Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Picture This

Writing center history truly intrigues me. I feel compelled to know where and how the first writing center was created. Part of this compulsion is simply my need to draw connections, to show that writing centers have long been part of conversations about teaching and learning, even if those were just muttered asides.

One of the first mentions of a true writing center--outside of class writing support--comes from a national survey completed by Warner Taylor of the University of Wisconsin in 1929. Near the end of his report, Taylor briefly lists a series of "innovations" in the teaching of writing, including the creation of "Writing Clinics" at six institutions (he unfortunately didn't identify those places). Taylor, however, noted that “in theory the project is excellent; in practice it may prove of little value through the lack of cooperation accorded by departments other than English.”

Hmm. That might sound familiar to many contemporary writing center directors (though the cooperation from English departments themselves isn't necessarily guaranteed at many places).

As I muck around in writing center history, I've begun to collect photographs that were printed with an occasional article. Here's one from a 1914 book on The Batavia System of Individual Instruction, a method of classroom organization that put in the classroom an extra teacher who would conference individually with students while the "regular" teacher conducted lectures and recitations.

You can see the conferencing teacher on the left, meeting with one student while the rest of her charges revise their essays. On the right, the regular classroom teacher drones on and on, pointer in hand. Somebody tell her to be quiet; I'm trying to write here!

These next two pictures come from a 1935 article by Frances Ross Hicks, “Laboratory-Recitations in English Composition,” which appeared in The Nation’s Schools, and described the English laboratory at Murray State Teachers College in Murray, KY.

Here's a student diligently working away in the English Laboratory. I'm concerned about the distinct lack of books on the shelf behind her.

The next image from that same article is certainly more vibrant, kind of a train station approach to tutoring writing. Is that guy in the back smoking a cigarette?

Finally, I'll jump ahead three decades to offer a picture from a 1952 NCTE publication.

It's not necessarily from a writing center, but the older tweedy professor with pen poised over the younger female student's paper seems particularly emblematic, if not problematic. And what's with that stain on the wall?

Have any pictures of writing conferencing back in the day? I'd love to see them.

Neal Lerner


At 11:52 AM, Anonymous lauren said...


I laughed out loud when I read your crack about the stain on the wall behind the young woman working with (being worked on by?) "the older tweedy professor." There's something really sinister about that scene.

I like how your work makes me think about writing enters. It's so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of what we do (largely because it's incredibly important!) that our work can seem ephemeral--unrooted in a
past or a tradition (or a body of knowledge).

As I type this, I'm making some sort of half-baked connection to Anne Geller's really terrific WCJ article on time in the writing center. I can't really articulate my thoughts any better than "Time is funny in/with/for writing centers." (Gee whiz, great words
of wisdom for my blog debut!)


At 11:54 AM, Blogger Lauren said...

Whoops! I meant to say "I like how your work makes me think about writing *Centers*" not "writing enters"--but maybe it makes me think about that too.


At 1:23 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

That's an intruiging subject/verb phrase waiting to be completed, Lauren:

Writing enters . . . .

The room? Our consciousness? Hell? The center?

Not a bad name for bookstore, too.


At 8:07 PM, Blogger theorris said...

Well I was going to smart off about the possibilities that the woman was tutoring Mr. McTweed, but we all know that would not be the case.

Speaking of which, I really want to set up a web page that has "guess who's being tutored" quiz. Should I do it?

At 8:12 PM, Blogger theorris said...

What is that book in front of Professor McTweed, anyway? Talk about an image that needs some serious analysis. The book--the pen--the girl with a befuddled look--the stain on the wall. It all adds up, somehow.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

Clint, I looked at a larger version of that picture, and the title of that book is The Play. I can't make out the subtitle. I also think the photo is obviously staged in that there's no way the student can see her paper as Prof. McTweedy points out egregious errors. Or maybe he didn't want her to.


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