCS Writing & Literature Faculty Coordinator Kara Mae Brown about developing courses to support the writing studies requirements for the major. The idea for the course STEM Stories was born. “I’m delighted to be working with one of the very few undergraduate programs in California offering writing studies as an option,” said Karen. Instead of focusing on the techniques behind communicating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) topics to a non-specialist audience, Professor Lunsford wanted to delve deeper into the impact of stories on STEM disciplines. “It is not a how-to course. And it is not a course focused on communicating about STEM topics with the public,” per Karen. “Instead, STEM Stories focuses on the work that stories (narratives) do within STEM disciplines. We are reading research that analyzes the different kinds of work that narratives can do for professionals in different STEM fields.” Karen gave the example of reading Rita Charon’s work on narrative medicine which seeks to improve empathy in doctor-patient relationships by teaching doctors to better understand the stories that patients tell about their illnesses.

Karen’s STEM Stories course attracted a diverse group of students. “I was thrilled to find that about half of the students were non-STEM majors, including CCS Writing & Literature majors,” she said. “The cross-talk among their different perspectives has been fabulous.” The switch to remote learning has not prevented the students from engaging and delving deep into the material. “Like everyone else, I was worried when we were forced to transition to online formats this Spring,” Karen said. “Given the impact of Covid-19 and remote learning, I am grateful for the resilience of our students, as they have kept up withand exceeded the requirements forour challenging readings and discussions.”

Given the impact of Covid-19 and remote learning, I am grateful for the resilience of our students, as they have kept up withand exceeded the requirements forour challenging readings and discussions.

In addition to teaching, Karen is conducting research and has a broad range of research interests–from interdisciplinary approaches to understanding writing across disciplines to science communication and intellectual property and copyright in writing. In addition, she is interested in computers and writing (including the impacts of distributed publication systems and online learning management systems) and international writing programs.

Recently, Karen began collaborating with Professor Jonathan Alexander at UC Irvine and Professor Carl Whithaus at UC Davis on a project to better understand the writing of University of California alumni 3 to 10 years after receiving their degree. “As writing scholars, we are interested in how writers develop over time and in response to new contexts,” Karen explained. Their project started when Karen realized that Professor Alexander, Professor Whithaus, and herself, were all conducting related studies at their local campuses on how students and recent graduates used writing outside of their college courses. They decided to combine their efforts into a larger project to answer four main questions 1) What types of writing do alumni do in all aspects of their lives? 2) How do they determine what, when, and how to write? 3) How do they determine what counts as meaningful or valuable writing? and 4) What do alumni continue to learn about writing after graduation?

For this project, Karen and her colleagues are currently conducting a pilot version of their study and are planning to roll out a larger version to alumni from their respective campuses over the next year. Based on the pilot study, the three professors published a paper, Toward Wayfinding: A Metaphor for Understanding Writing Experiences, in the journal Written Communication. “Wayfinding is a technical term used in disparate fields (such as architecture and design) to describe how human beings orient themselves within an environment, and then use cues to develop pathways through that environment,” explained Karen. “In terms of writing, [it] captures how individual alumni move among different contexts for writing, and how they continue to develop new ways of writingsome anticipated, and some unexpected.” Though still in its early stages, their research project has already yielded interesting results. “So far, we have been surprised by the extent to which emotion serves as a cue to orient writers towards new understandings of what they need, and want, their writing to do within a specific context, even professional contexts,” said Karen.

Eventually, Karen and her collaborators aim to expand their study to include alumni from all nine UC campuses, which would make their study one of the largest studies of alumni writing ever conducted.

Join us in welcoming Karen to the CCS Community!