Virtues of Conversation: Ethics in the Writing Center

Collaborative Learning, Higher Education, Peer Tutoring, Tutorial Talk and Methods, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices, Writing Center Theory, Writing Centers, Writing Fellows / Monday, October 8th, 2012
John Duffy smiling while standing in front of a bookcase
John Duffy, Director of the University Writing Program, University of Notre Dame

By John Duffy

John Duffy is the Francis O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, and a proud former tutor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center.

Most people who have taught in a writing center, or who have given the work any serious thought, are usually skilled in explaining what a writing center is not. That is, those of us charged with helping students, faculty, or the occasional inquiring dean understand writing center teaching often begin with negative definitions, listing the various things that a writing center isn’t and specifying those actions that writing center tutors don’t undertake. And so, we may say, that while a writing center is many things, it assuredly is not:

  • a grammatical chop-shop, a place for quick fixes of broken, bruised, and badly battered sentences
  • an editorial dry cleaners, a site for dropping off papers that will be prepped, pressed, starched, and readied for the busy writer
  • a House of Miracles, the linguistic equivalent of Lourdes, a shrine at which writers will be miraculously cured of their perceived faults, futilities, and failures

Instead, we tell our listeners, who may be taken aback by the unusually forceful way in which we grip their arms as we speak, a writing center is an intellectually dynamic setting, a venue where tutors and students sit face-to-face to engage in the kind of productive conversations about writing that Matthew Capdevielle has so insightfully described. A writing center is a place where inexperienced writers find the help they need to improve, and where experienced writers develop further the skills they already possess.

Still, I understand the misconceptions. I once held them myself. The first time I ever heard of writing centers was as a new graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I clearly recall walking down a hallway of the H.C. White building and seeing the sign for the “Writing Lab,” as it was then called. Peering inside at the tutors and students working away, I remember feeling a cold shudder and thinking to myself, “Wow, I hope I never have to come to this place.”

And I continued to think that way—that a writing center was a place for failed writers—until I heard my fellow graduate students singing the praises of the writing center as a place where they could have great conversations about writing and get help with their dissertations. When I finally made an appointment, I was surprised and gratified by the skill my tutor displayed in helping me articulate my ideas and clarify my arguments.

Several writers and tutors sitting at tables
Writers and tutors at the Notre Dame Writing Center, Fall 2012

Later I became a tutor myself, which deepened my appreciation of writing center pedagogy—so much so that I eventually became the founding director of the writing center at the University of Notre Dame, a position I held for nearly a decade before becoming director of the University Writing Program. In the course of this journey, I have come to value writing centers as settings for constructive dialogue and thoughtful reflection.

Lately, though, I have begun to think about writing center teaching in a different way, one that does not displace the conception of the center as a place for dialogue and reflection but rather situates these within a broader philosophical and, indeed, a moral context. What we are teaching in a writing center, I have begun to think, is ethics. And the particular form of ethics we are teaching in writing center sessions is the expression of what I will call “rhetorical virtues.” As these are terms not often discussed in our literature, ethics and virtue, or are discussed in relatively circumscribed ways, let me say what I mean by them.

The subject of ethics, of course, is hardly unknown in writing center literature. Yet discussions of the topic are usually limited to issues concerning plagiarism. Writing centers have long been subject to questioning by skeptical faculty and administrators about the ethics of peer tutoring, and whether or not such assistance is a violation of academic principles. In response, we have carefully examined the nature of the relationship between tutor and student, the balance between appropriate and inappropriate assistance, and the concepts of authority and ownership. We have taken pains to explain that our pedagogy is focused on the growth of the writer, not the improvement of a single text, and that our tutors are trained to think of themselves as readers and peers, not editors and graders.  Nonetheless, we are continually called upon to address the question, as Irene L. Clark and Dave Healy phrased it in their discerning 1996 essay “Are Writing Centers Ethical?”

However, this is not the conception of ethics I want to explore here. (The negative definition again: old habits die hard.) Rather, I want to suggest a more expansive understanding of ethics in the writing center, one that is less anxious about violating established codes and more concerned with teaching language practices that promote character development and the common good. I call these communicative practices “virtues,” or more specifically, “rhetorical virtues.”

A writing center tutoring session at the Notre Dame Writing Center. Two individuals sit at a table together looking at a piece of writing.
A consultation at the Notre Dame Writing Center, Fall 2012

A virtue, according to certain moral philosophers (see “Further Reading” below for philosophical discussions of virtue), is a character trait, a disposition, a way of living that, as Rosalind Hursthouse puts it, “goes all the way down” in defining the character of the moral agent (“Are Virtues The Proper Starting Point?” 101). Virtues are characteristics, such as truthfulness, humility, and courage, that provide answers to the questions “How should I live my life?” and “How should I act in this situation?” Plato and Aristotle examined the concept of virtue in their writings, and philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to Alasdair MacIntyre have explored virtue-based approaches to ethics that have come to be known, broadly, as “virtue ethics.”

Virtue ethics offers an alternative to moral theories based on adherence to foundational rules of right and wrong (deontology), or those based on the consequences of an action to determine right and wrong (consequentialism).  In place of these, virtue ethics emphasizes the character of the individual whose moral choices are guided by an understanding of how a virtuous person would behave in a given situation. Virtues are not universal but rather are expressions of community values, which means that different communities may hold to different virtues, or that conceptions of virtue may change over time within a single community, or that what counts as virtue may be contested among individuals living in the same community—as is evident in the political and cultural arguments, so often corrosive, that characterize public discourse in the contemporary United States.

A “rhetorical virtue” applies the concepts sketched above to speech and writing, meaning that we apply to our communicative practices the virtues we believe will promote individual and collective well being.  How do our speech and writing reflect the virtues of, say, empathy or wisdom?  In what ways do our discourses express virtues, such as tolerance and judgment, that will contribute to the flourishing of our communities? And this brings us back to the ethical practices of the writing center—and to the tutor and student sitting face-to-face.

Consider what takes place in a writing center session. The session begins with the establishing of a relationship between the tutor and the student writer. For that relationship to thrive, each party must acknowledge the authority and integrity of the other.  The tutor must speak to the student as a person whose writing and ideas are to be taken seriously; the student, in turn, must respond to the tutor as someone whose comments and insights are legitimate. Each party, moreover, must be able to assume that the other speaks without evasions or deceptions. The successful writing center session demands, in other words, that participants use language expressing the virtues of respectfulness, honesty, and trust.

The relationship initiated, tutor and student typically turn to the text. They may read for the clarity of the thesis, for the relevance of the evidence, for the presence of topic sentences, or for any number of related issues. For the shared reading to be meaningful, the tutor must be willing to follow the student’s claims and reasoning, even if the tutor believes these are imperfectly expressed. The student, in turn, must be receptive to the questions and comments of the tutor, even if these seem critical or irrelevant to the writer’s purposes. More, tutor and student must be willing to work through the mutual misunderstandings and frustrations that may occur. Both parties, then, search for a language that articulates the virtues of open-mindedness and perseverance.

John Duffy standing in front of a classroom filled with students
John Duffy with his Writing and Rhetoric Class, Fall 2012

And when the writing center conversation comes around, as it so often does, to questions of revision, whether the reconsideration of an argument or the recasting of a sentence—either of which may call upon student and tutor to re-examine long settled assumptions about topic, language, or the world—then both student and tutor are offered opportunities to speak and write in a language that invokes the potentially transformative virtues of intellectual courage and generosity of mind.

In the structure of the writing center conversation, in other words, tutors and writers are called upon to communicate in ways Aristotle and others after him have suggested is consistent with living a good life. Beyond this, to the extent that writing center conversations encourage participants to practice, in classroom and community settings, the virtues so strikingly absent from our present public discourse, we may say that writing centers contribute not only to individual character development but toward better forms of public argument, and thus to the common good.

We can explain, those of us who have taught in a writing center, or who have given the work any serious thought, what a writing center isn’t: not a grammar hotline, not an editing service, not a source of miracles. We know what a writing center is not. We may be only beginning to understand all that it is.


Clark, Irene L., and Healy, Dave. “Are writing centers ethical?” WPA, 20, 1/2, Fall/Winter 1996: 32-48.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Are Virtues The Proper Starting Point for Morality?” Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory. Ed. James Dreier. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006: 99-112.

Further Reading

Annas, Julia. Intelligent Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Crisp, Roger and Michael Slote. Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.     (Reprinted 2007.)

Gardiner, Stephen M, ed. Virtue Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.     (Reprinted 2010.)

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Third Edition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre  Dame Press, 2008.

Walker, Rebecca L. and Philip Ivanhoe. Working Virtue: Virtue Ethics and  Contemporary Moral Problems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

9 Replies to “Virtues of Conversation: Ethics in the Writing Center”

  1. Thanks, John, for this very thoughtful framing of the importance of the kind of talk that takes place within a writing center. It occurs to me that on my own campus, where growing class sizes inhibit discussion (and I even have advisees who say, “Oh, that’s okay. I prefer large classes where I don’t need to talk”), the writing center provides a place to practice generous and courageous conversational practices that they also don’t get much experience with in classrooms. Another reading suggestion for interested folks that seems very much to connect with John’s perspective: The chapter in The Everyday Writing Center (by Anne Ellen Geller, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, Elizabeth H. Boquet) on countering “everyday racism” in and through writing center practice.

    Nancy Welch
    Professor of English
    University of Vermont

  2. John, thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I especially appreciate the way you’ve framed your thinking in the context of Writing Center enthusiasts’ need to engage in “not” talk. Now you’ve got me thinking about what these virtues look like when we’re talking to non-users (or not-yet-users) of Writing Centers. Is there an ethical way to frame the work we do when we’re talking with those who may never make use of a Writing Center? Or our neighbours and friends outside of academia?

    Stephanie White
    Writing Center Instructor
    Assistant Director, Writing Across the Curriculum
    PhD Candidate, Composition and Rhetoric
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  3. Professor Duffy. Thank you so much for posting this thoughtful piece. We are in the first month of a writing center here in Roswell, New Mexico, and your piece gave me an ample helping of food for thought, and later action, in framing our purpose within our community college setting.

  4. Stephanie,

    Thanks for the comment. I think “not talk” is a useful way to draw contrasts, and is therefore an effective introduction to writing centers for people who may not understand the work. As to how we go beyond that, and how we frame our work in terms of ethical discourse, this is a large project that involves a re-thinking by our field of what is is we do each day in writing centers and writing classrooms. That is, I think we are entangled, in the everyday practices of teaching writing, in ethical and moral questions relating to honesty, accountability, respectfulness, generosity, and others. But we do not frame these practices in these terms, and so others outside our field do not see our work in that way. I am suggesting we articulate, for ourselves and others, a discourse that will offer new understandings of our work, and in particular its relationship to teaching ethics. Hope that makes sense. John

  5. John, I really appreciate how your re-purpose writing center conversation in ways that show how writing center work is a model for teaching and learning far beyond the walls (virtual or physical) of the writing center. I’ll be sure to send this blog post along to my undergraduate consultants. Thanks!

    Neal Lerner
    Northeastern University
    Boston, MA

  6. Wonderful peak into such a meaningful topic. I loved it, especially the last sentence. Thank you for writing this.

  7. John, I love this insight into the values inherent to a writing center, and can’t help–as a former writing center instructor under your leadership–but focus on your early analysis of the tutor-student writer dynamic: “For that relationship to thrive, each party must acknowledge the authority and integrity of the other.” The writing center to me then almost functions as a wormhole, denying typical time and cultural constructions and providing a space for encountering and recognizing “the other,” for the purposes of your own improvement. I heartily agree that if there were more transgressive spaces that frame dialogue rather than stagnated opinion as beneficial, we’d have a much stronger social system and democracy where more voices are heard. Thank you for being such a dedicated of practitioner of these beliefs, in addition to your insightful research.

  8. John, thanks for this post. I found it through the WCenter listserv, and was very pleased to read the post and comments. It is a great challenge and opportunity to share these ideas with new students or others who are, like most of us once were, unfamiliar with the work that goes on in many Writing Centers. At my institution, our main student audience is returning students who have been away from college for many years.

  9. I was fortunate to find this post. My freshmen are struggling with defining and understanding their own ethical responsibilities as writers, as reflected in their writing. It’s not easy, but I believe it’s fairly straightforward. Now, thanks to your insights, I see the bigger challenge.

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