Long before Purdue even thought to acquire Kaplan and create an online university, another website on campus had already gone global — the English department’s brainchild, the Online Writing Lab.
The OWL goes back so far, the creator herself didn’t know what the internet was during the beginning stages of the Purdue Writing Lab’s jump into the online world.
“A graduate student … said ‘do you know about the Web?” retired professor and OWL founder, Muriel Harris said. “And I said, ‘what is the Web?”
The graduate student explained how the internet worked to Harris, who decided that all the handouts the Writing Lab had compiled and collected should be put online.
“We were going to call it Word,” Harris said, “but he said Microsoft would find us … so we called it OWL.”
The website quickly gained traction, not just among local students, but worldwide as well, as anyone with internet access could easily research how to write in APA, MLA or any number of styles.
Harris recalled how people from faraway countries would send “love notes” to the OWL, thanking her and her team of three graduate students for the online resource. She received thank-you notes from people in Malaysia, South America and even the Antarctic, from a few military research stations.
The extent of OWL is so vast that the current director, Harry Denny, first experienced the world of writing labs through Harris’ book, “Teaching One-To-One: A Writing Conference.”
“Not only is the writing lab really famous,” Denny said, “but the OWL obviously has a huge reach so it’s very exciting to be a part of a long tradition there."
Nowadays the OWL has gained enough traction that minute updates to the website don’t go unnoticed, as evidenced from earlier this year. The controversy over the use of biased language, and specifically the use of the word “man,” led many to believe the OWL was trying to enforce a rule of some kind, which Harris says, just isn’t true.
“The Fox News was based on the thought that there was a law, a rule, an edict,” Harris said, explaining that the OWL merely held up a writing guideline from decades ago.
“There is a line on the page about referring to people who deliver mail as mail-person, rather than mailman,” Denny said, “and that’s a recommendation that came out of the federal government in the 70s.”
“It’s difficult sometimes because the OWL doesn’t set citation policy,” graduate student and OWL content developer, Joe Forte, continued. “We are not the APA, MLA, Chicago, AP or anything like that.”
“We’re merely the conduit,” Denny agreed, “and a lot of times I think people presume that we are APA, that we are MLA, and we’re not.”
“It’s like if you get mad at an encyclopedia,” Forte said.
The well-broadcasted nature of the controversy ensured that working at the writing lab was a little stressful at times, according to Denny.
The director said the worst part of the entire incident was just the thought of OWL’s audience believing they were reading a biased or somehow inaccurate guide, written by people with hidden agendas.
“Who’s behind OWL?” Denny asked rhetorically. “Everything you see, is a collaboration.”
Though the page that originally caused the controversy was minutely edited, the sudden national publicity did not escape Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ attention. He released a statement acknowledging the international audience that the OWL had, and due to this the website requires more supervision than previously enforced.
“Going forward, there will be clear editorial oversight of OWL by the College of Liberal Arts,” Daniels said in his presidential message, “who will ensure it is maintained at the high standards Boilermakers expect.”
Though the future of this oversight is in the works, Denny believes the change will help manage the OWL. He has proposed an administrative plan involving two boards, external and internal, in which one board works with the local Purdue Writing Lab while the other addresses the OWL.
While changes to the handling of OWL are forthcoming, those who use the website can already see the development that took Denny and his team a year to finish.
The OWL website has been redesigned to resemble a traditional “Purdue” webpage, trading out its decades-old orange, text-heavy format for a black-and-white, modern look on the College of Liberal Arts page. Denny says the change began last summer, out of the hope to make all University-related web pages consistent in style and to represent the Purdue brand through every facet of the website.
The accessibility of the website has also improved, as now pages adapt to whatever device being used, instead of requiring the user to manually scroll across huge swathes of text on a mobile phone, according to Forte.
Though the overhaul of the OWL changed the entire look of the website, Denny assures the content of the lab is essentially the same. Additionally, he said despite rumors to the contrary, no amount of oversight will lead to the OWL necessitating payment for use.
“I can never imagine a firewall being a part of OWL,” Denny said. “The OWL has been really well-supported.
Even with all of the changes the OWL has undergone and has yet to begin, Denny has the same goals that Harris had when she founded the Purdue Writing Lab and put in on the web.
“We are here to work with (students) however they want support,” Denny said. “I hope people realize that we work with first-years that are stepping on campus ... with faculty, with staff, with everyone, and I’m really proud about that.”
“I want to be responsive to what writers’ needs are on campus.”