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Why We Work This Way

The underlying concept of the writing center has a long history. Writers have always sought feedback from others, for it is a natural part of the writing process. Scholars have pointed to a formalized example of the kind of collaboration writers have engaged in: eighteenth-century literary societies, which were led by students, rather than by professors, and emphasized discussion and debate over rote learning. But they were largely extracurricular whereas writing centers are more curricular driven.

Writing Centers in their modern form took shape in the years before and immediately following World War II, beginning in the 1930s, largely in response to the enrollment surge in post-secondary institutions that struggled to educate a large group of returning veterans who were often first-generation college students and sometimes were not as well-prepared for college as their peers. Since then, writing centers have taken their cue from dominant theories in composition studies, often in correspondence to such waves in enrollment. The professionalization of writing centers began in the 1970s, as writing center work took hold as a discipline related to but separate from education, composition, and rhetoric. Foundational ideas were put forward by such figures as Stephen North, whose 1984 essay "The Idea of a Writing Center" continues to influence writing centers.

"[T]utors balance between encouraging student responsibility and ownership and guaranteeing successful student performance."

In the past decade or so, the notion of non-directive tutoring, which was the early foundation of the professionalized writing center, has been replaced by more dominant pedagogical theories, as writing center professionals have continued to theorize their work. A few threads of this influence include Vygotsky's notion of scaffolding and the rising importance of New Literacy Studies in writing center work. Of scaffolding, Isabelle Thompson (2009) explains that


current research suggests that rather than the peer collaboration advocated by writing center practitioners in the 1980s, the collaboration between students and tutors is asymmetrical (see Black, 1998, for a description of asymmetry in student-teacher writing conferences). Unlike peers, tutors and students are not equals because tutors bring knowledge and skills that students often lack to conferences. In this asymmetrical relationship, the more expert tutor is expected to support and challenge the less expert student to perform at levels higher than the student could have achieved without assistance. The expert tutor and the less expert student work together to achieve the student's goal, which becomes shared by both participants in the collaboration. Unless the relationship between the tutor and the student is highly interactive, learning is not likely to occur, even though active participation is not by itself sufficient for learning. In other words, tutors balance between encouraging student responsibility and ownership and guaranteeing successful student performance. This balance and the expert–novice relationship required to achieve the balance are the essence of scaffolding. (p. 419)


Writing centers share common aims and general purposes but are incredibly diverse because they strive to meet the needs of students at their particular institutions. They have sprung up around the country and across the globe. They are being developed in high schools and elementary schools as well as in graduate and professional schools. Some serve their faculty as well as students. Some writing centers serve the community at large. The diverse local contexts of these writing centers reflect myriad complexions of the writing center.

A network of professional organizations support writing centers, and a rich and expanding body of literature informs writing center work.


Gee, J. P. (1999). Reading and the new literacy studies: Reframing the national academy of sciences report on reading. Journal of Literacy Research 31: 355–74. doi: 10.1080/10862969909548052

North, S. M. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English. 46: 433–46. Retrieved from

Thompson, I. (2009). Scaffolding in the writing center: A microanalysis of an experienced tutor's verbal and nonverbal tutoring strategies. Written Communication 26: 417–23. doi: 10.1177/0741088309342364

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

by reinecka — last modified Aug 21, 2011 09:34 AM


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