Paper 1: A Historical Exploration of Writing Center Studies

Tracing a history of Writing Center Studies is complicated by a central question: is “writing center” a place or a method? In tracing the history of writing centers, we can see that the answer to this question oscillates during different times and often it is actually both simultaneously. Early incarnations of writing centers in the nineteenth and first few decades of the twentieth century, writing labs, focused on primarily on method. These early writing labs were not external to the classroom, but instead conducted through monitored in-class writing (Boquet, 1999). In the 1940s autonomous spaces began to be created. 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. However, it was in the 1970s with the advent of open admissions policies that writing centers began to be more prevalent. Some of these labs continued in the tradition of the grammar fix-it-shops and used auto-tutorials or the use of audiotapes and workbooks to drill students on perceived deficiencies, while others championed individual instruction as their central practice. It was in this latter tradition that one of the most iconic writing centers, Purdue’s Writing Lab was founded in 1976 by Dr. Muriel Harris.

Purdue Writing Lab Logo
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According to Purdue’s Writing Lab website: “Operation started off in one room with three tutors, who welcomed writers of any skill level to a one-to-one tutorial” (Fact sheet, n.d.). The notions of a place that “welcomed writers of any skill” and the use of “one-to-one tutorials” became central concepts of writing center discourse and marked when writing centers became both place and method.

Yet another element of this quotation, “one room with three tutors,” also signifies an important concept of writing centers: marginalization. Writing centers were often small enterprises with a large goal: help writers meets the expected standards of college writing. This often lead to overworked staff who had little status at their institutions. Additionally, the legacy of the grammar fix-it-shop plagued many writing centers as faculty members viewed the writing center as a place to send students to work on mechanics so they could focus on content, which they viewed as more important. North (1984) reminds us:

Misunderstanding is something one expects-and almost gets used to-in the writing center business. The new faculty member in our writing-across-the-curriculum program, for example, who sends his students to get their papers “cleaned up” in the Writing Center before they hand them in; the occasional student who tosses her paper on our reception desk, announcing that she’ll “pick it up in an hour”; even the well-intentioned administrators who are so happy that we deal with “skills” or “fundamentals” or, to use the word that seems to subsume all others, “grammar” (or usually “GRAMMAR”)- these are fairly predictable. (p. 433)

It’s these misunderstandings that led to the emergence of writing center studies as a sub-discipline in it’s own right within composition studies. North’s “Idea of a Writing Center” became a sort of battle cry for writing center professionals, laying out the specific axiology of the writing center:

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. (p. 438)

Writing center scholars began to argue that the work of writing centers is different from that within the composition classroom, thus, it should be understood as a separate area for scholarship.

Another way those in writing center studies sought to fight against marginalization was through professionalization. Writing center specific publications (The Writing Lab Newsletter founded by Muriel Harris in 1978 and The Writing Center Journal founded by Lil Brannon and Stephen North in 1980) were created (Boquet & Lerner, 2008). The Newsletter was primarily about connecting writing center professionals; however, The Writing Center Journal was reserved for writing center scholarship. Yet in its early days, many were skeptical of an enterprise to theorize a field that many understood as primarily focused on practice. Ironically, in the same volume of CCC that North’s “Idea” was a review of The Writing Center Journal. Connors (1984) claimed:

Wishing to transcend the kaffeeklatsch familiarity of the [Writing Lab] Newsletter, WCJ has not yet found a method of doing so that is congenial to its potential community of authors, and one suspects that until the background and professional status of the average writing center administrator and teacher changes, the problem will continue. (p. 361)

Railing against this type of dismissal, North in “Idea,” and many writing center professionals following, sought to establish writing center studies as a bona fide field with its own axiologies and epistemologies. Scholars focused on theorizing and assessing the work of writing centers instead of just relying on lore and “this is what we do in our writing center” discussions. This tension between lore and theoretical scholarship still seems to be relevant in writing center studies today. In a recorded interview, former WCJ editor Melissa Ianetta (2009-2013), emphatically claimed, “We do not publish stories about the local practice” (PaulaMMiller, 2012).



This notion of what constitutes writing center scholarship and whether the focus should be on theory or practice still seems to remain a contested notion. Thus, not only are writing center professionals negotiating the place of writing center studies within composition studies, they are also negotiating the field itself. Interesting, this trajectory parallels the trajectory of composition studies within English studies as described by Lerner (1984).

In transitioning into the 21st century, writing centers have also had to negotiate their place within institutions, with questions such as should a writing center be housed in a department (generally English departments) or should it be independent? Should, or how should, a writing center work with other academic support centers and services on campus? What type of assignments can a writing center provide help with? Questions like these have led to debates about the missions and identity of writing centers, with some advocating a move towards re-branding writing centers as a multiliteracy centers or communications centers in order to broaden the scope of the types of assignments they can support to include reading support, oral presentations. and multimodal assignments. According to Balester et al (2012):

We can gain important insights into many of the theoretical concerns …if we shift our perspective, for a moment, from the day-to-day concerns of operating a writing center to the broader project of envisioning a 21st century university. Universities need places where composers can come to access the infrastructural resources (intellectual, technological, and interpersonal) that enable 21st-century composing.

If writing centers want to support work across the curriculum as many centers claim within their missions, then they need to be open to exploring the types of composing that students are being asked to do beyond the standard academic essay and appropriately support these efforts.

It is these conversations about writing centers and expanding the notions of the types of writing that they can support that I am most excited to explore in the future. My scholarly interests involve advocating 21st century literacies and I see writing centers as ideal locations to do this work because of their deep mission to create better writers. Supporting multiliteracy practices, to me, seems a natural extension of this work. I hope to not only explore these conversations in my scholarship, but to also help my own writing center transition to support this mission.


Balester, V., Grimm, N., McKinney, G.J., Lee, S., Sheridan, D. M. & Silver, N. (2012). The idea of a multiliteracy center: Six responses. Paxis, 9 (2).

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.

Boquet, E. H., & Lerner, N. (2008). After “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, 71 (2), 170-189.

Connors, R. J. (1984). Review: Journals in composition studies.” College English, 46, 348-423.

Fact sheet (n.d). Purdue writing lab. Retrieved from:

Lauer, J.M. (1984). Composition studies: Dappled discipline. Rhetoric Review, 3 (1), 20-29.

PaulaMMiller. (2012, June 11). Melissa Ianetta [Video file]. Retrieved from:

Spurier, R. (2013, January 17). From the writing center to the multiliteracy center: Presentation for cyberliteracy research project [Prezi Presentation]. Retrieved from:

3 Replies to “Paper 1: A Historical Exploration of Writing Center Studies”

  1. Hey you — thanks for the shoutout!

    When you say, “This notion of what constitutes writing center scholarship and whether the focus should be on theory or practice still seems to remain a contested notion,” though, I want to pick on you a bit. 🙂 My comments that you include above don’t mean that we did not publish essays that concerned practice. We, in fact, had an entire feature about practice (Theory In/To Practice) because we wanted to highlight strong models of a what a practice-based essay could do. So I would emphasize my quote a bit differently than you did: “we don’t publish STORIES about LOCAL practice.” That is, there are kick ass essays about practice that are evidenced based and audience aware. And then the are pure narrative accounts of What We Do in Our Writing Center, that offer no evidence beyond authorial testimony and do not work to account for the audience of the venue. Guess which one I’m impressed by?

    Thanks for the fun read. Now I”m going back to Cardio Email. M.

  2. Melissa, I really appreciate your comment. I think as I was shooting for brevity, I fell into the trap of dichotomizing theory and practice. I think your emphasis on avoiding straight narrative and pointing me in the direction of strong models of practiced based essays is going to be really helpful for me in future assignments for my work for this course, and hopefully in my future scholarship.

  3. I once heard at a conference that nearly all writings on WCs include an “obligatory” North quote 🙂 I’m interested in the questions you pose when you write, “In transitioning into the 21st century, writing centers have also had to negotiate their place within institutions, with questions such as should a writing center be housed in a department (generally English departments) or should it be independent? Should, or how should, a writing center work with other academic support centers and services on campus? What type of assignments can a writing center provide help with?” As you know, there’s been some debate on the Listserv recently, and I’m revisiting my draft on an article on this very topic. I thought I’d provide an excerpt (very messy draft)–

    First, A word on self-definition:

    Historically, writing center scholarship has frequently discussed self-definition, which is not surprising considering the emergent nature of the field and the evolving situating of WCs in our institutional spaces. In particular, I consider the implications of North’s call for WCs to be more than “fix-it shops” (21) with the “one-stop shop” language used in many LC descriptions, including that at my institution. The “fix-it shop” idea, as you all know, is alive and well, with the car-mechanic metaphor at work, and WC “labor” seen as tune-ups or repairs; the “one-stop shop” language in much LC scholarship points more towards a department store model, or, a Wal-Mart approach to higher education services. Both metaphors, of course, include “shop,” already indicative of commercialization and retail.

    Learning Commons: a “one-stop shop” experience mixes with the “commons” metaphor, which entails concept of a town green or shared space, with attendant suggestions of rights and liberty, democracy, sharing, and the like, as opposed to enclosed areas (fencing in of previously-public lands) vs. Writing Center: a fortress, war, laboratory, church, and frontier (Boquet & Lerner, 2008), and as lab, clinic, center, “purified space” (Petit, 1997). Petit borrows words from Min-Zhan Lu –“purified space”—and Petit (1997) writes of the “danger” of the idea of a “purified space,” “where only one discourse is spoken and heard” (111)

    Mary Luoise Pratt wrote of the WC community’s “shared dystopia,” as Petit calls it, with Pratt noting that this dystopia has a WC as a “claustrophobic and degraded discursive space” (58)—the negative, and I’ll say outdated, authoritarian approach of grammar exercises and such.

    Petit asks for theorists to be careful with attempts at definition: “Classifying writing centers has become so much a part of the discourse that the definitions seem less a discursive tool to help us understand how centers function than a pre-existing fact, one that we are bound to acknowledge and that determines, even inhibits, how we talk about centers” (113). Pratt also writes of the WC in terms of a utopian collaborative space (not unlike current LC scholarship)

    A few constructs that emerge from the language:

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