Blame the Writing Center

By Michael LeMahieu

Professor Michael LeMahieu, Clemson University

Michael LeMahieu is Associate Professor of English at Clemson University and coeditor of the journal Contemporary Literature. He is the author of Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature, 1945-1975 (Oxford UP, 2013) and coeditor of Wittgenstein and Modernism (U of Chicago P, 2017).

In the summer of 2011, I found myself in an unexpected position. I had just accepted an offer from the college dean to serve as Director of the Pearce Center for Professional Communication. This, some of my most trusted colleagues told me, was a mistake. Professional communication wasn’t my field. I still hadn’t finished my first book. The tenure clock was ticking. My kids were three and five.

So why did I do it? I blame the UW-Madison Writing Center. And that mistake forms part of a longstanding pattern of my experience in the Writing Center unexpectedly influencing my decisions.

LeMahieu elicits student skepticism.

LeMahieu elicits student skepticism.

It’s now been well over a decade since I stepped foot in the UW Writing Center, where I worked as a tutor for a number of years and where I served as Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program in 2003-2004. I seem to recall some initial ambivalence when I began working at the Writing Center: a vague sense of pushing back against the routinization (Must one really write up all those appointment summaries? Who would ever read them?). It’s difficult for me to recall, not only because it was a long time ago but also because that resistance was short lived. However, the influence of the Writing Center on my academic and professional development was outsized, as I am still continually discovering.

When I make a point of beginning my comments on student essays with some words of praise, even when that seems nearly impossible to do, I remember the Writing Center. When my students complain that it takes me too long to return their essays (it does), I blame the Writing Center: doing it right takes longer and longer the less time one has. When I discuss personal statements with students for fellowship or law school or medical school applications, I not only find myself continuing to hone the approach I began to develop in the Writing Center, I still use (with permission!) a sample personal statement that I worked on with a student in 2003. (I just remembered her name and googled her. It was 2002. She’s now a successful research scientist. Maybe I’ll send her the first and final drafts of her statement from way back when.)

A Clemson Writing Fellow works with an undergraduate student writer.

In my teaching, too, I hear echoes of the Writing Center. It’s not simply that I teach writing in all my courses; no matter the topic, we spend full class periods discussing essay assignments; the students submit drafts; they revise in peer-review groups. More than that, I explicitly use the writing process to structure class discussions. I initially invite students to share whatever ideas or impressions they have about the assigned reading and compare this to free writing. We then look for connections to emerge and discuss the conceptual framework in which those connections take shape and to which they give shape. We then ask where we would turn back to in the text in order to pursue the argument further. Where might we find additional evidence? How can apparent counter-arguments actually strengthen the primary argument and be absorbed into it? And so on. My hope is that students see how class discussion renders visible the typically opaque writing process and how it accelerates exponentially what can otherwise be a painstakingly slow writing process. My goal is to teach students to think recursively and meta-cognitively, to develop and deploy a vocabulary about writing. In other words, I try to recreate what takes place in a writing center. To put a new spin on an old Writing Across the Curriculum saw: I write to teach.

Pearce Center staff member Barbara Ramirez works with a graduate student writer.

But perhaps the most formative experience for me from my time working in the Writing Center was the year I spent working with Emily Hall, the Director of the Writing Fellows Program, and an incredibly talented group of students. It was that experience that I recalled when I was named Director of the Pearce Center at Clemson. The Pearce Center’s work cuts across established disciplinary and curricular lines, but from its inception, it has been instrumental in Clemson’s longstanding commitment to Writing Across the Curriculum. When I was named director, I wanted to extend WAC principles from faculty workshops to peer-tutoring. I approached my Clemson colleague Bill Lasser, Director of the Honors College, and together we launched a pilot program in the spring of 2012.

By most measures, it was an immediate success. We were hoping to receive eight or ten applications that first spring in order to place at least two, and certainly no more than four, undergraduate writing fellows in honors seminars taught by faculty from across the curriculum. We received over 40 applications, and we selected ten honors students representing eight undergraduate majors for the inaugural class of Writing Fellows the following fall.

Then we quickly enlisted more help. That fall, I co-led a Writing Fellows training seminar with my English department colleague Meredith McCarroll, who is now Director of Writing and Rhetoric and Director of the First-Year Seminar Program at Bowdoin College. Under Meredith’s expert guidance, the program grew and expanded. When Meredith was named director of Clemson’s Writing Center, she moved the program with her. Tutors now help staff the Writing Center as well as working with individual classes. After Meredith left, Austin Gorman came on board; under his leadership, the program continues to develop. Throughout, we all benefitted from the advice of our esteemed colleague Art Young, whose work in Writing Across the Curriculum continues to make its presence felt across Clemson’s campus. (When I first arrived at Clemson in 2004, Art asked me if I was familiar with the UW Writing Fellows Program. It turns out he had recently heard some of the students I had worked with present at a WAC conference!)

A Clemson Writing Fellow works with an undergraduate student writer.

I stepped down as Pearce Center Director in 2016, with an eye to freeing up more time for my research and writing. (So I do take advice, though sometimes it takes me awhile.) But I follow the Writing Fellows Program with a friendly and admiring eye. The Writing Center is staffed by fellows who represent some of Clemson’s best and brightest students. Two of the last three study body presidents continued to serve as Writing Fellows while in office. Veterans of the program have gone on to win major fellowships and to gain admission to the top law, medical, and graduate schools around the world. Austin reports that he simply cannot keep up with student demand for writing center appointments, which, I can say from a comfortable distance, is a terrific problem to have.

Having played a part in the founding of the program brings me a sense of professional accomplishment equal to that of writing the book that should have prevented me from playing a part in the first place. I sometimes wish I could still be more involved. But when I’m struggling to praise an underwhelming piece of student writing, or when I find myself digressing about the writing process in the middle of discussing that day’s reading for class, or when I recommend to a particularly promising student that she consider applying to be a Writing Fellow, I enjoy being reminded of how diverse and durable my experience working in a Writing Center has proven over the course of my career. It’s a pleasure that singularly combines the pedagogical and the intellectual, the personal and the professional, and one I hope to be able to blame for future ill-advised decisions and unexpected positions. I already have some ideas.

15 thoughts on “Blame the Writing Center

  1. This has me grinning from ear to ear and remembering some of these same experiences very fondly indeed. I think of my WF years what feels like daily as I work in my EdD in the learning media program at Teachers College. Thank you, Mike, and the UW-Madison Writing Center.

  2. I certainly agree that my own graduate experience in a writing center changed me as a writer, educator, and reader. And with some prodding from our esteemed author, Mike LeMahieu, I found a way to open my career to continue to engage with the work of the writing center. I look back on the inception of the Clemson Writing Fellows program with such fondness, remembering the dramatic transformations that we could see on the individual and institutional levels. It took a little more time for me to see my own transformations that were prompted, in some ways, by Mike’s time in the U-W Madison Writing Center. So thanks, years later, from Bowdoin College, to what Wisconsin taught Mike that he shared with me at Clemson.

  3. I too feel like the time I have spent–and continue to spend–at the UW-Madison writing center has shaped my teaching and scholarship in fundamental ways. It has changed the way I understand and approach student writing and how I think about my relationship to the university and the local community. I am forever changed and I too blame the writing center!

  4. Just the other day, while paper conferencing with a student, I pulled out a piece of scrap paper to transcribe her ideas and said, “I learned to do this while a graduate instructor in the UW Writing Center.” The skills I gained working in the Writing Center have inflected my teaching of writing, the curriculum I developed as Director of American Studies, and my own writing practices. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

  5. I, too, am an acolyte of the UW Writing Center and of what I sometimes think of as the “Brad Hughes approach” to teaching writing. All these years later, I rely on the dialogue and structure that Brad taught us back in the day: putting higher order concerns first, finding out what writers like in their pieces and where they are struggling, asking them to identify the thesis, helping them devise a plan for revision. Clearly, this is a pedagogy with staying power. Thanks, Mike, for articulating the Writing Center’s enduring influence!

  6. Yet another long-term benefit of working in a Writing Center: It trains you not to rely on what you might expect to see in response to a prompt (as can be hard to avoid in one’s own classes, where you’re the prompter), but to attend instead to what the writer’s actually doing. As a result of my time in the UW WC, I’m much less directive and more open in responding to student writing in my own classes. I’m better at writing prompts, too, having seen all manner, type, and variety from across disciplines as they made their way to the 6th floor of HCW. . . . Thanks for this encomium, Mike.

  7. Mike, we are all grateful for all the hard work you put in to make this program a reality! These students are top notch, and your efforts have set the tone for valuing writing and writing pedagogy at Clemson! Keeping the tradition going!

  8. While I am not a former UW Writing Center tutor, I will say that I and my students are products of its legacy. I was a Writing Fellow at Clemson University at the recommendation and encouragement of several former writing center tutors (UW Writing Center alumni included), and that one co-curricular experience has been the single most influential experience in my post-undergraduate life. In my current role, I not only use the skills and methods that I learned as a Writing Fellow with my own students in their writing, but also have the opportunity to share those methods and skills across disciplinary and organizational lines with students, faculty, and staff in both academic and student affairs audiences, all whom can also “blame the writing center” for the work that goes into articulating their learning effectively and powerfully.

  9. I hate to say it, but my undergraduate and graduate school had a mediocre writing center, at best. It wasn’t until I took my first tenure track job at Clemson, and saw first hand the work that Mike, Meredith, Barbara, and others put into it that I truly understood the kind of lasting work a quality, top tier writing center could do. I’m glad to read this post and learn where some of Mike’s influences originated. When I left Clemson, half-heartedly, I was lucky to find that my new institution also had a top-notch writing center, and having been at Clemson, I could recognize it as such. Whenever I need help teaching some aspect of writing in my own classes, I always turn to the writing center tutors as my first option.

  10. As a sociologist, students are often perplexed by my steadfast commitment to quality writing and my insistence that they continually work to improve theirs. The Writing Fellows Program at Clemson has been the ideal partner, matching my students with respected peers from whom they are often more willing to take advice and providing me with a framework for the iterative process through which quality writing develops. Mike LeMahieu has been an equally ideal partner, firmly yet kindly telling even the highest achieving students that their writing still needs improvement (a difficult pill for many to swallow!) and guiding them on the path to logical, eloquent products. We are all grateful that he has brought the lessons learned at the UW-Madison Writing Center to Clemson!

  11. As an undergraduate student and astronomy major at San Diego State, I fell into a job as a writing center tutor almost by accident, and it changed my life. It’s been great to see Mike bring his great experiences with UW’s writing center to Clemson, where more lives are changing for the better—in small ways everyday, in dramatic ways over time.

  12. Right there with you, Mike. I felt the UW-Madison Writing Center shaping every part of my pedagogy (and career) long before I realized there was nothing else I’d rather do than direct a center. I always tell incoming graduate students about how working at our center will transform their pedagogy…I’m never quite sure if they believe me, but if they do join us and stick around, they see what I mean. There can be so many delightful and unforeseen consequences!

  13. Mike, Meredith, and Barbara started a Writing Fellows program at Clemson that is both hard to match and also, simultaneously, spurs our best efforts to continue making the Writing Center here at Clemson all it can be. Although my own undergraduate career did not feature a transformative Writing Center experience, as many respondents attest to, I’m reaping the benefits of Clemson’s Writing Center participation in both my undergraduate student papers and in my Graduate Writing TA seminar. With Rachel in delighting in the unforeseen consequences!

  14. I began working in the writing center as a graduate student in 2007; at that time I could not divine that it would so alter my career in academia. I knew that I enjoyed working with undergraduate students and my graduate colleagues on their papers and articles, but none of my advisors seemed to imagine a future for me other than a tenure-track English professor teaching a 2/2. Then, the economic crash of 2008 occurred, and, in the ensuing years, my advisors seemed to imagine no future for me.

    But, alas, serendipity, in the form of a white knight named Mike LeMahieu, who took a chance on a scholar of postwar American literature and writing center acolyte. My time as the Director of Clemson’s Writing Center has been, simply put, incredible. Imagine this: you have on your staff six National Honors scholars, a Truman fellow (Clemson’s first since 1978) and two class Presidents. Clemson’s Writing Fellows Program is unique in that it enables me to work with the best and brightest among the undergraduate population; its connection to the Honors College has made it a truly enriching experience.

    So, thank you UW writing center, for giving us such a well-rounded scholar in Mike–with with such a discerning eye for recruiting talented people (insert wink emoji here). And, now that my Wolverines have been trounced by Penn State, I will express my gratitude with a two-word phrase I’ve never uttered before: Go Badgers!

  15. This post and the discussion in the comments really attest to the influence Brad Hughes, Emily Hall, and the rest of UW WC staff have had on other institutions nationally. My job, for example, isn’t WC-focused (or even composition-focused), but my work in the Writing Center, the Online Writing Center, and with the Writing Fellows has influenced everything I do. When I’m meeting with students or responding in writing to their work, my approach is informed by the 100s of students I sat with while their work was in-progress. When I train my students to workshop one another’s writing, whether academic or creative, I’m also thinking about my conversations with the fellows and with Emily about their training. As chair of the writing program committee at my college, (yes, the entire program is being run by a rotating faculty committee chair: NOT a Brad-approved model), I wrote a WAC proposal that Brad was kind enough to give me feedback on. Blame/thank/etc…

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