November 19, 2012

From Local Center to Global OWL: An Interview with Muriel Harris

The PCCC Writing Center Blog welcomes Muriel Harris, founder of the Purdue OWL. Muriel Harris is professor emerita of English, Writing Lab Founder and Director (retired), founder and current editor of the Writing Lab Newsletter and founder of Purdue's award-winning Online Writing Lab (OWL). She has published books, including The Prentice Hall Reference Guide and The Writer's FAQs through Pearson. In this interview, Harris talks about the Purdue OWL best practices, its humble beginnings, and what's next for the online lab.

PCCC Writing Center: The OWL at Purdue is known as the oldest online writing lab but also one of the most comprehensive. How did the OWL get its start? Can you talk about the process of establishing an OWL?

Muriel Harris: The Purdue OWL started as a small e-mail service and morphed into a huge website along with the technology that was available at each stage of its growth. Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and there was no Internet, most writing centers had cabinets filled with paper handouts to use in tutorials. When the earliest e-mail became available (before web browsers), I decided it would be helpful for students writing their papers at night (especially on Sundays) if we could make the handouts available online. Somehow, by securing small bits of funding, I managed to find students who could type those handouts in ASCII characters and upload them so that they’d be available 24/7 by e-mail request. The attempts at formatting were minimal in that limited online environment. But a student with programming skills was able to set up the service so that a user could send an e-mail requesting the index and get an instant response. Then, the student could browse through the index and request specific handouts listed there, send off the e-mail request for them, and again get an instant response.

Initially, Purdue students were infrequent users (many not yet computer users back then), but somehow people all over the world learned about this resource when it was written about in various computer magazines. Usage increased with startling speed. Since this was all happening via e-mail, people needed an e-mail address to send their requests to. We had considered something such as “Word,” but feared the wrath of Microsoft for infringing on the name of their word-processing program, Word. One student who was working on this project suggested that since our writing center is the Writing Lab, we could simply call it the Online Writing Lab or OWL, and that became the address.

Later, in one of those rare moments of serendipity, a grad student from another department who had previous extensive IT experience at a software company before starting grad school at Purdue heard about the project and came over to the Lab to see if he could work on our burgeoning OWL. He introduced us to the earliest web browser, Mosaic, which had become available, and designed the initial website, uploaded the documents, and launched our fledgling OWL on the web. Since then a number of graduate tutors in the Lab and I worked on updating the resources that were there, plus creating new handouts. As I was able to secure funds for grad students to serve as OWL Coordinators, they enhanced their own computer skills as they worked on improving the OWL’s appearance, ease of use, materials in different media, and ways to respond to questions sent in by users. Among other projects, we ventured into PowerPoints for teachers to use, and moved forward as technology advanced and added services. Because I’m now retired, I no longer have access to the OWL or to the Purdue students who are continuing to develop it.

PCCC Writing Center: Share an OWL best practice.

Muriel Harris: The best practice for any particular OWL depends greatly on the technology and resources available to that writing center and the needs of students and teachers at that institution. When I retired, there were no usable software programs that would allow some visual and verbal synchronous contact between tutor and student, a format I consider necessary for tutorial interaction. Because talk is the pedagogical format in one-to-one conferences in a writing center and because I value the generative and clarifying power that back-and-forth dialogue permits, I didn’t have any means to explore ways in which an OWL tutor could interact more effectively with student writers. Now, there are some highly sophisticated means for tutors and students to communicate online, and I assume some best practices are being defined. And, I hope, writing center specialists will continue to think about the theory and pedagogy of online interaction which, finally, is not the same as f2f interaction.

PCCC Writing Center: Did you ever envision the OWL becoming as popular as it has? What does the future look like for the OWL?

Muriel Harris: No, initially, I hadn’t envisioned the OWL being anything more than a local resource for students and teachers. Then, at a few conferences I suggested to audiences of other writing center people that they could develop their own OWLs. Then we could create a national database of writing resources by pooling and coordinating all the OWLs and their resources into some grand writing center mega-site. Some people who didn’t have their own resources to create an OWL linked instead to the Purdue OWL. Because of this and the continued growth of users around the globe, the Purdue OWL developed a life of its own and became both a national and international resource. When we read some of the marvelously appreciative messages sent by people who had found our site, we were delighted to be able to offer this free resource. Ironically, though, I’ve had complaints from textbook representatives. They tell me (and my unhappy editor) that they occasionally are unable to convince composition adoption committees to select either of my first-year composition textbooks because instructors prefer the free Purdue OWL. While I appreciate the sales of those texts, I too am an academic and, like all academics, want to share information freely. I appreciate hearing that the Purdue OWL continues to be so widely used.

So, no, I never envisioned what the OWL would become. Sometimes, when we recognize a need, we can step out into the void without knowing where we’ll land or what the goal is, especially if the goal keeps changing.

PCCC Writing Center: Did you ever consider adding a component to the OWL that address writing for the web as either an online student or a professional (e.g. discussion boards, blogs, social media)?

Muriel Harris: I have a number of ideas, but again, because I’m retired, I no longer have a venue for developing any of such tempting components. If I were still actively involved with OWL, I’d focus on more interactive means of working with writers and think more about visual presentation of information. Instead, because I continue to edit the Writing Lab Newsletter (a publication with articles by and for writing center specialists,, the Development Editor, Alan Benson, and I continue to expand the resources and forms of interaction on that website. But WLNis a journal, not a writing center, and so we’ve focused on creating spaces for people in writing center to interact and build collections of resources they find useful. And WLN has Twitter and Facebook sites where we post writing-related content and pass along notices of conferences and materials on the social media sites of writing centers.

But there are people in various writing centers who are currently developing their websites in interesting, new ways. For example, the website for the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the direction of Brad Hughes, continues to add a wealth of resources: They have incorporated a variety of new media, including a blog, podcasts, Twitter, and YouTube videos. Other writing center websites have training videos for tutors, YouTube videos that introduce and help publicize their writing center, online handouts, etc.

PCCC Writing Center: What advice can you give writing centers wishing to add an online component to their services?

Muriel Harris: I’d suggest they first define for themselves how they want to enact the theory and pedagogy of writing centers in an online environment. Then they can formulate how they want to interact with writers and teachers along with thinking about what they want to offer on the site. And they need to study both their student population and the instructors of writing to see what is appropriate for their context. Of course, it’s also necessary to secure funding sources to develop an online site and to recognize the amount of work this adds on, e.g., deciding on hardware and software and ongoing updating; training tutors for online tutoring; designing the website; publicizing it, developing it further as technology advances, etc. Writing center people generously and enthusiastically tend to take on more and more projects as their writing centers develop, but they also need to step back and assess the extent to which all this gets folded into their already overloaded list of responsibilities. However, developing online components can be inordinately enjoyable as tutors and directors work together to develop new, useful, creative ways to interact with students. I look forward to seeing where technological advances and the imaginative minds of writing center tutors and directors will take us next.

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