When I began writing this essay, I had been a tutor for less than a year, and I was heavily immersed in both online writing center theory and Jerome McGann’s renowned 1983 book, The Romantic Ideology (as my primary field is British Romanticism). I began to use McGann’s theory regarding the Romantics’ “escapist” poetic language as a lens through which to inform my online tutoring practices, especially with regard to clients’ online writing styles.
For writing centers that have been involved in online tutoring, fundamental questions remain: When the writer is not present to answer questions, how should tutors respond? What does experience tell us works best? Although there are no easy answers, experience can be a good teacher. The tutors at my university learned a few lessons as we developed our online service:
The Writing Centre at Royal Roads University (RRU) relies on a flexible online writing lab (OWL) to support our students’ academic writing efforts. As a one-person center that supports approximately 2000 full-time equivalents, the Writing Centre website is a front-line service, not only to provide information and resources, but also to facilitate conversations between students, instructors, and me, the Writing Centre Coordinator.
Over the past two decades, writing centers have steadily been expanding services and materials they offer online. The way students write and communicate about their writing continues to change, and the writing center has increasingly been looked upon as a site through which technology and writing have the ability to converge in the form of tutoring and collaboration.
Writing center tutors have traditionally been trained to use indirect, dialogic methods of tutoring and to attend to global concerns such as argumentation and organization–practices based more on experience tutoring native rather than non-native speakers of English. Lately, however, tutors have also been encouraged to respond to non-native English speakers’ expressed concerns about language by more directly explaining nuances of word choice and grammar.
Last year our center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee added synchronous online tutoring. With the increase in distance learning in the academy and the resulting need for student services to go online, this step was inevitable.
Providing online tutoring to supplement our in-person tutorials, especially within the writing associates program, has myriad benefits, including extending the writing center’s reach in the campus community, contributing to students’ understanding of discipline-specific writing conventions, and promoting the belief that writing is essential to academic success.
We decided to try to understand how an online writing center resource could work at our school; the interns’ task was to read and respond to texts that considered the philosophy of writing centers, for both face-to-face and online tutoring, and to survey the different kinds of online writing centers that already existed. They then tested their preferred versions of online tutoring with students while reflecting on the experience in the context of the literature that we read in the course.
Though early precursors to IM date to the 1960s, instant messaging as we now know it took off in the late 1990s. Some IM programs allow for audio or video chat, desktop sharing, and file exchange, making them rather robust, feature-rich programs. All of this made me wonder if IM might play a useful, official role in our writing center.
Steven Johnson sees the machine not as an attachment to our bodies, but as an environment, a space to be explored (24). Likewise, the spaces that our writing centers now inhabit need exploration and explanation. Although as writing center practitioners and scholars we understand that we cannot necessarily replicate face-to-face (f2f) consultations in virtual writing spaces or even over the phone, our goal at the University of Central Florida (UCF) was to integrate these types of consultations into our existing system without compromising our mission statement and consulting philosophies.