Introduction to Shouse, Claude F. “The Writing Laboratory in Colleges and Universities.” Diss. University of Southern California, 1953.

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:

  • The distribution between public and private institutions having writing laboratories was fairly even: 57.6% public and 43.3% private.
  • The 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 level.”
  • The 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 times.
  • Twenty-two or more than 33% of the laboratories were staffed by only one instructor. Nine more had only a two-person staff.
  • Only 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.

Shouse’s 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 materials.

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 instruction remains.

Finally, my 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.

Neal Lerner, July 2010

Works Cited

Lerner, Neal. “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.

Rich Haswell (bibliography 1939-1999)
Glenn Blalock (bibliography 2000)
Copyright © 2004 Rich Haswell & Glenn Blalock