Writing Center Moonshots

Uncategorized / Monday, September 5th, 2016

By Bradley Hughes –

Brad Hughes is the director of the Writing Center and the director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is delighted to be starting his 33rd year at UW-Madison. This post is adapted from his keynote address at the Midwest Writing Centers Association Conference, held in Iowa in March 2016.

Do you know what moonshots are? They are really ambitious goals–or the process of trying to achieve those kinds of goals. The term refers to US President John Kennedy’s 1961 speech, at Rice University in Houston, about space exploration, when Kennedy boldly promised that the United States would land a person on the moon by the end of the decade. Moonshots are really audacious projects, ones that are, in fact, so difficult that they are unlikely to succeed. As Kennedy said in that now famous speech: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In his State of the Union address in January 2016, President Obama invoked the term when he announced the start of an ambitious new “Cancer Moonshot,” an initiative designed to advance cancer care and prevention.

moonI am inspired by ambitious goals, and I hope that you are too. In fact, I think that establishing ambitious goals and working collaboratively to achieve them are important parts of leadership in an academic culture. I want to think together with you all about what could be moonshots–ambitious goals–for you as a tutor, for your writing center, for the writing center profession. I will try to challenge you to think in some new ways about your writing center work. Later in this post, I’m going to invite all of you to think and talk about setting an ambitious goal for improving your own tutoring or for improving your center or for strengthening the writing center profession. Maybe while you read this post (you can multitask, right?), you can begin freethinking about something substantial that needs improving in your tutoring, something important and challenging that you need to learn, some significant ways in which you or your center needs to stretch or grow or improve. Your moonshot should be challenging and ambitious but can be small in scope–it doesn’t have to involve a journey to Mars.

astronaut_on_moon_lunar_roverCome to think of it, writing centers themselves are moonshots of sorts–aren’t they? I’d argue that it’s really important to recognize that the growth and the success of writing centers are improbable and  audacious. Even though we can trace the history of writing centers back to the early 20th century, 40 years ago when writing centers really began to snowball, I don’t think many would have thought the progress I will describe in this post would be possible. The professionalism of the field, for example, the variety and quality of current writing center research, the central roles that undergraduates now play in centers and in conferences like this–decades ago, imagining all of that would have been a moonshot, if not an hallucination. And certainly few would have imagined that writing centers would become as ubiquitous as they now are. Lori Salem’s recent research shows–in powerful ways–how unevenly distributed writing centers are across different kinds of colleges and universities, and how our very existence reflects larger economic and political trends in higher education more than just local circumstances. But it’s amazing to see that in, for example, public universities that include graduate programs, according to Salem’s research, 95.5% of those universities now have writing centers (31).

Appreciating the Amazing Learning That Goes on in Writing Centers

Before we collaborate to set some our own moonshots, I think it’s important to start by identifying some of the existing strengths of writing centers at this moment in writing center history. My first point is one you already know: Writing centers are amazing places, where some great learning takes place, where there is serious engagement with learning, where valuable research takes place, and where our methods and values are proven winners in the 21st century. And right now is the best time in all of the decades I have worked in writing centers. When we’re not fighting off budget cuts, it’s honestly the best time for centers and for writing center studies. Don’t get me wrong—it’s NOT the best of all possible worlds—my writing center faces a million problems, I could tell you, and our profession faces challenges. But still, overall, this is a great time for writing centers.

This claim–that writing centers are amazing places–may sound quotidian to a room full of dedicated writing center colleagues. But I want to push us all to be more specific in unpacking the complexity of that claim. All of us who work in and care about writing centers need to be able to articulate specifically how they are so valuable. In this next section, let me try to do a little of that.

The Power of Talking about Writing: For Writers

Writing centers are fabulous places because of the way that they foreground and make visible one of the absolutely central components of the writing process, one too easily forgotten–and that is talk about writing in progress and about revision. In a minute, I’ll share some new research about how important this kind of talk about writing is beyond college. I love just listening, eavesdropping in writing centers, analyzing videos of sessions–listening carefully to that talk about writing. I’m fascinated by how student-writers present their concerns, what they’re asking for; how well–or not–tutors listen. the false starts, the complexities. the misunderstandings. the missed opportunities; the co-planning and co-composing.

Within writing centers, this kind of talk about writing occurs not only in tutorials with trained tutors. In late January of this year, for example, I was helping lead one of our many writing center workshops, this one about writing undergraduate research fellowship proposals. There were about 45 students there, all juniors, from all sorts of majors–they were working on writing c. 5-page proposals for a highly competitive research fellowship program for seniors to work collaboratively with professors on a year-long advanced research project; this fellowship offers good funding for the students and some for faculty. We structured this workshop so that students brought drafts and participated in peer reviews with other writers. After talking briefly with students about what makes for effective peer discussions of drafts, I happened to overhear a pair of science students–one in biology, one in chemistry–working together. The chemistry major, a junior, gave terrific feedback to his peer about a draft research proposal–he started with smart, global concerns, showed genuine interest in his peer’s project, provided detailed, critical feedback, collaborated well, and offered encouragement for doing the hard work of developing ideas and revising. I loved listening to those wonderful tutoring and peer collaborative instincts. And I felt proud to be part of a teaching program that creates opportunities for student-writers, who might otherwise never meet, to have that kind of substantial critical student-with-student interaction around writing in progress.


Student-writers as well as tutors and directors should recognize that one of the most valuable things that writers and tutors learn from tutorial sessions, that they can take into and use in their careers, is that they learn HOW to talk with colleagues about writing in progress. Learning how to do that well has enormous value beyond college–as a fabulous recent book by noted literacy scholar Deborah Brandt makes crystal clear. In The Rise of Writing, Brandt draws from interviews with a diverse group of nearly one hundred “workaday” writers from all walks of life to give a richly theorized portrait of the writing that people do outside of school—both in the workplace and on their own. Her research shows that talk about writing is ubiquitous: in work and in leisure, there is more peer-to-peer engagement among writers than ever before: “Millions of Americans now engage in creating, processing, and managing written communications as a major aspect of their work” (3). And  “Many American adults . . . spend 50 percent or more of the workday with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences . . .” (3). That complex workplace writing connects in powerful ways with what we do in writing centers, as Brandt explains:

Mass literacy is evolving quickly from a base in reading to a base in writing.Writing centers are one of the few sites in the entire educational system that recognize and support this important cultural change. They make the human activity of writing visible and alive. They allow the skills and knacks of writing to pass person to person, and they teem with the kind of talk that all writers need to develop. As I visited workplaces and met with people who explained how they did their writing and how they learned to do it, I was amazed at how closely their explanations synched up with the values and routines of writing centers. Writing centers are the workshops of a new mass literacy. (Deborah Brandt, personal communication, January 6, 2016)

Wow–those are powerful observations about writing centers from such a distinguished literacy theorist. That’s why, in a recent review of Brandt’s book, my co-authors and I have strongly urged everyone who is seriously interested in writing centers to read Brandt’s book (Hughes, Christoph, and Nowacek).


Illustration by James Graham.
Illustration by James Graham.

Thinking about how writing happens in the contemporary workplace, I wanted to mention briefly a fascinating article by Charles Duhigg in The New York Times Magazine earlier this year, about Google’s internal research into what makes work teams successful. Within this story, there is lots of interest, but for all of us who work in writing centers and promote and practice deep listening and collaborative talk around writing projects, that research is really affirming. Just a sample–as Duhigg explains: “In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”


The Power of Talking about Writing: For Tutors

From this rich talk within writing centers, student-writers can learn a great deal–about the subjects they are writing about, about common genres of writing, about audiences, about processes of writing, and about themselves. The instruction about writing that occurs in writing centers is situated, customized, smart, individualized, flexible, and supportive. But how about the learning that goes on for tutors? Do you think about this much? One of the defining features in writing centers is that learning is multi-directional, reciprocal, complementary, collaborative. There is now lots of evidence that tutors learn a great deal from their experience as tutors. And it’s learning that endures–for years, even for decades. I just got an email from a former tutor on our staff, who works in New York. A colleague had asked her for feedback on a draft piece of writing, which led this former tutor to write me: “So much of how I approached that conversation was shaped by the ethos of generosity and support cultivated in writing center work. I think time that tutors spend in writing centers make us more generous readers in our lives.”

To understand tutor learning more systematically, Harvey Kail, Paula Gillespie, and I created the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project, which some of you may know. To understand better the skills, values, and abilities former undergraduate writing tutors developed from their education and experience as peer writing tutors, we conducted extensive survey research with 126 former tutors from our three universities (the University of Maine, Marquette University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison), who were from 2 to 30 years beyond graduation, from all kinds of majors, in all kinds of careers—when they completed the surveys, they were working as an ethnomusicologist, a business manager, a social worker, a newspaper editor, a salesperson, a psychology researcher, a mortgage administrator for a bank, a Peace Corps volunteer, an attorney, a kindergarten teacher, a medical student, an aspiring actor, an economics professor, a technical writer, a manager for a national folk festival, a special-education teacher, an analyst for the defense department, a biotech patent agent, an anesthesiology technician, a lobbyist, a clerk for a Supreme Court justice, and in many more fields. In their rich responses (we analyzed over 500 pages of single-spaced responses to our survey questions), tutor-alums described how influential their learning as tutors was. From their education and experience as writing tutors, they developed:

  • a new relationship with writing
  • analytical power
  • a listening presence
  • skills, values and abilities for professions
  • skills, values, and abilities for families and personal relationships
  • earned confidence
  • an understanding of and commitment to collaborative learning (Hughes, Gillespie, and Kail)

In our more recent analysis of our findings, Paula, Harvey, and I have been focusing on what former tutors said was really difficult about their tutoring. And we’re convinced that this learning occurs because tutorials are difficult, even risky, for tutors. Tutoring can be hard, right? In their writing center work, tutors regularly have to:

  • work across differences in culture and in communication style
  • help writers with high-stakes writing
  • deliver honest criticism in a supportive way
  • find their bearings with subjects they may know little about
  • work across differences in motivation
  • collaborate rather than dispense advice (Gillespie, Hughes, Kail)

And we have become convinced that learning is forged from that difficulty and from the unpredictability and challenges of writers and their situations and their expectations.

world_without_work_atlantic_coverAs I have done this research about tutor learning, concepts from economics research help me understand just how formative the experience of being a writing tutor can be–research about attitudes that workers have toward their work. These attitudes were described in a fascinating article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic magazine in the summer of 2015, an article about imagining a future world without work–or without enough work to go around–because of increasing automation. Maybe you know this already–an Oxford University study finds that perhaps 20% of jobs in the US could be replaced by automation within the next 20 years. The article includes some fun images of full-time workers in museum display cases, labeled “extinct from the early 21st century.” As Thompson explores the implications of future dramatic changes in work, he explains that how we will respond to those changes depends on our attitudes toward work. Based on research done in psychology and in labor economics, especially by Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale’s School of Management, economists classify workers’ attitudes toward work into three bins–a job, a career, or a calling. These are, of course, not mutually exclusive–someone could see a job as all three or as a combination of two. If it’s a job, workers view it as a means to an end; if it’s a career, workers focus on success or prestige and advancement; if a calling, people view work as integral to their lives and identity (in this context, the term “calling” is not meant to carry any religious connotations). It’s striking that many of the participants in our tutor alumni research make it clear that tutoring was such an important part of their university lives and identities that their attitudes resemble what economists and psychologists label as a calling.



Sustained Focus on Diversity and Inclusion

One of the most impressive current strengths of writing centers is their sustained critical focus on diversity and inclusion and their commitment to social justice, especially in the past 10 years. Tutors and scholars and directors now understand, in deeper ways than they have before, not to let the focus of writing centers on individuals obscure systemic or institutional racism. Let me suggest just a few examples, both national and local, of this important focus on diversity and inclusion.

Anti-racism SIGs are now a powerful, well-established presence at regional and international writing center conferences; some of these groups have been initiated and led by members of the MWCA. And many, many important anti-racism publications have appeared within writing center studies: from Margaret Weaver’s chapter “A Call for Racial Diversity in the Writing Center,” in The Writing Center Director’s Resource Guide; to Nancy Grimm’s and Nancy Barron’s pioneering article in The Writing Center Journal, “Addressing Racial Diversity in a Writing Center”;  to the chapter titled “Everyday Racism” in The Everyday Writing Center by Anne Geller, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, and Beth Boquet; to Harry Denny’s Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring; to the award-winning collection Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change, edited by Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan; to Ben Rafoth’s Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers.





And locally, the writing center on my own campus, like centers at many schools and colleges and universities, works intentionally to do anti-racism work with campus partners, through our satellite locations in multicultural centers on campus, and through our community writing centers, the Madison Writing Assistance Program, led by Nancy Linh Karls. And we try to encourage continuing self-critical reflection on our own knowledge and practice, through, for example, this past spring semester an ongoing education project on writing centers and LGBT writers, led by Neil Simpkins and Chris Earle.

Writing Fellow Adelina Yankova (left), discussing ideas with visiting student from Nazarbayev University, for a final paper for Political Science 401, taught by Professor Lisa Martin.
Writing Fellows Adelina Yankova (left), discussing ideas with visiting student from Nazarbayev University, for a final paper for Political Science 401, taught by Professor Lisa Martin.
A Growing Body of High-Quality Research and Expanding Undergraduate Tutor Research

How exciting it is to see the growing body of research in writing center studies. RAD research in our field–replicable, aggregable, and data-supported–in The Writing Center Journal and in many other publications! New research paradigms complicate, in a good way, superficial, vague understandings of collaboration and they complicate what Jackie Grutsch McKinney, in Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, a book I really admire, identifies as the master narratives of our field. Some of the most valuable new research illuminates the detailed inner workings of writing center consultations–especially a new book, Talk about Writing: The Tutoring Strategies of Experienced Writing Center Tutors, by Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson, who provide a valuable coding scheme for analyzing tutorial talk systematically. Thanks to them, I can never observe a session or analyze a transcript or design tutor education without their powerful categories of “instruction strategies,” “cognitive scaffolding strategies,” and “motivational scaffolding strategies.” And within the past 10 years we also have much smarter and more probing conversations within research in our field about second-language writing and about consultations with wonderful multilingual writers in our centers. Some of that comes from Carol Severino from the University of Iowa, research about second-language writers and writing centers, online and in person. And other wonderful research done by Therese Thonus. And there is a lot to learn from a recent study, published in WLN, by Bromley, Schonberg, and Northway, about how student-writers define engagement within writing center tutorials. Intellectual engagement as “cognitive challenge or questioning” and as “tutors’ active involvement in student writing”–necessary ingredients for what students define as productive sessions.

Some of the exciting new writing center research comes from undergraduate tutors, and which many tutors present each year at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing and at the regional writing center conferences and IWCA and CCCC. In publications like the well-established Young Scholars in Writing and the new journal for undergraduate authors called The Peer Review. The emphasis on undergraduate research in The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors, by Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta (2015) and in Joyce Kinkead’s brand-new Researching Writing: An Introduction to Research Methods.



Planning Some New Writing Center Moonshots of Your Own

So I really believe that it’s worth identifying and articulating those particular strengths of writing centers and of our profession. But I promised that I wanted to think critically about writing centers as well. Writing centers always need to improve. We need to look at what we do critically–as individual tutors and as communities of tutors and as programs–and we need to set goals for improving.

I could go on for weeks asking tough questions and suggesting ways we as tutors and our program can improve. Let me name a few quickly, just to help us all get thinking. I love to encourage the introspective and self-critical tutor; the creative writing center; the activist writing center; the writing center that has a seat at the important tables in all of our universities.

  • We need to find concise, memorable, sticky ways to describe what’s great about writing centers (Harris). Our explanations are usually too long, forgettable, and uninspiring. For a good counterpoint to what we usually say, did you see what Jeff Brooks–Brooks of the famous “Minimalist Tutoring” article–wrote in a January 2015 WLN piece? Brooks works in marketing, doing fundraising for non-profits. Along with some good sarcastic comments, Brooks tosses off a memorable pitch. “To get students into the writing center, tell them what the writing center does offer: a skill that you will carry with you for the rest of your life–something that will set you apart in any workplace, any career you choose. You’ll land better jobs, make more money, have more fun. Really.” That might sound crass as an appeal, but Brooks is right–high-level literacy skills actually do have a lot value. And he’s right that writing centers can–and need to–find better, more appealing ways, to describe the value of what student-writers can learn from writing centers.
  • We need to make our centers even more welcoming and inclusive for ALL student-writers and for ALL tutors; in many cases, centers need to do more to align themselves with diversity initiatives on our campuses.
  • We need to develop new writing center programs that support social justice, that expand our service to communities beyond our campuses, that align writing centers with service learning and community-based research.
  • We need to improve tutor knowledge and tutor education for crossing disciplines, Sue Dinitiz’s and Susanmarie Harrington’s 2014 research study reveals. We cannot ignore those findings. Too many tutors do not know enough about the rhetorical work done by common genres of academic writing. Do you?
  • nowacek_agents_integrationWe need to improve tutors’ ability to teach about writing in ways that transfer–that help student-writers transfer what they already know about writing–or what we as tutors explain to writers–transferring that knowledge to new genres or new writing situations. So, for example, when students face a new writing assignment in their sophomore molecular biology course or their junior history course, they rarely draw upon what they have previously learned in a writing course or in a writing tutorial. So here’s a challenge for all of us in our own tutoring. And a challenge for those who design tutor education. Two articles in The Writing Center Journal in 2015 focus on transfer in writing center practice and research, and a forthcoming special issue of WLN will also feature work on transfer. In her research study of transfer, Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act, Rebecca Nowacek suggests powerful ways that writing center tutors can play a role in transfer, working as “secret agents.”
  • We need to think about writing centers in visionary ways. Here’s just one way for writing centers to imagine entirely new possibilities. According to a New York Times story, early this year AT&T told its 260,000 employees that they have to adapt–or else. Worried that Google and Apple will take away their core business, AT&T told its employees that they have to keep learning, on their own time, outside of work, online. They are offering employees opportunities to study for masters degrees in engineering through Georgia Tech. After lamenting yet another example of unstable 21st-century employment and hyper-competition, I do think we should see some exciting new opportunities for writing centers as part of that explosion in lifelong learning.

Those are just a few quick thoughts about new directions and needs. It sure does take ambition and vision and lots of energy and time to imagine and realize moonshots. But working on them collaboratively can create amazing opportunities for growth, for renewal, for creativity, for partnerships, for fun, for exciting new futures.

Some Closing Thoughts

skyfaring_coverAfter inviting us all to think in exciting new ways, to imagine new directions for us as tutors and for our writing centers and for our profession, I would like to suggest a different way to view our experiences as writing center tutors and directors and scholars. This image comes from a beautiful book called Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenecker, published last year. The author is an airline pilot, and the book is about how airline pilots experience flight and travel. The book is described as “[a] poetic and nuanced exploration of the human experience of flight that reminds us of the full imaginative weight of our most ordinary journeys—and reawakens our capacity to be amazed.” In one section of that lyrical book, the author explains that airline pilots have in their minds a pilot’s map of where they have been–lots of bright dots for cities and countries where they have been. dark spots, often entire continents, where they have not.


Imagine your writing center map as a tutor or director. Where have you been? What are bright dots on your experiential map? And where is it dark? What do you need to know more about? Which destinations in your tutoring experience do you want to be intentional about exploring where you haven’t been before? What have you learned from working with writers who have disabilities? What have you learned from working with writers at different levels of study? Or writers with different first languages? Or writers with different degrees of engagement in or commitment to their writing projects? Or writers with different conversational patterns? How do you want to stretch? How do you want to contribute? In what ways do you want your center to stretch? And for those of you who are directors, how do you want to create more opportunities for tutors?  What are your goals for stretching, improving, learning, for doing something that is difficult? What are your moonshots? In comments on this post, I hope you will respond to some of what I’ve shared here, and I hope you will share a moonshot for you or for your center. Or I hope you will push back on the idea of even having moonshots. Thanks so much for reading!


Works Cited

Brandt, Deborah. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. Cambridge UP, 2015.

Bromley, Pamela, Kara Northway, and Eliana Schonberg. “Student Perceptions of Intellectual Engagement in the Writing Center: Cognitive Challenge, Tutor Involvement, and Productive Sessions.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 39, no. 7-8, March/April 2015, pp. 1-6.

Brooks, Jeff. “Reflections on Brooks’ ‘Minimalist Tutoring.'” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 39, no. 5-6, January/February 2015, pp. 10-13.

Dinitz, Sue, and Susanmarie Herrington. “The Role of Disciplinary Expertise in Shaping Writing Tutorials.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2014, pp. 73-98.

Duhigg, Charles. “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” Illustrated by James Graham. The New York Times Magazine.  February 25, 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html.

Gillespie, Paula, Brad Hughes, and Harvey Kail. “Powered by Collaborative Learning: What We Take with Us from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” Keynote Address at the European Writing Centers Association Conference, Frankfurt, Oder, Germany, July 21, 2014.

Hardy, Quentin. “Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else.” The New York Times, February 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/technology/gearing-up-for-the-cloud-att-tells-its-workers-adapt-or-else.html.

Harris, Muriel. “Making Our Institutional Discourse Sticky: Suggestions for Effective Rhetoric.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 30, no 2, Fall 2010, pp. 47-71.

Hughes, Bradley, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail. “What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 30, no. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 12-46.

Hughes, Bradley, Julie Nelson Christoph, and Rebecca S. Nowacek. “Mass Literacy and Writing Centers: Deborah Brandt’s The Rise of Writing.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, Spring/Summer 2016, pp. 173-185.

Salem, Lori. “Opportunity and Transformation: How Writing Centers Are Positioned in the Political Landscape of Higher Education in the United States.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2014, pp. 15-43.

Thompson, Derek. “A World without Work.” The Atlantic, July/August 2015, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294/.

Vanhoenacker, Mark. Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. Alfred A, Knopf Publishers, 2015.


Featured photo is of Apollo 17, the last moon shot, on the launch pad in Florida in December 1972, waiting for its night launch. Photo from NASA–http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/images/150989main_image_feature_598_ys_full.jpg

45 Replies to “Writing Center Moonshots”

  1. Bravo, Brad! Thanks so much for this insightful and inspiring articulation of what writing centers do and what we who inhabit them can do to move them (and us) forward.

    Building on your point that writing centers themselves are moonshots of sorts, I’d say my goal is to ensure that our writing center truly lives up to the claim (echoed by many writing centers) that we can help all writers at all levels and at all stages in the writing process improve their writing and become stronger writers. For me, that’s the ultimate moonshot, the one that requires the most stretching and entails working toward all the great goals you outlined. To reach that ultimate goal requires making meaningful use of assessment, which (to stretch the analogy) I’d characterize as the blueprint of our Lunar Module.

    David Stock
    UW-Madison Writing Center alum
    Assistant Professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator
    Brigham Young University

  2. Thanks, Brad, for this excellent pilot’s map of the current moment in writing center studies! You’ve got my brain going in several different directions at once. One moonshot it makes me think of is moving writing centers away from their most common center of gravity in English departments. Not because English departments are bad (I hope to be part of one) or because we need disciplinary tutors per se but because we undervalue writing’s potential for fostering critical thought across disciplines when we view writing as the domain of English departments alone.

    On a different level, as I worked with students in the writing center this first day of the semester – all five of whom were applying for jobs or graduate school – I thought about how much of a moonshot these tasks must seem to these writers: applying to medical school, getting a job to prepare for physician’s assistant programs, applying to grad programs when they thought undergrad was a stretch. Sometimes, it feels like if we just had the magic sentence to unlock the gates… While we don’t work miracles at writing centers, I’m stunned at how important writing is in people’s lives, and how much faith writers put in me as a writing center tutor. So many hopes and dreams walk through the door of the writing center.

  3. Thanks, Brad, as always, for this great meditation on writing centers and what they mean to us, even beyond the immediate tutoring context. The work we do and have done in writing centers stays with us in ways that are hard to pin down, whether we were grads, admins, or peer tutors. Certainly the ways they inspire us to think more deeply, more collaboratively, and across disciplines has stuck with me. It was everyday work in the UW-Madison Writing Center when I was there–just part of what we did! But you’re right that it’s important to step back and admire the view and the ambition of it. Indeed, like shooting for the moon! And landing.

    Now I’m wondering: what goals should I have for the end of the decade??

    Annette Vee
    Assistant Professor of English
    University of Pittsburgh

  4. Thanks for this post, Brad! It’s such an exciting time to be engaged in writing center work! I’m thinking about how writing centers can help lead institutional moonshots like changing sexist and racist campus climates. How can writing centers lead the way in helping their universities institute real and lasting racial and gender justice?

    Neil Simpkins
    TA Assistant Director
    The Writing Center
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  5. Brad, this post is wonderfully thought-provoking — thank you! I want to take up your challenge to brainstorm a moonshot for my own work in outreach. The impossible-to-tabulate dream, for me, is to make sure that every student at UW-Madison learns about the Writing Center and about what we do within their first, say, three semesters here. For all I know, we are already doing this; conversely, in all likelihood, we do not have the resources to do this. Because we certainly don’t have the resources to individually check students off a master list once we know they’ve been “informed,” the next best thing, for me, is to turn our students into advocates amongst each other. In my own outreach teaching, this means making sure I speak to everyone in the room, not just those I assume to be the norm for a class, and not just those who answer my questions about their concerns/perspectives/backgrounds with respect to writing. My tangible, attainable goal is this: make eye contact with every single student (within reason, i.e. for groups <50) as I present information about the Writing Center, so that they know I am talking to them too, that they too are welcome. Whether those students make appointments or not, I hope that will be the beginning of the feeling that the Writing Center is for each and every student on this campus, and that they and anyone they know are welcome there.

    Leah Pope, Outreach Coordinator, UW-Madison Writing Center

  6. Right when I was starting to feel drained from all the planning and preparation and goal-setting for the start of the semester, this post really reinvigorated me. The start of a new semester always has me thinking about learning goals – real, attainable goals for each unit, assignment, and lesson. The idea of the “moonshot” reopens a lot of doors for what those goals can be, reminding me that there needs to be dream goals as well as doable ones (because, often, the dream goals *are* doable, just not all at once!).

  7. First, WOW. This is a serious must-read. I wish I had been there in person to hear it. It’s hard to pick one thing to respond to, so I’m going to grab the first thing that had me nodding emphatically while I sit in my office solo, eating homemade soup:

    “All of us who work in and care about writing centers need to be able to articulate specifically how they are so valuable.”

    This is a key skill if you are trying to build energy around your center: one time, when chatting with another administrator, I asked him what he was most proud of that was going on in his unit. He had no reply. (!). I was unsurprised to learn later that his reputation was for “coasting.” He had ZERO message.Whether or not he was doing anything doesn’t matter if he can’t get the word out about what’s getting done.

    At any time, I have “thing I want to tell my dean if I happen to see him” and I have a passionate 3 minute pitch for Why the Writing Center is the Crucial Academic Service on Our Campus. I am not a naturally positive person, but I will exude concise enthusiasm when speaking of the writing center. If not me, then who?

    Also: Brad is the man.

    Melissa Ianetta
    Professor of English
    Director of the Writing Center
    University of Delaware

  8. What that smart lady out in Delaware said. . .

    As the Writing Lab over here in Purdue celebrates its 40th anniversary, Brad’s invocation of the space program makes me think critically about its own epochal crisis and how it calls on us to think about one we might have in the universe of writing centers. We no longer await space shuttles to launch, and I remember standing at the Brooklyn border of NY Harbor as a 747 swooped in with the last of them piggybacking on it, en route to its resting place atop the Intrepid Air & Space Museum. While I watched, I wondered whether in my lifetime we’ll ever see such space exploration. I can barely remember the last messages from a person walking on the moon; without fact-checking myself, I think it has been at least generation since that’s happened. Might we ever see people actually on Mars or orbiting some satellite of Saturn? What do we do when someone or something gets picked up on from our SETI listening devices? Is the future imagination confined to film screens and mini-series on television?

    When I turn my attention away from more celestial wandering, I think about what’s next for writing centers. What might be the moon shot on my own campus? For our field? Just a few buildings away from my own is the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, and I wonder what possible collaborations might transform what how we tutor and whom we reach. I think about all the large research institutions in the Big Ten Academic Alliance, all of which have writing centers, but few of which engage in cross-institutional research. How might we push what we do and whom we serve by pursing tough questions that challenge our assumptions? How might we continue to shoot for the moon with how we use technology to innovate how we reach students on our campuses? How are tutors’ and students’ everyday practices, beyond our spaces, profoundly changing the way learning and writing is happening, begging us to enter a bold new world of teaching and mentoring? Just as critically, as access to different forms of higher education becomes ever more stratified and financially challenging, what role can writing centers play in contesting that social injustice? How do we contest the gravity that pulls us back to the usual routine and keeps us from floating to new horizons?

    In what seems like a whole other lifetime, I remember Casey Kasem always says at the end of his radiocast of the week’s top forty songs, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Today that sounds like a prescription for falling on my face, but his point echoes what Brad’s telling us – for all of us in writing centers to keep stretching ourselves whether in a typical session or the projects we take on to deepen our inquiry.

    Harry Denny
    Associate Professor of English
    Director, The Writing Lab
    Purdue University

  9. I loved this then and I love it now, Brad! Thank you for helping us think about and appreciate both what is and what could be in the writing center world. I was excited to have the chance to highlight some of these ideas in a small way at our grand re-opening at the beginning of this semester. During that event, both consultants and writers spoke about how their time in writing centers have been transformative in large and small ways (thanks again for the idea!).

    I recently spent some time with Anne Ellen Geller and Michele Eodice’s Working with Faculty Writers, and I’m inspired to make that one of our moonshots here. What a promising way to make the point that writing centers are truly for all writers. Seems to me that everyone, students included, stands to benefit when we find new ways to transform ideas about writing on our campuses (and beyond).

    Thanks so much for the call to imagine and act!

    Rachel Azima
    Director, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Writing Center

  10. Brad, thank you so much for this. This is so inspiring and invigorating to read, especially as I start to think about what I hope to accomplish this academic year. I had to start jotting down notes and ideas as I read – it got me thinking about so many people and programs our WC can reach out to and connect with, as well as new ways to engage with current partners. One of the most valuable things that I’ve learned from you is how absolutely crucial it is to get out there and meet face-to-face with people – to carry that ethos of personal interaction and collaboration out of the WC and to other parts of campus and the community. Taking this advice to heart continues to transform our WC and, I think, transforms the university as a whole.

    Taryn Okuma
    Clinical Assistant Professor of English
    Director, Writing Center Undergraduate Tutor Program
    The Catholic University of America

  11. Talk of moonshots and reminders of the writing center mission to foster diverse staff and writers puts me in mind of the conversation I heard earlier this week on NPR about Margot Lee Shetterly’s new book, Hidden Figures, about the African American women who worked behind the scenes to do the mathematical computations necessary for safe space travel.


    With Shetterly’s book in mind, Brad, your challenge, “to make our centers even more welcoming and inclusive for ALL student-writers and for ALL tutors, . . . to do more to align . . . with diversity initiatives on our campuses” is even more resonant.

    You make me wonder about the unseen work and the unseen workers who make our writing center successes–our moonshots–possible. In this way, yours is an invitation to look and to listen for those untold writing center stories, much as Jackie McKinney urged in Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers.

    Also, one anecdote Shetterly relates is of astronaut John Glenn’s distrust of then-new mechanical “computers” to do the math on which his life would depend. One mathematician, Katherine Johnson, double-checked the calculations by hand. While technological advances have been essential to the success of the space program, so was a human touch. In the fever to extend and develop online tutoring, I find it helpful to remember that students, much like John Glenn, continue to value and to hunger for the human touch writing centers provide.

    Mark Hall
    Director, University Writing Center
    Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric
    University of Central Florida

  12. Thank you, Brad, for that smart, hopeful, and inspiring post (and I live being able to hear your voice as I read it). What you make me think of is really pursuing a phrase I’ve talked uttered since coming here to Northeastern now over five years ago:

    The Writing Center needs to go to where writers are.

    This partially came from walking around campus and seeing students writing in lots of places: libraries, cafes, hallways, classrooms, laboratories. And it also comes from the space constraints we have. But it also addresses our forays into online spaces and class-based tutoring (which we are still trying to get our heads around!). Now, reading your posting, I would also add this:

    The Writing Center needs to go to where and who writers are.

    I hear Harry Denny’s voice as I write that, but I think it does take seriously our need to meet writers where they are and value what they bring (and do not bring) to our encounters. In my view, that happens far too rarely in higher education.

    Thanks again, Brad!

    Neal Lerner
    Northeastern Univ.
    Boston, MA

  13. Thanks so much, Brad, for this inspiring and thought-provoking post! And I greatly appreciate the wonderful comments that have been posted so far.

    As I think about my own center, some questions that arise for me are “Who pays for the moon?” and “If we reach it, how do we stay there?”

    One of our moonshots has been creating an outreach program providing writing workshops in courses across the curriculum. In its 7th year, the program has allowed us to deeply enrich our understanding of writing in the disciplines and to reach over 3700 students with in-class writing instruction. Yet, with dwindling state support for public education, our resources are increasingly under strain, and this program is at risk of reduction or elimination.

    I’m reminded of a scene from the movie *Apollo 13*. Realizing that his spacecraft is too badly damaged to fulfill its original mission, Tom Hanks (playing Astronaut Jim Lovell) looks out the window at a beautiful moonscape, turns to his crew members and says, “We just lost the moon.”

    So, how do we keep the moon? How do we make our highest aspirations sustainable – if not for our own centers, for the field as a whole? How do we at least leave footprints on the surface for any interested travelers who might want to follow?

    Jody Cardinal
    Director, Writing Center
    SUNY Old Westbury

  14. Thank you for the inspiring post, Brad! There is so much here.

    I was most struck by your words about the less tangible benefits of writing center work. You wrote: “Student-writers as well as tutors and directors should recognize that one of the most valuable things that writers and tutors learn from tutorial sessions, that they can take into and use in their careers, is that they learn HOW to talk with colleagues about writing in progress.”

    I believe the human interaction element of writing center pedagogy must be front and center in our ongoing work to express the value of writing centers. While most institutions accept that there is a benefit to writing centers, many attempt to outsource this work to tutoring companies. For more on writing centers seen through a business-model, see http://www.pearsoned.com/pedagogy-practice/rejecting-the-business-model-brand-problematizing-consultantclient-terminology-in-the-writing-center/

    So, I am heartened by your research into the long-term, qualitative benefits of tutoring and Deborah Brandt’s research into “workaday” writing. Research like this is essential for keeping writing centers the amazing places we know them to be.

    Lauren Vedal
    Roving Adjunct and former UW Writing Center Instructor

  15. Thanks so much, Brad! Without fail around this time every fall, I get a little nudge from my rss feed that “Another Word” has an unread post, and I put aside whatever I’m doing and follow the link, feeling inspired by what I find there (and realizing just how badly I needed that inspiration as the semester chugs along). This year is no exception–among many other things, I find myself making a long reading list from all of the new books and articles mentioned you’ve mentioned, fuel for whatever small part my own writing center work can contribute to these moonshot efforts.

    John Bradley
    Assistant Director, Writing Studio
    Vanderbilt University

  16. There’s so much here to respond to, Brad! As others have mentioned, I found myself adding to my reading list (and bumping a few things that were already there closer to the top) as I read this post.

    Right now, as I work on setting up outreach visits for UMM classes and staff meetings for UMM consultants, I find myself especially grateful for your thoughtful synthesis of why talking about writing is valuable — both for writers and for the consultants who work with them. At our last staff meeting of the year a couple of years ago, I asked my by-then-experienced consultants to brainstorm how they’d explain (to grad schools, prospective employers, etc.) what skills they learned, developed, or practiced as WC consultants. They didn’t have much to say at first — it was the end of the semester, they were tired — but when I gave them a collection of excerpted responses from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project, they perked up and began to realize just how much they’d done and how valuable their expertise might be in a wide range of circumstances they hadn’t fully considered before that moment. Their lists got a lot longer. 🙂

    One of my writing center’s current moonshots involves a partnership with our campus office of Equity and Diversity — a partnership that began with a grant-funded project that recently concluded (I kept thinking about a conversation we had shortly before I left UW-Madison in which you warned me to be wary of grant funding because, as you said, “grants end”). We’re trying now to continue a version of the program without those funds because we all feel so strongly that it helped the students involved find out about and make good use of campus resources, including the writing center — and it helped us, to echo Neal from upthread, go where the writers are.

    Tisha Turk
    Associate Professor of English
    Writing Center Director
    University of Minnesota, Morris

  17. What a thought-provoking and inspiring post, Brad! I always admire the way you talk about writing center work and how you press on us as tutors to define for ourselves what we believe writing center work to be. Your thoughts are a good reminder for those of us who work in all kinds of writing program administration to constantly be pushing ourselves to reflect on and then revise our methods and how we can best meet the needs of all kinds of writers. For these reasons, I’ve sought out opportunities like outreach or MWA, which pushes me to consider what it means to teach writing and what writing center pedagogy looks like for a wide variety of writers. In particular, talk about writing has changed the way I teach and tutor writing, the way I talk about writing center work, and they way I value what writing centers offer students of writing.

    Stephanie Rae Larson
    PhD Student in English: Composition and Rhetoric
    Assistant Director of English 100
    Writing Center Instructor

  18. This post comes as I’m beginning my second year at Trinity, and my second year away from the UW-Madison Writing Center that “raised” me. It has been an adjustment working only beside and not within my institution’s Center; I miss the work of tutoring, of working with writers who are not my students, of being part of the important and far-reaching work you discuss so compellingly in this post. And reading this, I realize that it’s time to stop lamenting where I was and start being more deliberate and proactive in my support of the Writing Center where I am now.

    Given the structure of our program, there’s not a direct role for me in training or working within the Center itself. But I could be doing a lot more to effectively and sustainably promote its work. So that’s my moonshot: to find ways to tangibly support Trinity’s Writing Center from my position outside it. I want to begin by thinking seriously about how I present the Center and its resources to my classes and my colleagues. What gaps exist in my understanding of our Center’s makeup and mission exist that prevent me from recognizing how best to explain and promote it to my campus community? How can I speak about it in ways that further the specific goals, short- and long-term, of the Center director? How can I mentor students in whom I recognize potential as future Writing Associates so that they grow in both ability and inclination to serve the campus in that capacity?

    And perhaps most difficult for me personally, but maybe most important as a whole: how can I be an advocate for our Center among my colleagues here, many of whom think of Writing Centers as primarily or entirely remedial resources? My most challenging moonshot is to hone that elevator pitch, the one aimed at other faculty and staff. To find ways to succinctly but persuasively introduce the wider, deeper role the Writing Center can play in our campus community.

    Becca Tarsa
    Professor, Allan K. Smith Center for Writing + Rhetoric
    Trinity College

  19. Why, Brad, you’re right! Writing centers are moonshots. I never thought of it that way, but the fact that so many institutions have dedicated spaces – when space is so often at a huge premium – and dedicated resources – when resources in education are so incredibly scarce – devoted to the sole purpose of supporting and improving writing actually is kind of amazing, isn’t it? In the crush of a new semester when I’m overwhelmed and wishing we had more staff, more space, and more resources, I really appreciate this perspective.

    I also appreciate the challenge you make a case for here. And I have to admit that setting those high goals and aspiring to new moonshots often seem like a challenge. Without losing sight of my appreciation for those extraordinary distances writing centers have come, I know that planning for a successful future while ensuring a successful present is a delicate balance that I am always wary of tipping to the detriment of one or the other. I try to be creative yet cautious in my planning, and for this reason I particularly embrace your term of “stretching.” As I plan new goals and initiatives with my staff, I want to make sure we don’t ignore what is valuable in what we already do. I do want us to stretch our knowledge, our assumptions, and our practices, though. I like this way of envisioning growth for the Center and staff (and director).

    As always, Brad, thank you for helping/pushing/inspiring us to reach a little higher and farther.

    Mary Lou Odom
    Associate Professor, English
    Director, KSU Writing Center
    Kennesaw State University
    Kennesaw, GA

  20. Thanks for this, Brad. I always learn so much and feel inspired when you write or speak. For me, I was reminded of the importance of “talk about writing in progress and about revision.” And I see how— even though I don’t work in a writing center atm—I have made talking about writing an essential part of how I teach writing of any sort.

    For instance, I see how I’ve taken methods of one-with-one instruction and made them a part of talking with an entire class, asking them to share their processes, struggles, and successes when writing in unfamiliar genres with unfamiliar methods. It’s worked with first-year writers as well as graduate students. Making a space for, as Deb said in your interview, “the skills and knacks of writing to pass person to person . . . the kind of talk that all writers need to develop.”

    Rik Hunter
    Assistant Professor, English
    University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

  21. Thanks so much for this, Brad! I love thinking about goals for Writing Center work as “moonshots” for a couple of reasons:
    1) Casting our work in terms of space exploration reminds me to pause to really marvel at the work we do and the work that teachers, researchers, directors, tutors, and staff have already done (it’s hard for me not to envision The Onion’s classic headline expressing shock at the moon landing…). Even when we’re low on energy at the start of a semester like Angela noted, not a naturally positive person as Melissa’s confessed, or seeing that there are always lots more things we could be doing all the time as Neil suggested, this posts reminds me to pause to celebrate the tremendous amount we already know and do. Thanks for reminding us to see what we do well and push us to articulate that – for others, but also for ourselves.
    2) Your use of the term obviously nudges us to think BIG! in terms of our goals, but I like how you’ve tempered this idealism with practicality. I hear you asking “How can we think big, but how can we also make and carry out real plans?” in a way that encourages creative thinking without letting anyone off the hook for actually implementing change.
    3) This in turn makes me wonder: how many different kinds of moonshots can there be? For staff and tutors with limited time and resources, how many different ways and on how many different levels can we think big yet also carry out in a given academic year (or years, or decade…)? Can I set goals for the teaching I do in conferences with students that would be valuable in and of themselves but that also help me work toward larger program-level or field-level aims? Are there limits to the number of moonshots we can take? I’m guessing not.

    Leigh Elion
    Writing Center Instructor
    Co-Director, English 100 Tutorial Program

  22. As I read over this post, I was struck by how many of its points overlapped with the strategic planning discussions at the college where I teach. I was reminded, then, of how central writing center work is to the liberal arts — a position that, as Brad’s post attests, has been hard won and “audacious.”

    Thanks, Brad, for the nudge to shoot (very) high as well as for the reading list.

    Rebecca Entel
    Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing
    Cornell College

  23. A truly remarkable post, Brad, one packed with so much information that made me think, to use the parlance of writing centers, both globally and locally. In terms of global issues: what a remarkable reflection on how far writing centers have come over the years! What started out as small rooms (“writing labs”) where students could go to get their papers “fixed” has since grown into a remarkably robust culture of writing. It’s inspiring, actually, to consider how far writing centers have come and how much good they have done.

    I also admire how Brad refers to this remarkable past, but, being the extremely energetic and innovative person that he is, challenges us to go even farther, or to use his metaphor, higher. No time to rest on our laurels! There’s still so much to do! It’s hard for me to express how truly privileged I felt to be around that kind of energy when I served as a writing tutor at Brad’s remarkable writing center.

    But Brad’s post has also helped me in two very tangible “local” ways as well. Yesterday when I was talking about the importance of writing groups with my first-year writing students, I asked students to reflect – honestly – about their experiences with writing groups in high school. Overwhelmingly students had misgivings about groups: they got off track, students weren’t invested in them, they didn’t really “help,” etc. In explaining to them how I thought writing groups would be different in our class, I had a chance to share the information Brad cited from Deborah Brandt about the ways students will be writing – and talking about writing – in the workplace. Perhaps I misread the room, but I don’t think so: Students really responded to this information. It rang true to them. Without having read Brad’s post over the weekend before my Monday morning class, I would not have had this experience.

    I also teach a one-credit course for the writing tutors here at Suffolk. And I can guarantee that sections of Brad’s blog WILL be required reading for the tutors, particularly the compelling research he conducted with Harvey Kail and Paula Gillespie as part of the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project. Just last week, I shared an observation with the peer tutors that I have shared with countless audiences in countless contexts over the years: Working as a tutor at the University of Wisconsin’s Writing Center taught more about writing – and how to teach writing – than any other experience I have had in my life. Having tutors read the results of the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project that Brad summarizes in this post provides such rich, tangible evidence about how working as a writing tutor, which challenges and stretches us in so many ways, has the potential to enrich us in ways we can’t even fully imagine.

    Thanks again, Brad, for doing what you always do: inspiring me to think big – and also providing me with the kind of concrete, detailed information that I can use. Can’t wait to see what you do in the next 33 years!

    Bryan Trabold
    Associate Professor, English
    Suffolk University

  24. Once again you’ve hit just the right mark here, Brad. This post shows at once how Writing Centers shoot for the moon – how big the overall enterprise of Writing Center work really is – while also identifying that it is also (and I would say, perhaps most importantly) the work of individuals as well – people who sit and talk and listen and write and create this rhetorical space we call “co-composing.”

    On my campus, I’ve been working with our Writing Center Director on developing a Writing Fellows program for students in our writing intensive coursework. Ideally, these Writing Center consultants can work with peers on figuring out how to frame transfer as a rhetorical act. The opportunities, of course, are grand – not only will the Writing Center be able to provide sustained support for all our writers on campus, but we will be able to begin offering support in specific courses geared around writing in order to help show students how the work they do in those courses applies in other rhetorical situations as well. Especially, as Brandt reminds us, after they graduate.

    Adam Koehler
    Associate Professor of English
    Director of the Writing Program
    Manhattan College

  25. Thanks so much for writing this insightful post, Brad. As you point out, it is often through difficult situations that people adapt and learn best, so yes, by all means, we should shoot for the moon in every aspect of Writing Center work; I am certain every Writing Center staff member I’ve ever worked with would be up to the challenge and take away a great deal of learning.

    Though I often found myself nodding along as I read, something that resonated with me most strongly was past tutors’ feedback about how working in the Writing Center made them learn and grow. As a recent graduate from the UW-Madison journalism school, my professional experience thus far has consisted of working for newspapers and marketing agencies, both of which require writing to go through multiple rounds of edits. While many sets of eyes ultimately make the final product better, the feedback is usually exactly that – edits, corrections. Quick fixes and Band-aids. Usually edits are communicated via a draft marked up in red pen and there is little to no conversation unless one party has a specific question; that essential part you bring up – how we talk about writing – is missing. As a result, I feel that little learning past muscle memory occurs.

    I’m sure I, too, would have conducted my edits in the same way had it not been for my experience as a Writing Fellow. However, because I have worked as a peer writing tutor, I now make sure to explain my rationale behind every single suggestion – even just adding a comma – so the writer can learn from the process. This is something reporters I have worked with have pointed out as a strength in my editing, and it is something that has made me think much more consciously about the revisions I recommend. My work in the Writing Center has made me a better reader, listener, editor, and professional, no matter where my career takes me, and for that I am grateful.

    Adelina Yankova
    Former Undergraduate Writing Fellow at UW-Madison

  26. Hi Brad,

    Thank you so much for this inspiring post. I like the moonshot-metaphor. Next year, we are going to celebrate our writing center’s tenth birthday at European University Viadrina in Germany. Starting a writing center from sketch with very, very limited funding at a university where no one had ever heard of a writing center and within a country that at this time had hardly any writing centers was a moonshot. From today’s point of view it feels as if we not only made a man walk on the moon but have many people dancing on the moon collaboratively.

    I like that you stress the value of listening to others carefully and of supporting each other in a mutual learning process. This is what happens in writing center learning situations, but it also happens when writing centers support each other in moonshots. In my opinion, this is it what makes this time we live in such a great time for writing centers: We collaborate across writing centers and even across continents. Our writing fellow program, which we started with the support of the UW Madison’s writing center and in collaboration with Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main, was another moonshot and is a great example for how moonshots develop into astonishing reality through collaboration.

    What are moonshots at our writing center with regard to the future? You mentioned the Growing Body of High-Quality Research in writing centers. I think this is what writing centers in Germany can help to become accepted members of academia. A good starting point for future writing center research can it be to think about writing center assessment in new ways. This is what we are going to do throughout the new academic year in collaboration with other writing centers in Germany, in a SIG of the German Association for Writing Pedagogies and Writing Research.

    Again, thank you for this inspiring and informative post!

    Katrin Girgensohn
    Academic Director of the Schreibzentrum (Writing Center)
    Director of the Center for Key Competences and Research-Oriented Learning
    European University Viadrina, Frankurt, Oder, Germany

  27. What a wonderfully inspiring, inviting, visionary meditation on the work of a writing center! Yeats wrote of “the fascination of what’s difficult” (everything somehow comes back to Yeats, Brad—I trust you know that by now) but what was difficult robbed the poet of “spontaneous joy and natural content.” Your essay has the opposite effect. Your call to do something “hard” and set ambitious goals motivates me to think about the new directions we might travel on our campus, not only in our writing center but throughout our writing program.

    Thanks for writing and sharing this piece.

    John Duffy
    Associate Professor of English
    Francis O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program
    University of Notre Dame

  28. Brad, what a fantastic post (and keynote speech).

    Your reference to Brandt’s redefinition of mass literacy in the twenty-first century makes me think of how narrowly our culture as a whole defines “writing.” We writing center administrators and users have a fairly broad conception of writing that includes, for example, lab reports, “ephemeral” writing (Elbow) such as drafts of social media posts for class, and even the writing we produce for PowerPoint slides. My moonshot would include serving every member of campus, but as a director, I fight against this slim conception of writing that often discourages people from seeing what they do as something that would be valuable to bring into our center for feedback.

    A moonshot unrelated to my work as a writing center director is changing the way our culture thinks about writing: fiction and poetry are “creative,” workplace writing is not; writing is solitary; writing is individual; writing is humanities-based; writing is the act of putting pen to paper; and so on. It’s dogmas such as these that sometimes make it challenging to bridge the gap between our work as scholars and mentors and public understanding of that work.

    Despite the challenges of center work, of which there are many, I am constantly uplifted by the spirit of collaboration and kindness that pervades the center I direct, which is fostered by individuals who work in that space (and, very frequently, by those who utilize it). You know that I dream of an Amazon or Google Writing Center, of bringing some of that spirit of collaboration, kindness, and respect for feedback to the lives of hundreds of thousands of workplace writers (hey, that’s another moonshot!).

    Thank you, as always, for provoking deep thought and for encouraging positivity around the work we do.

    Cydney Alexis
    Assistant Professor of English
    Director of the Writing Center
    Kansas State University

  29. Thanks so much for this inspiring post, Brad! I love the idea of “moonshots” and I’m definitely going to use this language as we continue our goal-setting activities in the ASU West Writing Center this year. I was especially moved by your “Power of Talking” sections and your observation that “one of the most valuable things that writers and tutors learn from tutorial sessions, that they can take into and use in their careers, is that they learn HOW to talk with colleagues about writing in progress.” One of my moonshots is to more systemically analyze the tutorial talk happening in our center, and to encourage our undergraduate writing tutors to produce and share their writing center research.

    Thanks again, Brad, for this insightful and important post!

    Molly Rentscher
    Former Undergraduate Writing Fellow at UW-Madison &
    Coordinator of the West Writing Center at Arizona State University

  30. I finished reading this post right before heading into a meeting with members of our center’s leadership team, and in the meeting, I found myself thinking more expansively than usual about the projects we’ve got on the table this year. While we had the ordinary long list of small tasks to be done to inch forward on a number of projects, I was glad to have the notion of moonshots in mind as we talked through the longer view of where we’re headed. “What if we did X?” “What if in 3 years we could do Y?” “Is there any reason we couldn’t just do Z right now?”

    I think that a lot of us in the WC community experience a tension between the day-to-day challenges of running a center (the emails to bat back across the net, the fires to put out) on the one hand, and on the other, the bigger picture, more ambitious, vision-driven plans—the moonshots. Your thoughts here, Brad, give us permission to think big and put those daily struggles in perspective. For me, those everyday tasks re-contextualized in light of the moonshot end up taking on more significance and become a source of energy to fuel our pursuit of the vision. I’m sending around this post to our whole crew because these thoughts can invigorate even the most mundane tasks in the WC while pushing us to clarify our vision of success. Thank you!

    Under the light of the brightest full moon of the year (Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!),

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

  31. Brad, thanks for your persuasive insistence on keeping writing centers new! My baseball cap is off to you. You are forever brave in challenging the conventional and insisting that we push the boundaries that we perhaps unknowingly impose upon ourselves.

    I also very much appreciate what Matthew Capdeveille had to say in his post (above) about the tension between the “everyday” consciousness and the “moonshot” consciousness. I admired how he resolved that tension by seeing the one in the context of the other: how the ordinary but essential writing center tasks can be energized through new and challenging perspectives.

    I think the context can be usefully shifted in the other direction, as well: that whatever new projects or ideas we embrace, to be truly innovative they must be capable of quality repetitions in the”everyday.” We need to have true synergy here: big ideas that are satisfying for actual persons to enact over and over and over again. Collaborative learning is, itself, just such a big idea. It’s very processes when taken seriously and consistently over time do not reduce or demean us but rather release our energy for learning. Perhaps that is why writing centers are such good launching pads for moonshots. Bravo, Brad!

    Harvey Kail
    University of Maine

  32. This post is really timely for me! As a writing teacher and a faculty member at an institution where interdisciplinary partnership is really valued, I feel like I carry the lessons of my writing experience with me all the time. (And I often hear Brad’s voice as I’m teaching – my students were starting a new essay in class on Friday, and I closed class by giving students 5 minutes to talk with their workshop groups; as I explained the value of talking for writing, even early in the writing process, I felt like I was basically channeling Brad.)

    I’d add one additional benefit of writing center work to tutors. My work at the writing center while in graduate school, and especially the opportunity to work on the outreach staff, did so much to prepare me for talking about writing pedagogy with faculty in other disciplines. I’m not in a writing center role, but being on the writing program faculty means that other faculty see me as an expert in writing, and I get asked to speak to classes about writing in anthropology, careers related to writing, etc. My time on outreach staff helped me develop a language for talking about writing pedagogy with people outside our discipline.

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

  33. Good stuff, Brad!

    One of the things I was thinking of in your ending riff about thinking of Writing Centers in visionary ways is a conversation I recently listened to on the Debug podcast between two former Apple executives (https://www.acast.com/debug/81-melton-ganatra-episode-v-transitions). They were tragic-comically discussing the early days of trying to make the software for the iPhone and one of them, Don Melton, was both making fun of himself and bragging about the combination of hubris and ignorance it took him and other folks to even think they could pull off writing the software to run the Internet on a 3.5in handheld computer in 2007. Like if he had known how much work it would take to really complete the project he never would have actually taken it on.

    It reminded me of my own—and other writing center folks/my colleagues—penchant for taking on huge projects (assessment projects, multimedia stuff, website redesigns, handbook revisions, online resource development, etc.) that turn out to be way more work than I had planned going in but I never would have tried them if I wasn’t stupid enough to think, “this will be no problem…” They are moonshots in a way, but shots at the moon where the shooter thinks launching a space craft to the moon is super easy.

    Matthew Pearson
    Associate Director
    The University Center for Writing-Based Learning
    DePaul University

  34. Thank you so much for publishing this, Brad! I know that all of us involved with the MWCA conference last spring were buzzing with ideas after you challenged us to think of our own moonshots. (As a NASA geek, I love, love, love this metaphor.) Since your talk, I’ve noticed more people alluding to Brandt’s writing center discussion on wcenter and in essays submitted to WLN. I’m hoping that more scholars in our field dig into her work on literacy development.

    Like many of the other commenters, I’ve spent the past few months thinking about the moonshots here in Eau Claire. One of our biggest challenges has been working with diverse learners on a campus that has little diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, but a lot of diversity in terms of socioeconomic status, sexuality, gender, physical ability, neurotypicality, and nation of origin. UWEC has begun pushing to increase the number of students of color who graduate, as well as expanding our offerings of cultural immersion programs and outreach. In the Center for Writing Excellence, our goal has been to build a staff that accurately represents the student body and that is able to work with writers using whatever means will help them the most. One of the CWE’s core beliefs is that we are not “just” a remedial space; that we strive to help students overcome problems and challenge them to grow as writers and readers. This means we have to serve as both supportive spaces for students and advocates for students.

    On a related note, you mentioned the important anti-racism work going on in writing center studies. You may be interested in Readings for Racial Justice, a crowdsourced, Zotero-based adaptation of a project led by two MWCA folks—Beth Godbee [Marquette] and Bobbi Olson [Grand View]—that features annotations from people around the world.

    Thanks again for all you do—and the challenge to pursue our own moonshots!

    Alan Benson
    UW-Eau Claire

  35. Brad,

    Thanks for sharing this language of “moonshots” to think about the importance of really ambitious goals for writing centers. I love the focus on ambitious — even audacious — goals. And I wonder how we might think about prioritizing to make space for those projects with the potential to matter most.

    Thanks, Alan, too, for mentioning the SIG’s project on “Readings for Racial Justice.” I so hope that folks keep building and using the annotated bibliography for years to come. There’s another “moonshot.”

    All best,

    Beth Godbee
    Marquette University

  36. This is a powerful description both of the impact of big ideas — call them moonshots, call them ways of making change that matters — and of the work of writing centers and of writing more generally. I’ve been spending more and more time in administration these days, and I’ve found that much of what I learned about doing good administrative work (including being part of a team, acknowledging consequences both intended and unintended, and being clear and forthright in your communications) began when I directed the first-year writing program, and worked with teachers whose craft was learned in the Writing Center. I probably write more now than I did when I was focusing more of my energy on academic work, and while it’s in a different genre (mostly memos and policy pieces), it involves talk about writing, engaging with other writers, recognizing stakeholders’ (audiences’) investment in what I’m doing, all things I learned during those years in the first-year writing program and from writing center pedagogy. If ever there were a lesson in workaday writing, I’m living it right now.

    As for moonshots, I have the good fortune of working with people who are deeply collaborative, exceptionally smart, and who are willing to engage with big ideas. What matters isn’t whose idea it is; what matters is that the idea becomes more powerful the more engagement it fosters. I couldn’t do my job without knowing that the big idea, no matter whose it is, has the capacity to change the institution for the better, and that thinking big most often means mutual engagement, hard work, and a supportive environment. It’s not the writing center, but some days it feels like one. And that’s a good thing.

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

  37. This post really resonated with me, especially after having just discussed the idea of threshold concepts in writing (Naming What We Know, Adler-Kassner and Wardle, eds.) in the graduate seminar I’m leading this semester. The metaphor of “moonshots” reminds us that writing centers may be transformative for students, helping them understand their writing practices in a “new” way that will have an impact in their learning and uses of writing.

    I can trace back my own “transformation” to my experience as an undergraduate writing tutor who found that talking about writing with students helped me to understand my own practice as well as to understand the potential of writing, not only as a means of learning but also as a path to a career. These are the kinds of conversations about and experiences with writing that we hope students at any stage of their career (from first-year to PhD candidate) will have and share.

  38. Thanks for this wonderful post, Brad. What a great way to “launch” a new academic year, by reflecting on the nature of the work we do and our orientation to that work.

    I find, in a new academic environment and role this year, that my experiences in Writing Center work — from starting as an undergraduate tutor to working as Assistant Director of WAC at UW-Madison — form the basis for how I understand effective pedagogy AND how I understand myself as a scholar and participant in academia. Writing Center work has shaped even how I conceive of our work and how I set goals.

    Thanks so much for the moonshot image, metaphor, and inspiration, Brad.

    Elisabeth Miller
    Assistant Professor of English
    University of Nevada, Reno

  39. Ah, Brad, I love watching you muster the case for Writing Centers alongside a call for them to do more and better for students, tutors, programs, and schools. I also love seeing how the UW-Madison diaspora responds with gratitude and vision.

    As someone with exactly zero Writing Center experience, I am always inspired and challenged by reading Another Word and seeing the amazing UW-Madison Writing Center staff at work. Thanks to Brad and to all of you.

    Christa Olson
    Nancy C. Hoefs Associate Professor of Composition & Rhetoric
    Director of English 201—Intermediate Composition
    Department of English

  40. Brad’s reflection/keynote reminds me of how much more there is to learn about the praxis of conversation in the writing center. As I hear my tutors speaking to writers, I often wonder, what are these writers thinking as they listen? Studying tutors’ conversations with writers is a gold mine of fresh new ideas, and it’s great to recall the good work being done by Brad and those he cites.

    As I was reading the post, I recalled that about forty years ago, Paul Grice said there are really only four rules of conversation: (1) Say as much as necessary and no more; (2) Tell the truth; (3) Be relevant; (4) Be clear — don’t obfuscate. These rules, called Grice’s conversational maxims, were not meant to dictate the proper way to conduct a conversation. After all, most conversations probably do violate one or more of the maxims, and not without justification. (Relevance varies. Obfuscation is sometimes necessary. And do we always want to hear the truth?) Instead, Grice’s aim was to show that when any of these maxims are violated, hearers look for an explanation: (1) Why is X describing in such detail? (2) Why is Y saying something he knows is not so? (3) What’s her point? (4) Why so vague? It would be worthwhile to investigate what writers think about what they hear from tutors.

    Thanks, Brad, for your always thoughtful and inspiring remarks.

    Ben Rafoth
    Distinguished University Professor
    Director of the Kathleen Jones White Writing Center
    English Department
    Indiana University of Pennsylvania

  41. Thanks for sharing your talk, Brad. I like the moonshot description for audacious goals. That reminds me of what I understand Myles Horton said often: you have to have goals that you actually know are unattainable in your life time…” to work toward creating a world as it ‘ought to be’ rather than on how it is …” This means, especially in higher ed (and especially in Wisconsin!) really building your stamina for the long game. And your work all these years demonstrates how you really “get” that. I wish more writing center directors would put their focus on developing students (both the visiting writers and those who work with them), as your center does. I have been talking with directors all over the country about space changes that are both exciting and scary; I have heard so much about space and wish I heard more about student development.

    As an example of what I mean, I connected with a graduate student, Jon Rylander, and his dissertation proposes a (new? first?) model of thinking about our curriculum in the writing center. This is his moonshot; imagine if he can help us move to that kind of thinking about learning in the writing center. The future!

    Michele Eodice
    University of Oklahoma

  42. Brad, I agree with Melissa Ianetta that this is a must-read, and I’ve especially enjoyed seeing the reflections of tutor respondents. Neil says, for example, “I’m thinking about how writing centers can help lead institutional moonshots like changing sexist and racist campus climates. How can writing centers lead the way in helping their universities institute real and lasting racial and gender justice?” Zach Marshall comments on his work with early-semester students working on applications and personal statements for jobs and graduate programs, urging us to think of these works as moonshots for the students writing them. These are giant leaps, to be sure, for these writers.

    Thank you for sharing this piece, Brad. I intend to share it myself.

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

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