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?

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