Following World War II and a great jump in college enrollments
compared to pre-war levels, higher education had a dilemma. Students were from
more varied backgrounds with more varied levers of
preparation—particularly when it came to writing—than ever before. One
way to answer these challenges was to turn to one-to-one teaching of writing to
complement first-year composition classes. These “writing laboratories” were
not a new phenomenon; Warner Taylor had identified six “English Clinics” in his
1929 survey of composition practices nationwide, but in the late 1940s enthusiasm
for the concept and exigency of need resulted in widespread proliferation. One
example of this acceptance is that, starting in 1949, six of the first seven
meetings of the Conference on College Composition and Communication featured
workshops on writing centers/laboratories/clinics. Such entities represented
one answer to the question of how best to teach students to write.
Enter Claude Fiero Shouse. An English instructor and founder
of the Writing Laboratory at San Diego State College (now University) in 1947
and a PhD student at the University of Southern California starting in 1949,
Shouse focused his dissertation research on documenting the extent of the
writing laboratory phenomenon.
Shouse’s method was first to contact the registrars of the
820 accredited American colleges and universities in existence in 1951. He
received replies from 625 (or 76%), and of these, 110 registrars indicated that
their institutions had writing laboratories or equivalent services (Shouse
defined writing laboratories as “special services provided by the school to
supplement or replace the regular composition course” [6-7]). To survey the
field, Shouse developed a 19-page questionnaire covering topics such as “the
integration of laboratories with their respective institutions,” “staffing and
equipment,” and “laboratory procedures.” Shouse then sent his questionnaire to the
directors of these writing labs, as well as to another 31 institutions he had
identified as possibly having tutorial support in writing. Of these 141 institutions,
119 replied, and of this total 60 writing laboratory directors completed
Shouse’s questionnaire in enough detail to be included in his study (for a list
of those institutions, see Lerner).
Shouse’s findings offer an intriguing snapshot of one-to-one
writing instruction at the time. Some of his findings include:
distribution between public and private institutions having writing
laboratories was fairly even: 57.6% public and 43.3% private.
most prevalent type of writing laboratory (76% of total) was one that was
“available, for the most part, to all students on a college-wide basis,” and
the least likely (6% of total) was a “remedial laboratory on sub-freshman
sixty colleges and universities reported 21 different names for their writing
laboratories though 53 institutions used the words “laboratory” or “clinic” in
those names. “The Writing Laboratory” was the most popular name, occurring 16
or more than 33% of the laboratories were staffed by only one instructor. Nine
more had only a two-person staff.
one Writing Laboratory, at San Francisco State, reported the use of
undergraduate peer tutors.
- Among the total 120 staff members from all
writing laboratories, 48 held the rank of instructor and 43 held faculty rank.
survey results comprise the bulk of his dissertation, but some additional
components offer a rich set of artifacts of writing instruction at the time. These include a thorough review of the
literature, floor plans of two different laboratories, a transcript of a
tutorial, writing laboratory forms and handouts, and lists of instructional
In his conclusion, Shouse offers a claim that will sound quite familiar to
contemporary writing center tutors and directors:
“The writing laboratory is needed and
desirable in colleges and universities of any type or size. It has been shown
in this study that teachers and students alike almost universally acclaim the
writing laboratory as a place where the student frustrated by his composition
course or by his inability to write well in other courses many find
individualized help” (266).
Fifty-seven years later, the “frustration”
might hopefully be replaced with “cooperation” between first-year composition
and the writing center, but the recognition of the power of one-to-one
finding of Shouse’s dissertation is testament to the difficulties and
serendipity of historical research. I first found the citation while
poking around on Dissertation Abstracts International, but the listing
did not contain an abstract nor was it available to purchase from UMI. However,
a Google search turned up another Claude Shouse, and a few emails later, I was
in contact with Claude Shouse’s son. That, in turn, led me to Shouse’s daughter, Mary (Shouse) Benson, who still had her father’s dissertation and
generously sent me a copy. I am indebted to both.
“Writing Laboratories Circa 1953.” Writing
Lab Newsletter 27.6 (2003): 1-5.
Taylor, Warner. A National Survey of Conditions in Freshman
English. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1929.