Scholar Spotlight: Harry Denny

Patricia Medved, St. John’s University

In this Scholar Spotlight, Patricia interviews Harry Denny about his experiences as an academic researcher and his support for student research.

“Work we do in the classroom should not die in the classroom. Everything we do should have meaning and significance. It should be going somewhere.”

In May, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Harry Denny just before he left St. John’s University to assume his position as Associate Professor of English and Director of the Writing Lab at Perdue University. Harry is the author of Facing the Center: Towards an Identity Politics of One-to-one Mentoring.  “Of Lady Bugs, Low Status and Loving the Job,” published in the Writing Center Journal, coauthored with Anne Ellen Geller, won the Best Article Award from the International Writing Centers Association in 2014.

Harry is an advocate of student research and collaboration, and he regularly invites students to collaborate with him. In my conversation with Harry, I sought to discover why it is so important for students to go beyond the demands of coursework to immerse themselves in the even more challenging work of research. Harry explained that the rewards of investigating questions of genuine interest and working with experienced academics go beyond grades or networking. He encourages these opportunities,which should be central to our lives as academics no matter our academic rank.

Patricia: What drew you to writing center work?

Harry: I got my start as a graduate student working in a writing center at Temple University in the early 90s after working on behalf of equal rights and anti-discrimination in the Colorado area. I came to Philadelphia to study and quickly discovered that the activism we were doing out in the streets didn’t have the same impact as the activism we could be doing by empowering people and making them feel they have a place in educational institutions. The writing center was just day and night the difference that I felt I could make in one place versus the other.

Patricia: How did you decide to start doing research in the writing center?

Harry: I became involved with the International Writing Centers Association when I first came to New York. I also got involved with the Northeast Writing Association. It was neat to connect writing consultants and me to a larger set of conversations about the work we were doing, the work we were thinking about, and the work being done on other campuses. You quickly realize in the world of writing centers that we can immerse ourselves in larger conversations. Or begin to ask, “Why hasn’t anyone ever thought about doing it this way or that way?” Before you can answer that question, you have to figure out if in fact someone has done it differently or has taken on that question. I think that is part of a larger practice of better writing centers, what one might call inquiry based practice–thinking about the work as part of a larger scholarly conversation.

Patricia: Usually we think of academics as needing to be involved in scholarly conversations. Why should students get involved in research?

Harry: I think it is central to our lives as academics. Whether you are faculty or whether you are a student or graduate student, we should never be doing anything that isn’t advancing some sort of conversation. I just don’t believe in people writing or thinking or doing classwork that is going to die at the end of the class or maybe even at the end of the class period. Everything that we do should have meaning, and everything that we do should have significance. Everything that we do should carry on, be relevant, be important, and lead us somewhere. Maybe not every research paper or project leads to a conference presentation or publication, but everything that we do should be part of a larger conversation that we alone or as a group are advancing.

Patricia: What would are the biggest obstacles for students who are trying to conduct research or get their research published?

Harry: The biggest obstacles–and there are a number of them–are a lack of resources and support to do the research that you need. And that’s not just funding. Resources include mentors and peers who will help foster a community of inquiry to create a space where people can bounce ideas off one another and have them fail, have them misfire, have them be wrongly conceived, but have them because they become learnable, teachable moments that we can grow from. Oftentimes students don’t get enough opportunity in classes to engage in self sponsored, small group sponsored, or departmentally sponsored research, research that makes what they are interested in part of a larger conversation or an ongoing line of inquiry across classes. So, I think places that have learning communities where faculty and students alike are talking, talking across classes, but also across disciplines, can be really helpful. And, I think the last difficult part is that it is a mentoring occasion. Students need mentors in their lives to teach them to value the place of research. Regardless of whether you are going to become an academic-whether you are a business major or whether you’re a pharmacist, you name it-everybody engages in some sort of formal or informal research. Not everyone has to earn an advanced degree or aspire for an advanced degree to feel like they are part of a research conversation. I often think of the times I am sitting at home and a question comes on me that isn’t easily answered through Trivial Pursuit. So if we can have a life and a culture that rewards research, I think that creates a possibility for students to think critically and innovatively about questions.

Patricia: How might students be able to create those opportunities if they don’t see them or they aren’t presented?

Harry: I think students need to push their faculty, push their departments, push their colleges to create opportunities for engaging in inquiry, even in their local context. I think it means faculty working with students collaboratively. It means breaking down boundaries between what counts as professional and academic involvement. I think one of the things that we’ve always valued at St. John’s, and I assume we will value at Purdue, is getting people from all stripes to professional conferences and fostering an environment where the staff  and students can create a group project or begin to think critically about how we address something that’s a phenomenon or an issue that we have questions about.

Patricia: Do you ever collaborate with students?

Harry: I do, all the time. In my classes, whether undergrad or graduate. When I encounter a student thinking about something in an interesting way and give them that feedback, such as:  “Hey, I think this is really fascinating. I think this is a really cool question.” I like to model what might be a good research question. Rather than a yes/no, how about “what if,” “under what circumstances could. . . ” I try to create an environment where students understand they are not just writing three to eight pages to fill some requirement but instead they are pursuing a question they are authentically interested in.

Will they do it every time? Will every student do it every time? No. But as a faculty member, I have an obligation to consider how we can adapt the question to their learning or thinking style and elicit the burning questions they might not feel comfortable asking in a large room. And push them to explore. Just this last month my undergraduates and I presented at a writing center conference. We were creative and had fun with a very serious topic: “How do micro aggressions play out in writing center conferences? How do people enact micro aggressions on an everyday basis?” People aren’t being jerks, most of the time, but sometimes people don’t think about the consequences of how they signify different social and cultural relations. With that in mind, how do we not pounce on them or police them but instead create teachable, learnable moments. For that conference, for that experience, we collaborated on thinking about how it is that we’ve experienced micro aggressions. And then we sought the scholarship on micro agression. What are intellectuals and academics saying in relationship to that topics? It was a great experience. We had thirty-plus people in the room, and we got them doing kinesthetic expression–they were actually going around the room, drawing, and writing things on newsprint. That’s a further iteration of not hard and fast or hard core research but people beginning to take up inquiry that they are interested in and furthering it along. I think any occasion can be turned into a research opportunity if someone wants to do it. You can’t force people to do it.

Patricia: Why do you enjoy collaborating with students? What are the benefits?

Harry: I enjoy collaborating with anyone. I am one of those people who needs to be around people to spur my own scholarly interests. Facing the Center was all about working through and thinking critically about the politics of identity with students. That has been my whole career–figuring out how people process ideas, not as a writer or researcher off in the garret. How do we create spaces in which to think critically and tackle difficult conversations? We can do it in respectful, thoughtful, caring sorts of ways that ask hard questions. Maybe the question isn’t coming up with the perfect answer but thinking what might be the possible answers and why some filter to the top and some don’t. What’s the possibility of thinking against the grain in those moments? That’s one nice thing about being a faculty member in a very social position. As a writing center director, I get to speak to everyone all of the time. My life is hanging out, talking with people, thinking collaboratively, and problem solving with others. It’s a great experience.

Patricia: What are some of the challenges of working with students who aren’t as familiar with professional working dynamics or collaboration? Do you find that it can be difficult?

Harry: It is a different challenge. We have to work with people where they are. We have to scaffold out from there. Vygotsky 101–zones of proximal development–and it doesn’t stop with an elementary school kid. I think college students and faculty are always–I think I am always–in that position of constantly needing to learn. So I will work with what I know but I also will work outwards from what I know. I continue to challenge myself. It’s the obligation of whether you are a consultant, a mentor, a teacher, a faculty member, a researcher, an administrator, to always figure out where people are and where you’d like them to go, or where they would like to go, and help bridge them to those incremental steps that get them to their ideal goal down the road. That might be at the end of a session or at the end of a year. It might be at the end of an academic career. Good leaders use that collectively and figure out where a group is and where it needs to go.

Patricia: Looking back to when you were a student, is there anything that you would have done differently?

Harry: That’s a really hard question. I don’t think that I would have done anything differently in graduate school. In undergraduate at Iowa, when I was a wee lad and had a whole bunch more hair, I would have worked less. I was a first generation student and was always worried about money. So I worked 30-40 plus hours a week and it limited the time that I could give to school. One of the most amazing parts of graduate school is the intense, intimate community of scholars that you happen into. I am pretty sure that if you aren’t under pressure to work to pay for an undergraduate education, and I suppose that would extend to graduate school, too, you have a very different experience with education. You literally have more time to immerse yourself, hang out with faculty, hang out with peers. In the writing center here, the nice thing is that it is the best of both worlds; you are working but you are also learning and teaching.  If there is anything that I could have gone back to do differently, I would have made a lot more time for school. And I would probably done a lot more than completing the semester in a class. I would have been someone who was more vested in developing an agenda or developing a line of inquiry, working deeply with faculty members. At a big school like Iowa, where classes range from 200 to 1000, getting that kind of intimate relationship with a professor or faculty member is hard but it is critical.

Patricia: You have been such an awesome mentor to so many people at St. John’s and we’re going to miss you.  Purdue is going to be lucky to have you. What is  one piece of advice–I know it is hard for you to boil it all down to one – but if you could only pass on one piece of advice, what is the important thing for graduate students to consider?

Harry: Always imagine yourself as part of a community that makes leadership possible, that makes scholarship possible, that makes better people possible. You are part of a community and a larger set of conversations. It’s amazing that if you take a very social approach to education you’re not only learning by yourself upstairs in a carrel but also you are learning together. That’s the mark of a really good grad program, but also undergraduate program, that people come to see themselves as a cohort. That you are not alone. That you learn to negotiate a space in a community that’s inviting. I really believe in fostering a community. I think of the authors of The Everyday Writing Center and their notion of a community of practice. I would tell people that you are part of a community of practice. That you are important interlocutors. It’s not just the old fogie professors like me. It’s all of you participating in this community of making knowledge accessible, approachable, and usable. Community is terribly important. And then there’s also politics; we have to question our community and ask what practices are we inhibiting and what practices we are promoting? Who are we allowing into our community? And who are we excluding? That’s an old chestnut of mine to keep marching out. Who gets to be in a community is critical. Embracing difference is equally important.

Patricia: You’ve been great at creating community for those of us at St. John’s, and your words affirm how you will continue to do so on behalf of Purdue and the greater writing center community.

Harry: Cool.

Patricia: Thank you.


Denny, Harry C. Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2010. Print.

Geller, Anne Ellen and Harry Denny. “Of Ladybugs, Low Status, and Loving the Job: Writing Center Professionals Navigating Their Careers.” The Writing Center Journal 33.1 (2013) 96-129. Print.

Geller, Anne Ellen, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll and Elizabeth Boquet. Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2007.