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.

12 thoughts on “Looking Gorgias: Coming to Be in the Online Writing Center

  1. Anne has a knack for humanizing or putting a believable face on normal, every day anxieties. And the toughest part for most of us is admitting we were ever wrong in the first place. Didn’t want to in the beginning, was willing to be willing and finally accepting that times change and it is in her best interest to keep up with them.

  2. I love this post, Anne! I especially like the way you say, “I have begun to think that I should also meet students how they are, even if it’s not how I am.” Very well said, and I think this concept applies thinking about how to accommodate students’ needs, whether it’s a matter of space, language, identity, etc.

    I also hadn’t thought at all about the impact of the space of the writing conference. I always assume that the space of the main writing center is meant to be neutral and welcoming, but the online space, like you say, seems to offer opportunities that the space of the in-person conference doesn’t.

    And I love the idea of trying online education because you are critical of it. This definitely inspired me to give it a try!

  3. Fabulous post, Anne. Hilarious and smart as always. I love the idea of thinking about what additional affordances online one-to-one writing talk can bring us.

  4. Thank you so much for this ruminative, scholarly meditation on the pleasures of working at the video satellite, Anne! No story can better tug my heartstrings than one in which an instructor discovers a genuine respect for online instruction.

    Your nut graf leads me to wonder if we are missing an important analogy when we discuss our video satellite: the house call, or ordering pizza to be delivered, or maybe the flight attendant button on an airplane. Right now we talk about the video satellite as a place where our writers go, but in reality it’s a bit more like the reverse—an invitation for our instructors to go exactly where our students need us.

    Thinking about Skype instruction this way, our video satellite may have more in common with outreach co-teaching than with our in-person satellites.

  5. I can’t help but think that offering such services really expands the reach of a Writing Center. I know that when I was an undergrad, I never went to the Writing Center because I was, quite simply, too shy. The mere thought of it would send me into a panic. I like to think that services like this might show students like me what a positive experience they can have working one-on-one on a piece of writing and maybe even get them through the physical door in the future!

  6. There is something startling about the way that the online space CAN feel almost identical to in-the-same-room conferences, especially when it initially feels so Star-Treky to be linking up via skype. I think some of my reservations about the slickness of the technology are actually alien to students, who have spent much more of their lives familiar with skype and what it is like. Not to sound too much like a technophobe, I, too, have really enjoyed the differences that online sync offers: namely, as you mention, the ability to co-edit a text in Google Docs, or to have the student generate significantly more drafting material (it seems students are often more comfortable drafting with the keyboard, and it is cool for both writer and tutor to see more of the thought process behind generating the thoughts as things get added, erased, and then added again).

  7. I worked in Writing Centers until 3 years ago, but always face-to-face. I never approached the virtual session, and I readily admit to harboring the same trepidations as Anne, especially given that my foundational writing center training was hands-off. Writing on a student’s paper made me uncomfortable, so how would I approach editing a shared document? Anne has wonderfully picked apart the quandary and unveiled the wonderful advantages of the virtual session environment. I particularly noted the idea of typing the client’s spoken drafting in the chat field to capture their thoughts. And this quote took me back to many a conversation about how the space of a writing center should be structured (open tables or cubicles, loud or quiet, how to make people comfortable?):

    “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.”

    Beautifully said, Anne, and such a great reminder that there is a whole population of students the Center has not been reaching effectively in the past but now can with the use of a few pieces of inexpensive technology.

  8. Hi, Anne. Let me begin by asking: since when do we have to rationalize our reason for thinking upon the Sophists? Isn’t all “good” knowledge up for sale anyway? Middle-class is just one degree (and sizable chunk of student loan debt) away from all of us, after all.

    ANYWAY–I think you do a fine job of setting out what all the fuss is about in how you bring up the credible speakers to bear on the conversation, but I think your biggest contribution to said conversation is your conclusion, that the idea “that an online writing center session can be the same as an in-person meeting [is, ultimately] unsatisfactory,” rings true to me; for as much as we try (and, perhaps, manage) to find the similarities between two distinct modes of writing instruction/tutoring, it is in how they are different that we are likely to find the benefit to our work as writing teachers and scholars.

    You begin by setting up the conversation with an interesting question: Could one actually learn writing in a virtual space? (I don’t know, but I think you can), which, for me, becomes a different question by the end of your post: What can we learn about writing from teaching it in an online space? Beyond that, what can we learn about student-writers from teaching it in an online space, and (also) what can we learn about the teaching of writing from teaching in an online space.

    It helps us all to be reflexive about how we teach writing–and how writing is done–in a plethora of spaces. I think you’ve made a compelling case for doing just that in one specific situation, the Online Writing Center.

  9. Anne–interesting post! Having tutored only in-person and via asynchronous commenting, it’s very interesting to think, as you said, about the various affordances that open up in an online synchronous set-up. I find the use of the shared Google doc and the often increased use of writing in online tutorials to be a fascinating opportunity. Thanks for sharing this!

  10. Thank you for this post Anne! As someone who has also been dragged (rather unwillingly) into the world on online writing assistance, it’s nice to know that someone else has been there.

    I also appreciate the easy way with which you bring classical rhetoric into a conversation about contemporary technology. Reading your piece, it’s easy to forget that you’re bringing the sophists into unfamiliar territory.

  11. Smart, helpful post, Anne! Love your point about how online WC work entails “meeting students how they are” and not merely where they are. A great lesson and a compelling apology for online WC pedagogy. Thanks.

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