'Time to be thankful'

May 13, 2016

Steve Gerson, tech writing professor, will a) give commencement address, b) get a national award, c) retire after 38 years, d) all of the above

Steve Gerson, professor of English, is a happy man.

It’s not just because he’s retiring after 38 years at Johnson County Community College. It’s not because he’s been chosen for a prestigious national award. And it isn’t even because he’s been chosen to be the commencement speaker for graduation on May 20.

It’s because all of these splendid, life-changing events are happening in the same week – this week – and Gerson can’t believe his good fortune.

“When I won the Jay R. Gould Award (for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication), I thought that was going to be the capstone of my career. Then Dr. Sopcich (president of the college) invited me to be the commencement speaker, and now I think that is the capstone of my career,” he said.

“My final act here on campus will be to give the commencement speech. Is that not a cool way to go out?”

Building a tech writing program

By Gerson’s recollection, it’s been 25 years since a JCCC faculty member gave the address at graduation. Gerson should know. He’s been a faculty member at JCCC for 38 years.

“It was 1978, and I was hired to teach composition. There were five building then, and the trees were five feet high,” he recalled. “I fell in love with this school immediately. It had such promise. It still does, don’t get me wrong, but you could just feel its promise back then.”

He fell into his life’s work by chance. His department chair asked the faculty if anyone would be interested in creating a technical writing class. “My hand shot up,” Gerson said. “I knew nothing about technical writing. But I wanted to be a valuable member of the department.”

He started researching technical writing the next day. His first class had two students.

Fast forward to 2016: Gerson teaches 13 sections of technical writing with an enrollment of more than 300.

“I am the totality of the tech writing program at JCCC,” Gerson said. “It’s worked because I’m a pragmatic person. Technical writing is pragmatic: here’s a skill you can use on your job.”

Writing the definitive textbook

He and his wife Sharon have authored nine editions of the textbook “Technical Communication: Process and Product.” She taught technical writing at DeVry University for two decades, and their books and their 46-year marriage are evidence of Gerson’s comment, “We are the second half of each other.”

The book, because of the nature of its topic, had to stay current. “Do you know why the first edition had no information in it about email? Because email didn’t exist,” he said.

In the ninth edition, “Technical Communication” covers writing for LinkedIn, Twitter and other forms of social media.

Jobs #3 and #4

Gerson also taught writing for people in business with Steve Gerson Consulting. He estimates he provided businesses presentations in tech writing, business writing and “where to put the comma” since 1980, averaging 20 or so presentations a year.

If you count father to his two daughters as his fourth job (and both now have doctorates, he’ll proudly say), he’s had a lot to manage.

“Coffee is the key to success,” he said. “Really, I’m not kidding. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Gerson will pick up the Jay R. Gould Award at the annual Society for Technical Communication convention in Anaheim, California. The award, given to only two educators a year, means a lot to Gerson. So does the chance to address JCCC graduates.

“It’s a time to be thankful,” he said.

What others say

His officemate of 15 years, Jim McWard, professor of English, wrote, “Steve is probably one of the most approachable professors at JCCC for students.”
Candice Millard, author of JCCC’s 2015-16 Common Read selection titled “Destiny of the Republic,” wrote this of Gerson: “Like most people, I can name several teachers who made an impression on me, who taught me something I’ll never forget.  When I look back over my life, I can think of only one teacher who left an indelible mark—Steve Gerson.”
 Another former student, Molly Reinmuth, shared: “Dr. Gerson’s enthusiasm is infectious. He has a source of energy that never runs dry. His passion, dedication, and drive for the success of his students distinguishes him as an educator. He challenged me when I needed to be challenged and showed support when I needed support. Most of all Dr. Gerson gave me a chance—a lasting impression to say the least.”