Toys and Transformations in Online Tutoring

The author, as illustrated by cartoonist Abby Howard.

The author, as illustrated by cartoonist Abby Howard.

By Mike A. Shapiro, @mikeshapiro.

Mike is a graduate student at UW–Madison, where he is completing a Ph.D. on the modern novel and where he is a TA in the Writing Center.

At last week’s Midwest Writing Centers Association conference, we asked the folks who attended our panel whether their centers were tutoring online. Many of them said they were toying with the idea.

What a layered metaphor that is! Compared to the careful pedagogy, scholarship, and hard work of teaching students, one by one, how to become more effective writers, online instruction can feel like a kind of toy.

Yet the superficial unseriousness and gadgetry of online instruction have given us permission to experiment online in a way we might not risk experimenting in our physical centers, and throughout the MWCA conference I heard dedicated, serious scholars speak with delight and energy about the ways they have been toying with online tutoring to reach new students and to improve the quality of all their tutoring. The improvisations of our work online force us to invite the trickster not to our table, as Geller et al. have it, but to our screens.

The conversations about online tutoring I heard and overheard at MWCA seemed to coalesce around 4 questions:

1. What do we gain when we move beyond “talk” as our conceptual model for writing center work?

The handsome MWCA 2013 logo

The handsome MWCA 2013 logo

My own presentation was inspired by the recent work of Jackie Grutsch McKinney, who argues that writing centers have limited themselves to a single grand narrative of what they do, and by Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch, who argues that writing centers adhere so exclusively to a single conceptual model of our pedagogy that we feel “frustration and disappointment when the model is not realized in online environments” (29).

In a quick survey of the language writing center websites use to describe email instruction, I saw that, as McKinney and Breuch predict, most centers characterize online work as a kind of talk.

Our writing center at UW–Madison tells students that “The instructor will read your work and begin an email exchange with you about your paper,” even though few of our students have the time before their deadlines to engage in dialogue.

As I argued last year, the structure of the submission and reply suggest an authentic interaction of writer with reader. However, the language of “exchange” and the metaphor of talk do not adequately describe it. What email instruction resembles is not talk, but email.

A slide from my presentation summarizing the rhetoric I found on writing centers websites' descriptions of email instruction

A slide summarizing the rhetoric I saw in writing centers’ descriptions of email instruction

Writing centers value talk in part because we rely on Stephen North’s observation in “The Idea of a Writing Center” that “The essence of the writing center method, then, is this talking” (443).

I like remembering that the idea of email rose at the same time as North’s idea of a writing center. Like writing labs, electronic mail had been around for decades before someone—in the case of email, it was this 1982 Request For Comment by Jon Postel—standardized it by laying out the logic and systems we use to this day.

But even as email has grown more prominent in the teaching we do, writing centers’ focus on “talk” has not changed. Because we privilege talk as method and metaphor of our work, writing center websites sometimes bluntly describe email tutoring as inferior to in-person tutoring, or will see the only real advantage of online instruction as its convenience.

What if we examine not the methods of tutoring but its ends? North suggests the goal of a writing center is to produce better writers, not better papers. Can email instruction do that?

Examples of email tutoring from the UW–Madison Writing Center (PDF)

Examples of email tutoring from the UW–Madison Writing Center

So I spoke to several students who used our email instruction over the last year, and examined the revisions they made after working with our tutors. You can see some examples of their work in this PDF.

What I found from these interviews is that email instruction had two major effects:

  • It gave them, via the specific and personal comments embedded in their own text, an exact vision of how the unseen reader would respond to their words.

  • It taught them, over repeated interactions with the same instructor, how to imagine and anticipate the reader’s questions and interjections, fundamentally changing how they wrote.

These sound a lot like the goals we look for when students work with us in person, but this is not to say that email tutoring is simply in-person tutoring by other means. Opening ourselves to metaphors beyond talk allows us to think about students and needs that have a lot to gain from email instruction.

When I spoke to these students, I gained a better appreciation of how having access to our serious, ambitious email tutoring made it possible for them as students with families, full-time jobs, and heavy academic burdens, and as distance learners studying far from our physical location, to receive the kind of advanced feedback on their writing that was accessible to their freer and nearer peers.

Cassie Bausman, a graduate tutor from the University of Iowa, has a great way of putting this in her comment on Mitch Nakaue’s blog post last spring, and she reprised it when she delivered a paper at MWCA. She asks, how can working online allow centers to support student needs that may be disadvantaged by traditional tutoring?

These questions are already being asked and answered, but until we stop thinking about email as an inferior kind of talk it is difficult to hear them.

2. How do tutors change when they are trained to work online?

An overview of Crystal Lenz's Prezi. Click to see a larger copy.

An overview of Crystal Lenz’s Prezi about teaching empathy and active listening to online tutors. Click to enlarge.

As Beth Hewett argues, training tutors for online work requires more than an easy translation of in-person skills to a computer screen. But, more than that, training tutors to work online gives writing centers the opportunity to strengthen pedagogical skills that may go unpracticed in person, and to mentor tutors by reviewing the actual scripts or tutorials they produce.

Crystal Lenz, the Online Tutoring Coordinator at the Writing Center at Kansas State University, made the counterintuitive argument that online tutoring is the perfect occasion to improve tutors’ perceptiveness about their students’ emotions.

In work she plans to publish, Lenz draws on the techniques and research of therapy to argue that, as expert readers, we often mistakenly believe we can understand, in a text, a student’s emotional expression. Lenz suggests that empathy training, with particular attention to ways active listening can be transposed to online instruction, can give tutors a sharper vision of their students’ contexts and needs.

The title slide from Margaret Mika and Joshua Worsham's presentation

A window into Margaret Mika and Joshua Worsham’s Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and their opening slide

In our own writing center, tutors (like me) who have had the experience of responding to dozens of drafts by addressing only 2 revision needs per draft, by addressing those needs with carefully structured lessons, change how we prioritize and structure the revision issues we address in person.  (You can see examples of these lessons, derived from Beth Hewett’s The Online Writing Center, in this handout.)

At the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Margaret Mika and Josh Worsham made the case that there are ways of training and mentoring tutors online that are impossible in person. Mika and Worsham read and responded to every synchronous online interaction their tutors conducted within 48 hours of the interaction.

Their email dialogue with tutors and their survey of tutor responses, which they plan to report in a future publication, demonstrate how comprehensive and immediate online mentoring allows directors to support tutors’ growth in ways that would not be practicable in person but which have a transformative effect on the quality of instruction the writing center offers.

3. How can writing tutors form relationships online?

Photo of a water festival by Anne, and a slide from Anne and Leah's presentation about their 3-year writing center partnership.

Image of a Brazilian water festival on a slide from Anne and Leah’s presentation about their 3-year writing center partnership. Photograph by Anne Haggerson.

My colleague Leah Misemer and her writing center student Anne described, at MWCA, what it was like to work together almost every week for three years as Anne completed her dissertation. During the Q&A, someone asked Anne how it was different working with Leah over email for the 2 months she was abroad. Anne immediately answered that those interactions felt least personal.

The seeming impersonality of online interaction is a real risk for writing centers. As Mary Trujillo suggested at her keynote workshop, sharing a physical space with our students gives us an embodied knowledge of their writing that makes our empathy stronger and our tutoring more powerful.

So much of the growth we seek to support in our writers is possible only through the personal relationship between tutor and writer, whether that relationship lasts 30 minutes or 3 years. However, as researchers argued at MWCA, there are some ways that online instruction, particularly through video, can reclaim the personal:

  • Danielle Warthen described the space of video instruction as more fundamentally coequal and collaborative than in-person tutoring because it reverses the traditional dynamic of the instructor being at home and the student in a foreign space.

  • Kristiane Stapleton suggested that long-term video tutoring, in which the student and tutor meet regularly over the course of several weeks or months, can create a level of comfort, context, and insight not otherwise achievable.

We know intuitively that online relationships, even over email, can be quite personal, but the professional relationships we associate with online work are not. These early reports suggest the beginning of research into ways tutors can build relationships online that are as embodied, contextual, and personal as the relationships we build in person.

A still from Kristiane Stapleton's screen capture of working with her ongoing student Ruth via Skype and Google Docs.

A still from Kristiane Stapleton’s screen capture of working with her ongoing student Ruth via Skype and Google Docs.

4. What does it mean to tutor groups online?

One of the more difficult challenges McKinney raises in Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers is moving the grand narrative away from its exclusive attention to the one-student-at-a-time model.

McKinney points to Daniel Sanford’s peer-interactive writing center as one example of what this might look like. Jeffrey Selingo’s tour of tutor-supervised education at Arizona State University shows another.

But what would personal, interactive, group tutoring look like online?

Melanie Brown, from online-only Walden University, argued centers are uniquely well positioned to develop digital resources that allow a small group of tutors to support a large group of students. She used as an example her center’s webinars on writing issues, which are interactive for Walden students but also preserved publicly as a YouTube channel.

This “some-to-many” instruction, as Brown calls it, appears to be in early stages of development and research, but as group tutoring evolves in the writing center, partially in response to the unbundling and personalization of education, online group tutoring is a natural fit for the work we are unusually well-positioned to do.

A toy that transforms its user

The Holiday Inn, North Shore, hosted the Transformers 4 tryouts exactly 3 months before the writing center conference. Coincidence?

The bechandeliered Holiday Inn in Skokie, above, hosted the Transformers 4 tryouts exactly 3 months before the Midwest Writing Centers Association conference. Coincidence?

There were many more presentations that touched on online tutoring than there has been room for in one short blog post—there was more that could be said about Carol Severino and Shih-Ni Prim’s study of error gravity in email instruction, Katie Kirkpatrick and Katie Hall’s workshop on collaborative consumption, Michael Hustedde’s narrative about adding online instruction to a long-established writing center, to name just a few.

In some ways, these conversations suggest that writing centers continue to see online tutoring as a kind of gadget. There were as many sessions at the 2011 MWCA here in Madison as there were last week in Chicago.

But I am heartened by the ways these conversations continue suggest that online tutoring has never lost the joy and potential of a toy even as it has begun to transform how writing centers talk about our work, how we are trained and mentored, how we create and nourish relationships with more students in more ways, and how we experiment with new approaches to old challenges. These conversations show how online tutoring, toyed with seriously and carefully, can transform the idea of the writing center.

Photo of the L by Francesc Balagué. The MWCA 2013 theme was Writing the L.

Photo of the L by Francesc Balagué.

Works Cited

  • Bausman, Cassandra. “ ‘Minding the Gap’ between the Asynchronous Online Tutorial and Writing Center Ethos.”  Midwest Writing Centers Association Biennial Fall Conference, Skokie, Illinois (MWCA). 18 October 2013.

  • Breuch, Lee-Ann Kastman. “The Idea(s) of an Online Writing Center: In Search of a Conceptual Model.” The Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005), 21–38.

  • Brown, Melanie. “Some-to-Many Instruction: Connecting Faculty, Writing Coordinators, Librarians, and Students to Teach Literature Reviews.” MWCA. 19 October 2013.

  • Cogie, Jane, Lan Vu, Carol Severino, Shih-Ni Prim. “Using Higher/Lower Order Concerns and ‘Error Gravity’ to Examine the Second Language Writing Problems and Tutors’ Responses to Them in Synchronous and Asynchronous Online and Face-to-Face Tutoring.” MWCA. 18 October 2013.

  • Geller, Anne Ellen, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, Elizabeth H. Boquet. ”Trickster at Your Table.” The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice. Logan, Utah: Utah State U. P., 2007. 15–31.

  • Hewett, Beth. The Online Writing Conference. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2010.

  • Hustedde, Michael. “Jumping into the Deep End… Our Foray into On-line Tutoring.” MWCA. 18 October 2013.

  • Kirkpatrick, Katherine, and Kathleen Hall. “Collaborative Consumption in the Writing Center: Maintaining Integrity in a Gift Economy.” MWCA. 18 October 2013.

  • Lenz, Crystal. “Integrating Counseling Theory into the Online Tutor Training Environment.” MWCA. 19 October 2013.

  • McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Boulder: Utah State U. P., 2013.

  • Mika, Margaret and Joshua Worsham. “ ‘Window of Opportunity’: Looking Closer (& Faster) at Online Sessions.” MWCA. 18 October 2013.

  • Misemer, Leah, Anne Haggerson. “Through the Looking Glass: A Conversation Connecting Theory and Practice.” MWCA. 19 October 2013.

  • North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English 46.5 (1984), 432–446.

  • Selingo, Jeffrey. College Unbound. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.

  • Shapiro, Mike A., Kristiane Stapleton, Danielle Warthen. “Virtual Transformations: The Collaborative Potential of Online Instruction.” MWCA. 18 October 2013.

  • Trujillo, Mary. “Waging Peace: Writing as Reconciliation.” MWCA. 19 October 2013.

9 thoughts on “Toys and Transformations in Online Tutoring

  1. I’m really excited to see all this excellent research into online tutoring. I love how people are being excited about the potential for online tutoring to change the tutor/student relationship in positive ways. It is so easy (and so wrong) to see online tutoring as a deficit model, but the MWCA proceedings that Mike discusses here show new voices with innovative ideas and a keen eye for the need of research into those ideas. Well done!

  2. I really appreciate that you’ve shared these findings from the conference with us, Mike. I was interested in this post because I just started doing Skype tutoring this semester. Having worked in writing centers for a few years now, I’d heard a lot of thoughts and questions like these about the limitations and affordances of online tutoring. At the outset of this semester, I was expecting that I would be able to immediately observe these limitations and affordances. Although I have only been working online for six weeks, I have yet to feel like what I’m doing is significantly different from what I’m doing in the physical writing center. I agree with Danielle Warthen and Kristiane Stapleton’s arguments about the affordances of online tutoring–the ways it is more collaborative and comfortable than working in the physical writing writing. Your mention of Mary Trujillo’s argument, however, forces me to think about how I might be subconsciously making moves to express empathy towards students and build relationships online. Maybe I haven’t been doing this kind of online work long enough, but I feel that I am having a hard time becoming conscious of what I am doing and how it is different from in-person tutoring. Mostly, I am overwhelmed by the feeling of “loving it,” so I shy away from really considering its limitations. I feel ready to fully embrace it and take it seriously, just as i have with in-person tutoring.

  3. Thanks for this post, Mike! I, too, felt an electric energy around discussions about online pedagogy at MWCA. There seem to be so many options out there–between the technology products we can use and how we choose to configure them–that online writing centers promise to be (or already are) as diverse as other aspects of writing centers. Since seeing your talk, I’ve been thinking about the “Talk is good; email is convenient” trend in our language. As an instructor responding to drafts via email, I’ve frequently felt the limitations of the medium, particularly when the student needs some brainstorming. In these situations, I recommend the student seek help in person.

    However, this past week, I had an in person session where I felt the student would be better served via email. He came into the Writing Center for the first time because he wanted an outside reader. As he read through his paper, and I commented on places where I wasn’t understanding his logic, I thought, “Wow, this appointment would work so well via bubble comments in an email draft.” That realization made me think back to what you have said in the past about email instruction being an authentic response from a reader. At the end of that appointment, I recommended email to the student as a service that would allow him to see and refer back to his reader’s reactions. I told him he was welcome to come back in person, but he might want to give email a try.

    My point is that, after hearing your talk, I have begun to think through how email is just different from, not inferior to, in person instruction. I’ll keep on the look out for other in person interactions that might work better via email.

    Leah Misemer
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    TA Coordinator- Online Writing Center

  4. This is a thought-provoking distillation of the great conversations going on about online tutoring, Mike–thank you. It’s helpful for someone like me who wanted to clone myself and attend more of the sessions at MWCA! I am “toying” (ha) with the idea of starting Skype instruction in the near future here at our center. I haven’t been wanting to rush it, perhaps because I too am steeped in the notion that it’s all about talk and that we had to get that established first. But I’ve long been convinced that email (and online instruction more broadly) are different, not by definition inferior, and this is giving me ideas about how to go about developing a training program that can help our tutors make use of the medium’s potential. How exciting that there is so much thoughtful work going on in this area.

    Rachel Azima
    Director, Writing & Media Center
    Iowa State University

  5. This is a great post, Mike. Like Annika, I’m getting my first taste of Skype instruction this semester, and while I, too, mostly have a “loving it” response, I am also comparing it to the variety of other instructional experiences I have and continue to have with our writing center. The coequality of Skype instruction is great, though I find I sometimes miss the rhetorical move of physical movement. In an in-person session, I have not only facial expression to help guide the conversation, but also body language; I can face the student with my whole body and force us both to turn away from the paper, but I can also move the paper, putting it in front of one or the other of us. I can request that the student hide the Google doc for a moment or I can state who is in “control” of the writing, but these verbal moves do not always have the same effect as movement. However, I would not say that this is a problem. As I continue getting used to the affordances of Skype and Google docs, I am finding ways to come up with different but equally effective instructional techniques. I often ask myself how many dimensions there really are to a computer screen and synchronous instruction through it; how do we use the space of Skype?

    I’d like to talk about Leah’s experience with a student who might have benefited from email instruction. I have similar experiences frequently and for a host of different reasons. For example, I find that students who are very focused on grammar but still want their whole paper to be “better” may receive more productive and even satisfying feedback via written, depersonalized instruction. When faced with a paper about which I have “higher order” concerns and a writer whose concerns are split (often with equal levels of anxiety) between the “higher order” and grammar/polish, I have to negotiate and, often, compromise. In email, I get a little more time to determine and articulate a few major issues/lessons and make specific comments in the text; as I go along, I can also make a few grammar corrections, explain general rules, and effect one movement I miss in Skype by sliding the paper back into the hands of the writer. It is still a negotiation, but I think the visual evidence of the compromise I make can be more satisfying for some students than a compromise in conversation.

  6. Thank you, Mike, for this excellent post. Among the many provocative questions and compelling points you raise, I’m particularly interested in the toy metaphor. Thinking of online instruction as a mode to be “toyed with” imbues it with a casual, unserious connotation. However, as you aptly note, there are many positive things that can come out of play, and its casual nature may breed creativity and flexibility. Indeed, when put this way, it seems that the “playful” methods underlying online instruction mimic the positive connotations that mark talk as “good” within writing centers. In both instances, more casual ways of communicating provide writers and consultants the space to play outside the bounds of the page. Whether in speech or writing, these instances of communication often feel less serious or high-stakes than the ways we try to communicate in academic writing. Nonetheless, the products of these casual communications also germinate or clarify ideas present in our academic writing.

    My own presentation at MWCA explored this same idea by focusing on how writing consultants (whether in-person or online) could capitalize on students’ familiarity and comfort with writing things like Tweets, status updates, texts, and emails to help them clarify both the style and content of their academic writing. Having experimented with such techniques in a couple of my own composition courses, I found that asking students to translate writing (their own or others’) into familiar and casual genres not only increased their comprehension of an argument, but helped them to better structure and phrase their responses to it. Much ink has been spilled (“many pixels have been devoted” might be a more apt metaphor) to theorizing the correlation between the types of writing we do in new media and academic writing. But I think more attention needs to be paid to the interplay between these types of writing: how can they fuel each other in playful, provocative, and productive ways? Online writing consultations are an obvious arena in which to examine such a question, and I—like you—look forward to toying with answers in the months and years ahead.

    Elizabeth Lenaghan
    Assistant Director, Writing Place
    Lecturer, Writing Program
    Northwestern University

  7. Hi Mike! What I really like about this is your discussion on the value of e-mail consultations, particularly the discussion of emotion. I am particularly interested in Question 2 about how tutors change when they are trained to work virtually. However, instead of prioritizing the students’ emotions, I am thinking more along the lines of how tutors themselves find themselves “editing” their own emotions to fit the online space. What happens when the face-to-face tutor moves to the online space and finds that their voice, which is their strength in performing and implementing the tutorial, has been silenced by the distance between themselves and the student?

    This question comes from a discussion with some of our online tutors a few weeks ago. One of our tutors said she has a hard time with the move from face-to-face email appointments to online because she is someone who works best “audibly.” She finds it difficult to express herself in an email appointment as she would in a face to face appointment; therefore, she has found herself using emoticons in her comments, sometimes every comment. Although she feels that this may come across as strange or over the top (overuse triggers a loss of intrinsic meaning), she is a happy, “smiley” person, and that’s what she values in herself as a tutor, and that’s what helps her form lasting working relationships with the students.

    Clearly, these concerns bleed into Question 3 on reforming relationships online and reclaiming that personal relationship. While she would benefit from conducting more video chat appointments (via Blackboard Collaborate or Skype), there just aren’t many to delegate. I understand that this could be a perfect opportunity for the tutor to work on her pedagogical skills in a written format. I do wonder how to assuage frustration, though. Scholarship tells us that there is definite frustration with the lack of personal in email consultations, but I wonder if there has been much done on tutor reflection of their own consultation pedagogy as the move from face-to-face to online and then back again. Any recommendations would be helpful.

  8. Great post, Mike. I truly enjoyed the intellectual energy and buzz of your (and Kristiane and Danielle’s) session at MWCA, and I’m glad to get to relive a bit of it here. I, like Leah and Jennifer above me here, am always curious not about what is “lost” through online tutoring or about how our in-person sessions can inform our online ones but about the flipside: how online sessions affect or improve upon talk-centric in-person work. Like Jennifer’s tutor, I think that one of my strengths is the ability to read the social situation of an in-person appointment, and when I first began online work a few years ago (starting with synchronous chat instruction and then moving to e-mail), one of the things I was concerned about was how to recoup my persona/personhood. However, I’m beginning to think of online sessions, either synch or a-synch, not as “anti-social” but as a different sort of set of social conditions to respond to. Moreover, I’ve found that the highly structured environment of e-mail instruction, especially, has given me a model for some face-to-face conferences. It helps alert me to the need to focus and edit suggestions, and working within the UW-Madison e-mail response template (which asks instructors to list a strength of the essay, followed by description of an “issue” and a suggestion for its resolution) has also given me new language to help structure conversation. I look forward to continuing discussion about what other ways our online work can reciprocally affect in-person interactions.

    Leigh Elion
    TA Coordinator
    Coordinator of Multicultural Initiatives
    UW-Madison Writing Center

  9. As always, Mike, I find your post both illuminating and challenging in the best of ways. For better or worse, the writing center where I work isn’t currently toying with online tutoring, but I appreciate the ways that you use McKinney’s Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers to situate your own points within a larger questioning of the “grand narratives” of writing center work. That type of critical reflection seems crucial to making sure that writing centers having a vibrant future ahead of them, whether we’re embracing online interactions as more than simply convenient or experimenting with other new ways that the work we do can be central to the life of the university, as McKinney’s group tutoring scenarios seem to imply. McKinney’s book has been on my desk for a while now, and your post makes me more eager to finally pick it up soon. Thanks!

    John Bradley
    Assistant Director, The Writing Studio
    Vanderbilt University

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