Jon Olson, champion of peer tutoring in writing, to retire after 23 years

Nicolette Hylan-King
December 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the end of December, Jon Olson will conclude his 23-year career as a champion of peer tutoring in writing at Penn State. As associate professor of writing in the Department of English and scholar in residence for writing and communication in Penn State Learning, Olson has mentored generations of peer tutors in writing and shaped the theory and practice that guides Penn State’s writing centers.

Jon Olson displays a plaque for the 2020 Muriel Harris Outstanding Service Award.

Jon Olson, who will retire at the end of December, received the 2020 Muriel Harris Outstanding Service Award for his service to the international writing center community.

IMAGE: Jon Olson

“Jon’s impact on his students and colleagues over the course of his Penn State career has been extraordinary,” said Mark Morrisson, professor and head of the Department of English. “An important measure of this impact is the many prestigious awards Jon has received in recognition of his contributions. An even better measure, though, is the many generations of students in whom Jon has instilled a love for writing and who have benefitted from Jon’s mentorship. We celebrate all that Jon has accomplished in his distinguished career and thank him for his many contributions to our students and the cause of writing in the University.”

“I had to choose between teaching and walking, and I chose walking. It was not an easy decision.”

— Jon Olson, associate professor of writing in the College of the Liberal Arts

The decision to retire was not made easily, Olson explained. In 2018, he suffered an accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Since then, he has regained significant mobility thanks to physical and occupational therapy, and today he is able to walk short distances with the support of a home health aide and crutches. Olson said he plans to continue this progress in retirement.

“After the accident I hoped to return to teaching, but through the process of recovery I realized I couldn’t receive all the therapy I needed while also continuing my teaching responsibilities,” Olson said. “I had to choose between teaching and walking, and I chose walking. It was not an easy decision.”

Olson’s deep love for teaching and the practice of peer tutoring in writing has been apparent throughout his Penn State career. As soon as he arrived at Penn State in 1997, he set to work growing Penn State’s writing communities. That year, he launched the Penn State Center for Excellence in Writing (CEW), which provided a dedicated home for programs in undergraduate and graduate peer tutoring in writing; Penn State’s Writing Across the Curriculum initiative; and a precursor to the Public Writing Initiative. Olson led the CEW until 2009, when it merged with the University Learning Centers and the Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy to form Penn State Learning, which today serves as the hub for multidisciplinary undergraduate peer tutoring at the University Park campus.

A CEW program that endured as a stand-alone program was the Graduate Writing Center (GWC), which Olson founded in 1998 and which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. For the first time ever, the GWC enabled Penn State graduate students to access peer tutoring in writing. As director of the center from 1998 to 2018, Olson mentored the center’s graduate student tutors and provided leadership for the center. Today, the GWC continues to serve Penn State graduate students across all disciplines.  

As the scholar in residence for writing and communication for Penn State Learning from 2009 to 2018, Olson educated hundreds of writing tutors and shaped the philosophies that guided the center’s writing programs. He trained more than 550 undergraduate peer tutors in writing through his course, English 250: Peer Tutoring in Writing. He also helped Penn State’s peer tutors in writing to join national conversations in the field through the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (NCPTW), which Penn State participated in regularly and hosted twice during Olson’s tenure. Many of the peer tutors Jon mentored now work as writing center coordinators and directors at Penn State and beyond.

“Penn State Learning has benefited greatly from Jon’s extensive knowledge of writing center research and practice,” said R. Neill Johnson, director of Penn State Learning. “Though we will miss Jon’s presence on campus, his legacy will continue to be felt in the vibrant writing communities he has nurtured and the strong alumni network of former tutors he has cultivated.”

Olson’s impact on the tutors he mentored is perhaps his greatest legacy. When asked to reflect on lessons learned from working with Jon, his former students spoke about learning to collaborate and form connections with others.

Grace Eppinger, who graduated in 2019 with majors in History and English, said, “Jon emphasized that the tutoring process is a collaboration and not about putting a tutor in a position of authority over the tutee. In my personal life, I strive to cooperate and develop relationships with others so I can learn from them, and that is one trait I feel Jon embodies.”

Kristin Messuri, who worked with Olson as a graduate student and now directs the writing centers at Texas Tech University, said, “I found working with Jon to be a transformative experience. Jon emphasized treating students with empathy and fostering their creativity and intellectual curiosity. I have carried these foundational values into my own career as a writing center director. To this day, when I speak with Jon, I remember why I do the work that I do.”

Olson brought peer tutoring in writing to institutions beyond Penn State, too. In the summer of 2009, he founded the Ken Macrorie Writing Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, using the same model of collaborative learning he had nurtured at Penn State. The center serves students at the Santa Fe campus of the Bread Loaf School of English, a summer program of Middlebury College which enables students to earn master’s degrees in English. He served as faculty summer coordinator for the center from 2009 to 2015.

Olson’s contributions to the fields of writing program administration and peer tutoring in writing have been recognized with several prestigious appointments and awards. He served as president of the International Writing Centers Association from 2003-05. He received the NCPTW’s Ron Maxwell Award for Distinguished Leadership in Promoting the Collaborative Learning Practices of Peer Tutors in Writing (2008) and the International Writing Center Association's Muriel Harris Outstanding Service Award (2020).

As Olson reflected on his career, he discussed peer tutoring as a “way of life.”

“Peer tutoring is so rich for both individuals in the tutorial. It’s changed my life by affecting how I view interpersonal communication — how I listen to people, ask questions, describe what I’m hearing rather than prescribe what they should do. It’s been a joy and a privilege to watch students grow in significant ways as they talk with other writers from across the disciplines. For me to be able to support such work has been so rich.”

Olson lives in State College with his spouse and Penn State English faculty member, Cheryl Glenn. He can be reached at jeo3@psu.edu.

Penn State Learning is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undergrad.psu.edu.

Last Updated December 14, 2020