It started with a typewriter. When she first started running UT’s Writing Center, Kirsten Benson realized they needed a typewriter in order to write necessary messages to students. This was indeed back in the day when typewriters were still in use, and though a new one only cost $300, her first requests were denied. As she navigated funding sources and the institutional landscape, Benson learned valuable skills in advocating for this necessary campus service: the key one was turning a “no” into a “yes.”
“A dedicated career of not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” said Benson, whose determination and skill helped years later attract an endowment from Jim and Judi Herbert—for considerably more than $300.
Over the years, the Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center has transformed from a single small classroom to a large, inviting space on the second floor of the Humanities and Social Sciences Buildling, plus two satellite locations, with room and staff to handle the thousands of student appointments every semester. The Center has grown not only in physical space, but in the kinds of services it can provide. The Herbert endowment made possible an expansion of tutors from a range of disciplines and support for faculty in writing across the curriculum. When the pandemic necessitated shutting down the campus in spring 2020, the Herbert Writing Center had already been working to provide online help, which made the move to entirely virtual services a much easier transition.
For this tireless advocacy and innovation, Benson received the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association’s Achievement Award, which recognizes the outstanding, sustained body of work of a writing center director to a particular writing center, the SWCA, and the writing center community at large.
“Who among us thinks every day about the impact of what we do?,” Benson said. “We’re so busy actually doing the work. But it is nice to be recognized by peers who understand the difficulty of this kind of work and the decades-long effort to develop and sustain a writing center.”
That effort often requires vigorous advocacy for writing. Benson offered a metaphor she adapted from a story written by a former tutor: “Writing is a fundamental part of academic success, but it’s often like the bass line in a song, which many don’t pay close attention to—they’re listening to other parts of the music. But the bass sets the tone. Part of my job is to get people in the institution to hear the bass line—to focus on writing as a fundamental skill that enables the rest of the song—or the academic success—to happen.”
Her success in getting the university to hear that bass line and support the baseline skill of writing lies behind her recognition by her peers.
The Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center’s progress from having difficulty getting a piece of office equipment to garnering national and regional recognition is not something that just happens—it takes a dedicated campus leader like Benson to achieve. Her well-deserved award acknowledges her tireless service.
–Submitted by Rob Spirko, senior lecturer and communications manager, Department of English