Is There a Person in This Text? Synchronous Online Writing Instruction and Personhood as a Collaborative Gesture

Coordinator of the UW-Madison Online Writing Center, TA Christopher Syrnyk

Coordinator of the UW-Madison Online Writing Center, TA Christopher Syrnyk

By Christopher Syrnyk

The physical embodiment treatment . . .

When writers come through the doors of the Main Writing Center (WC) at UW-Madison, it’s worth considering how we instructors can process many bits of information about them. Before we meet, we’ve typically reviewed instructor records to prepare us for the session in the here and now. When we meet the writers, we then notice how they appear to us as persons. We observe their faces as they register the activity at the WC. We sometimes find them hunched over a laptop computer while they sit and shift, perhaps lost in thought over a personal statement or literature paper. The point—and during such encounters our senses are processing much data—concerns how instructors, via their amazing powers of observation, can process a world of information about the people who have come to work on their writing, in an effort to help them more completely with their writing.

The cyberspace treatment…

When writers come to UW-Madison’s Online Writing Center (OWC) via Asynchronous (email/Asynch) or Synchronous (chat/Synch) instruction, it’s worth considering how the bits of information we can access about a student create a potentially different picture of the writer. Among my many regular responsibilities as the Coordinator of the OWC this year, I’m charged with the care and feeding of the WC’s website, always searching for the missing, or broken, link, and working with a singularly thoughtful, sharp, and productive staff of nine Teaching Assistants. During our first staff meeting, I revealed one of my primary goals this year. Besides building our audience (I want you to use the OWC!), I asked the staff to consider how we treat the writer as a person during this encounter where we engage in Online Writing Instruction (OWI) in cyberspace.

Cyberspace—Like City Lights, Receding

Or, The Online Writing Center Experience

Allow me to clarify what I mean by treating the writer-as-a-person in cyberspace and how this relates to OWI. In this blog post, I’m thinking mainly about the live “chat” work we do with student writers. It’s worth noting that some students come to the UW Writing Center for their first appointment via Synchronous instruction. Presumably, their first encounter with a writing center is via an electronic interface. I should mention that much of my own rhetorical research involves analyzing arguments wherein personhood factors heavily into the debate. Here, however, I’m interested in what happens to writers and texts via the Synch interface—for these online “chat” conferences we use Adobe Connect for OWI. I’m also curious about whether we appreciate the student as a person when that student seeks writing instruction in the cyberspace environment of OWI, and to what extent our collaborative work on the writer’s text encourages this sense of the writer as person. I should also note that much of my recent thinking about persons in OWI stems from my reading of Jaron Lanier’s You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010). (For more about OWI at UW-Madison, see Rik Hunter’s post on this blog.)

Taking a cue from Lanier’s work, I would further like to know how offering OWI has changed my Synch staff as writing instructors, and as persons. Many questions occur to me. For example, how has the technology the Synch staff uses in OWI influenced how they see the process of writing, in particular, with regard to how technology asks us to think about writing as embodied presence through texts? Does the technology encourage a more dynamically collaborative encounter over the student’s writing? Does Synch instruction encourage us to consider more directly what it means to be a person? My tentative answer: yes it does. Via Synch instruction, we see our words take shape and in return shape the writing instruction experience.

Concerning Synch instruction, my staff has commented on this greater presence of the electronic text. By electronic text, I simply mean the document that a writer pastes into Adobe Connect’s “Draft Window,” which writer and instructor can see and on which they can simultaneously work. Via Adobe Connect, writer and instructor can watch each other’s work manipulating the text in real time. It’s quite something to see your own writing change before your eyes while someone you cannot see is writing in your text. The text moves and shifts on the screen like e-sand: enjambment—the lines in the Draft Window start to cascade at the point of the return. I was watching this cascading of lines while I wrote this: it’s mildly wondrous to see.

So should we also say that the text itself takes on a more active role, a more electric presence during a session? In Synch instruction, the letter of the text is no longer stable, and the writing truly becomes electric. We can see the formerly dead word of print making its eternal return to the living word of speech—I can’t believe I wrote that—all online. All of this Synch work makes we wonder if we should do away with the figurative language that inflects the text as a person, a text as embodied presence: the role of the text; the writer’s presence or persona in the text; the dubious voice of a text? What further complicates this matter of the “person of the text” in an OWI session is that the text is not a physically static entity “in between us” on a table, which is typical writing center protocol. The writer’s text is “live” (as in the “live chat”), it’s dynamic (can we say that the medium becomes the person—am I really saying that?), and it seems to present us with a different means for considering the thoughtful interaction we try to enact with writers over their writing.

However, I also wonder whether the more I feel conversant with and through the online text, that is the more I focus on the writing on the screen, the more I will feel my own presence slip away in the online exchange with a writer? Perhaps OWI calls for the kind of thinking where personhood needs to be appreciated as a truly collaborative gesture and not as part of the collective hallucination which we think of as cyberspace. As such, what defines OWI just might be the medium that fosters this mutual experience of personhood between writer and instructor . (Comments?)

Meanwhile, Back at the Online Writing Center

So far this semester, it’s been my pleasure to observe the entire Synch staff interact with students via Adobe Connect. As an observer, I’ve noted how these instructors have seemingly used more verbal support cues than in a F2F session (“you’re doing great,” “yes, I think that’s good,” “I really like your revision idea”). Or is it that these comments take on more relevance, seem more pronounced, in an online session. In a way, I believe the instructors are doing more to address the person behind the text, the persons who make themselves visible with each typed line in a chat window: typing shows we’re there, and it’s important for the student and the writing instructor to know this about each other.

My staff and I have discussed this matter of the person behind/of the text by also noting how sudden the experience can seem, how immediate an encounter can be when working with OWI via Synch: seemingly more immediate than the interaction in F2F writing instruction. When chatting over a paper (can we “chat up” a paper?), we feel so present, again I surmise, because we feel tied to the moment of the interaction only through the text we generate, yet simultaneously just as much by the silence we allow in between the moments of reading, thinking, and typing. But why don’t I show you what a recent chat looked like when I tried out some of these thoughts, via Adobe Connect, with one of the TAs: Tim Johnson.

Tim Johnson and I discussed some of these issues when I met with him online to work on this blog post. Here is how our ideas played out in some excerpted exchanges that show us thinking through a draft of this blog post:


Christopher Syrnyk: (furrowing my brow in thought)

Christopher Syrnyk: do you always remember that there’s a person on the other side of the chat?

Timothy Johnson: I think that’s exactly right, but the question is what to do with the student who isn’t in a place where challenge is needed but, instead, support.

Timothy Johnson: And I think I sometimes focus too much on the text, and that can be made worse by the chat window

Christopher Syrnyk: putting support into type is tricky

Christopher Syrnyk: sometimes you might opt for the supportive phrase instead of the well-crafted sentence

Christopher Syrnyk: and to what extent does this chat line I’m typing in now determine how I comment to a writer?

Timothy Johnson: definitely, an lol is certainly not the same as laughter

Christopher Syrnyk: -000\

Clarissa looks into the Online Writing Center.

Clarissa looks into the Online Writing Center

Christopher Syrnyk: oops, that was my cat Clarissashe ran over the keyboard—sorry for that

Timothy Johnson: tell her hello

Christopher Syrnyk: Clarissa looks at you with grave indifference

Christopher Syrnyk: sometimes I share a random thought like this with the writer online

Christopher Syrnyk: like, “my cat just jumped up on the desk”

Christopher Syrnyk: I think it frees them up and just as importantly brings out the person in us, for them

Timothy Johnson: very true, I am much less prone to tangents here online

Christopher Syrnyk: I like the tangents here

Christopher Syrnyk: i worry that sometimes the student and I can become “line item fixated”—the line in the draft, the line in the chat window…

Christopher Syrnyk: too much thought on the text, line by line, not enough attention to the producer of the text and the responder

Christopher Syrnyk: I sometimes check in with the writer

Timothy Johnson: how so?

Christopher Syrnyk: for ex. ”how do you feel now as opposed to when we started our session?”

Christopher Syrnyk: they sometimes say, “I feel like I can write this now”

Christopher Syrnyk: or “like I can finish,” “I’m relieved”

Timothy Johnson: that’s encouraging

Christopher Syrnyk: that’s what I think we need to do

Christopher Syrnyk: also remember to focus on the writer as a person

Christopher Syrnyk: and not as a text-producing machine

Christopher Syrnyk: like a Turing creation on holiday

Timothy Johnson: ha, in my experience, I think “how do you feel” always works better than “how does that fit in or work with the text”

The Chat Goes On…

Console cowboys that we are, this chat continued. When I reflect on it, what I like about our exchange is how diligently Tim worked to listen through his responses and to take up my ideas, sometimes line by line, to reflect them back to me via effective writing center instruction. He showed an astute sense of how to consider, through type, the person making the ideas possible, through type, and how to show an honest engagement with the writer (me). In the process, he was mindful of how the technology played a role in our exchange, and he didn’t make me feel like some abstraction, and I saw how he worked to preserve our mutual sense of personhood, as people with writing to discuss. Effective OWI occurs when the writing instructor is able to treat writers as persons discussing their writing instead of overly focusing on some instance of writing with a person attached to it. In Synchronous OWI, when both writer and instructor can engage each other, then we may say that via OWI writing and personhood have become a truly collaborative gesture: the medium is the person.

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