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Zigs and zags lead alumna on career path as esteemed professor of professional writing

Kathryn Rentz 2

Kathryn Rentz

A funny thing happened to Kathryn Curle Rentz on her way to becoming a professor of English literature and composition: she fell in love with that English department upstart named professional writing and never looked back.

Rentz, who recently retired as a full professor after 38 years at the University of Cincinnati’s Department of English, blazed her way through WCU with an English degree in 1975, earning the top grade point average in her class and graduating with unwavering encouragement from professors Karl Nicholas and Hal Farwell to seek a higher degree. She did, earning her master’s in English from North Carolina State University, while working as a teaching assistant in the English department. When she finished, WCU wanted her back and she went, spending two years teaching American literature and composition before her colleagues shooed her off to earn a doctorate.

It was at the University of Illinois where Rentz enrolled to get her doctoral degree in English that she offered to teach business and technical writing as a break from literature and composition. She loved it. “It was pivotal because up until that point I had been thinking of myself as a literature scholar and teacher, and when I got into professional writing, I was surprised at how rewarding it was to teach this kind of writing,” she said. “I particularly liked the pragmatism of professional writing. It was a lot less about self-expression and a lot more about problem solving.”

When Rentz and her husband moved to Cincinnati for his job, she began teaching in the university’s English department, eventually helping to establish its professional writing program for English and other majors and laying the groundwork for what would become a decorated career.

Rentz has won teaching awards from her department and from the Association for Business Communication, her primary organizational affiliation outside of the University of Cincinnati.

She has been an associate editor and editor of The International Journal of Business Communication and has served in nearly every leadership position in the ABC, including president. She won the association’s Distinguished Member Award and been named an Association Fellow. She won two publication awards and has been the lead author of a respected business communication textbook, published by McGraw-Hill, for about 12 years.

Reflecting on her own journey, Rentz returns to her literary roots. “Emerson says when you live your life, it looks like you’re zigging and zagging all over the place. But when you turn around and look at your path, you can see that all those zig zags were leading to right where you are,” she said.

Rentz credits WCU professors Nicholas, her freshman English teacher, and Farwell, teacher of several higher level classes, with helping her navigate those early zigs and zags. Nicholas and faculty colleague Jim Nicholl asked Rentz for her approval to use one of her freshman essays in a composition textbook they were co-authoring. “I said yes, of course, so the essay ‘The Three Kinds of Rain in Cullowhee’ became my first publication,” she said. “It was a great comfort to know that someone of Dr. Nicholas's academic stature cared about me and believed in me. I consider him to be my first professional champion and one of my most important ones.”

Later in her undergraduate career, Farwell helped steer Rentz toward the study of literature in graduate school. “The fact that he never questioned my ability to do so meant a great deal to me,” she said. “He was the model of generous academic mentoring and probably had more influence on me, apart from my parents, of any adult in my formative years.”

Kathryn Rentz 1

Rentz, with Chancellor Kelli Brown (right), received the WCU Alumni Association’s Academic Achievement Award for 2021 as part of Homecoming weekend.

While her English professors laid the foundation for her career in academia, Rentz said that courses she took in other areas helped supplement her preparation – including history, biology, economics and courses toward a second major in French. “I got a wonderful well-rounded education at WCU that was enriching to me not only as a person but also as a professional writing teacher, since professional writers have to be quick studies and ‘translators’ in all kinds of settings,” she said.

“I feel hugely indebted to WCU for giving me a great start toward a high-level academic career,” Rentz said. “My studies there also opened up the world to me and helped me understand that I have an obligation as a citizen to use my knowledge and skills for the public good.”

Rentz received the WCU Alumni Association’s Academic Achievement Award for 2021 as part of Homecoming weekend back in October. Nicholas, now professor emeritus of English, was in attendance for the presentation of the award, as was James Byer, Rentz’s Victorian literature professor.

“I remember her as a bright and engaging student with an accent worthy of our region,” Nicholas said. “I did learn somewhere along the way that she had risen to distinction at Cincinnati and was not surprised that she had. She had the right stuff. Seeing her again at her send-up was quite a treat, and I hope to see her again in the future when she and her family come to spend some time at their cabin near Waynesville.”

Brent Kinser, current head of WCU’s Department of English, called Rentz an example of how far one can go in an academic career based on a foundation created at WCU.

“We are all very proud of Dr. Rentz and her accomplishments at the University of Cincinnati, where she helped to develop and grow their professional writing program, and where she became a devoted fan of the Bearcats, which I suppose is not that far from a Catamount,” said Kinser. “But, once a Catamount, always a Catamount, and we applaud her as one of our own for her distinguished career and achievements.”

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