Obituary: Erwin Steinberg / Longtime English professor at CMU

Nov. 20, 1920 - Oct. 2, 2012


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As a professor of English and rhetoric for 60 years at Carnegie Mellon University and its predecessor, Erwin R. Steinberg saw the beauty of the language, whether it was the stream-of-consciousness writing of James Joyce or straight-to-the-point technical writing.

"He didn't see them as contradictory. He saw them as a range of what you could accomplish with the English language," said Chris Neuwirth, head of the CMU department of English.

His talents were as broad as the English he loved.

Not only was he a respected scholar of Joyce and technical writer, but he also was the dean of the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College from 1960 to 1973; the first dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, now the Dietrich College, from 1965 to 1975; and the first vice provost of education from 1991 to 1996. He retired in 2007.

He was the Thomas S. Baker Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies from 1981 to 1993.

"Erwin just took joy in all aspects of academic life: scholarship, teaching and administration," said Ms. Neuwirth.

Mr. Steinberg died Tuesday of pneumonia at St. Clair Hospital. He was 91.

He and his wife of 58 years, Beverly, lived for many years in Highland Park, later moving to Oakland and more recently to Providence Point in Mt. Lebanon.

Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Steinberg, who was a professor emeritus at the time of his death, started at the university in 1946 when it was the Carnegie Institute of Technology and stayed after it became CMU in 1967.

"I think it was home for him, and it was just good to teach at home," said his son Alan of Forest Hills.

In 2006, CMU dedicated an auditorium-style classroom in Baker Hall in his honor as the Steinberg Auditorium.

Around the same time, the Erwin R. Steinberg Master's of Professional Writing Scholarship was established for the English department.

The scholarship goes to a third-semester student in the master's program who excels in the style course, which he taught for years, emphasizing clear and effective writing.

"It was a course students said changed their lives. They draw on it completely in terms of their professional careers," Ms. Neuwirth said. "He took good writers and made them even better."

Beyond the impact on individual students, Mr. Steinberg also had a large impact on his department.

"Erwin significantly shaped the English department as it exists today," said Ms. Neuwirth.

In 1958, Mr. Steinberg spearheaded establishing a bachelor's degree in technical writing and editing, one of the first degrees anywhere in the field.

In the late 1970s, Ms. Neuwirth said, he "basically forged our interdisciplinary connections with cognitive psychology. That research resulted in our department becoming nationally known for its work in cognitive processes and writing."

His son, who read student evaluations, said, "He demanded his students to work hard, to think and do well."

Ms. Neuwirth, who considered him her mentor, said, "He embodied the Carnegie Mellon model: My heart is in the work.

"He was certainly very much all business. I can still hear him clapping, 'OK, people' to get a meeting started. He liked to run on time and end on time.

"You can see where someone who accomplished as much as he did had that kind of drive."

As vice provost for education, Mr. Steinberg's task was to improve the university's undergraduate education. Over his five-year tenure, freshman applicants more than doubled, and a greater percentage of freshmen returned for the sophomore year.

Mr. Steinberg earned a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Albany; a master's degree from the State University of New York; and a doctorate from New York University.

He served in the Army Air Forces in World War II. He also was an author and a communications consultant to industry as well as government and community organizations. He enjoyed playing doubles tennis.

In addition to his wife and son Alan, he is survived by another son, Marc of Northampton, Mass., and a grandson. Services are private.

obituaries

Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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