The Wisconsin Idea and the Writing Center

The Year of the Wisconsin Idea logo

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a long and distinguished history of public service. The guiding philosophy of this commitment to public service, called the “Wisconsin Idea,” is often described as “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Since I have a scholarly interest in the Wisconsin Idea, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the Wisconsin Idea and writing centers. I’ve only begun to explore the connections, but I’m excited about the possibilities.

The Wisconsin Idea has been receiving renewed attention on our campus in light of the University’s designation of this academic year as “The Year of the Wisconsin Idea.” If you’re unfamiliar with the Wisconsin Idea, you can browse a redesigned website, which provides information about the Idea, its history and a timeline of its development, along with stories from current faculty, staff, and students about how their service to the state, nation, and world correspond with the Wisconsin Idea.

So how might the Wisconsin Idea relate to writing centers?

Definitions and interpretations of the Wisconsin Idea vary, making a comparison between the Idea and writing centers tricky. Some, like Charles McCarthy, a founding figure of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau and author of the 1912 book which likely coined the term The Wisconsin Idea, identify it with the university’s contributions to Progressive-era politics and legislation. Others, like Jack Stark, also of the Legislative Reference Bureau, suggest a broader and more inclusive history and definition that highlights the University’s “direct contributions to the state” by two means: “to the government in the forms of serving in office, offering advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities” (my emphasis). Despite these different interpretations, the underlying principle of the Wisconsin Idea is the university providing public service.

So how do writing centers contribute to public service? Evidently, this question must be answered on a case-by-case basis. As far as the UW-Madison Writing Center goes, we currently support only one program that does explicit public service: the Madison Writing Assistance program (formerly Community Writing Assistance), which partners with the Madison Public Library to provide both general writing and job writing assistance to local community members at various locations throughout the library system.

But there are a number of other programs and activities that perform a different kind of “public” service, meaning within academe, they serve various academic publics. The Writing Fellows program sponsors writing instruction that moves both knowledge about writing and fellows who acquire that knowledge across the academic (if not institutional) boundaries of the university. Likewise, the Writing Across the Curriculum program fosters partnerships with professors and teaching assistants across disciplines to promote effective writing instruction. The Outreach program, which works with professors, schools, and programs to bring Writing Center instructors into classrooms, orientation sessions, and other settings, aims to bring the knowledge and practices of the writing center in service to various members of the academic community. And Writing Center satellite locations, where instructors meet students in campus libraries and residence halls in the evenings, can be seen as extensions of the instruction and training that occur in the main location.

Even the Center’s online resources—the Writer’s Handbook and the Writing Consultant—represent a twenty-first-century kind of extension and outreach work, where those unable to physically attend or visit the university may still access the knowledge and services provided by the writing center. Indeed, the UW-Madison Online Writing Center is one of the most widely used in the world, attracting more than 111,000 unique visitors in a given month!

Photo of Bascom Hall by Bryce Ritcher

Photo of Bascom Hall by Bryce Ritcher

Beyond programmatic similarities between writing centers and the Wisconsin Idea, there’s a shared value that is fairly obvious: service. Writing Centers are typically viewed as service units to departments, colleges, and students. Although the triumvirate of research, teaching, and service often gives writing centers an academic inferiority complex, the professionalization of the field in recent decades has provided access to a growing body of specialized knowledge that directors can marshal to validate their work for academic audiences. Given that writing centers typically promote interdisciplinary work, and that directors and instructors often conduct work that often blurs the academic boundaries around service, teaching, and research, it seems clear that writing centers are naturally positioned to enact the Wisconsin Idea.

This is especially true when we realize that writing centers and the Wisconsin Idea share another important value: promoting genuine, reciprocal, sustained collaborative relationships. Other campus organizations who have adopted the Wisconsin Idea as a guiding philosophy reflect these values. For instance, the Community Partnerships and Outreach Staff Network consists of an intellectually diverse group of university staff who describe themselves “boundary spanners” and who support interdisciplinary projects that bridge the University and surrounding communities. Working with campus and community partners alike, they have sought to revise the notion that university service is a one-way outreach where the benevolent researcher imparts his wisdom to the ignorant masses. Rather, they seek to foster reciprocal attitudes among the university and neighboring communities, and they encourage the university to make public issues the source of inquiry and scholarship. How have writing center scholars and practitioners already demonstrated these inclinations and values in their research? How could they do better at this?

I don’t have room in this post to explore other potential connections between the Wisconsin Idea and writing centers, such as the relationship between experts and non-experts, as well as the task of making specialized knowledge applicable to general audiences and public issues. More about that in a post next semester.

In the meantime, consider this invitation by UW-Madison Interim Chancellor David Ward to students, staff, and faculty “to reflect on the work that you do every day to contribute to the Wisconsin Idea and benefit the state, nation and world.” Whether or not you’re a UW alum, what connections do you see between the Wisconsin Idea and writing centers? How might writing centers further the public work of the Wisconsin Idea?

Any ideas?

8 thoughts on “The Wisconsin Idea and the Writing Center

  1. Dave this was a great post for its insightful way of thinking about the UW-Madison Writing Center and service through the Wisconsin Idea. I like how the post asks us to consider the writing work we do at a large research university when we see that university as part of a much larger whole. Here’s my idea: I’d like to see any current or former Badgers, or Wisconsin citizens who have worked on writing with us, share a thought about what made that experience meaningful (leave your comments on Dave’s blog post!)–I’m willing to bet that at least part of their answers will highlight the people who enact the Wisconsin Idea every day they they share ideas and work with others, and put their ideas into action in the many ways your post helps us to envision service to others. (Now I’m going to go approve my comment.)

  2. Thanks Dave for your thoughtful work, and for encouraging all of us to think deeply about the Wisconsin Idea.

  3. Thanks, Dave, for bringing up this important aspect of our Writing Center at UW. What’s important to note, I think, is that this Wisconsin-Idea attitude at the UW makes work like the Madison Writing Assistance program, as well as all of the other service work you talked about, possible for our Writing Center. What I mean is, while these services promote the Wisconsin Idea, the fact that they receive support, stability, and, specifically, funding, is because of the Wisconsin Idea’s existence. I’d love to hear about additional institutional commitments folks from other universities use to leverage needs for funding and other support for service-type programs for their Writing Centers.

  4. Very interesting connections, Dave. I’m inclined to flip your question to think about writing center and WI Idea connections: how does the model of the Wisconsin Idea help us better understand the work of writing? I wonder why writing is so suitable, as an activity, to showing us how “the university’s boundaries are the state’s boundaries.” (It is a ubiquitous activity, increasingly bound up in work, leisure, etc. …) So writing centers naturally embody the WI Idea because they are interdisciplinary and service-focused, but maybe also because their reason for being is *writing*. Yes, yes, you caught me in dissertation mode.

  5. As a dissertator in literary studies, I hope to remain in the academy as a professor. But I’m struck by how almost every student I meet with in the Writing Center has their sights set on one of those “real world” jobs I hear about. They bring the real world back to me, but they also remind me that one of the services I’m performing is precisely to help other students take their education outside the walls of the university. They’re writing resumes for summer internships, or applications for jobs in government, or proposals for grants to continue their research. In each of these cases, they’re on a path towards taking their world-class education out into the world, and we as tutors get to work closely with that transition. In my experience this has often involved helping the students think through the question of how their study can translate into public good. Sometimes a student hasn’t sat down to ask herself, “who does my expertise benefit?” In other words, even when we’re not actively embodying the Wisconsin Idea, we’re often engaged in helping others think through it.

  6. One of the things I think I discuss with my students every semester — whether in a lit class or a comp class — is how critical learning to express one’s thoughts in written (and oral) form is to a liberal education. In a way, I think helping people develop the capacity to express themselves is about developing active, critical citizens, so if the writing center facilitates people thinking about themselves as writers, and helping people develop as writers, then I think there is a strong case to be made that it also helps develop democracy. Maybe a bit grandiose, but it’s there…

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