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.

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