Janet Swenson Retires After 23 Years at MSU

a woman with short blonde hair wearing a green shirt leaning on a rock

Over the course of her career, including 23 years at Michigan State University, Janet Swenson has witnessed and accomplished a great deal while positively impacting a generation of students, teachers and writers. The former associate professor in Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC) and associate dean of Outreach and Community Engagement in the College of Arts & Letters retired August 1st.

Swenson, a Wyandotte, Michigan native, who earned her bachelors, masters and PhD from MSU, began her career as a middle school and high school teacher in Flint, MI. As part of her faculty development responsibilities at the GASC Technology Center in Flint, she helped create a women’s Vo-Tech program that became recognized nationally.

“It was an era when female students were greatly underrepresented in well paying, skilled trade positions such as carpenter, pipefitter, electrician and the like,” Swenson says. “We developed the Manufacturing Technology Partnership (MTP) program to help young women interested in entering these fields develop needed job skills and enhanced literacy skills.”

The National Organization of Women (NOW) named MTP one of the Top 10 Programs in America, and Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Bill in 1993 to expand programs like MTP. Not only was Swenson invited by President Clinton to the Rose Garden bill-signing ceremony, her students built the silk-screened Plexiglas and tubular metal desk for the signing, assembling it on the front lawn of the White House as major news outlets interviewed them.

It was an era when female students were greatly underrepresented in well paying, skilled trade positions such as carpenter, pipefitter, electrician and the like.

Soon after, Swenson, who was working on her PhD in English at MSU, was contacted by then MSU Writing Center Director Patti Stock (Professor Emeritus Patricia Lambert Stock). Swenson was offered and accepted a position at the center as associate editor of the national journal English Education, and as director of the Write for Your Life Project (funded by the Bingham Trust) that began as a K-12/university collaboration in three states and expanded to ten.

In 1993, Swenson, Stock and others cofounded the Red Cedar Writing Project (RCWP), MSU’s site of the National Writing Project, which Swenson has led for the past 22 years. A university-based program for K–16 teachers, NWP makes central the knowledge, leadership, and best practices of effective teachers, and promotes the sharing of that knowledge with other teachers.

Succeeding Stock as Writing Center director in 2000, Swenson lead the center for seven years before being contacted by then College of Arts & Letters Dean and Professor of German Karin A. Wurst.

group of teachers taking a photo all in the same green shirt
Janet Swenson with 2015 Red Cedar Writing Project Teachers

“Karin asked if I’d be interested in the position of associate dean of undergraduate affairs,” Swenson says. “I truly loved my work in the Writing Center and was hesitant, at first, to say yes.”

Ultimately, with her assistant, David Sheridan, ready to assume the director’s role, Swenson agreed, serving as assistant dean for Undergraduate Student Affairs for the next seven years.

“Initially, I saw that, while the undergraduate affairs staff members were all highly intelligent and motivated, we needed to identify common outcomes so we could work at full strength across individual projects and responsibilities. Together, we studied outcomes of top-notch programs to which we could aspire and then, in weekly meetings, linked our accomplishments to progress on those outcomes.”

“One of the things the team developed was the first-year experience for CAL students,” Swenson says, “after noting research that demonstrated the potential impact on student retention and involvement. We also focused on strengthening and growing the co-curriculum from study abroad to study away; from national internships to international internships; and from a CAL Student Advisory Board to CAL Student Ambassadors. Even traditional events like Colloquium, Convocation, and Commencement as well as print materials were studied to determine how they could contribute to desired outcomes.”

I’ve had a great run up to this point, and I’m looking forward to turning the page and beginning a new chapter.

In addition, Swenson secured funding from Associate Provost Douglas Estry to start the undergraduate research program CAL-URI (many of its aspects were later adopted by the university); as well as funding from the Office of Inclusion for creation of a CAL Teaching Commons.

In 2013, following success in securing approximately $2 million in grant funding to support community outreach focused on improving the teaching of writing, Swenson was offered and accepted the College’s first associate deanship in Outreach and Community Engagement. Along with allowing her to focus more fully on the Red Cedar Writing Project and its auxiliary programs (Spartan Writing Camp, Greenrock High School Writing Retreat, etc.), the position allowed her to begin supporting CAL faculty members’ research and service in Flint.

As for retirement, Swenson says two main factors led to her decision.

“It was a case of timing and shifting priorities,” Swenson says. “My husband David retired a couple years ago, and we both want to spend more time together, and with our children and grandchildren.

“I’ve had a great run up to this point, and I’m looking forward to turning the page and beginning a new chapter.”

Written by: Mike Jenkins | September 04, 2015