Formation and Idealism in Writing at the University

“Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing.”

This is a line from an essay by Stephen North called “The Idea of a Writing Center,” and it has come to be a sort of motto for all writing centers. As Director of the Writing Center at Notre Dame, I find it to be a useful mantra in the work that we do to support writers across the university, from first year students to faculty. The spirit of North’s sentiment is clear: We should not focus on the text that the writer brings into the Writing Center to the exclusion of the writer of that text. Good writing, North suggests, is simply a byproduct of the much more important process of the writer’s development. His admonition is indeed a helpful maxim, one that we frequently reference in Writing Center staff meetings to remind ourselves that we are in it for the long haul. Development of writers takes time—usually much longer than the 45 minutes we allot to a single writing consultation. Better writers, not better writing is a good touchstone.

Lately, however, I’ve been reconsidering North’s tagline in light of an essay by our very own Professor John Duffy, the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame. Duffy’s essay entitled “The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing” isn’t about “good” writers as simply efficacious writers, or persuasive writers, or proficient writers. As the subtitle of his essay suggests, Duffy is talking about the intrinsically ethical dimension of writing, the ways in which writing involves us inextricably in relations with others. He is also specifically concerned with how writing teachers approach the task of cultivating the development of good writers in this ethical sense. The premise of his argument is that because of the inherently ethical character of writing, any attempt to instruct another person in the process of writing is also, inescapably, a kind of ethical instruction. Duffy then shows how virtue ethics points the way for the cultivation of certain rhetorical virtues that are critical to the healthy functioning of our society.

It’s worth taking a look at how the notion of the “good writer” plays out in the Writing Center, and more broadly at Notre Dame. While we work every day in the Writing Center to foster the development of writers, we don’t often talk about how what we do when we’re learning to write might actually make us not only better writers, but simply better. Quintilian in his first century Institutio Oratia famously describes the ideal rhetor as “the good man speaking well,” as he pursues an examination of the relation between skill in persuasive discourse and moral character itself. Can one be a good orator without being morally good? Further, does the study of rhetoric hold the potential to make us good?

Notre Dame’s writing community and its values reach far beyond the boundaries of campus. For the past year, I’ve been working weekly with a group of incarcerated men at the Westville Correctional Facility who are enrolled in a liberal arts degree program through the Moreau College Initiative (MCI). The ten men I work have been chosen to serve as tutors in a writing center at the prison, providing writing consultations for their fellow college students in MCI. I can honestly say that I know of nobody else who is working as hard as they are to improve themselves, to be better. They are fiercely committed to their studies, and they recognize in the pursuit of a liberal education the keys to finding freedom and knowing what to do with it. While all students in MCI are striving toward self-improvement and a better life, the MCI Writing Center tutors have been selected because of their commitment to serving others. They extend their own dedication to learning and to communication as a model and a support for their fellow inmates. In their commitment I see what is sometimes regarded as the ultimate end of a liberal education, the liberation of others.

This semester, the ten MCI Writing Center tutors are enrolled in my writing pedagogy course at Westville, a course that explores theories of literacy development, linguistics, and rhetoric. This week, we spent some time discussing North’s famous maxim about producing better writers. We talked about it in the original sense of fostering more skillful writers and then discussed the possibility of reading it in the ethical sense suggested by Duffy’s essay. I asked them what they thought of the question that Duffy and Quintilian prompt us to consider concerning the relation of rhetoric and ethics: What does it mean to be a good man speaking well?

A couple of the students spoke out at once with counterexamples that leapt to mind, bringing up some concerns about powerful speech that haunt us all right now, fake news and problems of trust between the public and the media. Then one reflected, “This makes me think of gang leaders, how charismatic they are, and how effective they are at getting people to do what they want.” Another jumped in: “Well, Hitler is a perfect example of that. He was a great orator.” And then someone brought Quintilian’s idea back to the center of the conversation: “But according to this definition, Hitler couldn’t be a great orator because he wasn’t a good man.” With this a new insight emerged: “But he was a great orator—it’s just that he could never be the ideal orator.”

Suddenly it was clear that all our hope lies not in greatness, but in the ideal. And now, at 4:58 P.M., after a long day of classes, as they brought the conversation even more alive with multiple voices diving after the question of the relationship—and the difference—between the great and the ideal, we were abruptly cut short. The custody officer had arrived to signal the end of class and summon the men to be counted and move on. Hands reached out to shake my hand, and then all ten stepped into line, where they stood and waited as I passed through the door to make my way to the front gate and then back to South Bend.

These are without a doubt the hardest working students I’ve ever had. They don’t stop, they don’t get tired, they don’t have side conversations. They throw themselves into discussion, into their writing, and into their extracurricular writing projects (my favorite of which is their newspaper, ingeniously titled Prose and Cons). They recognize the central role that writing plays in their liberal education, and they are eagerly exploring questions of responsibility in their development as writers and as teachers of writing. They are deeply engaged with the ethics of rhetoric because they unceasingly confront the need to be better, and writing places their inner selves in the light to be examined, to become the subject of crucial, deliberate work.

My own conception of the relation between rhetoric and ethics is undoubtedly bound up with my religious formation, along my own path toward becoming a better self. As a product of Benedictine secondary and Jesuit postsecondary education (along with the influence and generosity of Dominican pastors and confessors, Franciscan hosts while on pilgrimage, a Holy Cross spiritual director, and more diocesan priests than I can name), I have a decidedly Catholic, though somewhat patchwork, view on the relation between writing and goodness. A helpful insight from the Jesuit tradition, however, crystallizes the question for me in promoting the ideal of eloquentia perfecta, a theory of “perfect eloquence” that is a pedagogical goal far beyond proficiency in communication or persuasion: it is a shaping of the whole person toward wisdom, grace, virtue, and technical mastery, all in preparation to serve the common good. Surely this is what writing, and the teaching of writing, at a Catholic university should be.

So yes, “our job is to produce better writers, not better writing,” and that includes making better writers of ourselves and our neighbors. Always before us is that ideal rhetor, a vision of perfection we will have to distinguish carefully from the merely great rhetor we might become, the one who is the most dangerous kind of person. Our idealism should make us tireless. To paraphrase our fearless leader John Duffy, “If you can’t be idealistic at Notre Dame, where can you be?”

Professor Matthew Capdevielle is the Director of the University Writing Center and an associate professor of the practice with the University Writing Program. He can be reached at