Dr. Burton Pu to retire after 24 years with The Writing Center

by Kayla Steinberg

At the Writing Center farewell party last week, Dr. Burton Pu, a professional tutor retiring this year, shared some parting thoughts with the group. “A person does not really live in this world if his or her story is not told,” he said.

Recalling the thousands of students who have learned from Burton at Washington University, Director Rob Patterson replied, “By helping them tell their stories, you’ve helped them live, too.”

Burton has supported undergraduate and graduate students at The Writing Center for almost 24 years and has spent 35 years total at the university. He has dedicated decades to help others with their writing and is now retiring to focus on his own. Burton plans to write a memoir, some novels, an essay series about social and cultural issues, a collection of his poems and a translation of Emerson’s major essays. Some will be in English and some in Chinese. And when he finishes something, he said, “I may send it to the Writing Center to get help.”

We are so grateful for Burton’s wisdom, kindness and stories. Some of our professional tutors and staff reflect on moments with Burton.

Roy Kasten, Professional Tutor

One often hears of the importance of institutional memory to any organization. And yet that memory is often framed in purely functional terms. As a senior tutor at the Writing Center, Burton’s memory embodied so much more than operations. Call it “soul memory” or “deep memory,” the kind that Emerson, one of Burton’s intellectual heroes (and an author he has translated into Chinese), called “the thread on which the beads of man are strung…As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge.”

 Burton provided that kind of soulful stability to The Writing Center. His calm, wise, ruminative presence served as a ballast to sustain and guide us along the ever-changing stream of words and ideas and emotions that flow through The Writing Center every day, year, decade. He didn’t just support students. He inspired them, challenged them, and showed them the power of well-remembered stories and well-chosen words, drawing on his deep understanding of the language and culture and history of the East and the West. Washington University and its Writing Center were lucky to have his service for so many years. Neither will be the same without him.

Ruth Berson, Professional Tutor

Burton is often very quiet, but when he speaks, he has a lot to say, and it is always worth listening to.

 I could go on about his lived history in China of being sent down to the countryside to harvest rice and teach, about how, during a discussion of how sometimes students feel like they’d like to make their papers better without changing them, Burton said suddenly and vehemently, “Everything changes! Look at the sky! The clouds, the light, the color—everything changes.” We were all kind of dumbfounded, but there was no question he had put a common Writing Center occurrence in a deeply philosophical context.

Steve Pijut, Associate Director

I’m finding it hard to imagine The Writing Center without Burton. He has been a cornerstone for us, representing the very best of what we do.  When I think of Burton, I think of the word generosity. Over the years, he has been so generous in sharing his expertise (considerable), his experience (vast) and his good nature (boundless) with students and staff alike.

 He has meant so much to the students he has worked with and colleagues he has worked beside.  I am not sure what it will feel like to make a new schedule without Burton’s name on it. I know it will feel like a tremendous loss to The Writing Center and to our students, and (selfishly) to his co-workers.  But I am especially glad that Burton is now saving some of that generosity for himself, for his family, and for his own work.  Burton has been a cherished colleague, mentor, and friend, and I wish him the very best with his upcoming projects with a pang of loss but also with the deepest gratitude for everything I’ve learned from him.

Susan Lowther, Special Programs Coordinator

I love Burton’s sense of calm. Whenever things would get loud or hectic—during sessions or staff meetings, or what have you—Burton was always so serene-looking and the voice of wisdom. Roy and I decided one day that if we did a staff outing to an escape room, Burton would be the winner.  His calm, cool, collected thinking would totally beat out our panic. I am going to miss him!

Carolyn Smith, Professional Tutor

I have known Burton since he first came to Washington University in St. Louis as a graduate student in American Literature nearly 35 years ago. During much of that time we have both worked in The Writing Center, where Burton has shared with all of us—colleagues and students alike—his enthusiasm for language and for writing, as well as his unique perspective as a practiced writer in Chinese and in English. He is a patient listener but also has a wealth of his own stories to tell—about Chinese and American life. He has told us about a few of his adventures, but now I look forward to seeing them in print! Congratulations, Burton.

Rob Patterson, Director

When I became director of The Writing Center seven years ago, I met with Doreen Salli, who was the previous director and founder of The Writing Center.  Doreen took the time to tell me about each of the staff members with whom I’d be working.  When it came to Burton, she told me that I would not find another person with the kind of insight he has about language and writing and especially the international student experience of writing at an American university.  I quickly came to see what she meant, but in Burton, I also found a calm wisdom and warmth that I have sought (and usually failed) to emulate.  Burton has always put the needs of our students and of The Writing Center before his own, and I am happy to see that he is finally putting his own goals and writing first.  He deserves the time to tell his story, and the world deserves the chance to read it.  Thank you, Burton, for giving so much of yourself to this important work.  We expect to see drafts of your work soon!

Burton, too, remembers his time at WashU:

I came to the United States in 1982 as an exchange scholar between Whitman College in Washington state and Yunnan University in Kunming, China. At the time, I was a young faculty member of Yunnan University and the first scholar to participate in the exchange program (which is still going on between these two schools). After my time at Whitman College was over, I went to the University of Montana to obtain my master’s degree in English and American literature. Upon finishing my study at University of Montana in 1985, I was accepted to work on my PhD in American literature at Washington University and have never left its campus until my retirement.

During the years of my graduate study at Washington University, I taught English composition courses as a TA, and one of these courses was designed specifically for international students. As an international student myself, my long experience of learning and teaching English urged me to find a better way to help international students adapt to American academic writing. To some extent, there exists a misconception among native speakers, that is, many of them, including some faculty members, tend to believe that the international students’ writing turns to be childish and hence these students are not matured intellectually. The lack of and unwillingness to understanding the different educational values and different writing styles has put international students in a very difficult and sometimes embarrassing situation. You may have come to see that writing touches the core of a writer’s identity, and that to change one’s writing style is, in fact, to change one’s identity, because writing reflects one’s cultural and educational background and many other related factors. The process of adapting to American academic writing is a painful and frustrating one for most international students, and the feeling of becoming “handicapped intellectually” is not something that many native speakers can really understand.

While teaching that course, I tried my best, with my personal experience, to help my students go through this process smoothly—to be positive to their own writing style and also to be aware of the necessity of using the new style to write their academic papers effectively. The director of the writing program of the English Department, who later was the dean of University College, audited my class and appreciated my approach. Late in 1996, he highly recommended me to Doreen, the director of the newly established Writing Center, and I started working for the center while teaching Asian-American literature in the English Department.  Helping international students adapt to American academic writing has remained one of my priorities during my twenty-three years work with The Writing Center.

One of my favorite movements was the day when the center was celebrating its ten-year anniversary. Student Union wanted to make sure that The Writing Center deserved the award by providing excellent service to students as it was highly recommended by the university community, so the chief editor of Student Life disguised himself as a confused student to come to the center when center staff members were busy at greeting the visiting guests. The center was somewhat closed at 4:00pm, but he walked in and insisted that he had a paper due tomorrow and needed help. I greeted him and worked patiently with him to go through both higher lever and lower lever concerns. The topic of the paper dealt with a pretty sensitive issue about using marijuana on the campus, and the chief editor also pretended he was somehow on drugs. By doing so, he wanted to see the center handle such kinds of challenging situations. Focusing on the organization and idea development of the paper, I avoided being judgmental and encouraged him to support his argument logically with specific evidence. He left the center with a smile on his face. In the following week, Student Life carried an article about the chief editor’s experience with the center and praised the center for the help it provided. More interestingly, it also announced that the center won the award of providing excellent service to students that year.

I guess I have talked too much and should stop here.