Monday, March 25, 2013

WRITING LABS: The Expanded Edition!

            Writing Lab?
Writing: the process of putting one’s thought on a page, or, in an academic context, making content as boring as possible
Lab: a place where people with white coats conduct dangerous experiments

            Seriously, though, what is a writing lab? Stigmatized as a resource for struggling writers, or a as a place where a messy paper is magically put through a grammar machine and comes out perfectly spotless and consequently boring, writing labs are often viewed from a skewed perspective. This skewed perspective can often be negative or limited.
            Yes, writing labs can help struggling writers, but they can also help extremely skilled writers who might mistakenly believe that a writing lab would have nothing to offer them. Yes, writing labs provide help with grammar, but realistically, not all grammar errors can be fixed in the span of 30 minutes. Nor should they all be fixed in 30 minutes, because student writers need time to learn about grammar and become independent of a magical grammar-fixing machine.
            So, a writing lab helps writers of all levels and trains them to be independent and unique. But perhaps writing labs should not stop there, when they have the potential to do so much more.
            In an interview with Elizabeth Threadgill, Murriel Harris—founder of Purdue Writing Center—named a couple of extensions to writing lab goals and functions, including working with not only written communication but also with visual, oral, or other types of communication and  presentation (Threadgill 2010). I know that personally, I have worked with power point, presentations, and perhaps other methods of communication in the writing lab besides strictly writing, a fact that excites me and makes me wonder how far writing labs can go in fostering all types of effective and creative communication. The potential of writing labs does not stop there, however. In the interview, Harris also describes a variety of ways in which writing labs can take advantage of the internet as a tool for supporting and encouraging students in writing (Threadgill 2010). For example, he mentions online conferencing, iChats, and email as possible modes of online tutoring, and he suggests using YouTube videos to provide training for professors in teaching writing (Threadgill 2010). Therefore, writing labs can provide support not only for student writers but also for writing teachers.
            Harris also supports the idea that college writing labs can build into their community by working with high school writing centers and providing tutoring services to the community in general (Threadgill 2010). Harris is not the only one advocating for more connections between college writing labs and high school writing labs. For example, Littleton (2010) names many benefits from connections like this, such as preparing high school students for college writing expectations and assignments, preparing high school Writing Lab Consultants to become college Writing Lab Consultants, preparing college writing labs to receive high school writers, and allowing high school and college writing labs to share ideas and challenges.
            Therefore, writing labs need not be limited to a skewed perspective of their assigned functions, conforming to the image of stiff, white-coated grammar police performing unintelligible experiments on students’ papers until they are as boring as possible. Instead, writing labs should welcome students of all levels, working on every aspect of writing, and extending their influence and services to include an ever-growing range of issues and populations.

Littleton, C. (2006). Creating Connections between Secondary and College Writing Centers. Clearing House80(2), 77-78.
Threadgill, E. (2010). Writing Center Work Bridging Boundaries: An Interview with Muriel Harris. Journal Of Developmental Education, 34(2), 20-25.


  1. Lindsay, I really enjoyed reading your post! I completely agree that people tend to have a skewed view of what a writing lab does and what a writing lab can do. The writing lab can be an excellent and extremely helpful resource that not all campuses take advantage of. I really like the points you provided about taking advantage of online resources to make the most out of what the writing lab is possible of doing. There are so many ways to incorporate technology into writing centers to make them as effective as possible. I found an excellent article by Muriel Harris about using computers to expand the role of writing centers; it is very interesting and practical. I especially appreciate her ideas because Purdue OWL is a resource that I use habitually to format and improve my writing.

    Harris, Muriel. "1 Using Computers to Expand the Role of Writing Centers." Electronic communication across the curriculum (1998): 2-16. Web.

  2. Lindsay, I think that this is a very relevant topic and I'm glad you posted this. I think that you make a relevant point in saying that no all grammar issues can be addressed in 30 min. Students do need time to process and explore new information or they will not remember or learn. In my ed psych class, Dr MacCullough has taught that for new information to be learned a student must connect it with information that they already know as well as explore that new information along with the old information for a while. After this exploring process students will likely remember the new information. I think that your ideas coincide with how people learn, and I think that they would work well in the writing lab context.

  3. I think the fact that writing labs are beginning to use the internet as a medium is important, and that this is a timely development. Online availability is certainly a way that labs can expand their influence, but I think it is also critical for continued relevance. In a fast-paced culture that values convenience, being completely tied to a physical location can be detrimental. Personally, I know I have used online resources from Purdue OWL more frequently than I have used the Writing Lab at school, despite the fact that I work there. Resources from the OWL are quick to find, directly applicable,and accessible from anywhere, qualities that a real writing lab may do well to emulate and incorporate.

  4. Lindsay, your use of imagery here gives a strong impression of the ways people view a writing lab. It is almost as if we are grammar doctors, or magicians, as you suggest, rather than writers helping writers. Even though a reasonable amount of traffic passes through our center, I still encounter many people who don’t understand our purpose or our services. One particular aspect that I feel is undervalued is the writing lab as a place of encouragement. How many students come in a day seeking not grammatical or syntactical guidance, but reassurance that their words make sense? Our ultimate purpose is to provide that reassurance by demonstrating how and where their ideas are clear, or by explaining how thoughts can be made comprehensive. Muriel Harris notes in her article “Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors” that “[students] come in nervous, apprehensive, defeated, or eager to get any help they can [and] emerge from their sessions feeling more positive, more in control of their own writing. The enormous power of these positive responses to tutors cannot be overemphasized” (Harris, 29-30). Perhaps the most important thing we do for student writers is create a positive writing experience, and provide the encouragement for which they hunger.

    Harris, Muriel. “Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors.” College English
    57.1 Jan. 1995 : 27-42. JSTOR. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.