Bringing Isocrates to the Writing Center: The Story of the Civically-Engaged, Practical Citizen

Mandy Olejnik

To Start….

Everybody brings their own story with them when they come into the writing center. I certainly do.

I became a writing center consultant by chance, actually. Sitting in my advisor’s office on a dreary October day during my freshman year of college, I was advised not to take an upper-level global rhetoric course in the spring but a peer tutoring course instead. It was a casual suggestion, really, but I took it because I didn’t know much about rhetoric, and because I trusted the opinion of someone who did. So, I enrolled in the course, loved it, became a writing center consultant, and am now a graduate student in composition and rhetoric who also serves as an assistant director of a writing center.

All because of a fifteen-minute meeting back in 2012.

Our writing centers also have stories. They have their individual backgrounds and their histories. They may have founders and benefactors, and they may have ties to other places on campus.

Our students come in to our centers with stories, too.

Earlier this fall semester, I had a writer come in for an appointment without a paper in hand. “I know this is a waste of time,” she prefaced, avoiding my gaze, “but I just need to talk to someone about my writing. I don’t know how to even start.”

She brought with her a story about our writing center: people go there to talk about papers already written. Anything else is a waste of time.

Except it isn’t. I believe that, and I shared my view of that with her, but it was still her story – still her perception and her lived experience at that moment in time.

This instance, coupled with my graduate research on civics and rhetorical history, has me thinking hard about what we do in the writing center; more specifically, what our institutional missions are, how writing centers contribute to that, and what our students think of that. In addition, I think about writing center stories and influences; I think back to who may have influenced our practices in ways we may not even realize, both on personal levels and more macro levels.

In this article, then, I want to bridge civic engagement and the writing center through a sort of loose, thoughtful recollection of my own personal experiences and through the influence of the Attic orator Isocrates. I’ve admittedly found it hard to write this article as it started as an idea during my first semester of graduate school, progressed to a NCPTW conference presentation this fall, and is now becoming an article in the online journal you are currently reading. This is the start of a story, then, and one I will continue to tell and experience.

What I’m ultimately proposing here is that we – the “we” proper as a field and the “we” collectively and individually as writing center consultants and administrators – think more carefully about what it means to be “civic” in the writing center, how our writing centers fit into our institutions’ overall missions, and how our writing centers are shaped by historical stories. There’s been some work done on this, of course (we can look to Andrea Rosso Efthymiou and her work on rhetorical education in a Jewish women’s writing center, for example), but we should look even further back and engage in real dialogue about this issue.

So, let us begin.

To Introduce…

When thinking about what we “do” in the writing center, we can look back to some past influences who very much have affected what we “do” in education. Specifically, I want to look at the Attic Orator Isocrates, whose education system was pragmatic and civic in nature and whose story can be connected to that of the writing center.

I’ll very briefly introduce who he is for those of you who may not be as familiar with his work. Isocrates was the more pragmatic of the Ancient Greek Rhetoricians. He was the practical to Plato’s theoretical, and he had his own school of rhetoric that was in direct competition against Plato’s in the fourth century BCE (Benoit, 1991). In Isocrates’ early work, Against the Sophists, which serves as an announcement and advertisement for his school, he dismisses the dishonest teachings of the sophists who came before him and presents what a good teacher of rhetoric should be. Before Isocrates’ times, students would travel with their teachers, and teachers would often charge money for their services and claim to teach their students everything they needed to know from their “alphabet books.” Interestingly enough, this teaching approach has a strange resemblance to the misconception of the writing center being a “fix it” center – “go to the writing center, and you’ll get an A! They’ll fix all your grammar!”.

As Isocrates (1980) proclaimed in Panathenaicus, “the majority of the orators have the audacity to harangue the people, not for the good of the state, but for what they themselves expect to gain” (12.12). Isocrates thus detested the selfishness inherent in these teachers, going as far as stating that “there does not exist an art of the kind which can implant sobriety and justice in depraved natures” (13.21). For Isocrates, then, education had to be handled by only those with the utmost character and for the right reasons (namely, to serve the state, not for personal gain).

The Greek term paideia can be thought of as the “shaping of Greek character” (Jaeger, 1939, vii). We can compare this concept to today’s public education system, which strives to promote certain educational goals and outcomes. In Ancient Greece, however, the education system also focused on a person’s character and personality. The concept of paideia can be linked to one’s upbringing and overall education since education took place at the community-level (Jaeger, 1939).

Isocrates does not provide an in-depth description of his education system in any one single work to the extent Quintilian (2006) did in his Institutes of Oratory. Though Against the Sophists (Isocrates, 1980) advertises his school and illustrates why his is an improvement from the “stupid” teachers of political discourse (13.9), he doesn’t clearly lay out how, exactly, he will teach students to be “more resourceful in discovering the possibilities of a subject” (13.15) and “build honesty of character” (13.21). Scholars (Poulakos, 1997; Marsh, 2013) have examined his work and pulled out certain themes of his education that we can expand to complement our discussion of writing centers. Specifically, they’ve focused on his emphasis on the community, attention to character, development of wise judgment, and instruction in composition skills (Marsh, 2013). These are important things to think about and remember as we now shift to how this relates to the writing center, its mission, and the stories we tell related to it.

To Situate…

How can we think about what we “do” in the writing center related to what our universities “do”? Our own story in the writing center is not removed from the university’s larger story. Indeed, stories are built and extended from other stories, often in ways we may not even notice or realize.

The goal of any university, naturally, is to educate students, but it’s also to prepare them for the next step in their lives. The mission statements of some of the leading universities in the United States say as much. The mission of the University of California system (2016) includes “teaching, research and public service.” The University of Texas at Austin (2016) strives to help students “achieve excellence in the interrelated areas of undergraduate education, graduate education, and public service.” The University of Michigan (2016) aims to “serve the people of Michigan and the world” with their focus on “developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2016) serves “as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity” in their quest to help students “become the next generation of leaders.” And Harvard University’s (2016) mission is “the educate the citizens and citizen-leaders of our society.”

In these few examples, in these stories, there’s clearly both a civic and a practical focus. Two directly mention public service (California and Texas) while the other three talk about creating future leaders (Michigan, North Carolina, and Harvard). Universities want to prepare their students to function in society, to become leaders in society – to do well in society. Or at least they advertise that, tell people that. This can relate to what Isocrates wanted to achieve, and there’s a connection between the two education systems in terms of civic purpose.

Where does that leave the writing center, then? If universities express a civic goal for students, what is the mission of writing centers? Every writing center is unique, but this focus on creating better writers can represent common, widespread goals of all writing centers. For example: the writing center at the University of Nevada, Reno (2016) strives “to create an academic community of strong writers.” The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s center (2016) aims to “help[s] undergraduate and graduate students in all disciplines become more effective, more confident writers.” The center at Albion College (2016) makes efforts to “help students become independent learners and writers, building their confidence and helping them develop writing tools for learning on their own.” And the University of New Hampshire’s center (2016) states that their “ultimate goal is to help writers become comfortable with the writing process and embrace revision as a process of discovering new directions for their writing.”

This small sample of writing center mission statements advocate to help writers build confidence in their writing and be more effective writers, to be better writers, but can this also have a more civic component attached to it?

To Complicate…

What do “civics” in the writing center look like? How does it going along with (or contradict) the stories we tell about ourselves?

Let’s look again at our friend Isocrates. In his educational system, he had (among others) these main areas of concentration: emphasis on the community, attention to character, development of wise judgment, and instruction in composition skills.

Do we see any similarities to writing centers here?

I can see some. Pulling from that list, I see some overlaps between his paideia and our values in the writing center, particularly:

A set of nested squares with "paper" at the center, "writer" enclosing "paper" and "transfer" enclosing "writer."
Writing Center Focus
A set of nested squares with "moral improvement" in the center "phronesis" enclosing "moral improvement" and "benefit society" enclosing "phronesis."
Isocrates’ Paieda

I adapted the writing center foci from what I’ve learned in my own peer tutoring and writing center administration background, thinking of North’s (2011) call to “make better writers” and Nowacek’s (2011) focus on transfer in the writing center. In these images, then, we see different levels of foci: the individual paper at hand in the writing center session (the individual person in Isocrates’ school), the writer’s writing abilities beyond just that one paper (Isocrates’ student’s ability to have wise and fair judgment beyond just a school setting), and the writer’s ability to take what they learned in the writing center and apply it to future papers (Isocrates’ student to take what they’ve learned from him and benefit Athens).

We address all of these concerns throughout our sessions, but they exist in a certain order: we start with the individual paper, hope to improve not only the paper but the writer, and aim for the writer to take what they’ve learned and transfer it out to the other contexts of their education/lives. Isocrates, too, cared about that overall goal, starting on a smaller level and then working its way out.

For Isocrates, responsible citizens had wise, fair judgment, were ethically aware of the political climate of Athens, and worked to benefit the state of Athens (Marsh, 2013). What would a responsible citizen look like in the writing center, then? Perhaps it would be one who has fair, wise judgment in the research essays they write and how they appeal to their intended audiences; one who is aware of their paper’s purpose and how it fits into the larger discussion it is addressing; and one who goes out and takes their writing skills into their career field outside the university, such as an internship writing advertisements for a company or writing grants for local nonprofits. What about our consultants? In their tutoring sessions, perhaps they carefully consider how to approach a given situation with a given student; they understand where the writer is at and what skills they bring with them to the session; and they take their tutoring skills and apply them to whatever context they are in.

There are some overlaps here; there are similar plots in Isocrates’ story and the ones we tell in our writing centers.

As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, Isocrates’ method of teaching ultimately more resembled tutoring. Poulakos (1997) notes that Isocrates taught more students in his lifetime than Plato or Aristotle did. He was the first sophist to actually establish a school, and though his students didn’t follow him around on foot like the days before him, he retained certain one-to-one elements in his instruction. He thus created a “dwelling place” that fits into the more public classical definition of ethos (Halloran, 1982). Writing centers, too, can be thought of as a “dwelling place” on campus (in the community) where students come together to discuss and learn about writing, working toward a larger goal.

In some ways, writing centers may already be Isocratean due to the way our culture has retained some of our Greek influences. Tutors are taught about higher-order concerns (HOCs) and lower-order concerns (LOCs), and they are carefully trained to ask particular questions. For example, in The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring, some model questions are “what is your thesis?” “What is the significance of mentioning Emile’s brother? How does he fit in with the thesis?” and “What is faith to you?” (Gillespie and Lerner, 2008, p. 78). More questions the book offers tutors-in-training are “What were your main reasons in support of going to the games?” “How did you support your claims?” “What makes you want to go?” and “What course of action would you want to pursue?” (Gillespie and Lerner, 2008, p. 85). These questions are all useful in helping the writer better understand what they want to write, at thinking about the larger picture and the different parts of the paper.

Indeed, drawing from even my own experience as a writing center tutor, that’s something we try to get at in our sessions: the greater purpose beyond the one paper and one grade. That’s the ultimate goal in civics–helping society and going beyond oneself–so what would it look like in the writing center? Could a writing center take on a more Isocratean approach? Should it?

To Call into Action….

What are the stories being said about your writing centers? How do they differ or relate to your own lived stories and experiences, and how does civics come into play? What can we do about it?

Thinking broadly about civics and rhetorical education here, do you think we have a duty to think about civics in the writing center? Scholarship has been done on the duty in composition and rhetoric to help students understand how to work with and not for communities (Scott, 2004, among others), but what about writing centers?

There is not a broad array of scholarship devoted to civics in the writing center. Looking at The Writing Center Journal articles from Vol. 20 to Vol. 35 (our two most recent decades of writing center research), I found five articles that I characterized as talking extensively about civics in the writing center. Most recently in 2015, Zimmerelli writes of service-learning tutor education for social justice. Her results found that tutors in her study perceived the experience as transformative because, as she observed, the students started to “discuss this importance of identifying with the tutee, of trying to understand who the student is as a full person” (p. 75). Her article portrays service-learning (and its civic influences) as a way for students to see a fuller picture as they help others through their work. In 2009, Isaacs and Kolba discuss the value of the writing center in terms of university teaching, stating that “the university writing center has frequently been positioned as teaching training ground” (p. 54). This looks forward and connects the building of teachers to a writing center community. The writing center can serve as a quite practical way to recruit and help train those interested in teaching, and as Isaacs and Kolba (2009) examine, this can extend even to the K-12 level.

There’s also been some discussion of the mission of writing centers – Gardner and Ramsey (2005) discuss the polyvalent mission of writing centers. They write that “it is that the practices of the writing center are a kind of anti-curriculum” (p. 27) and then situate the writing center in the “mean, nasty, and brutish cultural reproduction” of higher education (p. 30), complicating what writing centers are said to be (empowering) and then whether or not they truly belong in the culture of higher education. At the beginning of the millennium in 2000, two articles in the WCJ (one by Ede and Lunsford and another by Kinhead and Harris) discuss the future of the writing center, looking at where writing centers were headed and, in the process, at the overall goal and mission of the writing center.

This sample of articles represents a vein of writing center knowledge that blends our praxis and our purpose. Especially in the more recent issues of The Writing Center Journal, there’s an exorbitant number of articles discussing RAD research and how particular aspects of writing centers are run. Upon my initial examination, though, there seems to be a dearth of a larger-purpose focus, of examining civics in the writing center, of really getting into why we do what we do in the writing center and how it fits into a global community context of citizens. I hope that this article can foster more conversation about civics in the writing center, where we look back at our historical influences, look closely at our own practices, and think carefully about any overlaps (or differences) and what it means for what we do.

To end…

I recognize these thoughts are rather early on. More research is needed working with students in writing centers, gaining their perspectives and asking them directly some of the questions I’ve posed in this writing. To think even further than inside the walls of the writing center: what is the relationship between a writing center and its surrounding community? Some writing centers have more overt and open relationships with their surrounding communities, and others may not. What is that like? And, again, how does it relate to the mission of a writing center and the unique story every writing center carries?

This article can be seen as an invitation, then, to share more stories about what we “do” in the writing center, and what we could be doing in the writing center (and out). It also encourages us to think carefully about the histories of our own centers and of our education system itself.

So, this story isn’t over. It has just begun, and I reach out for you to continue it and participate in your own settings and in your contexts.

Works Cited

About the writing center. (2016). The University of Wisconsin – Madison. Retrieved from

Benoit, W.L. (1991) Isocrates and plato on rhetoric and rhetorical education. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 21(1), 60-71. doi: 10.1080/02773949109390909

Ede, L. & Lunsford, A. (2000). Some millennial thoughts about the future of writing centers. The Writing Center Journal, 20(2), 33-38. doi:

Efthymiou, A. R. (2015). Voices from on high: Rhetorical education in a jewish women’s writing center. (Doctoral dissertation), City University of New York.

Gardner, P. J. & Ramsey, W. M. (2005). The polyvalent mission of writing centers. The Writing Center Journal, 25(1), 25-42. Retrieved from

Gillespie, P. & Lerner, N. (2008). The longman guide to peer tutoring (2nd ed.). London: Pearson Education.

Halloran, M. S. (1982). Aristotle’s concept of ethos, or if not his somebody else’s. Rhetoric Review 1(1). doi:10.1080/07350198209359037

Isaacs, E. & Kolba, E. (2009). “Mutual benefits: Pre-service teachers and public school students in the writing center. The Writing Center Journal, 29(2), 52-74. Retrieved from

Isocrates, Against the sophists. (n.d.). The perseus library. Retrieved from

Isocrates. Panathenaicus. (n.d.). The perseus library. Retrieved from Accessed 22 July 2017.

Jaeger, W. (1939) Paideia: the ideals of greek culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kinhead, J. & Harris, J. (2000). What’s next for writing centers?. The Writing Center Journal, 20(2), 23-24. Retrieved from

Marsh, C. (2013). Classical rhetoric and modern public relations: An isocratean model. New York: Routledge.

Mission. (2016). The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved from

Mission and integrity. (2016). University of Michigan. Retrieved from

Mission and values. (2016). University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved from

Mission, vision, and history. Harvard University. Retrieved from

North, S. The idea of a writing center. In C. Murphey & S. Sherwood (eds.), The St. Martin’s sourcebook for writing tutors (4th ed.) (pp. 44-58). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Nowacek, R. (2011). Agents of integration: Understanding transfer as a rhetorical act. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Poulakos, T. (1997). Speaking for the polis. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Quintilian’s institutes of oratory. (2011). Retrieved from

Scott, J. B. (2004). Rearticulating civic engagement through cultural studies and service-learning. Technical Communication Quarterly, 13(3), 289-306. doi: 10.1207/s15427625tcq1303_4

The Robert J. Connors writing center. (n.d.). University of New Hampshire. Retrieved from

UC’s Mission. (n.d.). University of California. Retrieved from

University Writing Center. (n.d.). University of Nevada, Reno. Retrieved from

Zimmerelli, L. (2015). A place to begin: Service-learning tutor education and writing center social justice. The Writing Center Journal, 35(1), 57-84. Retrieved from