Mere Rhetoric


Welcome to mere rhetoric. The podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren


The original recording of this podcast in 2014 was especially timely because we’re going to talk about an important article that came out in College English 30 years ago this year: Stephen North’s Idea of a Writing Center


This essay has been hugely influencial in the rapidly growin and professionalizing field of writing center studies. Back in 1984, though, writing centers couldn’t get no respect. “Writing Labs” of the early 20th century were often responses to a defitioncy model of writing education—the students who were coming in were seen as remedial, and thus in need of one-on-one attention from tutors. This was a response of the same crises we talked about in the podcast on the Harvard Reports. By the 80s, writing center were becoming more abundant on campuses, but that doesn’t mean they were popular: often shunted to the literal basements of buildings, with creaky, leaky facilities and an underpaid non-tenure track director, writing centers were somehow expected to “fix” student writing. But even under such terrible circumstances, writing center theory was beging to develop, aided by such scholars as Muriel Harris and Stephen North.


Stephen North was a good candidate to have written such a manifesto as “The Idea of a Writing Center.” In the 1980s, North was a discipline-maker. His thorough taxonomy of composition research The Making of Knowledge in Composition has sometimes been tapped as the foundational manifesto for research in composition. We’ll probably talk about it later, but “The Idea of a Writing Center” was no less of a manifesto for writing center studies.


The first line of the article reads “This is an essay that began out of frustration.” The frustration is palpable as North addresses some of the complaints that writing centers have from—and he means this in a nice way—ignorant colleagues. Everyone is ignorant—everyone in the profession, even people in composition, are ignorant “They do not understand what does happen, what can happen in a writing center” (32). It’s not just that North feels misunderstood; it’s that this misunderstanding affects the students who come through his door day-by-day: “You cannot parcel out some portion of a given student for us to deal with,” he fumes against his colleagues in writing classes, “’you take care of editing, I’ll deal with invention”) Nor should you require that all of your students drop by with an early draft of a research paper to get a reading from a fresh audience. You should not scrawl, at the bottom of a failing paper ‘go to the writing center.’ Even those of you who, out of genine concenrn, bring students to a writing center, almost by the hand, to make sure they know we won’t hurt them—even you are essentially out of line.” Ow. Seems like a pretty long list of ways to misuse the writing center and even to modern audiences all of these techniques seem innocent enough. The main problem, North points out, is that “we are not here to serve, supplement, back up, complement, reinforce, or otherwise be defined by any expernal curriculm. (40). Unless you think North has it out for his colleagues, he admits that even his own writing center includes in its mission statement the description of the center as “a tutorial facility for those with special problems in composition” (34). If it’s possible to spit something out in a written article, North faily spits the words out in self-loathing. And the loathing is “the idea that a writing center can only be some sort of skills center, a fix-it shop” (35).

So if writing centers AREN’T just a support for composition, what is the “idea” of te writing center anyway? “We are here to talk to writers” (40). This definition makes the writing center an independent entity with its own purpose in the university, not just an appendage or fix-it shop for the composition classes. What a writing center is can be much larger. North sets out the definition for writing center that persists to this day : at a writing center “the object to to make sure that writer, not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction. In axiom form it goes like this: our job is to produce better writers, not better writing” (38). Whhhoooo, I almost get chills. It’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot in writing cneters, “better writers, not better writing.” What it often means is that writing centers aren’t editing services or a way to improve an assignment or get an A in a class, but an educational cite themselves that hope to teach writing skills and processes that students can take with them in any class and even after graduation. In this sense, the writing center, as North says, “is going to be student-centers in the strictest sense of that term” (39). It will “being from where the student is, and move where the student moves” (39).



North suggests that writing centers are uniquely qualified to do this work, since the teaching of writing can take “place as much as possible during writing, during the acticity being learned” instead of before or after the writing (39). “The fact is,” North continues “not everyon’s interest in writing, their need or desire to write or learn to write coincides with the fifteen or thirty weeks they spend in writing courses—especially when, as is currently the case at so many institutions, those weeks are required” (42). Anyone who’s taught composition can attest that students sometimes have a hard time seeing the point of skills that their teachers immediately identify as critical for future writing, but with only the imperative of finishing the class, it can be hard for students to understand. At the writing center, North suggests, this is not the case, because the motivations become real. “Any given project” is the material that brings students in “that particular text, its success or failure” (38) motivates students. Students who are motivated by applying to law school or understanding a lab report are often suddenly willing to see the importance of writing skills. These students, “are suddenly willing—sometimes overwhelming so—to concern themselves with audience, purpose and persona and to revise over and over again” because “suddenly writing is a vehicle, a means to an end” (43).


The ideas from North’s “Idea of a writing center” have become commonplaces, both because they resonated with what was already happening in the Writing Lab Newsletter and other periodicals as , in North’s words, “writing center folk general are becoming more research-oriented” (44). That tradition has expanded, as peer-reviewed articles in writing centers studies supports a half-dozen journals as well as frequent publication in College English and College composition and communication. When North saw that writing center directors were meeting “as a recognized National Assembly” at the National Council of Teachers of English, he might have foreseen that writing center studies would balloon into the International Writing Center Association, a biennial conference that draws participants in hundreds, and all of the regional conferences affiliated with the IWCA…which reminds me.

One such conference is the south cettral (waazzup?) writing center association conference, which we hosted here at the Uniersity of Texas at Austin last February. I confess that my interest in this topic was partially inspired by the call for papers in this conference, which invoked the 30-yr anniversary of “the idea of a Writing Center.”


If you have a conference that you’re organizing in rhetoric and composition, send me an email over at and I’d love to give you a shout out on a future podcast.





Direct download: 15-08-12_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Ideas_of_Writing_Centers.mp3
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