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The Write Stuff

Kathi Inman Berens of USC College’s Writing Program rhapsodizes about online journals — and explains why women have trouble being funny.

The Write Stuff

She may have grown up in Boring, Ore., but Kathi Inman Berens is anything but. Five years ago, she and Norah Ashe-McNalley, a fellow senior lecturer in the Writing Program at USC College, created AngeLingo, an interdisciplinary online journal for arts and humanities that now has readers on five continents. The journal spotlights the best student writing at USC, along with daily blogs. Berens, a zealot for good writing, also organizes the popular Undergraduate Writers’ Conference each year, where students present their work and win significant cash prizes.

Allison Engel of USC University Relations recently picked Berens’ brain about the journal, the conference and the wit of women.

What’s in your current issue?

There are illustrated articles on how to unclog L.A.’s overcrowded freeways, international game culture, gender expectations that impede male nurses and an analysis of the abiding debate about the existence of God. We publish creative works too. Everything’s written, edited, designed, illustrated and coded by USC College students.

How did AngeLingo get its name?

It’s a riff on “L.A.” — we’re the mirror image, “A.L.” AngeLingo invokes the many languages we speak in Los Angeles and at USC — the academic and professional, the educated lay public and the street-savvy. One of our editors a couple of years ago, David Radcliff, came up with our motto: “Adding depth to the Pacific.”

What have you learned from the online engineering journal Illumin, started earlier at the USC Viterbi School?

Steve Bucher of the Engineering Writing Program, who started Illumin, was and is our inspiration. We used to have offices next to each other. Steve told us about USC’s Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching, where we received a grant to create the journal in 2003. We’re grateful that the College has funded us ever since.

Illumin is downloaded in 80 different countries. Do you have any idea of AngeLingo’s reach?

We opened up a Google Analytics account, which lets us see. We get about 3,500 unique visitors every month. Students from around the world e-mail us to ask if they can cite our research essays in their own work. We have an archive of all our previous essays, and by now it’s a substantial warehouse of about 200 essays and creative pieces. About one-third of our readers are located in SoCal. The other two-thirds exist in small clusters all around Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and North America. The glory of powerful search engines is that our content gets picked up in all kinds of places I wouldn’t have anticipated.

Do you have an example?

Well, you know you’ve made it when you’ve been plagiarized. A piece called “Serial Egg Donation” about a woman who donated eggs in 12 separate rounds — you can imagine the hormones coursing through her body — got picked up by a popular Internet news site, reworded and attributed to a different author. Talk about real-world professional experience for our editors and the author!

Why did you think students would respond to AngeLingo?

One of our ideas was that, gee, everyone at the university has to take a required writing course, and how could we demonstrate to students that this GE isn’t just killing time, that you can have a rich exploration and produce something that goes beyond the campus walls? And we had read so many great student essays that had been produced and then just went the way of the dodo — off to the shredder, never to see the readership they deserve.

Tell me about the Undergraduate Writers’ Conference.

It’s an annual event every spring. The message at the event is that writing skills get people good jobs across all disciplines. Last year’s keynoter was Peter Horan, who is the CEO of media and advertising for IAC Interactive Corp. He’s one of Barry Diller’s right-hand men and does huge deals. And he was an English major. He wrote the very first manual for the very first video game, which was Pong. He thinks that having been an English major is what equipped him to do stuff that hadn’t existed before.

What’s the top prize for the writing competition at the conference?

$1,000. Isn’t that incredible? I have some faculty friends who want to submit! The provost kindly added to our coffers and made the writing prizes much more substantial than they were before.

Your Ph.D. dissertation was on women wits. Why are there so few?

It actually was on one wit, Letitia Pilkington, a protégé of Jonathan Swift. Women and comedy is a really rich topic. One of my students wrote a research paper called “Can Women Be Funny?,” which the AngeLingo editors published a year or so ago. Comedy is one of the last bastions of the boys’ club. When you think about how humor works, there’s always some kind of cruelty and embarrassment involved. In the 18th century, it was bad manners to laugh out loud, which is why people tittered, because when you laugh, you expose. You open your mouth and you expose your inside. Funny women have to struggle with prescriptions of modesty in a way that men don’t. And that helps to explain why there are so few female stand-up comics.

Are you funny?

I can be. I try to be. My 6-year-old daughter certainly thinks so.