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The Writing Center at Penn State University with Professor Jon Olson

October 2006


Mandy — Howdy! I’m Mandy, and welcome to “Write Away,” the podcast of the Texas A&M University Writing Center, bringing you news, tips and ideas for making your students better, more innovative writers.

Today we’re talking to John Olson of Penn State University. Dr. Olson has been the director of the Penn State Writing Center since 1997 and teaches an undergraduate peer tutoring and writing course.

Mandy — Dr. Olson began with some practical advice for peer tutors.

Dr. Olson — I don’t want know-it-alls, and tutoring and teaching sometimes attracts people who like to hold forth in the classroom. In a tutorial, we start off in the beginning recognizing that one of the best teaching stances is a learning stance. I want tutors who are learners. As soon as they stop learning, they get into a rut, and they burn out, and it’s time for them to do something else. So my one piece of advice to tutors is keep learning.

Mandy — Dr. Olson also talked about the role of the writing center in a writing intensive course.

Dr. Olson — You should think of a writing center as offering the kind of teaching and learning that parallels what they do in the classroom. The one-to-one interaction is very powerful. We also need classroom instruction. That’s powerful also. Students learning within a large cohort; we need them both. We shouldn’t consider one as lesser than the other. One is not remedial for only the students who need special attention. If faculty talk about the writing center with their students as a parallel kind of instruction, their students will get the most out of the center. Because no one wants to go to a place where dummies go. Sometimes writing centers have a stigma. I don’t know if this writing center has that. There’s a long tradition of writing centers addressing people who have some kind of deficit. The faculty in the disciplines and the writing center staff can work to counteract any kind of stigma.

Mandy — He also gave reluctant professors some advice when it comes to teaching a W course.

Dr. Olson — You don’t have to be a grammarian. You don’t have to use the word ‘participle’. Do you understand the sentence? Ok. Do you trip? Point it out. Those are simple ways of talking about writing that don’t need to be depend on a sophisticated vocabulary of grammatical terminology. Don’t try to be an English teacher. The value of a professor who pays attention to writing in a discipline other than English is that, first of all, it shows students that writing belongs to everybody. It’s not just the property of the English Department. Everybody writes. You can’t take Mechanical Engineering to avoid writing any longer. Everyone has to write, and if the Mechanical Engineering professor shows that she values writing, that is powerful. So part of the identity of a mechanical engineer is to be a writer. So what can the professor do to make the class and that introduction into the profession a writing experience that everyone can join? It’s not this add-on thing that we have to do that’s somehow separate from the substance of mechanical engineering. Even if the Mechanical Engineering professor doesn’t know how to talk about grammar eloquently it’s okay. Talk about writing in the ways that she values, what makes good writing in that discipline. Once students identify themselves as mechanical engineers who write, well the battle is over. Now they develop in the ways we all develop when our identities take on a new facet. We grow. But we have to know that we’re a writer.

Mandy — Dr. Olson also said that professors can manage the W course workload with strategic planning.

Dr. Olson — There is an increased workload, but sometimes it doesn’t have to be as big a load as we might think. Part of the problem is we tend to teach the way we were taught. So faculty might mark up papers the way their English teachers marked up their own. That might not be the most efficient way to respond to student writing. Assignment design can reduce the grading load if you take into account the grading criteria to begin with. Maybe divide the assignment into iterations so that students do a little piece at a time. You might incorporate peer review at certain points, so students get rich feedback from their peers in the class, from the Writing Center, from the professor herself. Just in a small focused snippet, not the whole paper at once. Develop the paper a bit of a time, and there are ways of responding. Just choose one or two concerns of the highest order and address them in a few sentences, knowing that the student is going through a process and you’ll see the paper again. Next time you can address something else. Conferrals with students in your office can save time. Although they can increase time, it depends how you do it. But if you discuss a student’s paper in the early stages, you head off a lot of problems that might be thorny once you have the final draft, and you see the student has lost his way.

Mandy — Dr. Olson talked about the role of error in writing in a faculty seminar on October 3, 2006.

Dr. Olson — We will look at error in the conventional sense, but more importantly and more interestingly I think, we’ll try to look at it from outside the box in a way that I doubt many people have considered error. We’ll look at a jazz musician when he made an error once and what happened, and we’ll consider whether or not this has anything to do with us as teachers of writing when our students make errors.

Mandy — You can hear more of this lecture and find more information about Dr. Olson on our website at

Thank you for joining us for “Write Away.” “Write Away” is a production of the University Writing Center at Texas A&M. This podcast serves the mission of the University Writing Center by providing a resource to help literacy and written communication skills at Texas A&M University. We’d like to thank Dr. Olson for his time today. I’m your host, Mandy Crawford, hoping you’ll join us next time, and reminding you: when you get the chance, write away.

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