A Conversation with Ben Rafoth

Editor’s note: Ben Rafoth is the featured reviewer in our inaugural issue of the new format of WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship.

Rafoth, Ben 73014D31A leading scholar and author in the field, Ben has been a writing center director since 1988 and shares that “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had great teachers and awesome students, and the hundreds of tutors I’ve been fortunate to work with in my writing center at IUP have made all the difference.”

He teaches graduate courses in the Composition and TESOL program at IUP, and has served as its director. In 2010, Ben was named IUP’s Distinguished University Professor, a lifetime title and the highest award for faculty at IUP.

The keynote speaker at this year’s International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) Conference in Pittsburgh, Ben was gracious enough to share a few thoughts on his review of Talk About Writing, his upcoming presentation at IWCA, and the general state of the field.

On Talk About Writing and the art of conversation:

Conversation has always fascinated me. It’s so primal and simple but also spontaneous, intimate, complex, adaptable, universal, idiosyncratic, creative, and I could just go on and on here. Conversation as a topic of study has often been overlooked, and so when people like Schegloff, Goffman, Tannen, and others came along in the last century and devoted their careers to the study of conversation, it was very eye-opening, to me at least. In one of Deborah Tannen’s books, she writes about the conversation at her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It’s full of mundane back-and-forth and yet totally fascinating. I like to listen to conversations in restaurants and places where eavesdropping doesn’t get you slapped in the face.


Tutors at IUP celebrating “Stripe Day”

So what Mackiewicz and Thompson have done is bring the disciplined study of conversation to writing center studies. There have been others, but their work lays out the research in a way that invites others to do their own studies, building on previous research. That’s an important contribution – I mean, to write in a way that breaks new ground. I think these authors have done that.

One more thing before I leave this topic. Terry Gross has interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of people over her long career at NPR, and even though they are interviews, they have many of the qualities of a good conversation. You feel as if you are listening in on a conversation between two people, but of course, you’re not – it is an interview. How does Terry Gross manage to conduct interviews in a way that makes them feel like conversations? It’s magic.


The combination of revolution and evolution, the theme of this conference, invites us to think expansively and even radically, and I would like to do just that in “Faces, Factories, and Warhols: A r(Evoluntionary) Future for Writing Centers.”

The annual meeting of the IWCA offers a fresh perspective on the particulars of our lives and work — the kind of fresh perspective you sometimes feel when you experience great art. The extraordinary creativity of an artist like Warhol is easy to take for granted, in part because Warhol and his followers helped to shape the world we live in today. That is the amazing, and terrifying thing about revolutions and revolutionaries — they never leave the world as they found it. So if we want to make a difference, we can learn from those who have done so. And what can we learn about writing centers from Andy Warhol?

Thoughts on the future:

The past few decades have seen big growth for writing centers, and while some centers are clearly thriving, that growth may be slowing in many other places. Higher education is changing, and there are more changes to come. How will writing centers adapt? What will they look like ten or twenty years from now? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I expect our current focus — one-to-one, face-to-face tutoring — will look much different than it does today. Today, most of what students visit a writing center for — ideas, organization, editing, proofreading, conversation, encouragement — can be found online. There are apps for each of these, or there will be soon.


IUP tutors standing at the entrance to the Writing Center

I think it’s important to look at the many things we could be doing but are not. We might start with the fact that there is a significant unmet demand for high-quality editing, both on campus and in the world at large. Writing centers are a logical place to provide editing, and yet we wear the taboo against editing as a badge of honor. I’m not sure that’s wise.

Or let’s go further. The internet has made it vastly easier and cheaper to download papers and submit them as one’s own, and most campuses punish students severely for doing this. Still, they take the risk because they decide they can’t or don’t want to write the paper themselves. Turnitin is making a fortune policing this, and universities believe they are monitoring the good moral behavior of their student writers when they check for plagiarism. But is this any way to teach students to write?

Consider, for instance, a writing center whose tutors wrote papers with students — together, both coming up with ideas, both putting ideas into words, both editing and proofreading. As an instructor, I would prefer that over a student handing in a paper he or she didn’t write at all. I don’t think every student or instructor will choose this option, but many will because it offers a different model for teaching and learning.

We can imagine other changes to our writing centers. Some will fly in the face of current policies and may not be suitable for some centers or campuses. Others will be very creative and usher in new kinds of thinking and talent. Writing centers can be the laboratories of innovation they once were, as Neal Lerner found.

I think there are many frontiers left to explore in the field of writing centers, and I hope that the many changes higher education is going through will open new doors for writing centers. Diversifying the range of practices and policies we follow could help to make writing centers are stronger and more vibrant presence in education.

Have a question or comment for Ben? Comment below!

1 thought on “A Conversation with Ben Rafoth

  1. No questions, just love! Thanks for this post and for sharing your wisdom, Dr. Rafoth. Your keynote at IWCA was enchanting.

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