How one UChicago scholar has shaped writing for generations of students

Larry McEnerney, AM’80, reflects on 40 years of teaching in the Little Red Schoolhouse

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

In 1978, Larry McEnerney was a graduate student and an aspiring literature scholar at the University of Chicago when he witnessed faculty members Joseph M. Williams and Gregory Colomb engaged in rigorous debate over the craft of writing.

“I had this sense of being present at the creation,” McEnerney said. At the time, he was training to help teach a course on high-level professional and academic writing—the first iteration of what would become the Little Red Schoolhouse.

“I remember vividly Monday nights in the fall quarter, over in Cobb Hall, when we would come in expecting to be trained, and it would be three hours of Joe and Greg arguing with each other about writing,” McEnerney said. “On the one hand, it was terrifying because we were going to have to teach a course when we didn’t know what the content of the course was going to be. On the other hand, it was thrilling.”

This spirit of debate would ignite his passion for writing and transform his career.

McEnerney became one of the 12 initial graduate students to teach writing seminars in the Little Red Schoolhouse. Now entering retirement after more than 40 years with the University, he leaves the course as one many alumni cite as one of the most memorable—and useful—experiences during their studies.

“It's not particularly interesting that experts are bad at writing to non-experts. What else would you expect?” he said. “But it’s puzzling that experts tend to be bad at writing to other experts. You would think they'd be good at that. They share the same vocabulary, training and knowledge. You would think their writing would be really good. And instead they endlessly complain about each other's writing.”

The Little Red Schoolhouse addresses this predicament. In 10 intense weeks, the curriculum unpacks the demands of expert writing and prepares students convey their work to a variety of audiences.

McEnerney’s legacy extends beyond the Schoolhouse. He also directed the University Writing Program, which not only oversees the Little Red Schoolhouse curriculum, but also helps every first-year undergraduate through the Humanities Core. The program now teaches more than 2,000 members of the University community each year and also supports pedagogical experiences for graduate students and the College Core Tutoring Program, making it a fixture of a UChicago education.

“Larry has enriched the lives of many, many people, in part by modeling a way of working—with text, with teaching,” said Kathy Cochran, who will serve as the interim director of the writing program after McEnerney’s retirement. “Larry’s genius, I think, was to develop a pedagogy and a workplace culture built around a quiet set of spaces for analysis and reflection.  These are spaces in which students make informed, intentional choices about what to cut, add, revise in their written work.”

The Schoolhouse gets its start

As a graduate student, McEnerney’s mentor was Williams, who co-founded the Little Red Schoolhouse course. When McEnerney found his career as a literature scholar wasn’t progressing, he discovered a new interest in writing through Williams.

“I discovered that I was bad at scholarship because I didn't like literature, which is a bad combination. By sheer luck, I had met Joe because he was one of the examiners on my preliminary oral exam as a doctoral student,” McEnerney said. “He was sadly disappointed by my grasp of writing. So I went to talk to him about it, and he got me fascinated with what he was doing.”

Though the course’s name reflects a simple and fundamental approach to writing, McEnerney finds that the Little Red Schoolhouse actually responds to the complicated needs of students in various stages of their education.

“There are aspects of writing that are basic skill,” said McEnerney. “But there are aspects of writing that are not basic. The Schoolhouse is a response to a set of problems that don’t arise until you take a particular path in your professional development.”

In his decades of teaching, McEnerney has left his own mark on the Little Red Schoolhouse. His lectures emphasize the value of writing—or what it can achieve for a particular readership. Whether writing a legal brief or a business proposal, a scholarly article or an op-ed, students learn to analyze and address the complexities of their particular audience.

“The more that writing is taught as a standardized skill and is assessed in a standardized way, the more that specifics about readers are erased,” said McEnerney. “What happens is you get a picture of all readers looking for the same thing all the time. What the course does is frame the way that we talk about any text inside the specificity of readers, and the difference between one set of readers and another.”

‘An extraordinary gift’

This past quarter was McEnerney’s last in the classroom—even though the University’s move to remote learning wasn’t how he envisioned heading into retirement.

But McEnerney was well-positioned to take his Schoolhouse lessons online. A keenly focused, energetic lecturer with a quick yet casual wit, he has presented classes online before—a 2015 lecture on “The Craft of Writing Effectively” has over one million views on YouTube.

“I think we’ve had a small taste of converting a novel into a movie,” McEnerney said. “The different media demanded more changes than I expected.”

For him, the pandemic’s impact on campus life felt more profound. McEnerney and his wife Cathe have lived in Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons East and served as resident deans since the building’s opening in 2009. As intellectual stewards to the residential community, the McEnerneys were instrumental in the lives of undergraduate students, providing a support system and hosting events from their annual deans’ Scavenger Hunt to weekly teas in their apartment. During remote learning spring quarter, the pair missed their residents dearly.

“It has been an extraordinary gift for teaching, to live in the dorm, to be able to talk with students in that setting, and get a better understanding of what they value,” McEnerney said.

As he says goodbye to UChicago, McEnerney looks forward to how the Little Red Schoolhouse and the Writing Program will grow and change in the coming years.

“I think that I'll most remember the trajectory of the Schoolhouse,” he said. “I was privileged to have seen it at its beginning, but I’ve also seen how it has transformed, in content, certainly, but also in norms, practices and people. I'll remember the transforming, which I know will continue.”

—This article was first published on the University of Chicago College website