UW News

May 31, 2007

Jan Spyridakis

Jan Spyridakis, of the College of Engineering’s Department of Technical Communication, is the kind of professor who can inspire students in a spirited discussion of an unlikely topic — syntax and semantics. “[She] made me look at grammar from a whole new point of view,” wrote one student on a course evaluation form. “[Her] class was one of the best of my academic career,” wrote another.

By day, Spyridakis mentors graduate students and devotes herself to cutting edge research on document design, usability and research methods, receiving eight awards for her research. But by night, she teaches working professionals in the highly-regarded Certificate Programs in Technical Writing and Editing and User-Centered Design administered by UW Extension.

Long recognized for her teaching prowess, Spyridakis is the recipient of numerous teaching honors including a UW Distinguished Teaching Award and the 2004 Jay R. Gould Excellence in Teaching Award from the Society for Technical Communication. But her devotion to her evening duties — she’s served as lead instructor since helping found the certificate program in 1989 — proves her special commitment to continuing adult education.

She’s taught more than 700 nonmatriculated students, with a high percentage of graduates launching a new career or progressing significantly in the field. Boeing, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Google and Amgen are just a few of the organizations where you’ll find Spyridakis-trained professionals. “Everyone out there deserves a chance” to enter and succeed in the field, she said.

And “everyone out there” describes the certificate program roster. There are computer science professionals, but also doctors, lawyers, teachers, business professionals and people with a variety of liberal arts backgrounds. Many are already working in lower capacities in the field, such as a former student who soared in her career at Immunex after gaining her credentials.

About one-third are changing or broadening their careers. These include the veterinarian who wanted to make better pet care information available and tech professionals who see that communicating about technology may be rewarding in a different way.

Spyridakis engages them all. “The diamond of the program is Dr. Jan Spyridakis … She is the most rigorous teacher I’ve ever had, but she’s not to be missed … Egos are not allowed in her class; each student receives her incisive criticism … and learns more than they thought they could,” wrote Tina Carter for Seattlewritergrrls.org.

It’s clear that Spyridakis values the diverse backgrounds of her students. “They are a uniquely eager group,” she said, “up for discussion of rhetorical issues of language. They also see immediate application in their jobs. They make great students because they are determined. Anyone who has gone to school in the evening after working a day job has to be determined.”

Students, she said, keep her current about what’s going on in the workplace.

They influence her thinking about what is relevant to their careers today, which shapes the curriculum for day students as well. “Jan is renowned for zeroing in on each student’s writing weakness, working and working them until they improve,” said Andy Hoover, director of academic programs for Educational Outreach.

Over and over again on course evaluation forms, students confirm this.

But her “dryly humorous stories provide a welcome balance to the intensity,” said Carter on Seattlewritergrrls.org.

All the while, Spyridakis is imparting knowledge and skills of immediate practical application in the workplace. “This course was so relevant and useful! I was certainly enriched by taking it,” said one student.

But Spyridakis doesn’t stop with immediate interests. “Students come in saying, ‘teach me to write a proposal, a grant,’ etc., focusing on a product,” she said. “But we want to teach the communication process, so they can use it in any situation. If you identify user needs and criteria for developing a solution, you should be able to come up with any product you need.”

Perhaps one of the best endorsements of Spyridakis’ teaching is this: Two of the Technical Communication department’s doctoral students and at least 10 of their master’s students went through the certificate program and came back for more.