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.

Some word history

Synchronous came first, and was pompous from the start. The OED gives 1669 as its earliest use: “Hercules, the Tyrian Commander; whom some make synchronous with Moses.”

To employ this fake Greek word, the writer had to discard simpler phrasing (“Some say Hercules lived in Moses’s time”) and extant adjectives:

  • concurrent (1476)
  • coincident (1598)
  • contemporary (1655) and contemporaneous (1656)
  • simultaneous (1660)

Asynchronous appeared in medical texts in the 1730s. Electrical engineers picked it up in the 1890s, then computer scientists in the 1960s.

Asynchronous leapt into the classroom with the rise of correspondence courses in the 1950s. The boom in online education since 1990 made “asynchronous learning” a permanent part of academic life.

Google N-Gram charting the growth of "asynchronous learning" and "synchronous learning"

Google N-Gram charting the growth of “asynchronous learning” and “synchronous learning”

Does the word belong in the writing center? The OED calls its tone “chiefly scientific and technical.” Of the 4,000 instances of “asynchronous” on wisc.edu, all but a few hundred are in computer science and engineering.

Asynchronous sounds appropriate when you’re describing the opening and closing of aortic valves, or the relationship between a motor and its power supply. But it sounds out of place when you are writing about something fundamentally human and social: the interaction of the writer with her reader.

Yet this word sticks with us. Asynchronous appears on our blog 11 times—before this post, anyway—and in our conversation far more often.

What’s so great about synchronicity?

Asynchronous is a negative label: it describes something in terms of what it is not. As a negative label, it tells us that writing centers privilege synchronicity, that something not synchronous needs to be labeled and separated from the main line of writing center work.

But why?

Perhaps we value synchronicity because we believe people learn better when they are in the same place at the same time. This is how monks learned Greek at Oxford in the twelfth century and it’s how 19-year-olds learned anthropology this morning. Asynchronous learning moves away from the medieval idea of the university.

Another reason: synchronous writing instruction is rare. Professors write in the margins of every draft but don’t talk about providing “asynchronous grading.” They can’t sit down with each student for 30 minutes. We can. Our brand identity at the writing center relies on this difference.

Lastly, I have a feeling that writing centers privilege synchronicity because we see all the ways the writer may fail to communicate with the reader. A student may not understand the written assignment; the professor may not understand the student’s main point; the student may not understand her professor’s feedback. We know, from talking with writers, that a two-minute conversation could clear up any of these issues.

And yet when we look at these justifications disfavoring asynchronous instruction, we see them resting on a series of assumptions, fears, and fallacies.

All learning is asynchronous

It is hard to break the habit of thinking that synchronicity is educationally necessary, but we all know that the psychological act of learning includes a variety of syncopation, suspension, and deferral.

You can tell me something today that I don’t understand until Monday morning, when I am brewing my coffee and suddenly appreciate your point. There are things my professors tried to teach me 8 years ago that I’m only figuring out this month.

The Writing Center's Mattie Burkert welcomes students to our new synchronous instructional space

This is what synchronous looks like. The Writing Center’s Mattie Burkert welcomes students to our new synchronous instructional space

The same is true of writing instruction. When one of our students proudly tells her professor “The Writing Center helped me find a better way to express my thesis,” the professor’s first question isn’t “How many minutes elapsed between the tutor’s remarks and your educational development?”

The writing matters, not when it happens. Yet this temporal fixation is baked into the language of what we do.

Does dialogue require two speakers? (Just ask Plato.)

The Writing Center's Chris McVey responds to a graduate writer in UW–Madison's Master of Social Work program. (Click to see a PDF of the complete interaction.)

The Writing Center’s Chris McVey responds to a graduate writer in UW–Madison’s Master of Social Work program. (Click to see a PDF of the complete interaction.)

When we ask our students questions in the writing center, we learn to more accurately understand the student’s meaning, audience, assignment, and goals. When we talk to students, we can prompt them to verbalize answers to their readers’ questions and develop these answers into missing sentences and paragraphs. In contrast, writing seems to limit the tutor to monologue: a statement of problems and a list of revisions.

I don’t buy this.

Good instructional writing is necessarily dialogic. When they write to their students, good tutors create dialogue within the text:

  • They identify revision needs in response to the student’s interests and context, expressed and implied.
  • They draw language from the student’s text into their global comments to teach writers how to see places where they could better guide their readers.
  • They engage the student with open-ended questions.
  • Most importantly, tutors expose the dialogic nature of all writing by embedding comments in their students’ drafts.

On the page there is a powerful mind-to-mind link between the writer and the reader, the student and the tutor.

What can asynchronous instruction provide that in-person instruction cannot?

I don’t want to say talk doesn’t matter. Of course talk matters; it just doesn’t help.

Writers do not write with readers sitting next to them. Writers grow by learning to internalize their readers, to anticipate what their readers will be thinking.

When the writer discusses the text three feet from a tutor in the writing center, he may leave the conference knowing issues to revise without having learned how to anticipate the reader’s needs. By letting the writer chat with the reader, we leave the training wheels on the bike.

By letting writers confront their readers’ uncertainties and frustrations without the mediation of a conversation, we expose them to the raw writer-reader interaction you see in the workplace. We attune writers to thinking about their real readers.

By seeing the mistakes the reader makes as well as the insights the reader has, a writer is reading his draft at the same time as his reader. The page is the most synchronous space we have.

Saying it is better to work with a student when he or she is 3 feet away than over a distance, over email, is like saying, “It’s best to read books when the author is sitting 3 feet from your face.” It’s not.

If not “asynchronous,” then what?

What matters about writing instruction is what drives the interaction.

When we meet with our students in person, the writer’s meaning is foremost, the writer’s needs are privileged. However courageously the tutor works to impersonate the real reader, the writer’s physical presence and performance of the text occlude even from the best tutors the real reception of the draft.

In written conversations between writers and readers, the reader’s needs take precedence. What meaning does the reader take away from the draft? What evidence fails to persuade, inform, or move the reader?

By asking tutors to teach with almost no information beyond that on the page, we are tapping into our writing tutors’ deep reserves of writing skill and expertise more effectively than when we ask them to be conversationalists, interviewers, and talkers in the writing center.

What we have are not synchronous and asynchronous instruction, but writer-driven and reader-driven instruction. They’re dialogic, but in different ways. They’re growth-oriented, but via different means. They’re revision-focused, but use different tools to shape and motivate revision.

Tutors who are excellent at writer-driven instruction but who have never worked in reader-driven instruction are only doing half the job. We are sending these tutors out into a world where “on average” learning outcomes are better online than in person. We are sending these tutors into our writing centers without the training they need to say, “Why don’t you email me your next draft on Sunday and I’ll respond with different, more reader-driven feedback?”

We are online the same way we are in libraries and classrooms: to fulfill our mission to reach students wherever they are. Where are they more than their computer screens?

10 thoughts on “This rant is asynchronous

  1. Some great points, Mike. As a tutor who has spent lots of face time with writers, but is just learning to respond as a tutor and reader, I can attest to the need to create dialogue on the page. This is challenging, but we employ many of the same techniques we would use in a face to face appointment. My work as an online instructor has helped me become better at asking open ended questions when I tutor face to face.

    I also think that online instruction allows us to reach more and different students. For example, this semester, I am working online with a proposal writer who lives far from Madison and cannot make it into the Writing Center for face to face appointments. Without online instruction we would not be able to help this student. It will be interesting to see if, in the future if it doesn’t yet, the online writing center could help students studying abroad.

    For those who can access the main center or satellites, online instruction can provide an entry point into the world of the Writing Center. To this end, we provide links to workshops and encourage writers to come in for a face to face appointment.

    Ultimately, online instruction is another form of outreach and, as Mike says, vital to the success of the Writing Center as a whole.

  2. Mike: this is brilliant.

    When I was doing “asynchronous tutoring,” I knew that it was often more helpful to students and to my own teaching development than f2f writing tutoring–or, if not more helpful, certainly as helpful. I knew that the asynch center appealed to different learning styles, increased the accessibility of the Writing Center (as Leah points out above), helped shy students, and offered a low barrier to entry. I knew that dialoguing about writing in the medium of writing had to be a good sort of challenge: all you have is what the student writes, and all they get from you is what you write. What better way to accentuate the expressive potential of writing?

    But I never really thought about the tyranny (my word, not yours) of the value of synchronicity in writing center tutoring. But you’re right: this “asynch” work is, indeed, dialogism in all of the ways you describe. “Asynchronous tutoring” is, as all writing is, a social practice. The tutor has to work to synthesize her comments in a way that will ‘read’ for the writer. To do this, she has to show examples, or engage with the writing–rather than the writer.

    In writing center work, we often emphasize the engagement with the writer, which is one reason synchronous or f2f tutoring is often privileged. As Stephen North has famously pointed out, writing centers are about (synchronous) talk. But the way you describe it, asynch tutoring also engages with the writer; however it does this solely through the writing. By engaging the writer through the writing, a tutor can take advantage of the affordances of writing–for instance, its fixity. As you mention, it often takes us a long time to process complex ideas. The tutor’s written comments, will (to Plato’s dismay) keep saying the same thing, waiting patiently, interminably, for the student to process it. A f2f conference is ephemeral and cannot do this.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Mike! I’ll be thinking about them for a while. The good news is: your blog post will be here–in writing–for me to revisit as I continue to process this. :)

  3. Intriguing thoughts here, Mike! This post is an eye-opener for me in several respects. For instance, I’ve never before considered the ways in which teachers “asynchronously” write comments in the margins of students’ papers. This makes me think about the various ways in which our writing center work “interfaces” (to use another word that sounds more at home in the computer science world) with our classroom work. I echo Annette in saying that I’ll be processing your ideas for quite some time.

  4. Mike, what a thought-provoking post. As the other commenters said, you’re making me think about asynch in really new ways. This is a tension in my own career and work that I find fascinating and often troubling–I’m a writer, both an academic and a creative writer. But at the same time, I’m exceedingly extroverted in the sense that I don’t know what I think until I’ve said it to someone. Sometimes this can take the form of “saying” through writing, but more often I need to see a face, notice a response, develop a thought in someone’s midsentence… How do I reconcile these two inclinations? And for students like me, or for ones who don’t even lean so far to the writing side of a personality, how do we serve them best? I’d argue that face-to-face talk (which can be either reader- or writer-driven) is VITAL to those students, in the same way that reader-driven-through-written response is VITAL to others. I’m hesitating to play the “learning styles” card, though–maybe this is more about writing process styles. What do you think?

  5. Great questions, Stephanie! And thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments!

    When I made this argument at last week’s Madison Area Writing Centers Colloquium, several thoughtful and expert instructors shared your suspicion, Stephanie, that (to borrow Annette’s evocative terms) fixed instruction works for some students and ephemeral instruction for others.

    I’m reluctant to agree that any one student should be restricted to the learning mode that best suits her personality. The “learning styles” brouhaha taught us that multimodal instruction helps ALL students—even extroverts. If writing centers offer email and meatspace interactions as complements rather than alternatives, students will gain from both.

    In your case, I wonder at the word “vital.” Yes, it is vital to work out your ideas in face-to-face talk, but is it not also vital to be sure that those ideas travel undiminished when they are written out? While conversations in the writing center can be remarkably reader-driven, not until we are sending our text out into the world without the safety net of tone and gesture can we be fully sure that it conveys the content we intend.

  6. I read academic work simply for utility. It’s a chore, professional homework, good for me like pushups or flax seed.

    Here, your honest interest into the subject of online tutoring made this a joy to read. A trip to the OED! Wit! The last time this happened was when I read Lerner’s book on the history of writing centers. Both online tutoring and the history of writing centers are not page-turners yet the pages were a turning.

  7. Hear, hear! I bristled at my previous institution when the tutoring center director prefaced my email instruction training session by saying that “obviously” we would be moving to chat-based online tutoring as quickly as possible since asynchronous instruction was so undesirable. Thoughtful asynchronous instruction develops one’s question-asking abilities like nothing else. And I certainly appreciate your analogy to the author not sitting right in front of your face when you’re reading a book. Quite right.

    Rachel Azima
    Director, Writing & Media Center
    Iowa State University

  8. Mike, I am at NCPTW right now in a session on tutor learning, something I presented on last week at the IWCA Conference. I am also here on your blog post to once more share your wisdom about how ethereal learning is. How do we know when it happens? This question has implications far beyond just online tutoring. It still sticks with me, as I poach my morning egg or ride the conference elevator. I am still learning from your insights, for which I am grateful.

    Crystal Mueller
    UW Oshkosh Writing Center Director

    (Sent from my iPad, thus the typos and bizarre spelling)

  9. Mike this is a post of great intellectual imagination. By imagination, I mean a post that helps me to bring together the many possible ways we constitute meaningful teaching. I encourage my students to engage with texts and with composition in myriad ways: to imagine the speaker’s response to your query of their text, to talk back to the words on the page or website; in fact, I’m imagining what you would say right now, and there are several other questions I’d like to ask you. (I’ll email you.)

    In the meantime, asynchronously sitting here in my rocking chair, I’d be happy to try to think more about writer- and reader-driven instruction in my own teaching, and I like how your work to repopulate our understanding with new thinking, or new-old thinking, can make this reader-writer way of thinking about instruction more purposefully dialectic, too. I often think of writers’ texts as holistic expressions of many a different thesis, our instructional engagement with them, however it occurs, our mutual attempt at antithesis, at pushing back, and through the efforts of the tutor and the efforts of the writer, there can occur that synthesis: and this synthesis can happen long after a writer has left the writing center, long after the student has closed down the online chat, just like it can occur, as you so eloquently articulate it, long after the email has been read, the laptop lid closed, the tablet powered down.

    Your post reminds us that learning is also a call to brave reinvention, and to think meaningfully about the challenges of how we as readers and writers can connect-through talk, through texting, and through text: teaching writing and learning about writing consist of the art of imagining a possible course of thought, a possibility that we seek out through words in order to give meaning to the act of making sense through language.

    Thanks for your post Mike and for helping me to think more about what makes the online teaching we do just another privileged form of teaching, another special kind of interaction between writers and readers. Your post made me feel centered, writer- and reader-centered.

    Christopher Syrnyk
    Assistant Professor
    Oregon Tech

  10. Pingback: Toys and Transformations in Online Tutoring | Another Word

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