Celebrating the Writing Center's 30th Anniversary: In Our Founder's Words
May 1, 2019
On college campuses, we frequently hear and speak the names of people we don’t know when referring to the buildings and centers honoring past professors, donors, and leaders. The Writing Center is celebrating our 30th anniversary by providing our readers with a look into the life of our founder, James A. Glenn, and the hard work, sacrifice, and foresight that it took to create the Writing Center in 1989. Today, at 89 years of age, he lives in the nearby Northern Kentucky area, from where he graciously shared his story with us in a recent interview. - Joey T., Freewrite Editor
James A. Glenn was born into a Xavier teaching family. As a child he watched his own father become an English teacher and administrator at both St. Xavier High School and Xavier University, when they were still located in Downtown Cincinnati. James himself would go on to receive both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from Xavier University before going on to serve as a post information officer during the Korean War, where he was assigned to write news stories about soldiers and civilians for a 50,000 person community. In 1956, after finishing military duty, he got married and took a position as a full time faculty member in the Department of English at Xavier with Dr. Charlie Wheeler, the department’s chair. This would be the start of a long, dedicated, and productive academic career, as he would remain a staple in the English department and campus community for decades to come, teaching numerous students and learning a total of six to seven languages along the way.
At one point, in the 1980s, Professor Glenn started observing some changes in the abilities of his students, feeling that their writing skills were in decline and that “a lot of schools were neglecting that discipline, especially at the primary and secondary schools.” This inspired him to create a specialized Writing Center, a concept that was already being implemented in other colleges. He found a supporter in Sister Rose Ann Fleming, who helped him secure the resources to design and plan for a new Writing Center at Xavier. He took several trips to study similar departments across the country and eventually opened the center in a newly finished room in 1989, to great popularity: “People came and used the place. It was quiet, it was attractive, and people could get what they needed at no cost. I was very proud of it.” Besides tutoring students himself, Professor Glenn was the first administrator, and took seriously the job of hiring student tutors. He specified that “a really talented tutor is a very, very special person. They must be chosen and picked very carefully, which I considered one of my most important jobs and mission - to very carefully select my tutors.” He assembled a diverse team of students across departments including psychology and history, but always looked for particular traits, saying that “First of all, a great tutor must be very knowledgeable. Second, a tutor must be discerning to know where the problems are, and do that quickly. I also think a tutor is someone who can handle telling a student if they have serious writing problems, but at the same time, tell the student without offending, depressing, or angering the student in any way.” This attitude toward tutoring is one the Center still employs today.
Despite the Writing Center’s success, Professor Glenn added that not everyone immediately grasped its value. He spoke of one particular Business student who told him that his profession would not require such academic writing skills, as his communication was mostly in letters or emails. Professor Glenn responded directly, saying “Let me put it to you this way – you can know everything in the world about business, but if you’re rather inarticulate when it comes to talking about what you know, or you can’t express effectively some of the things you know, for all intents and purposes, you’re ignorant.” His statement succinctly illustrates the concept that improving writing skills is about more than simply fixing grammar or formatting issues for a class project; it is a means to become a better communicator in all aspects of life.
As it stands today, the James A. Glenn Writing Center continues to be a testament to this professor’s passion for education, the craft of effective writing, and service to others. Although he has long been retired from teaching, he is proud of his academic career, and the Writing Center in particular. Yet, consistent with his dedicated nature, Professor Glenn remains focused on the Xavier community and those who have assisted him along the way: “I’m happy that when we got started we joined a group of the most elite and distinguished universities, so I’m very proud of it, and hope it will continue to be supported with enthusiasm. I had a lot of help from fine people getting it started, so I’m extremely grateful.”