Purdue College of Liberal Arts logo THiNK Magazine logo

The OWL at 25: Past and current OWL contributors share their stories


Fall 2019 | By David Ching. Photo by Contributed.


Story's Main Image

From engagement projects that improved site accessibility to contributors’ random encounters in hometown grocery stores, the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s reach extends into areas that might seem surprising.

Here are some current and former contributors’ OWL stories:

ACCESSIBILITY IMPROVEMENTS

Over the last 25 years, the OWL served as the testing ground for many graduate research projects. One such project improved the site’s usability for the many OWL users who rely upon adaptive technology – for example, an adaptive mouse or keyboard, or a screen reader for blind or low-vision users.

The project spun out of a class on accessibility taught by English professor Michael Salvo. Students Allen Brizee, Dana Driscoll, and Morgan Sousa worked with Salvo to first test the site’s usability for abled people across the globe, which led to a significant site redesign. Later, they examined where the OWL fell short among those using adaptive technology.

“We did usability testing for people with low vision or blindness and we watched them navigate the OWL and we talked to them about how it was working for them: how quickly they could find information on the site, was there anything that we could improve,” said Driscoll, the site’s former webmaster who is now an associate professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“We had some really interesting findings from that,” noted Brizee, the former OWL coordinator who is now an associate professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland. “Even though the OWL was pretty usable for people not using adaptive technologies, it was actually not all that usable for people using the JAWS screen reader,” which helps blind or visually impaired users read a computer screen either through a refreshable Braille display or through text-to-speech output.

One change that resulted from their findings, Brizee said, was that the team worked with coding guru Jeff Bacha – now an associate professor of English at UAB – to reconfigure the OWL’s Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

The site’s search bar appeared at the top of the page when viewing it with a traditional web browser, but it was located at the bottom of the page when using a JAWS screen reader. Bacha was able to rewrite the code so that the search bar would appear at the top of the page on JAWS, making it much easier to find, without altering the appearance of the page in any way on a traditional browser.

After focusing so intently on usability while completing their project, Brizee and Driscoll both said the work shaped their attitudes toward education and community engagement. Driscoll shared that the OWL project inspired her to think about writing as empowerment and to search for ways to improve the circumstances of non-traditional students and international students at her university.

“I think it had a lot of impact on me,” Driscoll said. “There’s a big thing now in universities about diversity, thinking about how we address diverse learners. And I think that because of the OWL, I was thinking about those questions long before maybe they were mainstream. When you’re thinking about trying to create resources to address such a wide audience, it really does change the way you think about education.”

COMMUNITY PROJECT YIELDS TWO DISSERTATIONS AND A BOOK

A community engagement project led by Brizee and fellow graduate student Jaclyn Wells aimed to help citizens pass the GED and find gainful employment. Their collaboration with two local literacy organizations to develop the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) helped adult learners, first in the Greater Lafayette area and later throughout the world.

“We were interested in developing more materials about adult basic literacy: how to help people study for the writing portion of the GED and how to help people with entry-level job materials, English as a Second Language materials, things like that,” said Wells, now the University Writing Center director at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “So we developed that content with the Lafayette Adult Resource Academy and WorkOne in Lafayette. And then we both ended up writing our dissertations about that project, actually.”

Not only that, the two project leaders also turned their findings into a book, Partners in Literacy: A Writing Center Model for Civic Engagement, which they published in 2016.

With encouragement from Linda Bergmann, the Purdue Writing Lab’s influential director at the time, the two students used their scholarship to reach beyond the confines of campus and into the community. Brizee thought of it as a way to fulfill Purdue’s land-grant mission by serving local residents and by creating free job-search resources on the OWL that did not previously exist.

“We were able to help people not only in Lafayette, but really around the world who needed resources on entry-level job-search docs,” Brizee said. “Not just a résumé for an engineer, which is great for Purdue engineers and all the engineers out there, but if somebody has just separated from the armed services, we didn’t have any resources on there for cover letters and résumés for them.”

Brizee said he takes great pride in the civic engagement work he and Wells completed, noting that it inspired him to launch a community writing project that involves faculty, students, and community members and focuses on slavery and systemic racism in Baltimore.

“The dissertation project that we did had a real impact, not just in Lafayette, but I was really happy to see users from across the world using those entry-level cover letter and résumé resources,” Brizee said. “Without working on the OWL and without working on that dissertation project, I don’t think I would have thought about writing and digital platforms in the way that I do now with bringing disparate populations together who normally wouldn’t interact.” 

A WRITING CENTER’S IMPACT

Because of the OWL’s massive online presence, it overshadows the on-campus Writing Lab that continues to house the site. However, Writing Lab/OWL director Harry Denny is quick to point out that the website is only an extension of the tutoring services available in the physical lab.

Not only are those services offered to all Purdue students, they appear to make a major difference for those who take advantage of their availability.

“We’ve been partnering with Columbia, Duke University, and the University of Colorado-Boulder, four very different universities and all of us getting the same results,” Denny said. “It’s very interesting. If people come into a writing lab or writing center or writing studio, they’re going to do better for grades, GPA, retention, and persistence to graduation.”

Indeed, OWL data from the 2018-19 academic year showed that freshmen who visited the Writing Lab at least once had a higher GPA (3.33) than those who did not (2.97). The average GPA increased to 3.4 for students who visited between two and five times, and it increased to 3.45 for those who visited six or more times. That trend essentially held for each individual class at Purdue.

Writing Lab participation was not quite as predictive for international students, but it generally remained apparent that those who visited the Writing Center fared better than those who did not.

“It’s something about getting help with writing that bleeds into all of your other activity on campus,” Denny said. “I think that’s not a shock to anyone who looks at Purdue’s big data. My sense of their findings has been that any sort of institutional engagement is a predictor for greater success.

“So if you are a young person and you’re involved in student activities, if you’re involved at the CoRec, there are all these metrics of being involved and being invested on campus that the minute you do that, you up your investment, and that greater investment and engagement on campus leads to greater academic success.”

A FOREIGN-LANGUAGE OWL?

Shortly after arriving as the new Writing Lab director in 2015, Denny learned that several Chinese universities were interested in translating the English-language version of the OWL into Mandarin or Cantonese.

Denny had to inform them that the quirks that exist within all languages would make a simple English-to-Chinese translation impossible.

“I think what people really want is to be able to hit a language button and, poof, have everything translate, but the examples and all that sort of stuff just doesn’t translate that well,” Denny said.

Since then, Denny has fielded similar requests from Colombian universities to create a Spanish-language OWL – and this time it just might happen.

“Our usual rap is we would love to partner with you to create your own OWL, but as far as we understand, Spanish is a much more complex language than people might otherwise give credence to and, oddly enough, Spanish-to-English would not necessarily work well,” Denny said. “But we always offer to them to imagine what it might be like to do a translation or create their own Spanish OWL.”

Such an offer to the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, Atlantico, Colombia became the basis for an academic exchange between Purdue’s Writing Lab and the Colombian university’s Centro de Escritura (writing center). Four Uninorte students will visit Purdue to shadow Writing Lab tutors and attend classes and conferences. In return, two Purdue graduate students will travel to Colombia to help design writing courses and workshops and lead creative writing seminars for groups in Spanish and English.

EARLY INTERNATIONAL OWL MAIL

It seems quaint now in our increasingly connected world, but OWL founder Mickey Harris was flabbergasted in the site’s early days by the thousands of emails that came from all over the globe, requesting to download one of her 150 instructional documents.

An October 1994 press release from the Purdue News Service touted the new site’s free email service, “available to anyone with an account on the worldwide computer network known as the Internet.”

“We got emails from all over the world and it got more and more exciting,” Harris said recently. “Interestingly enough, one of the first graduate students in English who was an OWL person began to track these on a map, and we were just amazed.”

The emails came from all over. Within the first few years, the OWL website was logging more than a million clicks per year, drawing traffic from writers in approximately 100 nations.

In a Lafayette Journal & Courier story about the OWL from November 1997, Harris observed that because of the worldwide traffic, “the world seems awesomely small.”

According to the 1997 J&C story, Purdue’s computer server could handle as many as 25 computer hits at one time. Today, the site averages hundreds of thousands of clicks per day, and its global reach only continues to grow.

“It talks about the fact of how English became so dominant and how English was needed in other countries: people who were writing résumés, people who had no textbooks, people who were trying to learn English in foreign countries without being able to take classes, people who needed to write for business,” Harris said. “There were just so many reasons that people who were sending us notes were telling us why they needed a resource like this because they had no books. It was amazing.”

OWL ENCOUNTERS

Virtually everyone who contributes to the OWL has a story about a time that it randomly came up in everyday conversation. Here are some of those stories:

Jaclyn Wells: “I think probably my favorite experience was actually down here at UAB. I had a student in one of my classes ask me if I’d heard of the OWL. Of course I just smiled and said, ‘Well yeah, I actually worked on it when I was in grad school.’ And seriously, with this student it was like they were meeting a celebrity. I’ve had several of those moments here where I told somebody, ‘Yeah, I used to work with the Purdue OWL,’ and they were like, ‘Wow!’ That’s been really fun. I run a writing center now and people refer to the OWL all the time – and they’re not buttering me up. They don’t know that I graduated from Purdue. I just always feel this cool moment of pride, like, ‘Yeah, of course you always use the Purdue OWL.’ "  

Allen Brizee: “I was at a grocery store in Ohio visiting relatives and I used my credit card. Of course I have a bit of a unique last name, and I was on the OWL for a pretty long time – three years. I handed my credit card to the person doing the checkout and she said, ‘Brizee. Brizee. I know that name. Purdue OWL, right?’ I was like, ‘Yes, I used to work on the Purdue OWL.’ ”

Kylie Regan, OWL contributor and Ph.D. candidate: “Every time I mention to a family member or a non-academic that I’m associated with Purdue, one of the first things they ask is about the OWL. It’s one of two things: It’s either that or their basketball team that it’s going to be known for. On a campus that’s otherwise so engineering-focused and so known for its science programs, it’s lovely that the other really big thing that it’s known for is this resource that people all over the country use and that even academics are familiar with having used at some point because it does reach so far into all kinds of places.”

Dana Driscoll: “I remember when I was working on the Purdue OWL, I went home for Christmas break and I was getting some groceries for my family to cook our Christmas dinner. I was at the grocery store in my hometown and I give this person who looks like a college student my credit card and she looks at my name and says, ‘You’re Dana Driscoll.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what my credit card says.’ And she said, ‘You wrote the quoting and paraphrasing resource on the Purdue OWL and that saved my life last semester.’ I didn’t even know what to say.” That kind of impact, on one hand, sure it’s just a website. But on the other hand, it’s more than that. It’s kind of a staple of our entire profession that everyone goes to to find out what is important – not just what are the rules, but how to become a better writer. That was one of those experiences where I was just like, ‘Wow, OK, I guess this thing is a lot bigger than I realized.’ ”