Looking Gorgias: Coming to Be in the Online Writing Center

The view from my webcam. I'd like to think that the cat calendar makes things cozy.

The view from my webcam. I'd like to think that the cat calendar makes things cozy.

Anne Wheeler is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric. Her research tends to focus on rhetorical artifacts produced in the Japanese American internment camps during World War II. She is also a TA Assistant Director of the UW-Madison English 100 program and has worked for the Writing Center since Fall 2011.

Perhaps it’s because I’m reading for my preliminary exams, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the sophists lately. The sophists are enticing figures from the classical world who made their livings and reputations by traveling through the city states teaching oratory and other subjects for a fee. The accessibility of their teachings, among other things, raised some hackles amongst the more elite philosophers of the day.  When I first started thinking about sophistry, I had trouble understanding the vehemently low regard in which their contemporaries held the sophists.  In trying to wrap my brain around the sophistic reputation, I found myself looking for the sophists’ contemporary parallel and in so doing, I recalled my own consternation regarding the ever-expanding field of online education.

Just as Socrates talks Gorgias and his guests into the corner in Plato’s Gorgias, I’gorgias-socratesd bored more than one party guest with my well rehearsed rant masquerading as an inquiry into whether or not one could actually learn writing in a virtual space. My rants usually reached a crescendo when I got to writing center work.

“That’s so much about the paper and the interaction. The humanity of it all, oh the humanity! Or not the humanity, because the machine just takes that away!”

At this point, it’s worth noting that every time I read a Platonic dialogue, I inevitably end up writing rude words about Socrates in the margins, so as much as I am apparently drawn to ranting, I didn’t want to be like him. And that’s how I found myself, sitting in a circle with Mike Shapiro, coordinator of the UW-Madison Online Writing Center, expressing my anxiety over my appointment to our online “synch” writing center.

“I’m not sure how I feel about online education,” I remember telling the group. “It worries me, and so I want to experience it so that I can explain my critique better.”

Um… welcome to the staff, Anne?

In order to avoid setting myself up as the total straw-Anne in this story, it’s worth noting that I was not alone in my anxious distrust of the online writing center. In his forward to Beth Hewett’s The Online Writing Conference, Michael A. Pemberton confesses, “the thought of online tutoring gives me—for want of a better phrase—the heebie jeebies.” Additionally, in their 2009 article “Between Technological Endorsement and Resistance: The State of Online Writing Centers,” which appeared in The Writing Center Journal, Stephen Neaderhiser and Joanna Wolfe note that “[…] even as writing centers are being encouraged to embrace new technology, there are ways that this technology challenges the traditional ethos of the writing center” (50). This traditional ethos has something to do, I think, with the humanity of the interaction that I mentioned above, which Pemberton nicely describes as, “being with people […] seeing their faces, hearing their voices, reading their body language, experiencing a strong sense of presence as we talk.”

As I approached my early online sessions, I was keenly aware of how the technology stood to interfere with the in-person interactions that I held so dear. The announcement that we were going to be using video conferences as much as possible did not assuage this anxiety. I came of age in the 1990s, and so I felt confident in my ability to negotiate a text-based chat despite the fact that it has never been my preferred form of communication. But I was horrified by the notion of video chatting. In addition to the fact that I would now actually have keep the stretch of my apartment visible though my webcam clean, the transition to video conferences also meant that I would need to regularly use a form of technology that made me feel uncomfortable. Surrounding all of these superficial anxieties was the idea that my previous writing center teaching was successful as a result of the conversation and that the mediated environment would inhibit my ability to have real, meaningful conversations about writing. If I wasn’t comfortable in the space, would I be able to teach effectively?

Pemberton’s emphasis on being with people brings to mind Martin Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes as a “label for the distinctive mode of Being realized by human beings.” If Dasein is a mode of being, then perhaps when considering online interactions in general, and online writing center sessions more specifically, it is worth considering modes of being.  As I began to think more critically about online writing center sessions, it became clear that I would need to work to develop ways of finding the human connections, which in-person instruction let me locate through body language and aural cues, in a mediated environment. I needed to find a new way of being in virtual space. I needed to look at how I made connections in person and work to translate or adapt these methods to the online space.  I needed to consider the role of notes and writing things down might change when a student and I both had simultaneous editing privileges for a shared document.  I also needed to deal with my own discomfort with working and communicating online. For many of our students, instant messaging and Skype-ing are comfortable. If a foundation of writing center pedagogy is that we work to meet students where they are, I have begun to think that I should also meet students how they are, even if it’s not how I am.

Currently, our online writing center uses a combination of Skype and Google Documents to

A dramatized recreation of a session.

A dramatized recreation of a session.

generate face-to-face sessions where both student and tutor are able to simultaneously view and edit the same document. By the end of my first semester working with this combination, I had finally gotten used to the online space and the technology was running well enough that I felt extremely tempted to declare that it was JUST LIKE being in the in-person center. And in fact, when I offered to write this blog post, I expected that to be the main takeaway. However, the more I think about it, the more I find the conclusion that an online writing center session can be the same as an in-person meeting unsatisfactory. Of course there will be resemblances, but we also need to figure out what the online center can bring to the table that main center can’t. For me, something about having electronic drafts in front of me has led me to invite students do more writing within the session. I will also use the chat feature on a shared Google document to transcribe a students thoughts and ideas, which is a great way to capture some of the out loud drafting that they do during a session. One of my favorite moments in an online session occurred when a student stepped away from his computer, grabbed a glass of water, and came back to the table ready to reapproach the questions we were grappling with. Jackie Grutsch McKinney has written about the ubiquity of metaphors of home within the writing center discourse; rather than constructing or replicating such safe and welcoming places for students, the online writing center allows them to work from their own space. This aspect of the online writing space has a huge amount of potential for welcoming or recruiting students who might otherwise be intimidated by the in-person interaction.

Unlike Plato’s Socrates, who was kind of a jerk, I am willing to revise my opinion on online pedagogy. In fact, I have come to really, really love the online writing center. I’ve begun to understand that the humanity of the writing center conference, which I defended so strongly, isn’t inextricably tied to being in the same physical space. Rather, it emerges from the interactions that we have with students, their generosity in sharing writing in progress, and the conversations that arise in and around that writing.

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