Our Writing Center’s Founder: Professor Joyce Steward

Collaborative Learning, From the Director, Higher Education, Outreach, UW-Madison History, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices, Writing Across the Curriculum, Writing Center History, Writing Center Workshops, Writing Centers / Monday, September 10th, 2012
Professor Joyce S. Steward (1917-2002), founder of the Writing Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Professor Joyce S. Steward (1917-2004), founder of the Writing Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Brad Hughes, Director, The Writing Center, Director, Writing Across the Curriculum, UW-Madison.

In this blog post, I would like to honor the legendary founder of the Writing Center (originally called the Writing Laboratory) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the most influential pioneers in the modern writing center profession—Professor Joyce Stribling Steward. Professor Steward founded the Writing Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969 and directed it until her retirement in 1982. Among her many accomplishments, she—

  • pioneered writing center methods that emphasized respect for individual student-writers and that tailored instruction to individual students, starting where students are and working collaboratively with them
  • conceptualized and designed a writing laboratory for writers at all undergraduate and graduate levels, writing in all disciplines
  • expanded writing center programs beyond individual tutoring to incorporate workshops in the center as well as outreach in courses across the curriculum, at the graduate and undergraduate level
  • published, in 1977, an article about writing laboratories in an MLA journal for English Department chairs, The ADE Journal
  • co-developed and led a week-long summer institute about developing writing laboratories, held at UW-Madison in 1981
  • co-authored, in 1982, one of the first books about writing centers, The Writing Laboratory: Organization, Management, and Methods
  • influenced the development of many other writing centers around the United States through her publications, by hosting visitors from many colleges and universities, and through her invited lectures and consulting around the US
  • developed and taught the first course on women’s literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

What follows is a summary of Professor Steward’s career, from the Memorial Resolution of the Faculty Senate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To learn more about Professor Steward’s career, you might be interested in an extensive oral history done with her in 2002, which is housed in the Oral History Project in the Libraries of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in the national Writing Center Research Project. To learn more about the fascinating larger context of writing instruction at UW-Madison in the 1960s and early 1970s, you might be interested in David Fleming’s wonderful new book, From Form to Meaning: Freshman Composition and the Long Sixties, 1957-1974 (U of Pittsburgh P, 2011).

Memorial Resolution of the Faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

On the Death of Professor Joyce Elinor Stribling Steward (1917-2004)

On October 3, 2004, in Ellensburg, Washington, Professor of English Emerita Joyce Elinor Stribling Steward died at the age of 87. Steward’s long career was marked by extraordinary intelligence, energy, vision, and generosity—generosity to her students, to her colleagues, to the teachers she educated and mentored, and to her profession. A renowned English teacher at both West and La Follette High Schools in Madison before joining the University’s faculty, the founding director of the University’s nationally influential Writing Laboratory (now the Writing Center), an award-winning composition and literature professor, an influential teacher of high-school English teachers across the state and of University teaching assistants who went on to become faculty across the country, and a national leader in establishing and professionalizing writing centers and in creating the field of writing center studies, Steward had a profound and lasting influence on writing instruction across the University, the State of Wisconsin, and the United States.

Steward took an unusual path to the faculty at the University, teaching at the university level only in the later part of her teaching career. Steward was a native of Iowa, with an undergraduate degree in English from Grinnell College (Phi Beta Kappa), a master’s degree from Drake University, doctoral studies in English at the University of Iowa and, as a John Hay Fellow, at Yale University. In the first half of her career, Steward was an English teacher at West High School in Madison (from 1951-1963) and then was the first chair of the English Department at the new La Follette High School in Madison (from 1963-1966). On the basis of her teaching record and her professional accomplishments, Steward was recruited to join the English Department faculty at the University of Wisconsin in 1966, where she taught advanced composition and literature and administered writing programs and introductory courses until her retirement in 1982.

Bascom Hall, where UW-Madison's Writing Laboratory began on the third floor, in 1969. Photo by Bryce Richter, University Communications.
Bascom Hall, where UW-Madison’s Writing Laboratory began on the third floor, in 1969. Photo by Bryce Richter, University Communications.

In her legendary English 309 course, a composition course for future English teachers, Steward prepared generations of future high-school English teachers who after their graduation from the University taught in school districts across the state. Steward inherited this course from another equally distinguished teacher of teachers, her good friend, colleague, and mentor, Professor Ednah Shepard Thomas. In 1974, Steward proposed and taught the University’s first course on women’s literature (English 250). In recognition of her stellar teaching, Steward received the University’s 1978 Steiger Award for Distinguished Teaching from Chancellor Irving Shain.

steward_croft_writinglaboratoryIn 1969 Steward founded and became the first director of the University’s Writing Laboratory, an innovative model for individualized writing instruction, a program originally located on the third floor of Bascom Hall, and she continued to direct the Writing Laboratory through its move and expansion into Helen C. White Hall until her retirement in 1982. She trained and mentored many graduate teaching assistants in the English Department, who then in their faculty careers taught writing and established writing centers at colleges and universities around the country. She also contributed to the growth and professionalization of writing centers around the United States through her many invited lectures and presentations, through her consulting with many other universities, and through her many writing center publications. In 1977, for example, Steward published one of the first articles about writing laboratories in the MLA journal for English Department chairs, the ADE Bulletin. Steward co-authored with Mary K. Croft, from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, one of the first books about writing centers, The Writing Laboratory: Organization, Management, and Methods (Scott, Foresman, 1982). In 1981 Steward and Croft proposed and led, at UW-Madison, a week-long summer institute for writing laboratory directors from around the country. Steward also wrote numerous writing textbooks, including Writing in the Social Sciences, co-authored with Marjorie Smelstor (1984), which was a pioneering text in the field now known as “writing in the disciplines.”

Professor Steward was equally influential through years of service to her department, to the University, and to her profession at the state and national levels. In addition to directing both the Writing Laboratory and Introductory courses and serving on numerous composition and English-education committees in the English Department, Steward was Secretary of the University’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa from 1969-1977. She served on numerous L&S and University committees, including committees on student financial aid, on academic appeals, and on equal opportunity programs. She also held numerous leadership positions in the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English and was active in the National Council of Teachers of English.

stewardlampswithprisms1steward_joyce_leisure_pen2After retiring in 1982, Steward moved to Washington State to be near her family, living first on Bainbridge Island and then later in Ellensburg. In retirement, Steward continued to be a voracious reader. During an extensive oral history about her life and career conducted in 2002, which is part of the University’s oral history archives and the oral history archives for the National Writing Center Research Project, Steward peppered her conversation with references to her current reading, mentioning such contemporary poets as Rita Dove and Billy Collins. She also continued to write and publish and lecture widely. In 1988, she co-authored, with Mary K. Croft, The Leisure Pen, a very successful book about writing for seniors. In 1989, she co-authored, with Eva M. Burkett, Thoreau on Writing. And in 1999, she published a delightful volume of her poems, Lamps with Prisms. As a resident of an assisted-living facility in Ellensburg, Washington, later in her life, Steward generously helped student-employees with papers they were writing for courses at nearby Central Washington State University, and she taught writing classes for seniors.

A ferry between Seattle and Bainbridge Island
A ferry between Seattle and Bainbridge Island
Bainbridge Island, State of Washington
Bainbridge Island, State of Washington

In his nomination of Joyce Steward for a distinguished teaching award in 1978, Professor William Lenehan, the chairman of the English Department, captured the essence of Steward as a teacher and colleague and leader: “How does one get to be a distinguished teacher with this kind of national reputation? In Professor Steward’s case, knowing one’s discipline thoroughly, being an effective administrator, having apparently endless reserves of energy all help. But I am convinced that the real secret is a commitment to help the individual who needs help, whether that individual be the scared freshman facing her first assigned paper or the newly appointed director of Harvard’s Writing Laboratory coming here to find out what he should do. A scene may illustrate this. I walked by the Writing Laboratory one night about 9:00. Professor Steward was still there. She had dropped by to make sure the staff members got out on time (8:30), and after they left, this boy came by with questions about the organization of a paper due tomorrow. She reported, ‘I had to look at the paper. He needed help.’ Joyce Steward’s distinction as a teacher is that she responds to all of us who need help.”

Joyce Steward is survived by a son (Chuck) and daughter-in-law (Peggy) of Ellensburg, WA, as well as a grandson, great-granddaughter, and a great- grandson.

Memorial Resolution Committee, from the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Standish Henning
Bradley Hughes
Margaret Lacy
Charles Scott

23 Replies to “Our Writing Center’s Founder: Professor Joyce Steward”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this legacy of a remarkable career! I had certainly heard of Joyce Steward as the founder of the Writing Laboratory, but I had not realized the scope of her research, teaching and service. I am now really looking forward to reading David Fleming’s new book.

  2. Such an interesting post, Brad! It’s fascinating to hear about our Writing Center’s beginnings. Steward’s dedication and innovation are no surprise to me, because that spirit certainly lives on in our current Center.

  3. I loved this post and the chance to learn more about Joyce Steward and her amazing career. Looking ahead, I can also see an important niche this post will fill.

    This past spring I was interviewed by several a series of students taking an Academic Enhancement Seminar who were tasked with making a brochure about the Writing Center. They were particularly interested in information they couldn’t get from our website, particularly regarding the Writing Center’s history (who founded it, when, and so on).

    After not knowing the specifics off the top of my head, I found a little more information on our history for my next several interviewers in the introduction to Steward and Croft’s The Writing Laboratory: Organization, Management, and Methods, which I thoroughly enjoyed skimming over.

    I can almost guarantee students from that class will be back next year, and I hope whomever they interview can come armed with more knowledge of Prof. Steward’s truly impressive career. She’s definitely worth celebrating!

  4. Thank you for making this writing center history visible, Brad! It is very encouraging to see how much the dedication and engagement of a single person can contribute to our field. How great that this spirit lives on and the writing center at UW Madison is still a place for enthusiastic, helpful and wise people.

  5. I’m so glad you posted this, Brad. What a great back-story to last week’s post showing how much the UW-Madison Writing Center has grown. Certainly, though the Center has expanded in size and scope, the same ethic of care and engagement with student writing has been in full force since its beginnings with Joyce Steward. While I knew a little about Steward, I didn’t know nearly the full extent of her accomplishments–including advising “the newly appointed director of Harvard’s Writing Laboratory coming here to find out what he should do”! Sounds like a remarkable woman, scholar, teacher, and leader.

  6. Thanks for that fascinating post, Brad. Though I never met her, I feel connected to Joyce Steward in a variety of ways. One of the first articles I found and read that gave me a sense of writing center history was Prof. Steward’s ADE Bulletin piece “To Like to Have Written: Learning the Laboratory Way” (vol. 76, 1977, pp. 32-40). I was also honored to be one of the leaders in the reincarnation of Prof. Steward’s summer institute for writing center directors, which you organized at Madison in 2003, and our colleague and co-author Paula Gillespie trained under Prof. Steward as a graduate student in Madison. Finally, my wife is a graduate of Madison West High School, where Prof. Steward taught before coming to the university! All of us in the writing center world are in her debt, and I really appreciate your offering evidence of the extent of her contribution.

    Neal Lerner
    Associate Professor and Writing Center Director
    Department of English
    Northeastern University
    Boston, MA

  7. Thanks, Bard, your tribute to Joyce Steward is moving and eloquent. As yet one more person whose life was touched by Joyce, I remember her as a leader, a friend, and an inspiration. I first met Joyce in person when, as a newcomer to the world of writing centers, I had the incredible honor of being on a panel presentation at CCCC (1976) with her, Mary Croft, and Jan Neuleib, where we (that is, all of us in that small room) talked, exchanged ideas, gained strength from each other’s enthusiasm and support to form some sort of group somehow. Before the advent of the Internet, I volunteered to start a newsletter for all of us crowded in that tiny room, trying to stay together, as people who needed the room for the next session poured in. And that “newsletter” was the birth of the Writing Lab Newsletter, which in retirement I happily continue to edit. It was Joyce who was the moving force of that session, the person whom we all felt had offered us a model of teaching that was, in our minds, a promise of a personalized way to work with writers in a space where so much was possible in ways we were busy discovering. Brad, as part of Joyce’s legacy, you have carried on her work, both at UW-Madison and as a leader who resurrected the Summer Institutes that have continued through the years. Thanks and appreciation for all that you do. And I consider your invitation to me to join in as a leader of that initial Summer Institute as one of the highlights of my academic life. I know you will keep up Joyce’s influence and tradition and genuine commitment.

    Muriel Harris
    Professor Emerita of English
    Writing Lab Director (retired)
    Writing Lab Newsletter, Editor
    Purdue University

  8. YOICKS, Brad, sorry about that typo at first. Yes, you are a Bard in a neat way, singing to all of us, but you’re also Brad, even though my clumsy fingers don’t always find the right keys to indicate that. Hey, where is auto-correct when I need it?


  9. Thanks, Brad, for this post. I didn’t realize the many similarities between Joyce’s and Ednah S. Thomas’s lives. They were both pioneers, doing remarkable work with writing instruction, writing programs, and–apparently most important–with individual student-writers.

    What was happening at UW-Madison during the mid-to-late twentieth century that cultivated such talent and innovation? Strong state or federal support for higher ed? An exceptional crop of English department faculty? High-quality HS instruction in Madison? I’ll have to reread David Fleming’s book for answers, unless he’s reading and has an idea . . . .

    Dave Stock
    Assistant Professor of English, Brigham Young University

  10. Dear Brad,

    Thanks so much for posting this tribute to Joyce Steward. I was one of the many Wisconsin TAs she mentored back in the day. When I was a brand new TA, both she and Ednah Thomas were there, so I knew both of of them. Joyce was my immediate supervisor. When she came to observe my class I was terrified (although my students rose to the occasion), but she gave me the kindest and most helpful feedback I could have wished for. She was unfailingly patient with rookies like me, a master teacher and a splendid example of how to run a program. I was able to reconnect with her much later, when I directing the writing program at Washington State University, to tell her how much I had learned from her. She swore she did nothing special, which was characteristic of her. Although the program at that time was straight-up current-traditional, both she and Mrs. Thomas always emphasized one thing above all else: respect for the student.
    She was no pushover, however. Here’s one of the many stories that circulated among the TAs about her (and that showed why we appreciated her so much). A student who was known to be very difficult came to her and asked to be switched to a different class, because he had a personality conflict with his present TA. The TA in question happened to be in the next room, so Joyce excused herself and asked the TA his opinion–and he was only too glad to pass this particular student on to someone else. So Joyce went back and made the change. The student then asked, “What if I have a personality conflict with this TA as well?” Joyce didn’t hesitate: “Look in the mirror,” she said.

    Susan McLeod
    Professor Emerita of Writing
    Director Emerita of the University Writing Program
    University of California, Santa Barbara

  11. When I was a graduate student at UW-Madison, I worked as a writing tutor for four years at the Writing Laboratory under the direction of Joyce Steward. In retrospect I can see that this was one of the richest professional experiences in my career. Although Joyce is rightfully praised for her many publications about writing labs/centers, those of us fortunate enough to have actually worked with her experienced how she put into practice what she wrote about. She set a tone in the work place that was highly professional yet calm and benevolent, never stressful. I looked forward to going to work each day in her writing lab. It was a happy place. And Joyce was very practical about our work. I once had a tutee who just did not seem to be making any progress. When I asked Joyce for advice, she said, “Don’t worry about it. She likes you. Just do the best you can.” She expected all of us to do our best, and she was happy as long as she felt that was what we were doing. Training sessions and staff meetings also had the same professional but relaxed atmosphere: one or more serious topics were always discussed, but abundant food and drink was always served as well. One of my fellow tutors once commented that Joyce seemed to consider our meetings to be social occasions, and they were, in the best sense of sociability.

    For twenty years while I was the director of a writing center program, I enjoyed the seminal experience of having Joyce Steward as a model. Often when a situation would come up that required some problem solving, I could always ask what would Joyce do. Many times my tutors heard from me the same advice I first heard from her. Her influence on those who actually worked with her reminds me of the famous French piano teacher, Nadia Boulanger; it is said most of the top pianists of the twentieth century at one time or another studied with her. Obviously there are many more writing center directors than the much smaller group of famous pianists, but the model of passing down standards and wisdom to the next generation still seems apt to me, and her influence lives on among many people still teaching today. This is not to say she believed one size fits all. Her favorite metaphor for developing a writing center in any particular institution came from Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of organic architecture. Just as he believed that a building is best designed to fit the environment where it is located, she believed that writing centers should fit the missions of the institutions where they are located, the budgets available there, and the needs of the student populations they serve. In my own experience, I found this kind of adjustment necessary, but I am grateful to have had Joyce Steward’s example to guide me.

    Allen Einerson
    Emeritus Director, Writing Center
    University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

  12. Brad: Thanks for sharing this info. I first met Joyce when I was teaching high school in Racine, Wisc. I came to a workshop at UW that Joyce held for high school teachers, and the subject was “learning to comment on student essays”. I learned a great deal from her, and used her techniques throughout my career. What she taught us in that class is still relevant today, and the principles would benefit those who require papers from their students. She also guided me in the first two years of my Writing Center experience where I also benefitted from her insight into students’ learning and writing abilities.

  13. Brad, you have done a superb job in memorializing the academic and professional career of Joyce Steward, one of our English Department faculty who richly deserves the accolades offered in her memory.

    When I was Chair of the English Department in the years 1970-1974, the first year in Bascom Hall, the next three years in Helen C. White Hall, Joyce had already teamed with Ednah Thomas in developing and administering the Writing Lab and had already given us substantial evidence that this was an instructional innovation that was worth maintaining and supporting. It should be remembered that the Writing Lab came into existence at a time when the Department still offered traditional freshman and sophomore English composition courses staffed almost wholly by our graduate Teaching Assistants. Especially in the 1970-1971 year, the continuing turmoil in the Department and in the University had definitely affected the content and teaching practice in many sections of these composition courses, much to the chagrin of many in the campus community. The Writing Lab, by its nature and by the professional genius and determination of Joyce Steward, became a vibrant and attractive alternative for numerous students uncertain of the writing skill expected in their courses. The subsequent success of the Writing Lab, morphing later into the Writing Center, is well documented and Brad Hughes has properly lauded Joyce Steward’s role in its development.

    There is another aspect of Joyce Steward’s career that I remember vividly: her leadership in proposing and teaching the Department’s first course in women’s literature. She came to me to talk about her conception of this course, worried that it would be attacked for not being sufficiently “political” to satisfy some women faculty members and many women students. I encouraged her to develop and teach the course she wanted to teach (English 250) and then we would see from student evaluations what kind of reception it got. Since we had just hired a new female assistant professor with a politically keen interest in teaching courses in women’s literature, I proposed that Joyce and she alternate in teaching English 250, but that whenever Joyce would teach the course, she would of course design it to HER satisfaction. Which she did, and did very successfully.

    In my view, Joyce Steward was a woman of genuine courage and exceptional professional and academic and personal integrity. I am proud to have been her colleague in our Department. And I salute the work of Brad Hughes and the Writing Center, superb successors to the ground-breaking efforts of Ednah Thomas and Joyce Steward.

    Charles Scott
    Professor Emeritus
    Department of English
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  14. What a wonderful tribute to a remarkable woman! Reading this post and the rich comments, I’m inspired by Joyce’s legacy. I especially loved hearing about her career spanned, connected, and contributed to both University and K12 education. She makes me proud to be an alum of the Writing Center and the UW-Madison English Department.

  15. Thank you, Brad, for the post honoring Joyce Steward. As a member of her staff at the then Writing Lab for a number of years, I can testify that Joyce was indeed the remarkable scholar and teacher described in the Memorial and the comments. But my warmest memories of her were after her retirement, when my husband and I took the ferry pictured above and visited her on Bainbridge Island. She treated us to her favorite salmon recipe (which we still use), took us to see Chief Seattle’s grave and the Seattle Art Museum, and directed us to the Olympic Peninsula and her list of “must-see” places on it–the town with the best pies in the world,, the book stores in Port Townsend, Lake Crescent, the Three Crabs for dinner, and the Oak Table for breakfast, to name a few. She introduced us to Ivan Doig’s Winter Brothers (set on the Peninsula), and to much local history we were unaware of. We visited all the places she recommended, and we returned to visit Joyce and the Peninsula five or six times while she was alive. Her warm hospitality and her zest for “learning the place I live in,” as she put it, gave us some of our most treasured memories.

  16. I worked as a tutor at UW-Madison as part of my teaching assistantship between 1976 and 1980. At the time most of my peers and I were only dimly aware of Joyce’s leadership in the writing center world. In 1985, coordinating the writing center at Marquette University was 1/3 of my position, along with serving as assistant director of the comp program and working with WAC/WID.

    At this time I began reading through the Marquette Writing Center’s archives. The extensive annual reports of those early years of the writing center provided fascinating reading, especially the steady progress our center had made in the mid-seventies from an exercise-based service to one-to-one tutoring.

    In 1981, after I had begun work at Marquette but before I was involved in the writing center there, the Marquette directors attended Joyce’s Summer Institute and wrote compellingly (for an annual report) about how this Institute had shaped the center at Marquette.

    I learned a lot from Joyce when I was a tutor, but the center I came eventually to direct benefited directly from her leadership as well.

    Thank you, Brad, for this history and tribute. I love seeing the images of her Seattle home of Bainbridge Island. I know that these were some of the happiest days of her life, and I enjoy thinking of her writing poetry and still sharing her love of the written work with others.

    Professor Paula Gillespie
    Director, Center for Excellence in Writing
    Florida International University

  17. Dear Brad,

    I echo the many comments posted here about the depth and breadth of Joyce’s work in our field, and I also appreciate learning about the many ways in which she modeled how literacy (and our involvements with it) change over a lifetime and offer continual opportunities for renewal and enrichment.

    It also strikes me that, particularly in the comments section, you have the beginnings of a really interesting genealogy project tracing Joyce’s ongoing influence in the field.

    Nice job and many thanks!
    Elizabeth Boquet
    Professor of English
    Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs
    Fairfield University

  18. I first met Mrs. Steward in 1965 when she became my English teacher for two wonderful years at Madison LaFollette High School. I have thought of her often over the years and am so thankful for this tribute. I am now fully aware of her many accomplishments. Even as a teenager, I had an appreciation that Joyce was a special teacher. She had us reading and writing constantly, and enjoying it immensely. My future career was to be in science, but my favorite class was English. It is wonderful to see her picture once again and to celebrate the treasure she was. Thank you so very much.

  19. I had the honor of being in Mrs. Steward’s writing for English teachers course. That was, by far, the best college course I have ever taken and Joyce was an excellent professor and friend. Something made me think of here today and I found that she passed in 2004. She was a treasure.

  20. This is a terrific model for other writing centers to adopt–to document their local histories and the people who made history.

  21. As vases go, it’s smallish – antique, porcelain, made in Germany, with hand-painted yellow roses and long, thorny stems. It was Joyce Steward’s wedding gift to us in 1982, and it was, she said, a piece from her collection. I keep it with my books in my office here at home, and you don’t need to be an English teacher to imagine the symbolism it holds.

    I can’t look at it without thinking of the bigger gift that she shared with me and many others, and that is the idea that first and foremost, you should respect your students. This seems simple until you attempt to live it. A relationship based on mutual respect requires constant vigilance and care. Even now, all these years later, when working with my students at Madison College, I need to remind myself that my job is not to give them the answer but rather to respect and support the development of their skills so they can discover the solutions themselves.

    The last thing that Joyce gave to me was her book The Leisure Pen: A Book for Elderwriters. She didn’t know then that decades later I would bring her book with me when teaching “Writing Your Memoirs” at the Senior Center in Middleton, or that I would find myself writing a book on the same topic.

    I would like to say that Joyce planted many seeds, which, I believe she would be happy to know, have grown in the way that many things grow, especially ones that are fortunate to start with good genetics, guidance, and grace. I’m thankful and will do my best to nurture new cycles, new seeds, new growth.

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