From the Archive: Online Writing Labs’ Growth Potential

This post originally appeared on the LinkedIn profile of the author. It is an extension of his EWCA Keynote Address.

While I was still settling into my faculty position with NYU Shanghai, I got a fascinating email from a disciplinary colleague in Poland. We had met a few years back when my alma mater was hosting the 2012 Symposium on Second Language Writing (SSLW). He wanted to see the Purdue Online Writing Lab‘s (OWL) base of operations–the OWL’s nest. We chatted for a bit and had bumped into each other at a conference here and there–usually at conferences. In his email, he asked me if I’d be interested in sharing my research and scholarship on OWLs as a plenary/keynote address for a conference he was organizing. I was, of course, thrilled because it’s been my dream to deliver a plenary/keynote since starting my Master’s degree in 2009. I saw it as a sort of career goal; because, if someone is going to invite you to talk it means that a.) you might have something somewhat worth saying, and b.) they think it’s something someone might like to hear. I was also immediately horrified–thinking, I’m a junior scholar and not even one on the tenure-track; I don’t think anyone will want to listen.

But, as I started preparing for the talk, I began to see it as an opportunity to finally be a vocal advocate for Online Writing Labs (OWLs). During my tenure as a graduate administrator for the Purdue OWL, I came to see the potential for OWLs to support novice and struggling writers and to extend the reach and impact of the university. However, outside of the Purdue OWL, which is one of the oldest and largest continuously functioning OWLs, and the Excelsior OWL, which came online in the early 2010’s, there hasn’t been much growth and development in this area, much to the disappointment of some of the remaining OWL scholars (Tan, 2011, Asian EFL Journal).

This frustration stems from the fact that an OWL allows students and writers to get access to much-needed instructional support materials any time of day or night. And, if you work with high schoolers or college students, you know that’s usually late at night in their bedrooms, dorm rooms, or in the library stacks. OWLs extend university and writing center services, allowing these potentially struggling writers to be reached in their time of need. Given that writing is also a cognitively and affectively demanding task, OWLs can also reach students in a place of relative security–potential diminishing the impacts of the affective barrier. Because of this, I am an advocate for more OWLs coming online.

Mainly, I believe that OWLs can still have a real potential impact on traditionally defined English as a Foreign Language (EFL) contexts–that is, in those countries that are not post-colonial nations (part of the former British Empire) and where English does not have a government-sanctioned official status. EFL context nations are usually places like Japan, Korea, China, Kyrgyzstan, etc. OWLs still have a strong potential for positive impact in EFL countries in two ways. First, they can speak to the kinds of writing that are most relevant in their local and regional contexts–something that the Purdue OWL and the Excelsior OWL simply cannot, nor should they, ever do. It’s outside of their organizational mission statements. However, by speaking to local writing demands, a regional OWL (e.g., the Japan OWL) can talk to the best practices of style and rhetoric for those contexts. Because let’s be honest, we live in a pluralistic world…one with a countless several varieties of English (e.g., Indian English, American English, Singaporean English, etc.). Because of this reality, what makes for good business letter writing to an American English reader, may not be the same to a reader whose variety of English is, say, China English.

Another place where local OWLs can be relevant is in providing much-needed second language (L2) writing resources for other languages. Writing is crucial, and I fear that in the US at least, L2 writing is hardly broached in most college-level foreign language classes. The importance of writing means that local OWLs could also develop L2 writing resources that speak to Chinese academic writing, Moroccan Arabic business writing, etc. And, these resources would be invaluable both to international students studying in those countries, as well as to students studying in their home countries.

However, the challenge comes in advocating for the resources that one would need to start up an OWL service. And, that’s one of the primary focuses of the talk that I gave in Łodz, which can be accessed here.

Source Articles & Lectures

Paiz, J.M. (2016, July). Extending the writing center: Online writing labs as sites of engagement and student learning [plenary address]. 2016 European Writing Centers Association Conference. Łodz, Poland

Tan, B.H. (2011). Innovating writing centers and online writing labs outside of North America. Asian EFL Journal, 13(2), 390-417

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