By Michael LeMahieu
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.
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.)
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.
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!)
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.