Indiana’s most famous owl (2024)

In the late 1980s, an associate Purdue professor tasked with starting the university’s first writing center a decade earlier sat with educators at a national conference, discussing the still-new idea of writing-focused learning environments.

At the time, Muriel Harris, founder of the Purdue OWL, would have no idea her attempts to help students would become one of the world’s most successful writing centers.

“The Purdue OWL is an academic unit on campus dedicated to teaching, learning, and research, particularly mentoring writers,” said Harry Denny, director of the Writing Lab. “Most of our clients are students, but we work with faculty and staff too.”

Founded in 1976 by now-retired Purdue Assistant Professor Harris, the writing lab began after a member of the English department approached Harris with the idea of creating a writing center, an on-campus service for students to get writing help. At the time, she was still a faculty wife.

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“We sat around all summer saying, ‘What’s a writing center?’ she said. “We wanted a comfortable place where people could come and talk about writing. What we did initially was try to put together some handouts, and we just loved it.”

The first rendition of the lab was in a room in Heavilon Hall with cabinets filled with handouts, she said. By the time Harris left, the walls in one of the lab’s three rooms were covered with students’ writing. “Anything they found interesting or liked,” Harris said.

“Visiting students from a university in Kansas were here for a writing center conference, and they wanted to see the lab. They took out a pen and just started writing on the wall. So everybody else did, and pretty soon it went up the walls.

“We had peanuts and a coffee machine, and a secretary who would always bake cookies,” Harris said. “A graduate student gave us his couch, and it was a killer to sit on. There was always somebody sleeping on it. ”

When the OWL was still a team of Harris and a couple of graduate students, tutors relied on and expanded upon Harris’s handouts to teach.

“Especially before the internet, people felt better if they had a piece of paper in their hand when they walked out. So, we put up a bunch of handouts,” she said.

Harris would have staff meetings with her tutors to discuss how they could improve the handouts, which included anything from citations to rules that students struggled to remember.

“We kept generating handouts, and eventually, an editor came around from some publishing house, and asked, ‘What book do you use in the writing lab?’ And we said, ‘We don’t.’”

Harris said students usually wrote their papers on Sundays, but the writing lab was only open on weekdays. So in the mid-80s, Harris came up with the idea of putting handouts on Gopher, the first large-scale electronic library connection system.

David Taylor, a graduate student in educational computing who put Harris’s handouts on Gopher would also code the OWL’s website in 1995.

This is also how the lab would get its current name.

“We were sitting around thinking of silly names, and somebody said, ‘Well, you’re the Online Writing Lab, ‘O,’ ‘W,’ ‘L,’ so we called it OWL,” Harris said.

Unlike most writing centers, OWL would remain a ‘writing lab,’ due to Purdue’s status as a research school.

“At Purdue, things are labs, not centers. Centers are for research,” she said.

With the spread of the internet, the OWL received millions of clicks each year. Harris even got complaints from textbook salespeople who said they were having difficulty selling textbooks.

“We were getting feedback from places where people don’t have books,” she said. “We began to keep a map of all the different countries, and we found out that every place except for Antarctica checked in. One day, somebody from an army base (in Antarctica) checked in.”

Today, in the state of Indiana, when you Google the word ‘owl,’ the first result that comes up is not about the animal owl but rather, the Purdue OWL.

According to the lab’s annual report for the 2022-2023 academic year, the website saw about 158.5 million pageviews worldwide from almost 40 million unique users.

“I always joke that in the U.S., Indiana isn’t even the top state (that uses OWL). It’s California, New York, and Illinois. The big states are all using it,” Denny said.

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The on-campus stations in Krach Leadership Center, WALC and Stewart Center gave 7,650 one-on-one writing sessions, helping 2,061 clients.

Harris said that at some point, the university even wanted to charge for the OWL. Luckily for her, she said, the person behind this vision would eventually leave his job.

The OWL’s early financial struggles did not end there. When Taylor was coding the website, Harris had to find ways to pay for his assistance.

“I remember asking Margaret Rowe (former dean of Liberal Arts), ‘I need to pay Dave,’” Harris said. “Her comment was, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’ll give you money because you must really know what you’re doing.’ And that was the start of how we got graduate student money.”

Currently, there are about 35 undergraduate tutors, and the total staff number is around 50. The website is also almost entirely handled by staff rather than students.

“It’s really significant that the writing lab looks like the campus,” Denny said, citing the variety of backgrounds and areas of study present in the center. “Everyone is invited (to become a tutor) because the minute someone doesn’t feel like you can support them, we’re doing something wrong.”

During her time at the OWL, Liliona Blunt, a former undergraduate tutor, saw the impact of the writing lab firsthand.

“I really liked that every day was something different,” Blunt said. “I even had a woman come in with her prenatal research. I read her entire report on this device used on infants to help increase survival odds for premature babies.”

Tutors sometimes form friendships with their students.

“We just had someone who got her PhD, and we were one of the first people she told,” said Sadey Spencer, associate admin of the OWL. “We even went to her graduation party.”

Oftentimes OWL tutors will have to teach English without speaking the native language of their students.

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“Usually people coming in with English as a second language will be very nervous and embarrassed because they’re worried about not making sense,” Blunt said.“You’re (also) self-conscious making sure that you’re not confusing them more.”

Denny said tutors at the OWL have to learn how people think in their native languages. By understanding cultural differences and how the students’ language culture works, tutors can better elaborate ways to improve students’ writing.

This is exactly what Harris’s handouts aimed to do.

“The people, who would come day after day, on snowy winters, knew the international students were going to be there as soon as the door opened,” Harris said. “Purdue would pick them for being the brightest, most energetic, most determined and they really worked on their language skills.”

She says you can’t teach writing, at least not in the traditional sense.

“Telling people what to do is not as effective as asking them what they want to do,” she said. “Human interaction is more important than you reading a textbook in writing.”

Although still a writer, Harris retired in 2003 and resides in her West Lafayette home with her husband, a former physics professor at Purdue.

Taylor has also gone on to become a tech entrepreneur after graduating.

“I miss the students the most,” Harris said. “I loved it because students have ideas, and they don’t always articulate them as clearly as they would be. But if you just keep talking, it becomes a very powerful way to write.”

Indiana’s most famous owl (2024)
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