By Christopher Burns
The University of Maine Writing Center has reached the end of an era. Since 1978, the center has served the campus community under the tutelage of Harvey Kail, Writing Center director and professor of English. After 35 years at the helm, Kail is ready to step down.
Kail joined the Department of English in 1978 to run the center. Before UMaine, Kail taught freshman composition as a graduate assistant, served as a Senior Tutor of Literature at the University of Papua New Guinea and as Writing Center Director at Kishwaukee Community College.
Under his leadership the center grew and became one of the first peer tutoring programs in the United States.
Kenneth Bruffee, who pioneered the peer tutoring movement in writing centers, inspired Kail. “Student tutors are sometimes more effective than teachers in helping other students gain confidence and ability in writing because the students are engaged socially and intellectually at once,” Bruffee said.
Kail echoed the same vision.
“The center has created a space for students to have intellectual conversations,” Kail said. “Writing is a conversation, and the more you talk about writing, the more sophisticated it becomes.”
Between 500 and 600 students visit the Writing Center each year. International students have benefited a lot from the center, Kail said. The 20 to 25 tutors who work in the center each year undergo a semester of training to improve their writing and prepare them for the responsibilities of peer tutoring.
In the early 1990s, Mary Bartosenski Bowden served as Director of the Writing Center when Kail was chair of the department, and had the benefit of working as a student with Kail. The lessons she learned comes out every day in her technical writing classes.
“It’s very fun to work with people when they’re writing. You’re in there with the writer to see how you can make the piece the best it can be; what questions you can ask and how you can encourage them to see [the answers] themselves,” Bowden said.
Kail has received many accolades for his work in peer tutoring, including the Ron Maxwell Award for Distinguished Leadership in Promoting the Collaborative Practices of Peer Tutoring in Writing in 2004, the International Writing Center Association Award for Best Article on Writing Centers in 2010, and the CLAS Outstanding Faculty Award for Teaching and Advising in 2008.
At the national level, Kail is a respected member of the writing center community.
“I was amazed to see how big a name Harvey was,” Bowden said. [At] the conferences people would flock to any workshop UMaine led because of Harvey and to see what we had to say. They knew whatever we presented would be worthwhile.”
At the 2013 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing in Tampa, Fla., Kail was honored in the panel discussion “Props for Harvey Kail.” Seven panelists from universities across the country paid homage to Kail’s work in peer tutoring and the NCPTW.
Ben Rafoth, Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor of English and director of IUP Writing Center, has worked with Kail since the 1990s. Rafoth sat on the NCPTW panel “Props for Harvey Kail” in November.
“[Harvey’s] a model teacher who always put[s] his students first. I think his lasting contribution will be as a role model for writing center directors. I have seen this happen already, in fact, in people like Dr. Brian Fallon, who met Harvey [while he] was working on his master’s degree,” Rafoth said.
“Brian founded the Writing Center at Fashion Institute of Technology, and has often spoken to me about the influence that Harvey has had on his career. [Harvey] collaborated with his colleagues and helped spread good ideas throughout the writing center community.”
In his time at the center, Kail developed many lifelong relationships with students whose lives were positively affected by their time as tutors. The tutors are more than students—they are partners.
“I have enjoyed seeing the tutors develop,” Kail said. “I will miss the day-to-day interactions with the tutors.”
Currently, a suitable replacement for Kail has not been found. According to Mary Bartosenski Bowden, it will be a tough role to fill. “You’ve got somebody [Harvey] who built the program and is the heart of it. You’re going to want somebody with that energy, drive and excitement for collaborative learning [Harvey exemplified].”