In 1987, he was an important university man, the kind of man who could determine your future. Chair of the English Department and, more importantly for me, Director of the Graduate Program, Bill asked some questions.
“You don’t really believe that this ‘positive intervention’ and ‘collaborative learning’ works for all of the students we see today, do you? Half the freshmen can never be taught to write. And then you want the students helping other students, as tutors. That’s the blind leading the blind, don’t you agree? And if you do, what is the point of collaborative learning and of writing centers?”
There had been long pauses in my life before. When Dr. Barry, the doctor who would save my eye, asked me to count backwards from 100 while he gave me ether. Or when I realized I was going to be attacked by the German Shepard after I reached out my hand to pet him. (I still have scars above my left eye, the one Dr. Barry saved, the one with no sight, the one close friends call goofy.) Or when I saw I was about to ride up the rear end of an Oldsmobile on the brand new bike my father bought me. (The look on my dad’s face when I walked the broken bike home was more disappointment than I could ever conceive of causing.)
This was another such pause.
I thought about how far away Tempe was from Lawrence and about how little this important university man knew of teaching writing and what it meant for those who learned to teach others how to do it well. Ten years later, Stephen King, of all people, gave the best advice about teaching writing: “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up” (270).
I thought of Frost, who was from Lawrence; I thought of John D’Agata, who is from Lawrence. Bill was far removed in space and in time from the kind of great writing these men produced.
I thought of Michael Struffolino. I thought of Tania Guimond. They were student-tutors, one a Rush Limbaugh conservative and the other had the warmest heart I’ve ever known even if she couldn’t spell a lick. They were great tutors; they knew how to give water to thirsty writers. They worked and studied at Merrimack College, in the greatest writing center still (and I’ve signed the wall of Purdue’s Writing Lab and seen the Stanford Writing Center, close by Andrea Lunsford’s office filled with writing on collaborative learning and tiny red shoes). Michael and Tania knew Lawrence, too.
It was a hard, working-class place, but it was a city of families and neighborhoods; it wasn’t one fashioned after other cities. It didn’t sneer.
Finally, I answered Bill, realizing that I would make my line in the sand.
“Well, unless someone is born with an intellectual disability,” I started out, “I think everybody can learn to write.”
“I think this dissertation looks really good. Did you write it on a computer?” The committee member speaking now tried to loosen the moment’s tightness by this left-handed compliment.
“Yes, I did, a Mac 520. But to answer Bill’s question, when writers work together, they gain a momentum that is truly inspiring. A power coming all over them with words. There is evidence, as I have suggested, which explains this power and how collaborative learning brings about knowledge and social growth for both the tutor and the tutee.”
“Well, it does look very nice–a sign of the times,” said the young professor on the committee, trying again to make things less tense.
“Thank you,” I said to the young professor.“Bill,” I continued to address him,“I would never (nor would you, if you knew them) call Tania or Michael or any of my tutors blind. That’s the whole point of collaborative learning and peer tutoring: when like-minded people work on a task that’s too hard for one of them to complete alone, together, they complete it efficiently and effectively. Heck, my whole dissertation was revised in Atlanta by people who know writing, who worked in a writing center–people who knew that, by helping me, I would get the dissertation done and to get back to my writing center tutors.”
“Now, thank you, Al,” my advisor said.“We’re going to deliberate a little and we’ll talk to you after that. Please wait in the conference room.”
When the committee members called me in again, they did approve my dissertation, grudgingly. They wanted major revisions. I suspect they would have preferred a rhetorical analysis of “Billy Budd,” because Bill was a Melville scholar and writing centers, peer tutors, the social construction of knowledge, and collaborative learning were still far out alternatives.
I completed the revisions. While I have never been thrilled with the dissertation, I was always pleased with my writing center work, particularly while at Merrimack and with the peer tutors I knew there. I’ve learned from many good people through the years (Kenneth Bruffee, Bonnie Sunstein, Harvey Kail, Judith Stanford, Mickey Harris, Lisa Ede, Michael Rossi, Kathy Cain, Lil Brannon, Don Murray, and more). Still, none of them taught me as much as the tutors did about collaboration and compassion and the power of those actions.
I return to those lessons all the time in my position now. I am proud to think about and use what I learned about writing centers, peer tutoring, collaborative learning, and the justification of belief. As I have done for the past 20 years, I use the experience of the Merrimack College Writing Center in every budget decision I make, in every hiring decision I make, in every curricular decision I make, and in every interaction I have with my colleagues.
Though I am no longer at Merrimack, I can still see Frost’s bust on that campus and hear the last couplet of “The Tuft of Flowers”: “‘Men [and women] work together,’ I told him from the heart,/‘Whether they work together or apart.’”