How to talk with a student who isn’t there

Ineffective and effective practices for commenting on student writing

By Mike A. Shapiro, @mikeshapiro, TA and Co-Coordinator in the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The author, pontificating about something. Photo by Amy Patterson.

The author, pontificating about something. Photo by Amy Patterson.

Those of us lucky enough to teach in a classroom or tutor in a writing center recognize how much learning can happen in a 30-minute conversation. Spending those same 30 minutes writing comments on a student’s paper can feel like we’re teaching only a fraction of what we’re capable of, and yet writing these comments is an enormous part of our work! A professor in a writing-intensive discipline may spend 300 workdays of her career grading papers, and a writing center may spend a large percentage of its tutoring time on written feedback.

But what do students learn from all these hours dedicated to commenting? Troublingly, the answer is that we don’t know.

C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon have, for thirty years, followed research on teacher feedback. They believe commenters fall for the logical fallacy that what teachers teach is the same thing as what students learn, and they think we count as student learning things that are really just error correction. They conclude from the studies they reviewed that comments on student writing have “limited meaningful impact on draft-to-draft revision and virtually no demonstrable effect on performance from assignment to assignment” (2006, p. 14).

As Anson (2012) puts it, “What would it mean to us, psychologically and pedagogically, if we were to find only a modest educational return on the colossal investment of time and energy we put into responding to student writing?” (p. 188).

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Déjà vu, presque vu, and jamais vu at the UWMC Writing Center

By Andy Karr

Andy1Andy Karr is Coordinator of the Wausau Homes Learning Center and Lecturer in English at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. Andy worked from 2008-2010 in the UW-Madison Writing Center. He is completing a dissertation on writing and thinking in general education.

The University of Wisconsin-Marathon County is one of the thirteen two-year UW-College campuses. About 1400 students attend UWMC, located in Wausau, Wisconsin. Many UWMC students transfer to Madison, but, at the same time, all UW Colleges have a policy of admitting all qualified applicants. This makes for a broad range of services our writing center aims to provide. Not all UW College campuses have a writing center that operates in the same way that UWMC’s does.

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Toys and Transformations in Online Tutoring

The author, as illustrated by cartoonist Abby Howard.

The author, as illustrated by cartoonist Abby Howard.

By Mike A. Shapiro, @mikeshapiro.

Mike is a graduate student at UW–Madison, where he is completing a Ph.D. on the modern novel and where he is a TA in the Writing Center.

At last week’s Midwest Writing Centers Association conference, we asked the folks who attended our panel whether their centers were tutoring online. Many of them said they were toying with the idea.

What a layered metaphor that is! Compared to the careful pedagogy, scholarship, and hard work of teaching students, one by one, how to become more effective writers, online instruction can feel like a kind of toy.

Yet the superficial unseriousness and gadgetry of online instruction have given us permission to experiment online in a way we might not risk experimenting in our physical centers, and throughout the MWCA conference I heard dedicated, serious scholars speak with delight and energy about the ways they have been toying with online tutoring to reach new students and to improve the quality of all their tutoring. The improvisations of our work online force us to invite the trickster not to our table, as Geller et al. have it, but to our screens. (more…)

The Social Center: Why Writing Centers Need Twitter

Mike Shapiro (front, beard) pictured with the UW–Madison Writing Center’s email instruction team. Photo by Jessie Reeder.

Mike Shapiro (front, beard) pictured with the UW–Madison Writing Center’s email instruction team. Photo by Jessie Reeder.

By Mike Shapiro, a graduate student and the online coordinator of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Writing Center.

At its best, Twitter looks like the perfect tool for promoting any writing center’s goals: it privileges writing, supports lively conversations, and develops long-term relationships between writers and readers. Twitter can remind students, faculty, and administrators, every day, of the center’s services. At the same time, Twitter can help writing centers around the world stay in touch, sharing new programming and approaches.

For our Writing Center at UW–Madison, the reality of how we use Twitter falls short of this ideal. This spring, I got the chance to work with a team of instructors who turned their critical eyes on our Twitter feed. We compared our tweets to those coming from other centers, and to tweets coming from campus programs that use Twitter to build strong relationships with students. This exploration confirmed for us that Twitter is not merely a powerful vehicle but a necessary one for our Writing Center, a tool that gives us one more way to work directly with our students and to help them see themselves as writers. (more…)

This rant is asynchronous

The author points to a poorly-chosen word. Photo courtesy of former Writing Center instructor Catherine A. Price.

The author points out something else you’re doing wrong. Photo by Writing Center alumna Catherine A. Price.

By Mike A. Shapiro

This is Mike’s sixth year at the Writing Center. He is the 2012–13 TA coordinator of our Online Writing Center. Since 2010, he has worked as a tutor for the Pearson Tutor Services Online Writing Lab.

Writing centers use the phrase asynchronous online writing instruction to describe this sequence:

  1. A student sends a draft to the writing center.
  2. A tutor reads the draft and types a response to guide the student’s revision.
  3. That response goes back to the student.

I’ve gotten hung up on the word asynchronous: I’d like writing centers to stop using it, and I would like them to stop believing the things they must believe if they take the label “asynchronous” seriously. (more…)