The Evolution of UW-Madison’s Writing Center Online: A Wayback Look

Uncategorized / Monday, August 31st, 2015

By Brad Hughes

Brad Hughes is the director of the Writing Center and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is delighted to be starting his 32nd year as director of the Writing Center.

As we start a new academic year, this seems like a good time to celebrate an important anniversary for our Writing Center. This year the online portion of our Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ( is celebrating its 20th anniversary–or its 21st, or 22nd, depending on how you count; I will explain in a minute. (Our Writing Center as a whole is heading toward its 50th anniversary in a few years.) Since our base-ten number system makes 20 seem like a significant number and since this story hasn’t been told, I thought it would be fun to trace the history of our center’s online presence. And I thought it would be fun to reveal some out-of-date web fashions–that’s our original website in the featured photo above:-).

Over the decades, our Online Writing Center has become an integral component of our Writing Center programs at UW-Madison. In fact, I’m a big believer in convergence—that is, I believe that those of us in the writing center profession should stop thinking of online and in-person programs as distinct, but instead as productively, even magically, intertwined. One more key reason drives my passion for what we do online: increasing student access to all that a writing center does. Just as our evening and weekend hours in residence halls, multicultural-student centers, campus libraries, and public libraries across our city make our center more accessible and more inclusive, so do all of our online offerings.

What We Offer Online

Over the years the content of our online site has grown steadily, thanks to the hard work and the vision of countless members of our staff. And the reach of those materials—the number of links to our materials and the number of readers around the world–has grown in ways that amaze us. In October 2014, for example, our Online Writing Center had over 6 million hits from over 548,000 unique visitors from around the world–just in that one month.

As is the case for most writing centers, our online site is now the front door for our center’s programs—providing information for students and faculty and writing center colleagues at other universities about our programs and locations and staff. As we have updated our descriptions of our programs and pedagogy, we have tried to follow Mickey Harris’s great advice, in a 2010 Writing Center Journal article, about creating sticky institutional discourse for our websites.

But online we offer much more than just information about our programs:

Our Early History Online

Reconstruction of the Gopher information files for the UW-Madison Writing Lab, c. 1994

Our Writing Center actually had a presence on the Internet well before we launched a website in 1995. For a couple of years, we had what was called a “Gopher site,” a simple way to deliver text files on the Internet, a system which pre-dated the graphical, hypertext system for websites. Gopher sites could have menus and text files. (It was named “Gopher” in honor of the sports mascot at our wonderful neighbor to the west, the University of Minnesota, where it was developed.) I cannot seem to find an image of what our Gopher site looked like, but it was something like my re-creation just above this paragraph, delivering basic text information about our services and basic versions of some of our handouts about academic writing.

I actually remember vividly the first time I saw the World Wide Web, in 1994, using the early browser Mosaic–someone at the Division of Information Technology (DoIT) on my campus showed me a website from Australia or New Zealand (can’t quite remember) and I thought (quite profoundly, I’ll tell you) that “This is going to be big . . . and I want our writing center to be part of it.” I loved the graphical and visual nature and the hypertext links, which were all brand new on the Internet at the time. I also remember a few years later that my daughter had a short writing assignment in first grade to introduce and explain the Internet and to explain some new thing called email to her parents.

Who developed our Writing Center’s first website? Let me introduce my wonderful colleagues who did. Each semester, the graduate teaching assistants on our staff fill out a detailed scheduling form, not only providing information about their availability for scheduled shifts in all of our different locations but also signaling their interest in working with different parts of our many Writing Center programs. On this scheduling form in the spring of 1995, I added a new question: “With some new grant funding I have, I am looking for two TAs to spend 10% of their teaching appointments working with me to develop a new online writing center on the new ‘World Wide Web.’ This will require learning to use something called ‘Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).'”

In response to that small scheduling invitation, our Writing Center was supremely lucky to have two fabulous teaching assistants on our staff express interest and then work creatively and tirelessly to develop our first website–Erin Denney, who is now on the faculty at the City College of San Francisco, and Matt Livesey, who is now on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. My dusty date book tells me that Matt and Erin and I met every week during the spring of 1995, to plan and then launch our Writing Center’s first website (don’t ask why I still have my calendar from 1995). We had the help of a graphic designer in the Division of Information Technology on our campus, who thought that the hand-drawn, colored-pencil, retro look of the graphics and icons on our first website would match the ethos of our center.

Our first website, launched in 1995.
Our first website, launched in 1995. Image from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
An interior menu, from our original website.
An interior menu, from our original website.

From the research they did about other online writing centers and from their development work on our site, Erin and Matt published, in 1996, an early article in The Writing Center Journal about online writing centers, titled a “Review of Internet Resources for Writing Centers.” This article features an annotated guide to “some of the most impressive and distinctive” (186) then-existing Gopher sites, web sites, and MOOs [“Multi-User Object Oriented”]. a text-based synchronous communication system used for some of the earliest online consultations by writing centers]. As Denney and Livesey explain, “The WWW provides an ideal method of transmitting information both globally and locally. Whereas Gopher is limited to a menu structure, the Web’s use of hypertext links, both between documents and between different parts of documents, allows material to be structured in multiple ways. Because it is not limited to ASCII characters, the Web also allows much more complex formatting of documents than does Gopher. . . . The variety of type size, colors, and even graphics and pictures helps the Web function as an effective tool for teaching writing” (185). In 1996, Denney and Livesey already found 58 online writing centers, thirty of which had information of global interest (i.e., reference materials about writing and research links that go beyond merely local information about hours and locations for a particular university’s writing center) (185-86).

Changing with the Times

What follows below are some screenshots, many from the Wayback Machine’s Internet Archive, of the home page of our evolving Online Writing Center. As you can see from those images, the home page and the design of interior pages for our online Writing Center changed periodically over the years. We moved to frames when they were in. We then moved away from frames when they proved cumbersome and problematic. The new frames version of our website in the later 1990s even drew some fairly harsh criticism from Bruce Pegg in “UnfURLed: Twenty Writing Center Sites to Visit on the Information Superhighway,” in Wiring the Writing Center (1998). Although we were glad to make the list of 20 sites worth visiting, the description of our Online Writing Center began in this way: “This site has recently been updated as a bordered frames site, and stands as a perfect illustration of the inherent problems with the frame concept; though the header and the main frame fit nicely on the screen, the left-hand frame is too small for the menu bar contained inside it, making it difficult to use” (213). A fair enough criticism as I recall. At least in the next paragraph, our site earns some praise for its “Writer’s Handbook.” And my colleagues and I were grateful to have this kind of review instead of what appears on the previous page of this book, in a description of another university’s writing center site: “This is another neglected site which needs to perform a thorough revision of all its pages” (212).

The frames version, from September 1998. For some reason the menu text in the left-hand frame disappeared from the Wayback Internet Archive. Maybe it's just as well!
The frames version, from September 1998. For some reason the menu text in the left-hand frame disappeared from the Wayback Internet Archive. Maybe it’s just as well!
Our writing fellows website, no-frames version, 2000
Our writing fellows website, no-frames version, 2000


Our home page from 2002.
Our home page from 2002.
Our writing fellows website, 2006
Our writing fellows website, 2006

On our home page and on interior pages, we abandoned the friendly pencil graphics. We moved to abstract shapes for the menu choices. We abandoned those for an arc. We changed the arc. We then abandoned the arc. We later changed color schemes, more recently adopting some of our university’s signature red, but not using one of the university’s standard web templates and not choosing too patriotic a red. And we added photos of our consultations and workshops and writing groups as well as a featured links section.


Our home page from 2009.
Our home page from 2009.
An interior menu from 2009.
An interior menu from 2009.
Our home page from 2013 to the present.
Our home page from 2013.


Looking back at the visual history of our Online Writing Center, I am struck by how our history matches the more general history of writing center websites that Jackie Grutsch McKinney expertly tells in “Writing Center Websites, Then and Now.”


Our WAC Website

Our Writing Across the Curriculum website for faculty debuted in 2001. Developed by Tony Clark, an undergraduate computer science major, and Rebecca Schoenike Nowacek, then the TA Assistant Director of WAC and now on the faculty and director of the Ott Memorial Writing Center at Marquette University, our WAC website was a very early example of a content-management system, all created with open-source programs.


Our original WAC website, c. 2001
Our original WAC website, from 2001
An interior menu page, from our original WAC website, 2001
An interior menu page, from our original WAC website, 2001



Our current WAC website, pictured below, created with the open-source content-management system Drupal, debuted in 2012. It features hundreds of pages of advice and sample assignments created by faculty and instructional staff and teaching assistants from disciplines across our university.



WAC Website, UW-Madison, 2015
WAC Website, UW-Madison, 2015



Our Blog—Another Word

We launched our blog in September of 2009, thanks to the vision and passion and tech savvy of our former TA coordinator of our Online Writing Center, Rik Hunter, who is now on the faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. And in the fall of 2013, we launched a new look for our blog, thanks to the great leadership and design sense of our then-TA-coordinator of our Online Writing Center Mike Shapiro, who now teaches in the department of Engineering Professional Development at UW-Madison.


Our Writing Center's blog, October 2009
Our Writing Center’s blog, October 2009
Our Writing Center's blog, January 2014
Our Writing Center’s blog, January 2014

The Latest

In case you’re interested, here is a sample of some of the latest instructional materials added to our Writer’s Handbook in the past week, developed over the summer by our savvy outgoing TA coordinator of our Online Writing Center, Jessie Gurd—


A short guide to close reading for literary analysis, new in our Writer's Handbook in August 2015
A short guide to close reading for literary analysis, new in our Writer’s Handbook in August 2015

A guide to IEEE documentation, new in our Writer's Handbook, August 2015
A guide to IEEE documentation, new in our Writer’s Handbook, August 2015


Some Gratitude and an Invitation

Thanks so much to YOU for reading this post and for being interested in the history of our Online Writing Center. And I want to share some thanks with those who created and sustained all of this. A huge thanks all of the fabulous coordinators for our Online Writing Center, and to the Writing Center’s career staff, and to the TA assistant directors of the WAC program, and to all of the TAs who have been part of our online staff, and to all of the brilliant instructional designers and graphic artists and web experts at UW-Madison’s Division of Information Technology (including Kathy Christoph, Les Howles, Blaire Bundy, Michelle Glenetski, and John Thomson) and Learning Support Services (including Sara Niemendorf Nagreen and Sue Weier), and to the great IT staff in Helen C. White Hall (including Greg Putnam, Will May, and Andrew Leinberger) who have made this all possible. And a big thanks to DoIT for generously awarding us many instructional technology grants to us over the years. We could not have created this writing center online or had the success we have without the genius and dedication of all of these colleagues. And another big thanks to the Wayback Machine for its indispensable work of archiving the web. And finally a big thanks to all of the faculty and students at UW-Madison and at universities around the US and all over the world who have found our online instructional materials and services valuable.

Those of us who work with our Online Writing Center know well that despite all the changes over the years, our web offerings and design and platforms and methods for online consultations need updating. I have concluded that they will always need updating, and they will, I hope, always continue to evolve–that’s part of the joy and part of the inevitability with electronic publication and of course that’s true with Writing Writing Center programs in general. My colleagues and I are always deeply committed to improving everything we do, at the same time that we always have to recognize the limits of our time and resources.

So what do you think, looking back through this history? Do you like the cheery, hand-drawn fountain pen on our original home page, or does that look hopelessly dated and goofy? Did any of this history surprise you? What do you think about the principles of “convergence”? Do you have any questions about the history of our online writing center? What did I miss in telling this story? Do you have suggestions for how we can improve what we do online? Would you tell this history differently? Would you be willing to share a little history of your online writing center? Please add a comment to this post–we would love to have your voice there.

Works Cited

Denney, S. Erin, and Matthew J. Livesey. “”Review of Internet Resources for Writing Centers.” The Writing Center Journal 16.2 (1996): 183-93. Print.

Harris, Muriel. “Making Our Institutional Discourse Sticky: Suggestions for Effective Rhetoric.” The Writing Center Journal 30.2 (2010): 47-71. Print.

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. “Writing Center Websites, Then and Now.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 34.4-5 (2009/2010): 6-9. Print.

Pegg, Bruce. “UnfURLed: Twenty Writing Center Sites to Visit on the Information Superhighway.” Wiring the Writing Center. Ed. Eric H. Hobson. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1998. 197-215. Print.

Vee, Annette, Mike A. Shapiro, Nancy Linh Karls, and Brad Hughes. “Podcasting the Writing Center: Notes on Design and Production.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 35.1 (2009): 1-6. Print.

59 Replies to “The Evolution of UW-Madison’s Writing Center Online: A Wayback Look”

  1. Wow, what a blast from the past! It was so fun to see these previous iterations–I am filled with nostalgia just seeing those colorful ovals and the swoopy fountain pen. I vividly remember being part of the conversations that led to the 2009 version of the website. It is both exciting and challenging that web materials need to be renewed so often…I will not link to our own hopelessly dated and highly in need of revision website! We have a new, more mobile-friendly template to move to, but it certainly doesn’t happen magically.

    I’m grateful for my own time with the OWC, particularly as I make the case here that we need an online arm of our writing center yesterday. It’s work that should be “intertwined” indeed.

    Rachel Azima
    Director, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Writing Center

  2. Thanks, Brad, for this informative and charming retrospective. It’s so easy to take for granted the availability of online resources as well as the aesthetic appeal and practical usability of the interface. This brief history helps to make the labor of development and revision of these resources visible.

    I was reminded of this year’s “Mindset List” published by Beloit College, which states that for this year’s incoming cohort of first-year college students, “Google has always been there,” and “Email has become the new ‘formal’ communication.” (For them, mostly born in 1997, the Writing Center has also always been online.) While I have frequently referred students to our Online Writing Center as a TA instructor at UW-Madison, this post is inspiring me to think about a writing assignment that would help students historicize their relationship to a technology or website they use regularly. And I’d already have an accessible sample on hand!

    Rebecca Steffy
    TA Coordinator, UW-Madison Writing Center
    Co-Director, English 100 Tutorial Program

  3. Is a Writing Center Online different from an Online Writing Center? The former invites the comprehensive broad history, which includes website designs, that Brad has given us. Would the latter focus more on the evolution of tutoring platforms and pedagogies? In the future, I’d like to hear more about how UW online tutoring has changed over the years and in what directions it is headed.

    Online tutoring is here to stay, whether we think it’s a mixed blessing (it can be so labor intensive!) or just a blessing. I agree with Brad that it increases access to writing feedback and support the same way satellite and multicultural writing centers do. Online and face-to-face tutoring each has its advantages and disadvantages, and we don’t want to use the features of face-to-face tutoring to evaluate online tutoring. In that sense, they are distinct, but they converge, as Brad says, because both are valuable means of support for writers and valuable, marketable skills for tutors.

    Professor of Rhetoric
    Director, Writing Center
    Director, Writing Fellows Program
    University of Iowa

  4. Wow, Brad, what a walk down memory lane! I remember the frames website so vividly. I also remember how much work it took (in the cumbersome code days) to make a major update to the website. I admire your efforts to keep the site current and to adapt to the needs of users near and far. It is a remarkable feat! Thanks for this thoughtful piece. By the way, I miss that fountain pen . . . .

    Director, Writing Fellows Program
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  5. I love this post! It doesn’t surprise me to learn that you and the UW-Madison Writing Center were early technology adopters, and it’s so interesting to think about how some of this technology has evolved. I pulled up the UW WC Website the other day to show my staff how I’d love ours to look. It is so beautiful and easy to navigate. I wonder what we’ll be looking back on in another 20 years.

    Assistant Professor of English
    Director, The Writing Center
    Kansas State University

  6. Thank you, Brad, for this post. Having spent the past year working so deeply in our OWC at UW-Madison, it is fantastic to see what we have inherited and developed. The needs and expectations of our students continue to change—thanks, Rebecca, for pointing to Beloit’s Mindset List!—which makes for endless opportunities to revise not only what our services are, but also how we describe and provide them. I am thinking right now of the simple changes we made to the email submission form this past year: asking students why they chose email and what kinds of commenting/mark-up would best help them learn. These questions are a great way to collect usage data, of course, but they also give us an incredible opportunity to explore the needs of our students and consider more carefully what our next steps will be. Do we come up with protocols for commenting on drafts from students who disclose a disability? Do we extend our Skype instruction services to include daytime hours for distance students working second shift?

    Even though my tenure is up and I am back to an instruction-only appointment (half on the email staff!), I am still thinking about the OWC’s next moves in its web presence. How will we keep up with the current and next trends in web design, and how can we make our site an even stronger supplement to, support for, and source of our instruction?

    On a side note, the Gopher site makes me nostalgic for MS-DOS. During non-business hours, my dad would sit me down in front of my parents’ spiffy IBM and teach me the ways of the command line. I might fire up DOSBox later and see how many tricks I remember!

  7. My first encounter with UW-Madison was actually through the Writing Center website–specifically the Writer’s Handbook (its praise is well deserved). I used content on citations and plagiarism while teaching FYC in my MA program. Little did I know that, a few years later, I’d be attending graduate school there and working in that wonderful writing center.

    Thanks for this history, Brad.

    Dave Stock
    Assistant Professor of English
    Writing Center Coordinator, Brigham Young University

  8. This post delights me, Brad! Perhaps I have a bias for the design of the site as I first knew it, but that 2002 home page, with its cheery sailboats and well-measured white space, feels the most like home to me. I’m also eager to learn what that “Fresh, NEW Resource” was!

    Also, big ups to Jessie for the IEEE documentation guide—I added that to my Moodle pages the second I saw the link.

    Mike A. Shapiro
    Lecturer in Technical Communication
    Department of Engineering Professional Development
    University of Wisconsin–Madison

  9. Thanks, Brad, for this excellent retrospective on the Online Writing Center! As a person who entered a professional world in which email was everywhere, I enjoy imagining a time when things weren’t that way. (How, for example, did we resolve scheduling conflicts before email?! Phone, I suspect…)

    One thing I find interesting about the succession of homepages is the succession of writing implements depicted. The first homepage depicts a piece of parchment, two fountain pens, and a feather quill! Many of the subsequent pages keep one fountain pen and show pictures of people holding pencils and ball-point pens looking at drafts printed on paper. Our most recent pages drop all fountain pens and begin to show pictures of people looking not only at printed pages but especially at laptops. I’m not sure what this all means except that it is probably another indicator of how the act of writing is intertwined with an online world (so wonderfully depicted by those hands holding a globe on the first webpage).

    Zach Marshall
    TA Assistant Director
    UW-Madison Writing Center

  10. So fun to look back at all the designs through the years and think about how each seems to fit perfectly well within its era of web design. Maybe some day we’ll go back to anthropomorphized fountain pens. I’ve never seen that design before, and “Penny” (as I’ll call her) was much better than MS’s Clippy!

    I always appreciated Brad pushing for good and effective design. When you’re working in a field so often focused on the linguistic mode, Brad pushed the envelope in talking about design and the user experience—lots of meetings with the fantastic people at DoIT! And I remember even small things like talking about what we should do after having after expanding beyond “Podcasts” to offer Twitter, iTunesU content, and Another Word.” It might seem silly spend so much time on a navbar, but we finally arrived at putting everything under “New Media @ the Center,” in part because I don’t think we could (or knew how to) add a node to the 2009 arc design! And what is that arrow doing out there in the middle of the page? I’ll blame Annette Vee for that one. 😉

    Rik Hunter
    Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing
    Department of English
    University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

  11. Hi Brad and UW-Madison.

    This is a wondrous tour of how the Online Writing Center (OWC) came to be, as well as a wonderful insight into all that the UW-Madison’s Writing Center contributes to the life of the university. This blog also makes clear how the WC supports the UW-Madison’s greater mission to expand the frontiers of education, technology, and research, and what an exceptional group of staff and students can achieve when they can bring the instructional services and resources of this fine institution to the boundaries of the state, and the world.

    What I also appreciate, perhaps most of all, and this is intimated in between the many screenshots and text, is how so many people have contributed to make this site, and the WC as a whole, such a fine institution.

    As I transition to online teaching at my own institution, I am constantly recalling my experiences working for UW’s Online Writing Center. The experience, much like this website, remains invaluable.

    I look forward to the 50th anniversary!

    Yes, thanks for this history, Brad.

    Christopher J. Syrnyk
    Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition
    Director, Oregon Tech Honors Program
    Oregon Tech

  12. Thanks for this history, Brad! Your “new ‘World Wide Web’” quotation made me laugh.

    I was OWC coordinator from 2005-2006, and that was the first year we offered synchronous tutoring. Before Skype, Google docs, etc., it was such a challenge to figure out how we were going to make it work – but we knew students would want it if we could pull it off. The UW system happened to be piloting some software that we were able to use with all kinds of strange workarounds (like the virtual “waiting room” in Learn@UW and a way for students to obtain recordings of their sessions that took our consultants about 10 steps to make work). I couldn’t conduct the very first synchronous evening shift at home because I had a dial-up connection and worried someone might call me and knock me offline. (Things change!)

    For what it’s worth, my go-to handout for almost any occasion is the “Writing Clear, Concise Sentences.” Please do not ever take it off the site.


    Rebecca Entel
    Online Writing Center coordinator ’05-‘06 and Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program ’06-‘07, UW-Madison
    Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing, Cornell College

  13. Thanks for this informative and delightful history, Brad!

    What I loved most was your mention of your weekly meetings with Erin Denney and Matt Livesey. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting those pioneers, but I imagine that they, like me, owe much of their personal and professional success to those weekly meetings with you. While I have grand visions for our center’s website, I have even higher hopes that I will be able to connect with our staff in at least some of the ways in which you connected (and continue to connect) with all of us.

    Best Wishes,
    Christa Tiernan
    Director, Writing and Media Center
    Lecturer, Department of English
    Iowa State University

  14. Thanks for this entertaining history, Brad! This posting is useful for thinking about both the history of online Writing Centers and the history of the web more broadly. I also like your comment that web instruction and in person instruction are integrated. As the Online Writing Center Coordinator, I always emphasized how instructors’ work via Skype or email had the potential to work as outreach, because it met students where they are. As Rebecca notes, they are increasingly online. As I think through my vision for a writing center, this post reminds me of that integration in important ways.

    Another useful aspect of this post is that bulleted list at the beginning. When I was a new OWC Coordinator, I was constantly struck by how vast the website had become and frequently wished for a concise way to provide instructors with a sense of what is available to them. This was particularly important when coaching email instructors, as I encouraged them to take advantage of the ability to link to resources in email. I remember giving a brief overview at the beginning of the first semester, doing a jigsaw activity the second semester (each instructor on the team had to familiarize themselves with a different aspect of the Writer’s Handbook), and still feeling like it wasn’t enough. I highly recommend bookmarking this post to provide that kind of resource for future OWC coordinators.

    Leah Misemer
    Online Writing Center Coordinator 2013-14
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  15. What a fun post, Brad!

    I can’t speak fully to Carol Severino’s request for a similar retrospective of the Online Writing Center, but as I re-join our online teaching team after several years in “analog” mode, it’s becoming clear that we’ve definitely evolved even over a short period of time. Just five years ago, under the guidance of Christopher Syrnyk, I learned synchronous instruction via Adobe Connect, software that let instructors chat with students but never let us see each other’s faces or work directly on the same document as our Skype/Google docs one-two punch allows now. I remember Chris constantly pushing the instructional team to see beyond the challenges of the interface and question what our teaching had in common with our in-person conferences with students. I know these conversations persist in more interesting ways that I’m treating them here, but it’s been fun to be re-introduced to synchronous instruction and see how the interfaces have come to more closely mimic in-person meetings. It could be equally interesting to think, too, not only about how our online presence has shifted to approximate the affordances of face-to-face meetings but also whether our common, best-practice approaches in-person meetings have been altered by our online work. What counts as convergence here?

    Leigh Elion
    Writing Center Instructor
    Co-Director, English 100 Tutorial Program
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  16. Team fountain pen–it will never go out of style.

    It’s amazing how much the OWC has grown and how much experimentation went into that growth. When I was the TA director of the OWC, we started using an application called Breeze for synchronous conferences; it allowed us to chat and work on a document at the same time–but if the tutor and the writer tried to work on the document too synchronously, the cursor jumped around. Skype and Google docs are, as Leigh put, a great “one-two punch.”

    Our OWC always seemed like it was a couple of steps ahead of everyone else; I think we stayed ahead of the pack because Brad pushed us all to continuously experiment as teachers and technology adopters.

    Thanks for this trip down memory lane!

    Clara Burke
    Assistant Teaching Professor, Tepper School of Business
    Carnegie Mellon University

  17. What a great post, Brad! I love seeing the long, long history of the online writing center and hearing about your very early enthusiasm for what it could offer to students. I’ve always been so impressed by how the online writing center has supported that convergence between virtual and in-person instruction. I think it’s amazing how the website brings students to instructors, and instructors also bring students to the website – there’s an effective back-and-forth there that just makes sense in today’s world. What strikes me about all these images is just how inviting they are – from the listing of workshops that informs students (and faculty!) about the many different genres of writing the Writing Center covers to the wonderful pictures of instructors working with students, which I was pleased to see were present from almost the very beginning. I can’t wait to see what the future holds!

    Sarah Groeneveld
    Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities
    Gettysburg College

  18. Thanks so much for pulling together this comprehensive history. The screen captures from the Wayback Machine were really thought-provoking. It was a little painful to revisit twenty iterations of web page redesign and remember how we were all influenced by fads and the technology that was available (frames!). In the library, we have continued to go through redesigns that are thoughtful and design-driven, but also just painful in the ways content must be ruthlessly prioritized.

    In my first job out of library school, at UWM, I earnestly developed and taught workshop series on how to use the World Wide Web: what is a browser? what is a mouse? what is a search engine? what is a web page? These sessions were packed with earnest students and citizens who were genuinely excited to learn how it all worked. I also taught people to compose in html, use gopher, find health information, etc. Interesting how these missions and journeys were so parallel.

    And I still love the fountain pen — long live team fountain pen! Thanks for all the great work you all are doing.

    Sarah McDaniel
    UW-Madison Provost’s Office

  19. Rebecca Steffy used the word “charming” to describe this post — and I couldn’t agree more! Not only is it informative, one that appeals to the intellect, but it was fascinating how much it appealed to my emotions as well. Mike Shapiro observed that the homepage of “the cheery sailboats and well-measured white space, feels the most like home to me.” I experienced something very similar when looking at several of these images. When I saw the first WAC homepage, it instantly brought me back to a certain time and place, and when I read that it was designed by Rebecca Nowacek, it brought a genuine smile. And there was a picture of Emily Hall in “Another Word”! That, too, brought a smile. And how many people who have responded to this post have taken the time to comment on the “fountain pen”?

    I really know very little about design myself, but I suppose what struck me so powerfully when reading this historical overview was the following: Yes, of course, design must serve practical purposes. But when people interface with a particular design and images over an extended period of time, it’s astounding the personal attachments that can develop as well.

    Finally, I know you specifically requested people not to ask, Brad, but I must: Why do you still have your calendar from 1995…?

    Seriously, a really remarkable post, Brad, one that was informative — and unexpectedly moving.

    Bryan Trabold
    Associate Professor, English
    Suffolk University

  20. Thanks, Brad, for that terrific history. It strikes me how much work/labor/thinking is required to offer a website that, ultimately, looks simple and easy to use. So much complexity behind the curtain (particularly the historical events and people crowded back there).

    I’ve long been a user and fan of your website, particularly the online handbook. And as we anticipate the need for lots of re-design of our Writing Program website at Northeastern, you’ve given me a great number of ideas. Thanks again!

    Neal Lerner
    Writing Program Director
    Northeastern University
    Boston, MA

  21. Thanks for this wonderful history, Brad! I was a UW graduate student when Erin and Matt were designing that first website, and I remember thinking, with my usual impeccable judgment, “Ah, this ‘world-wide web’ stuff is just another passing fad.” Thank goodness I don’t pick stocks for a living.

    More than bringing back good memories, this post offers vision and inspiration — you’ve modeled for the rest of us, once again, all that can be accomplished, and all that *should* be accomplished in on-line writing instruction. Where you lead, many follow. Thanks for that.

    John Duffy
    O’Malley Director, University Writing Program
    University of Notre Dame

  22. Thanks, Brad, for this wonderful retrospective!

    I well remember filling out the lab preference sheet and finding at the bottom that strange new question asking who might be interested in developing an online writing lab. My immediate response was “Heck yes! Totally cool!”

    With a mixture of embarrassment and pride I remember creating the gopher site. Really? Gopher?! Doesn’t that make me the equivalent of an 8-track tape enthusiast? I fondly remember teaching myself to write raw HTML, no WYSIWYG editors (I still find them frustrating & would rather write the code myself). And the icons! It warms my heart to see them again!

    Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity and the trip down memory lane!

    Erin Denney
    English Department Chair
    City College of San Francisco

  23. Such a fun post, Brad! It was a pleasure to get to be a part of some of these changes. Oh I spent SO much time looking for the write photos and fonts and layout for the WAC site! It was a blast.

    Stephanie White
    University of Waterloo

  24. Brad, it’s inspiring to see how your online presence has grown to take on so many forms. My favorite, I think, aside from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Web site, is the writer’s handbook. Whenever I’m asked to give workshops on good writing, I always demonstrate it, to show how it’s unique in its user-driven format, taking the writer to exactly the help they need, using language that’s simple for them to understand. It’s a wonderful resource.

    Thank you for writing this history. I loved all the images – such good memories.

    Professor Paula Gillespie
    Department of English
    Director of the Center for Excellence in Writing
    Florida International University, Miami

  25. What a fun history! Here’s my favorite part:

    “With some new grant funding I have, I am looking for two TAs to spend 10% of their teaching appointments working with me to develop a new online writing center on the new ‘World Wide Web.’ This will require learning to use something called ‘Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).’”

    I love that you have this memo, Brad.

    I also think there’s a real need for studying the visual artifacts in Writing Centers and in writing studies more generally. You’ve illustrated what compelling portraits can emerge from juxtaposing visuals like this. I’m going to share this with my students.

    Professor Jackie Grutsch McKinney
    Department of English
    Director of the Writing Center
    Ball State University

  26. Thanks for this very impressive retrospective. Nicely chronicled and presented. I’ve always been impressed with Brad’s and his team’s focus on user-centered design. This is a great illustration of design thinking and quality improvement. I’m honored to have played a small part in the evolutionary process of the Writing Center’s web site.

    Les Howles
    Director, Distance Education Professional Development
    Division of Continuing Studies
    UW Madison

  27. Brad, I find everything about this post fascinating: the careful history of the Writing Center resources, the way you’ve always pushed the WC ahead in a visionary way with technology, the WayBack Machine screenshots, and the diaspora of Writing Center affiliates and aficionados posting here. Thanks for sharing this important history! I’m glad to have played a small part in it, even if I couldn’t get that darn arrow in the right place on the front page (sorry, Rik!).

    Annette Vee
    Assistant Professor of English
    University of Pittsburgh

  28. Thanks for sharing this wonderful retrospective! I, too, remember many of these phases of the Web page, having started at Madison in 1995. The fountain pen reminds me of Microsoft’s chipper old Paperclip (from Office 1997–I wonder if Madison’s influence goes beyond writing center circles?!).

    Like John, I appreciate Brad’s foresight in recognizing the importance of the Web and, especially, in mentoring graduate students in using technology. I remember participating in a very early session on teaching with technology at the Writing Center. On a break, talking with Erin Smith about going to CCCC, and I learned how to buy a plane ticket online–not the point of the workshop, at all, but what a revelation! But I appreciate Brad’s cultivation of a space where technology is part of a larger human environment in which peer learning can happen.

    Thanks for sharing with us!

    Julie Nelson Christoph
    Professor of English
    Director of the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching
    University of Puget Sound

  29. Dear Brad,


    I was very impressed reading about your online writing center history.
    I´m very happy to have the chance to visit you soon and see your wonderful writing center this September.
    I am sure I will get much inspiration for my work back home.

    Franziska Liebetanz
    Director of the Writing Center, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany

  30. Hi Brad,
    thank you for sharing this fascinating evolution! You and all your colleagues created -and are creating- such a rich resource for everyone interested in writing and writing centers, not only for people from Madison. It is always inspiring for us, thank you!

    Katrin Girgensohn
    Writing Center
    European University Viadrina, Germany

  31. Online instruction was already a well-integrated part of the Writing Center’s portfolio when I joined in… 2010? But this post brings up my own memories of discovering the internet when I was about 12 years old and my father brought home a computer and a modem provided by his job. He explained this internet thing as a place where anyone could post and anyone could read. All I could picture was some kind of huge never-ending (but singular) document filled with people’s notes to each other. I couldn’t imagine how you were supposed to find anything on this “internet”! Now, of course, we couldn’t go through life without it.

    It all just makes me wonder what kind of Writing Center will exist in 2030 when today’s site is part of a retrospective. I guess we’ll download that blog post right into our brains.

    Thanks for always being a pioneer, Brad. It’s inspiring.

    Jessie Reeder
    Assistant Professor of English
    Binghamton University, State University of New York

  32. Thank you for this fascinating and lively post, Brad.

    I am thinking about another convergence — that of access for students and professional development for faculty.

    For faculty, the OWC is a wonderful resource, from the WAC website to the Writer’s Handbook. Teaching online, too, is an avenue from fruitful development. When I first joined the UW-Madison OWC staff, I was dubious about online instruction. Wasn’t email instruction a pale shadow of a face-to-face conference? Despite my initial misgivings, I learned quickly how effective online instruction can be. Tutoring online pushed me to adapt and improve my teaching (and not just online).

    This brings me to the convergence. I am thinking about the role that online writing centers might have in coaching students in how to learn from online resources. In other words, finding information is no longer the challenge for students; learning from it is. The accessibility of the OWC, combined with the personalized interaction at the heart of writing center teaching, is powerful teaching indeed.

    Lauren Vedal

  33. Brad,

    From my perspective, it makes perfect sense to celebrate “20” years, even though I know you have been shaping the Writing Center for much longer than that! Exactly 20 years ago I came to UW-Madison as a graduate student and first benefitted from this amazing resource. Looking back at all of these iterations makes me feel so proud of the service you continue to provide to UW-Madison and beyond. I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate with you and your talented staff along the way.

    Christopher Blaire Bundy
    Senior Instructional Designer / Learning Technology Consultant
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  34. Certainly this “way back machine” of a post is fun, Brad, but what it really helped me see was how the Writing Center’s investment in introspective pedagogy and constantly assessing our methods emerges in our web presence. Through your detailed history of the Writing Center’s online evolution, you establish an evolving ethos, as well. Since joining the Writing Center staff in 2012, I’ve been so impressed by the way that the Writing Center grows as an organic entity with each new group of incoming instructors. The Writing Center instructors (like their thoughtful, generous leader) bring a wealth of skills, knowledge, and instructional heft that causes the Writing Center itself to constantly make changes, small and large, to accommodate new ideas, to integrate new perspectives, and to account for the university’s own ever-evolving nature. So, while I was delighted by the reminders of days when email was new, I also found myself feeling deeply proud to be part of an organization that works so very hard to learn, stretch, and develop precisely as we ask our students to do.

    Amy Kahrmann Huseby
    Writing Center Outreach Coordinator
    Writing Center Skype Instructor
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  35. This excellent piece shows how the Writing Center has, since its inception, remained on the cutting edge in service to students at UW-Madison and beyond.

    Michael Bernard-Donals
    Nancy Hoefs Professor of English
    Vice Provost for Faculty and Staff
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  36. I love hearing about the multiple dimensions of the the UW Writing Center and what’s clear is that the rise of technology is intertwined with the rise of writing and the work that the Writing Center does. As someone old enough to remember and to have used Gopher to upload files (through a phone modem!) I am always impressed with the way the Writing Center adopts new technologies to serve students and to teach writing.

    Morris Young
    Professor of English
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  37. Fascinating development over time (I also love the shifts in fashion visible in the pictures of people). I’m amazed at those visitation statistics you cite.

    Christa Olson
    Associate Professor of English
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  38. This history is such a testament to the collaborative work so many have put into the UW site and to your tireless labor, Brad. Thanks for what you have given so many of us over the years and this piece is another example. It provides a good road map of ideas for current and new writing centers and raises the bar for everyone.

    Congratulations on 20 years (or fifty) and many more to come!

    Professor Joan Mullin
    Executive Director
    University Writing Program
    The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

  39. Wow, what a walk down memory lane! Thanks for sharing all this, Brad. I will never forget the hours of reworking all the inner pages after the last re-design. I learned so much from my time as the OWC coordinator, and it’s great to contextualize my time there within the larger history. 20 years! I’m sure the next 20 will be as full of innovations.

    Sarah Iovan
    Coordinator of the Online Writing Center 2011 – 2013

  40. This delightful piece demonstrates Brad’s skillful leadership of the UW-Madison Writing Center. First, he recognized a Big Thing (web-based writing centers) when he saw it and got on board quickly. But the most important element I notice is that Brad finds talent and uses it. He asks his staff for ideas and listens to them, invites them to invent, design, criticize, and re-design. He isn’t afraid to change or to innovate. He is generous with praise and with giving credit where it’s due. Brad’s generosity of spirit is the real secret behind the success of the UW-Madison writing center, on-line or face-to-face.

    Jeanne Simpson
    Professor of English and Writing Center Director Emeritus
    Eastern Illinois University

  41. What a wonderful post! I for one am a fan of the goofy, hand-drawn, fountain pen. It evokes the importance of writing as a process and as something that occurs across mediums in a way that is important for our computer-centric students to remember (I’m also just a sucker for illustration).

    I’ve always been impressed with the range and quality of the Writing Center’s offerings and this far too modest account of the Online Writing Center’s history certainly deepens that feeling. I appreciate (frames or no frames) the clarity and ease of use of the web site – even when a great deal of information is being provided (in the Writer’s Handbook, for example), the individual pages are informative without ever feeling overwhelming. I continue to take inspiration from the site – and to use its many helpful resources – in my classes and I’m so excited to see what directions the Online Writing Center will take over the course of the next 20 years. Congratulations all!

  42. What an extraordinary testament to the vibrancy and vitality of online writing centers. Yet I realize that I’m sometimes guilty — even after several years of seeing the good work of the online writing center at my own institution — of viewing online offerings as less complex and more one-dimensional than face-to-face centers. This post was a wake up call for me that such a view is not only incorrect but also limiting in terms of what online writing centers can be.

    What’s so impressive to me is that even before the Online Writing Center was a reality, people like Brad were able to see beyond such a limiting view to imagine really wonderful possibilities to reach students in new, meaningful ways. I’m going to take that as a challenge to keep looking beyond initial impressions or hesitancies when faced with new challenges and opportunities in our Centers. Congratulations to everyone involved in the Online Writing Center over the years for inspiring us.

    By the way, my initial reaction to this post was a sense of regret in having missed out on the Smiley Fountain Pen era. I think Brad should bring it back as a life-sized mascot — a writing-themed pal for Bucky. I can see them together on College Gameday now . . .

    Associate Professor of English
    Director, KSU Writing Center and CHSS Writing Across the Curriculum
    Coordinator, M.A. in Professional Writing TA Program
    Kennesaw State University

  43. I add my voice to those charmed, nostalgic, and appreciative of this history! My favorite memory of the fountain pen icon is the subtle, smart design transformation work Erin Smith (now doing amazing things with media and technology at Michigan Tech University) did when she took the reins from Matt and Erin D: cutting up the pen and ink curves into more abstract shapes she could use throughout the site, which I think helped us evolve into more abstract and geometric design modes (and, like Mike, I still love the sailboat and colored ovals too; a trip in the Wayback machine to visit my past U of MN site would reveal an echo of that look with colored rectangles!).

    I also have strong memory of a pencil drawn version of the WAC lightbulb when we first envisioned that site. Would that have been drawn by Tony Clark, or was their another student we worked with first?

    I continue to be inspired by everyone I worked with on our website and online tutoring in the 1990s, so thank you all!

    Director, Center for Writing
    University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

  44. Two ideas I want to enthusiastically support: First, convergence — Yes! I see this kind of intertwining as similar to what’s now being called “blended learning,” that is, classes that “blend” online and classroom learning. So, perhaps, a blended Writing Center? (Just as there is convergence and blending in our daily lives. We move in and out of online spaces and conversations as we talk with colleagues face-to-face and meet with students.)

    The second great idea belongs to Mary Lou Odom — a life-sized Smiley Fountain Pen mascot! Bucky needs this new writing-themed friend!

    Associate Director, English 100
    (and On-line Writing Center instructor about a decade ago)

  45. Good stuff, Brad!

    I had a similar reaction to the Internet when I first learned that you could get the score of any college basketball game like right when it was over and didn’t have to wait until the newspaper the next morning. Mind blown.

    What I love most about the web resources at UW-Madison is the presence of the WAC Sourcebook online, with all its tangible, authentic examples of the effective assignments or feedback strategies from instructors across UW-Madison. It has long inspired me to do something similar here at DePaul, a process that I have even more admiration of the more I work on it, given how much work it takes to identify and gather exemplary artifacts of writing-based instruction. Thanks for the idea and for making it seem doable!

    Lastly, love the shout-out to Gopher! I totally remember that and it’s good to be reminded of how many different iterations of networked computing there were before the Web more or less won out. It’s interesting, too, in the context of the move away from the hyperlinked web and towards less interconnected apps as an increasingly ubiquitous way to interact with information and content.

    Nice work—on this post and on all the stuff you wrote about in the post!

    Director, Faculty Development
    Director, Writing Fellows Program
    University Center for Writing-Based Learning
    DePaul University, Chicago

  46. I don’t need a reminder of how much working in the Writing Center and the conversations I had there have shaped the teacher I have become, but it is still fun to take this trip down memory lane. All the outdated stuff in form shows how far ahead of the curve you were in substance. Yes, I also want Bucky to have a Smiley Fountain Pen mascot! Also, the real fun is to hear from so many colleagues. How lucky to be part of such a great group.

    Many thanks, Brad!

    Department of English
    Yale University

  47. I’m grateful for this post, Brad, because it helps me contextualize a key period in my development as a writing tutor–the year I spent working in the OWC at UW-Madison under Rik Hunter’s guidance. The time we spent in training poring over session transcripts opened my eyes to the complexities of “talk” in the tutorial in all of its forms–digitally-facilitated and otherwise. Thanks for this!

    Matthew Capdevielle
    Associate Professor of the Practice, University Writing Program
    Director, University Writing Center
    University of Notre Dame

  48. Thanks for this post, Brad! I remember that pen with the swirling brush-stroke even though it was before my time. These past iterations of the website are charming, and at the same time mildly cringe-inducing in the way Sarah McDaniels mentioned. You and the Wayback Machine have given us a glimpse of the fast-paced change that the “new ‘World Wide Web'” both enables and requires, and of how you and everyone involved in the UW Madison Writing Center have used the evolving platforms that are still changing the ground under our feet to open the Writing Center out and invite more students in.

    My work managing a couple of websites related to environmental humanities at UCLA has taught me how essential it is to link web presence with in-person connections in meaningful ways. To work well, an institutional website or blog has to build on as well as supplement other social and professional forms of community–as usual, Brad, you are a leader in showing us all how to do that well!

    Michelle Niemann
    Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities and English

  49. I am continually astonished at the UW Writing Center’s commitment to exploring new ways to foster student learning as writers. The Writing Center remains at the front edge of campus teaching. Hundreds of my students every year flock to the Writing Center and its many satellite and online venues. As a committed writing instructor, I deeply appreciate the Writing Center, its wonderful staff, and the new opportunities it provides each year to student writers.

    David Zimmerman
    Director of Intro. Lit. TA Training
    English Department

  50. Thanks, Brad, for this thoughtful and appealingly visual history of the Online Writing Center – and it’s nice to “see” so many friends and colleagues from Wisconsin! Since graduating and moving into a faculty role this year, I’ve been thinking how appreciative I am for my Writing Center training, and especially the time I spent doing email instruction. Learning how to teach via written comments – and to do it efficiently, inside that 30 minute window – has really shaped the way I give feedback to my students now.

    Nancy Reddy
    Assistant Professor of Writing and First Year Studies
    Stockton University

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