Writing Center History
Jeanne Simpson (1981-1990)
When and for how long did you serve as director?
Who was your Assistant Director?
I was director from 1981 to 1990—nine years. I didn’t have an assistant director, at least not formally. Occasionally, I asked a particular grad assistant to take on some director-like duties, but not often and only when that was the only option. I surely would have liked an assistant director in the last few years, as my meeting load got heavier.
What were your duties?
I designed the early systems of recording tutorials, sign-ins, tracking student use patterns. I collected materials (begged, wheedled, borrowed and bought, as needed) and designed instructional materials. I designed and conducted tutor training. I also tutored—in the beginning there were only six of us, including me. From the first, the director of composition and I worked together on developing the teaching and tutoring of the grad assistants.
I supervised tutoring—mostly by eavesdropping, since everything took place in the one room. I developed writing center policies and wrote its first mission statement. I publicized writing center activities & services. Within a few years, my duties also included serving on the university’s committee on retention & recruitment and on various task forces and committees. In my last year, I also worked with Dr. Robert Funk to develop a WAC program. I established the grammar hotline and often answered it—I enjoyed talking to people from General Mills and the U.S. Geological Survey, from dozens of states and institutions.
I also taught two classes each semester.
How many graduate students worked as Writing Center tutors?
How was their job defined?
When we started, there were five grad assistants and me. Some of those early ones are still at EIU—Denise Clark and Tammy Veach. Kathy Olsen and Michael Kuo also tutored in the writing center. Several of the grad assistants from those first nine years now have PhD’s and are in the teaching profession: Ray Wallace (now a dean, the first grad assistant I met), Ronda Dively, Angela Jones, Ruth Cook, Michael Kuo.
Their jobs included teaching English 1000 as well as tutoring in the writing center.
When I left the writing center, the number of tutors had increased to ten.
What did you see as your biggest challenges during those years?
If you could have changed anything, what would it have been?
My challenges were finding time to prepare for my classes—the writing center was both more demanding and more fun—and finding funding for materials and equipment. And I never got to choose the tutors; the graduate assistantships were distributed by the Graduate Studies Committee, and while I had input, some of the grad students were not attracted to tutoring. However, most rose to the demands of tutoring in remarkable ways.
If I could have changed anything, I would have kept control of my budget and learned how to manage it more effectively. Instead of trying to “save” money, I would have spent every last cent so I could ask for more the next year. And I would have worked harder to gain control of choosing the tutors. I would have made a much greater effort to understand the budget and administrative processes of the university, and I would have used the services of institutional research to help me make my case for the writing center.
What goals were you working toward? What were you able to accomplish?
My early goals were to get the writing center established and operational. I spent two years developing its systems and materials. I also worked on the writing center’s credibility with students and faculty.
At the same time, I worked with others, including Mickey Harris, Joyce Kinkead, Jeanette Harris, Nancy McCracken, & Harvey Kail, to establish the National Writing Centers Association. I helped to write the constitution and served as the third president of this organization, which is now the International Writing Centers Association.
My primary goal was always to establish the writing center so that it could operate smoothly as its personnel changed. I wanted, hoped it would be a solid program that would serve EIU effectively.
I accomplished getting the center solidly established. That it is still in operation 25 years later makes me feel really good, though I know others have done much to keep it going. I wish the center could have a better, bigger, more flexible space. I believe it would serve more students if it did. On the other hand, in an institution where space is always at a premium, it has some prime real estate.
Is there a particular memory of the WC that stands out for you?
We had so much fun with puns. I don’t remember a single group of grad assistants who didn’t engage in punning with me and with each other.
I remember buying one of the first computers in the English Dept. for the writing center. It was a Radio Shack TRS-80, known affectionately (and accurately) as the Trash-80. It had a whopping 4K of memory! There were no programs available for it; I had to learn BASIC to use it at all. But I kept upgrading the memory and finally got a free word-processing package, PC-Write. It was great for writing up exercises and then revising them as needed, though that particular program required memorizing dozens of codes. And we had a little dot-matrix printer that made as much noise as the south runway at O-Hare, but it did the job better than ditto paper. Gawd, that really was in another century!
I remember putting up a graffiti board—just a big sheet of poster board—and how all kinds of things turned up on it: limericks, sayings, song lyrics, jokes, puns. All about writing and using language. It was a lot of fun too.
I remember going around to faculty members and begging for dictionaries and out-of-date handbooks. I got an amazing assortment of dictionaries. One of the first purchases for the center was a big, unabridged Webster’s. We gave the handbooks away. Lots of students wanted them, to have some source for rules about grammar and punctuation, though we always focused on higher order issues first. For a long time, I had a coffee pot in the center. Never mind that I make terrible coffee, a fact that more than one faculty member pointed out to me. Apparently the wretchedness of the coffee was not a deterrent. I figured coffee would get people into the center, so they could see what went on there. Eventually, though, the coffee had to go. One faculty member left the spigot on, so there was suddenly a large puddle of coffee on the carpet. Another set a cup on the keyboard of that early (and fragile!) computer.
Linda Coleman (1990-1993)
I became the Director when the wonderful Jeannie Simpson moved on to an administrative post in Old Main. Happily, she left the Center a well-oiled machine, but she also left me with a brand new program, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC).
While she had run a few pilot workshops, the formal implementation of the program began in 1990. It was both a challenge and real pleasure to develop EIU’s WAC program. First, I did some immersion research. Then, taking Jeannie’s model and working with the Composition Director, Bob Funk, I put together a series of full-day workshops for EIU faculty. While a few participants were skeptical, I found the overall response to be very positive, especially to ideas such as discovery writing that provided faculty with immediate feedback on student learning. We ran these workshops, and a few new faculty workshops, through all three years, reaching several hundred faculty, and then added a few follow-up workshops with outside facilitators from a variety of disciplines. In addition, a WAC Advisory Board was established to coordinate ideas and plans across the colleges. Among the obstacles to success was that class sizes didn’t shrink as originally planned, so faculty found making changes in their teaching practices more difficult.
The other real challenge of the position was handling the number of students who failed the Writing Competency Exam [which has since been retired]. The numbers were significant. As Director, I met with each student who failed the exam and plotted a plan for working with tutors. The increasing responsibilities of the position led us to seek additional support, and by 1992-1993 we were able to add an Assistant Director, Olga Abella. I was grateful, too, to Linda Calendrillo, who followed me as Director, who was able to coordinate the efforts of those who felt the WCE was not the best way for us to assess student success (or help students with problems), resulting in the EWP process we now use.
My goals were many. I wanted the Center to serve as many students as possible through using the best writing center practices; the graduate students to find the experience to be rewarding in the short term and a solid grounding in pedagogy in the long term; and the EIU faculty to see writing as an integral part of all courses and a responsibility of all faculty. I feel we did a very good job on the first two and made progress on the third.
No one memory stands out, but I can say that being Director was a terrific experience. I love collaborating with graduate students and other faculty and that’s pretty much the day-to-day task of the Director. Working with Bob Funk and Dana Ringuette on running the WAC workshops and English 5500 was among the best professional experiences I’ve had. And working so closely with the graduate students—in the Writing Center, the Practicum, and English 1000—was a true pleasure. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a new teacher discover a passion for the field. It was especially exciting to have so many international students during those years. We had assistants from Bulgaria, Greece, Chile, and China. From the first day orientation to the last day of the year, each group became a learning and teaching community that inspired me on both a personal and professional level.
Just one additional note. We were truly lucky to have Jeanne Simpson as our founding Director. While we’ve done some lovely nip and tuck work since 1990 when she left, the foundation remains the one she put into place. She also put EIU on the map as a nationally respected figure in Writing Center research!
Linda Calendrillo (1993-1999)
I started with Olga Abella as my assistant director, then I worked with Randy Beebe, and later Fern Kory took over. I was director from 93-99. We had various wonderful groups of GAs – let me mention some who are still there and some who have moved on: LeAnn Smith, Keith Spears, Brian Langford, Chris Enstrom, Jeff Vande Zande, Christy Shannon, Anita Beaman, Trish Rohan, Stacey Barton, Dylan McNeill.
Biggest accomplishment – Moving from the WCE to the electronic portfolio.
Challenges – Getting the GAs to embrace the round tables, keeping the record-keeping healthy and the numbers up, redoing that library …
My fondest memory was when the GAs had a key ring made up with our record number of tutorials.
Robin Murray (1999-2002)
I was director from 1999-2002—not so long ago—with Fern Kory as my assistant. During that period, the GA's (10-11 of them) and Assistant Director and I brought in some new technologies: we created the Writing Center Newsletter and upgraded the website, put together the first brochure and initiated other ways to make the Writing Center more visible.
Most memorable moments belonged to the great graduate assistants, who brought fun to their GA office (bowling tournaments and grammar queen crowns). We also broke free of the Writing Competency Exam (at last) and implemented (with CAA approval in 2001) the dreaded Electronic Writing Portfolio.
Daiva Markelis (2002-2008)
My term as Director began in 2001, my second year at Eastern, and my second term will end Spring 2008. Fern Kory has been Assistant Director during this time, though in reality we’re pretty much interchangeable (at least in terms of duties.) We’re both anti-hierarchy and are pretty darn good at collaboration. Our philosophies of writing and tutoring are the same. Our personalities are different, though—Fern is organized, diplomatic, and detail-oriented. I’m probably more emotional and social. We both like to talk.
Both Fern and I are involved in the day to day running of the center. We surreptitiously observe tutors and make sure they aren’t “over-tutoring,” that is, taking over sessions by supplying ideas for student papers or fixing “mistakes.” We see to it that hours are being filled, sessions properly recorded, and that basic Writing Center decorum is maintained—that the lone plant is neither under or over-watered, that windows are not open while the AC is running, and that all of the magic markers have not mysteriously disappeared.
Fall semester we co-teach English 5500: Practicum in Teaching and Tutoring Writing. Practicum readings introduce our graduate assistants to issues relevant to tutoring writing. Discussions help to build bridges between the theories implicit in the readings and the students’ practices as tutors. We also devote substantial time to discussing specific issues that arise during the week—everything from how to respond to a suspected plagiarist to whether we should switch to fair-trade coffee. We also direct the Tutor Training Workshop, a one-day affair before the beginning of the fall semester where tutors are introduced to both the general theories behind tutoring writing and the policies of our particular Writing Center.
Fern and I aren’t wed at the hip, however. I advertise the Writing Center to the rest of the university through orientation workshops, flyers, and announcements in various newsletters (including our own.) I respond to faculty and student concerns: Why do students write so poorly? Why isn’t the Writing Center opened weekends? Part of my job description also includes being Director of Writing across the Curriculum, a committee that serves as a kind of sounding board for all matters connected to writing here at Eastern. WAC conducts workshops for faculty members and publishes a newsletter on different aspects of writing. We work with members of the Committee for the Assessment of Student Learning to oversee changes in and implementation of the Electronic Writing Portfolio.
Fern works on special projects with the graduate assistants. The wonderful WC anniversary website of which this little interview is only a small part of is the result of her collaboration with Emily Ramage, one of our wonderful tutors. Fern is also the Center’s financial expert. During the 2004-2005 year she and two of the tutors applied for and received several grants that led to major improvements in the Writing Center. We acquired new technology and underwent a major physical renovation—walls were taken down, new carpeting put in. We received new bookshelves, file cabinets—really, pretty much whatever we asked for. Fern also looks over the budget—she saves us hundreds of dollars a year.
We’ve had anywhere from 9 to 12 graduate students a semester; most semesters we’ve had 10 or 11. Students tutor anywhere from six to fifteen hours a week, depending on their other duties; some students, for example, teach English 1000.
Tutors are made aware from the very beginning that the instruction provided in the Writing Center is intended to supplement classroom instruction, not to replace it. We want student writers to reach the point of doing confident and independent work. Tutors don’t proofread papers but work with students to determine problems, priorities, and strategies.
Although Writing Centers have been around a long time, there’s still quite a lot of misinformation concerning their purpose. Students sometimes come in and expect tutors to do all of the work for them. Some instructors complain that we don’t do enough for students. Others believe we do too much; they claim that writing improvement can’t possibly happen after three or four visits. Getting the word out about our purpose is always a challenge. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently in this respect, however.
Writing across the Curriculum—now, that’s a different story. Over the years the committee has become almost synonymous with university-wide writing assessment. Previous directors have done a great job of creating and helping to implement the Electronic Writing Portfolio, but the EWP is still so fraught with controversy; a lot of folks don’t understand it and think it’s a waste of time. Some would like to bring back the Writing Competency Exam. Dealing with all of these stake-holders has required diplomacy and creativity.
The first year I was still getting to know the policies and administrative structures of the university, and I think I was too worried about pleasing everyone. But even in that first year it was clear that some things needed to change. By the second year we were able to computerize both our student sign-in process and our record keeping procedures. Fern and I made some simple but effective changes to the practicum. We also started gearing workshops towards individual instructors; for example, we had a very successful series of presentations for the School of Business about professional writing. In the meantime, I had visited some former colleagues who were directing Writing Centers at other institutions; I felt that our outer appearance here at Eastern didn’t quite match our considerable inner beauty. Both Fern and I wanted the Center to be a more welcoming place. That I was part of the physical renovation is one of my most satisfying accomplishments. In the two and a half years since our grand Writing Center re-opening, the number of students utilizing its services has greatly increased.
Many stand out. Choosing the paint color for the walls with Fern is a definite contender. We marched boldly through the color charts, deciding almost simultaneously on a color called Maple Something. (I still can’t remember the name; I continue to call it Maple Nut Goody after those candies sold at gas stations for 99 cents a bag.) Had we chosen individually, we probably would have gone “safe” with a boring shade of beige or light blue. The color is perfect, warm and inviting, very different from the institutional colors of the classrooms. I’ll also never forget our annual holiday parties—grand affairs, with food, entertainment, and tutors dressed as reindeer. And the grand reopening of the Writing Center—we were giving away Krispy Kreme doughnuts—well, it warmed my heart to make so many people happy.