Joseph Williams, Little Red Schoolhouse founder, dead at 74

By Robyn Gee

University of Chicago professor emeritus Joseph M. Williams, author of several ground-breaking books on writing pedagogy and the English language, died of heart failure on Friday, February 22, at his home in South Haven, MI. He was 74.

Williams was one of the original founders of the University’s renowned Little Red Schoolhouse writing program, which teaches students to write for both professional and academic audiences.

During his tenure at the University, Williams authored The Origins of the English Language, a history of the English language since the evolution of man, and Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. After its initial publication, Williams’s Style quickly acquired wide acclaim among academics as the definitive guide for writing, ranking alongside Strunk and White’s long-established Elements of Style. Williams eventually used the content in Style as a template for the Little Red Schoolhouse course curriculum.

Williams was interested in producing writing that considered the reader’s perspective, said University of Virginia professor Gregory Colomb, a longtime colleague of Williams’s at the U of C English department. Along with colleague Frank Kinahan, the three academics researched English teaching methods, as well as reader responses to specialized writing in designing their writing course.

“What I discovered was the importance of story,” Williams said in an interview with The University of Chicago Chronicle, reflecting on the outcome of his work as a researcher, teacher, and writer.

The collaboration among Williams and his colleagues culminated in a lecture series on writing for U of C undergraduates.

“We first had the idea for the lectures that eventually led to the Schoolhouse at a poker game,” Colomb said in an interview with the MAROON. Colomb said that he and his colleagues were frustrated with the writing instruction available to undergraduate students at that time and decided to offer a series of lectures to fourth-years. They toyed with names such as Remedial Writing for the Advantaged Student, according to Colomb but ultimately decided on the Little Red Schoolhouse. These lectures turned into a full course, which became the University’s writing program in 1981. Over the decades, more than 10,000 students enrolled in the program.

Colomb said that the course curriculum was developed “on the fly,” adding that the trio eventually crafted a methodology that analyzed common features in texts and readers’ typical responses to those texts.

He joined the U of C faculty as an assistant professor of English literature in 1965 and received the University’s Quantrell Award for undergraduate teaching excellence and the 2006 Golden Pen Award for legal writing. He retired from the English department in 1999.

He received his A.B. and A.M. from Miami University in Ohio and his Ph.D. in English and linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-–Madison.

“His energy stemmed from his confidence that he had something valuable to offer: He wanted your attention because he knew he could help you,” said Lawrence McEnerney, current director of the University’s writing program.

Memorial services will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 11, at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 South Woodlawn Avenue.