PAB Entry 1: Historical Perspectives

Boquet, E. H. (1999). “Our little secret”: A history of writing centers, pre- to post-open admissions. College Composition and Communication, 50 (3), 463-483.

In this essay, Boquet traces the history of writing centers with the central question: are they a place or a method? Boquet suggests that the early 20th century incarnations of writing centers, writing labs, focused on method. These early writing labs were not external to the classroom, but instead conducted through monitored in-class writing. She then traces the shift in the 1940s to autonomous spaces–some were conceived as grammar fix-it shops, and thus were seen as sites of remediation; others, benefiting from the rise of psychotherapy in the 1940s drew on the method of Rogerian non-directive methods–to the 1970s when writing centers were called upon to work with nontraditional students entering institutions as part of open admissions policies. Some of these labs used auto-tutorials, or the use of audiotapes and workbooks to drill students on perceived deficiencies:


While others championed individual instruction, often through the use of peer tutoring:


Boquet argues that the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by negotiating the place of writing centers within composition studies and the work to professionalize the field through the creation of national organizations (National Writing Center Association, now the International Writing Centers Association) and publications (The Writing Lab Newsletter and The Writing Center Journal). Boquet’s central question and the various incarnations of writing centers she describes made me think about my Writing Center and how I not only conceive of the work we do, but also communicate that to others. I find that even for myself there is a tension between describing what we/are do as place and methodology when I talk about the Writing Center. Also, since this article only covers to the turn of the twenty-first century, I am curious to find out how the writing center have been conceived or have changed in the years since.

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46 (5), 433-446.

This essay addresses non-writing center scholars and professionals within English studies to explain not only the theory or guiding principle of writing centers, but also to remind these readers of their ignorance on these matters. He notes that despite strides in the field of composition towards complex notions of writing, many still perceive writing centers as simply remedial services. North argues that though instructors only think to recommend students to the writing center for mechanics or grammar, writing center professionals are concerned with helping the writer holistically, focusing not on just the individual assignment, but writing skills generally. He claims that all students can benefit from the chance to talk about and through their writing with someone willing to listen. He wants those from English departments to respect the work of the writing center and educate themselves on its mission so they can help educate those outside the department. North suggests his essay is a “declaration of independence” from composition studies, crafting writing centers as a unique field with unique interests and methods from the composition classroom.


One of his central claims is, “Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing. Any given project-a class assignment, a law school application letter, an encyclopedia entry, a dissertation proposal-is for the writer the prime, often the exclusive concern. That particular text, its success or failure, is what brings them to talk to us in the first place. In the center, though, we look beyond or through that particular project, that particular text, and see it as an occasion for addressing our primary concern, the process by which it is produced.” This is a quote I have used as part of writing tutor orientations, asking tutors to read and see the extent that they feel this describes the work they do, and the tension this notion creates with student expectations of the writing center. North’s “Idea” has become a foundational document in shaping writing center theory and how the writing center community talks about the work of writing centers.

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