In Remembrance of Christina Murphy

Christina Murphy

By Steve Sherwood, Director, TCU Center for Writing; Joe Law, WAC Director, Wright State University and professor of English (retired); Bonnie Devet, Professor of English / Director of the Writing Lab Department of English College of Charleston; Pam Childers, endowed chair as Director of the Writing Center at the McCallie School in Chattanooga (retired)


One of the greats in our field has died, and a lot of those who loved and admired her found out only recently about her passing. 

Steve Sherwood:

Dr. Christina Murphy, the inaugural director of Texas Christian University’s Writing Center and the author or coauthor of a number of notable and award-winning works about writing centers, died on October 13, 2018, of a brief illness.

After directing TCU’s William L. Adams Center for Writing from 1988-1996, she left TCU to become the chair of the English Department at University of Memphis and later accepted positions as Associate Dean of William Patterson University and Dean of Marshall University.  Nevertheless, she continued to contribute to writing center scholarship and to maintain friendships with a number of writing center professionals.

Her many works include the following:

  • Stay, Byron L., Christina Murphy, and Eric Hobson, eds. Writing Center Perspectives. NWCA, 1995.
  • Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood, editors. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors.  1st-4th editions (1995, 2002, 2008, and 2011).
  • Murphy, Christina, and Joe Law, eds. Landmark Essays on Writing Centers. Hermagoras, 1995.
  • Murphy, Christina, Joe Law, and Steve Sherwood. Writing Centers: An Annotated Bibliography. Greenwood, 1996.
  • Murphy, Christina, and Byron L. Stay, eds. The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006.
  • Murphy, Christina. “Freud in the Writing Center: The Psychoanalytics of Tutoring Well.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 1989, pp. 13-18.
  • Murphy, Christina. “Writing Centers in Context: Responding to Current Educational Theory.” The Writing Center: New Directions, edited by Ray Wallace and Jeanne Simpson. Garland, 1991, pp. 276-86.
  • Murphy, Christina.  “The Writing Center and Social Constructionist Theory.” Intersections: Theory-Practice in the Writing Center, edited by Joan A. Mullin and Ray Wallace. NCTE, 1994, pp. 25-38.

She won the, then, National Writing Centers Association best article award in 1995 for “The Writing Center and Social Constructionist Theory.”  In 1996, she and Joe Law shared the NWCA’s best book award for Landmark Essays on Writing Centers, and in 1997, she, Joe, and I shared the best book award for Writing Centers: An Annotated Bibliography.

In her initial proposal for the TCU Writing Center, Christina envisioned a place where writers of any level and working in any discipline could receive support and feedback from professional and peer consultants equipped with empathy, writing expertise, good listening skills, and the kind of “intellectual and social agility” that would let them intuit their fellow writers’ strengths and weaknesses and devise ways to bolster the strengths and address the weaknesses.  As the third director of the center, I served an apprenticeship under Christina (and later under Jeanette Harris from 1998-2002) and have attempted to preserve this vision of the place.

Christina was a highly intelligent and driven scholar, a good friend and boss, and a challenging coauthor and mentor.  She had a strong personality and a keen mind, but she also had a wonderful sense of humor, warmth, and highly original ideas.  She could be shy and introverted one minute and formidable the next.  Her moods in the office ranged from joyously playful to brooding, and she kidded or cajoled most of her staff members into becoming writing center scholars, urging us to propose conference papers, polish and submit these papers for publication after we presented them, and lauding us for each success. In 1995, she and I traveled together to the Rocky Mountain Writing Centers Association Conference in Spokane, Washington, where she gave the keynote address.  I had worked on my own essay for several months and still felt nervous about presenting it.  Her keynote consisted of six or eight talking points, jotted down on the flight to Washington and developed in the hotel the night before her speech. She delivered the talk with only a single sheet of notes, and I listened in awe to an elaborately structured philosophical argument about writing center theory, complete with quotations from Derrida and Habermas that she had committed to memory.  I had watched her give such performances often, in a voice at edge of a whisper, causing the entire audience to lean forward to hear every word.  I later asked if she planned to write and submit the paper to The Writing Center Journal.  She shrugged and said, “Maybe.”  To my knowledge, she never did.

Christina also drafted Joe Law and me as coauthors on several book projects (see the publication list above), and during 1995 the three of us compiled Writing Centers: An Annotated Bibliography.  Joe and I worked for six months on the project (her idea) before she swept in, wrote a wonderful introductory chapter in one night, contributed dozens of entries on dissertations and journal articles we had not yet done, and then insisted we spend the Christmas holiday compiling the index and putting the final touches on the book.  During that time, we spent twelve- and sometimes sixteen-hour days in the office.  “Isn’t this the best Christmas ever?” she said at one point, drawing skeptical groans or grunts from us.  She meant every word, though.  She took great joy from our collaborations. Together, she and Joe taught me much of what I know about academic writing, preparing me better than I had thought for my later work on a doctorate in rhetoric.  She was a great friend and mentor, and the unexpected news of her death hit me nearly as hard as the death of a sibling or parent.  She and I had lost touch for the past few years, and I felt terrible about not making more of an effort to see how she was doing. 

One more fond memory before I pass the baton to Joe:  At CCCCs in Chicago, in 1999 or 2000, we were meeting to discuss with our editor at St. Martin’s the possibility of a second edition of our Sourcebook.  Before the meeting, dinner at a fancy Russian restaurant, Christina had told me to drive a hard bargain with the editor, who wanted us to do the book as a “work for hire” job without royalties, as we’d done on the first edition.  I asked for a modest advance and an equally modest royalty payment, saying that if St. Martin’s wanted to make money on the book, so should we. The editor turned us down flat, and I said, “No deal, then.” 

Back at the conference hotel, Christina said, “Well, you blew it. Now we have no book deal.” 

I laughed.  “You said to drive a hard bargain,” I reminded her.  “And it wasn’t that hard.”

She sighed and said, “Yeah, okay, I guess you’re right.”

As it happened, St. Martin’s called me a year later to ask why we had not yet submitted our book manuscript. “What book?”  I asked and explained that the negotiations had fallen through with the previous editor, which she had apparently neglected to pass on when she left the company.  Our new editor asked what we needed to make the book happen, and I repeated the terms I’d give the previous editor. “That should be no problem,” she said, and just like that we had a new book deal, which we celebrated at the next CCCCs

Joe Law:

I sometimes thought CCCC should be called CCCCCC, the additional Cs standing for Christina and celebration. Being with her was fun. That’s the thing I most want to emphasize for those who didn’t have the opportunity to know her. She was a wonderful human being.

Steve’s comments rightly emphasize Christina’s contributions to writing center scholarship, and her impact on the field was certainly significant, moving the conversation farther forward. Her conference presentations could take your breath away, but she never sucked the oxygen out of the room. She was dazzling, not blinding.

Steve also recalls Christina’s willingness to mentor others, and she had an unfailing ability to create self-confidence where there had been self-doubt. Professionally, I owed everything to her. Simple as that.

She was tireless in building communities of writing center professionals. As Steve has suggested, she molded a somewhat disparate group at TCU into a real unit, attuned to helping students realize their potential as writers. And she was a moving force in creating the North Texas Writing Centers Association and helped develop a larger South Central association. She was active nationally and, if she’d had the opportunity, would undoubtedly gone intergalactic.

In her relatively brief full-time engagement with writing centers, Christina achieved much. But that was true of everything she did. She created a substantial body of scholarship on American literature and on topics related to higher education administration, and she wrote some remarkable fiction and poetry, which appeared in more than 50 journals and several anthologies.

After Christina and I left TCU, we kept in touch, collaborating on a few projects that didn’t involve writing centers. Eventually, we settled into exchanging messages around birthdays or holidays. I was happy to see her embrace retirement as fully as everything else she did. She traveled, wrote, and poked fun at herself about becoming a gym bunny. She enriched writing center studies, and she enriched the lives of those lucky enough to know her.

Pam Childers:

Christina was totally devoted to her profession, her sports teams, her creative writing, her friends, and her politics. I feel blessed to have known her since 1990 through NWCA (IWCA), learned so much about how she prepared for those unforgettable flawless talks at conferences, her interest in rocks (she found several stones for my wedding band at gem shows!), that laugh Beth mentioned, and that mind that seemed to hold anything she read or heard. Besides her scholarly work in support of writing centers, she stood up for the causes she believed in, always in a gracious but firm way, and pushed herself to try new things with technology and administrative work. I remember a talk she gave about allowing students to write about something they were passionate about through blogs where they could learn from those who were also interested in the same topics, which gave them a chance to pursue a new audience while demonstrating their own knowledge. That was back in the times when blogs were hardly popular and not used for academic pursuits. At the same time, she could quote Foucault, Derrida, Plato, North, Bruffee, Murray, etc. The range of her knowledge, and love of mentoring others left all of us with unforgettable memories. I miss our email exchanges and times at conferences but will never forget her influence on writing centers and those of us who knew her.

Bonnie Devet:

Christina Murphy helped lay the foundation for writing center scholarship, explaining philosophy and goals and training in terms that made the Writing Center into a “field of study.”  Besides excellent scholarship lucidly written, Christina was an invaluable mentor. When I attempted to spread my writing wings into producing travel essays, she read my pieces, directing me to websites where I could submit.  At conferences, she encouraged me to conduct writing center research and to seek promotion; and, yes, she even provided friendly advice about clothes: “At your presentation, be sure to remove your knitted green sweater so everyone can see your colorful blouse.” Her passing creates a lacuna in the writing center family.

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