Mentor, Model, and Caring Advocate, Rebecca Burnett Retires After 13 Years at Georgia Tech; Named Professor Emerita

Posted July 27, 2020

Rebecca Burnett, the Class of ’58 Endowed Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC) and director of the Writing and Communication Program (WCP) at Georgia Tech, will retire August 1. She has been appointed Professor Emerita.

Burnett joined Georgia Tech in 2007. She innovated the WOVEN approach to teaching and learning communication, emphasizing rhetoric, process, multimodality (written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal), collaboration, and assessment. The program serves all Georgia Tech students, some 5,000 to 6,000 a year who take WCP courses. With a goal of creating a culture of communication across the whole campus, the program also positioned Georgia Tech, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and LMC as an international model.

“Dr. Burnett transformed WCP into an integral pa­rt of education at Georgia Tech, introducing students to academic rigor at our institution, helping them to become more capable communicators, and involving them in the campus life and community,” said Richard Utz, professor and chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication. “Because of Dr. Burnett’s leadership, Georgia Tech is known for an outstanding program in multimodal communication.”

Under Burnett’s leadership, the National Council of Teachers of English presented WCP with a national Media Literacy Award, recognizing the program for “persistent, innovative, and imaginative application of media analysis and media composition in English studies.”

Utz also said that the LMC Academic Program Review External Review Committee Report noted that WCP “presents one of the most innovative and effective ways to handle institution-wide writing requirements in the country.”

Burnett’s leadership also encompassed hiring, training, and mentoring 40 Brittain Postdoctoral Fellows and lecturers who teach WCP classes; overseeing the renovation of the Stephen C. Hall Building (which houses the Writing and Communication Program) and the construction of the campus-wide Communication Center (now the Helen H. Naugle CommLab); and sustaining donor relations to make such enhancements possible. Some of Burnett’s accomplishments included creating a professional development program for WCP faculty; supporting the design and development of WOVENText, WCP’s required textbook for English 1101 and English 1102; establishing WCP’s portfolio assessment system; and linking technical communication with a client-based capstone course in computing.

Burnett received her B.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, her M.Ed. with a dual focus in Curriculum and in Administration from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and her M.A. in English and Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University. Prior to joining LMC, she was a professor of rhetoric and professional communication in the Department of English at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, where she is University Professor Emerita.

Burnett’s research and teaching interests include professional and technical communication; collaboration, groups, and teams; multimodality; communication assessment; communication in the disciplines and professions; risk communication, and intercultural/international communication. She has been invited to share her curricular and pedagogical approaches in a number of countries, including Canada, Mexico, several in the European Union, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia.

When she came to Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts in 2007, WCP was in a nascent stage and connections with other units were minimal. Burnett developed strong partnerships for the program with other colleges including the College of Business and the College of Computing; Office of the Arts; Serve-Learn-Sustain; the Astrobiology Program; the Paper Museum; the Athletic Association; Effective Team Dynamics; the Center for Women, Science, and Technology (WST); and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Carol Colatrella, professor in LMC, associate dean of Graduate Studies and Faculty Development, and co-director of WST, said that Burnett brought significant service to Ivan Allen College and exceptional strengths as teacher, scholar, and administrator. Her previous experience as director of communication programs and her extensive scholarly expertise in pedagogies and practices of technical, business, and professional communication contributed to effective program-building.

Early in her tenure at Georgia Tech, Burnett developed sections of composition and technical communication that introduced discipline-specific multimodal courses to engage students in communication activities and discussions particular to their majors. For example, science and engineering majors explored ethical and sociological ramifications of scientific advancements such as cloning, transgenics, and genetic enhancement as they appear in film and literature. Architecture majors focused on ways in which representations of space and the built environment in literature and media become staging grounds for constructing, defending, and renegotiating definitions of both individual and national identity.

The WOVEN approach to communication stimulates students to create, analyze, interpret, and use written, oral, and visual artifacts in face-to-face situations as well as in print and digital media.

Burnett said, “By approaching courses that draw on faculty expertise and are highly relevant to students' interests, we heighten learning of communication strategies that are vital to success in both community and work worlds.”

Burnett’s accomplishments were recognized by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents in 2018 when they awarded Burnett the Regents Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award. The Board of Regents noted that Burnett “has contributed to national and international conversations on teaching and learning, including program development, mentorship, learning spaces, and digital pedagogy.” Burnett was lauded for her ability to embed the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)—a growing movement in post-secondary education that uses discovery, reflection, and evidence-based methods to research effective teaching and student learning—into her own teaching, research, and professional service.

Burnett’s research reaches far beyond Georgia Tech and has helped to encourage SoTL research at the local, state, and national levels through mentoring, presentations, workshops, publications, and hybrid and online courses. Her decades-long teacher training in Mississippi characterizes her commitment to outreach. Her collaborative MOOC, Composition 2.0, supported by a Gates Foundation grant, contributed to Georgia Tech’s early MOOC initiative.  

Her books and textbooks focus primarily on technical and business communication, while the research in her refereed, scholarly articles and book chapters contributed to the shaping of Georgia Tech’s multimodal curriculum and the robust support she provided to Brittain Postdoctoral Fellows.

Burnett was editor-in-chief of a major peer-reviewed international research and pedagogy journal for five years; during this period, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication received 15 national awards for “best article” in the discipline. Burnett also served as a member of the editorial advisory boards of two journals and one scholarly digital press, a committee member and later chair of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Technical Communication Committee for 18 years, and in the 5-year elected position on the Modern Languages Association’s Teaching as a Profession Committee (2013-2018). She served on the Georgia Board of Regents Advisory Committees on Communication (RACC) and on English (ACE).

While most of her responsibilities were focused on administrative tasks, including the Regents committees, Burnett remained an innovative classroom teacher and an active scholar. She created and taught successful courses in visual communication, technical narrative, and risk communication. Her Technical Communication textbook (Wadsworth/International Thomson) was revised through six editions. Her scholarship appeared in highly visible refereed journals including Computers & Composition, Written Communication, the Journal of Advanced Composition, STC’s Technical Communication, and Technical Communication Quarterly.

Many of her handbooks and reference volumes about pedagogy, assessment, collaboration, and other topics made their way around the world. She had an extensive background in workplace training and consulting, including work as an expert witness, especially involving instructions and workplace safety.

Burnett has received other awards, including from Georgia Tech’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, from the Association for Business Communication (ABC), and from the Society for Technical Communication (STC): The Writing and Communication Program was recently named as Georgia Tech’s 2020 Unit Diversity Champion Award Winner, recognizing WCP’s commitment to accessibility, excellence, diversity, equity, and inclusion. ABC honored Burnett with the Meada Gibbs Outstanding Teaching Award, acknowledging her significant disciplinary contributions, outstanding teaching experience, and a strong record of research and professional practice on a large scale, including major program innovations, authorship of widely used textbooks, and an international reach related to pedagogy. STC’s Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication honored Burnett for “excellence in teaching that becomes true academic mentorship.”

Remembrances of Burnett from WCP Friends and Faculty

Stephen C. Hall, Colonel USAF (Ret.), professor of the practice, Literature, Media, and Communication, and donor of the Hall Building which houses WCP wrote, “Pam and I met Rebecca after we had committed to the Building; it was immediately apparent to us that the right person was in place to husband our interests. Over the years we exchanged ideas and experiences, blending the academic world with the world of business, sharing best practices from both. Becca was always open to my personal lessons from the commercial world, and was willing to apply those lessons in her curricula. By the same token, she was more than willing to mentor me on the latest techniques for writing and speaking, even to the extent of giving me homework assignments! Pam, Becca, and I share a love of the language, a love that has been made manifest in the Writing and Communication Program."

Andy Frazee, Ph.D. and WCP associate director wrote, “Rebecca has been a wonderful friend and mentor to me and to many, many others—and not just the Brittain Fellows she oversees as part of her job but colleagues across campus. Over the years, she's built Georgia Tech's Writing and Communication Program into a model for innovative teaching and faculty professional development for academic units across the world. Through the program, she has helped scores of postdocs to meaningful work both inside and outside academia. Perhaps most important, she has led the program with compassion and care for the program's faculty and for Georgia Tech students. While she is absolutely dedicated to the work of teaching, learning, and leading at Georgia Tech, she’s also a great advocate for living a well-rounded life. She’d often suggest to me and others, faculty and students and staff alike, to take a break, have fun, and be with our loved ones. She approaches her work as an act of love, and we’re all the better for it.” 

Sarah Higinbotham, Ph.D., former Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow, currently assistant director of English at Emory University-Oxford College wrote, “What Rebecca did for me as a Brittain Fellow transcends her professional generosity, her mentorship, and her unrelenting advocacy. Her gifts to me were more than coaching me through my first book or counseling me on how to navigate teaching three classes. She was a wonderful director, but also much more than that: Rebecca’s most invaluable legacy has been modeling a balance of strength and love. Because while Rebecca’s strength was evident in every meeting, email, and event, she also emanated love—and to love is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s not easy to be a woman trying to balance both strength and vulnerability, but she showed me how to care deeply about our work, our colleagues, our students, and our institution, while at the same time commanding respect. I learned this balance from Rebecca. And I felt her fierce love for me in a thousand ways during my three years at Georgia Tech.”

Courtney Hoffman, Ph.D., WCP assistant director and Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow wrote, “I’ve been lucky enough to have exceptional mentors throughout my life, but Rebecca rises above the rest. She has empowered me in so many ways. From her confidence in me both as a pedagogue and an administrator to her empathy and care for my personal well-being, she demonstrates her genuine concern for me as a colleague and as a person. She has been a tireless advocate for all WCP faculty. Rebecca has helped me to see myself and my work through new lenses, which only makes sense given her artistic vision as a prolific photographer. She inspires her colleagues to be the teacher and scholar she sees them to be. Her work ethic is unmatched, and she offers opportunity after opportunity to join her in her scholarship, her management of WCP, and her advocacy for her colleagues. Rebecca not only talks the talk of collaboration, she actively walks the walk. I cannot express how deeply I will miss seeing and talking with her daily for the rest of my time at Tech.”

We thank Dr. Burnett for her years of dedication, service, and leadership in LMC and WCP, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and to the many students at Georgia Tech and beyond who have benefited from her scholarship and innovation.

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Rebecca Keane
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