The Makings of a Great Online Writing Center
The North Carolina division of the Southeast Writing Center Association held a Writing Consultant Retreat on September 13 to foster community among writing tutors across the state and provide us an opportunity to discuss professionalism, the theme of the retreat. Although I tutor for the Kaplan University Writing Center (KUWC), a global, online university, I’ve done so full time from my home in Charlotte, North Carolina for the past six years, so I logged out and drove to Meredith College in Raleigh to commune with other Writing Center folks in my region.
I’ve wondered if tutoring online had altered my perception of the Writing Center experience, and one thing I now know for sure is that it has. Every Writing Center is as unique as the academic community and students it serves, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that even then, the KUWC is not your typical Writing Center, but not for the reasons you might think.
Yes, the KUWC is a 100% online center. You must be connected to the Internet to speak to a tutor, and being accessible across the globe, any given student may be in Utah, on a Florida Key, in Kentucky, New York, Michigan, or across the pond in the United Kingdom. One of my regular tutees is an Italian married to a Texan and lives on a military base in South Korea, so when we meet for tutoring, it’s Friday morning for her and still Thursday night for me.
Yet, like our students, KUWC tutors don’t live in the clouds, and we’ve all tutored on-ground before too. At the retreat, I sat by a new tutor who created a finely sculpted canoe at our “Topic Table.” He wanted to discuss specific tutoring strategies. He reminded me some of myself (20 years ago) as I too began my Writing Center career as a peer tutor at a community college wanting to fill my tutoring toolbox with strategies that would help me provide effective feedback on student writing.
The Writing Center Alumni Panel who spoke at the retreat largely addressed peer tutors. The panel reflected on how they began tutoring after an instructor had taken notice of their “A” papers and recommended they apply at the Writing Center. I had a similar experience as an undergraduate.
They also shared how they continued tutoring through graduate school because they loved to teach and wanted to become composition instructors. I did this too. I earned my MA in English Composition and Communication and tutored in the campus Writing Center while teaching comp as a graduate assistant.
The panel of Writing Center alumni then spoke about the ways their tutoring skills have transferred to their classrooms, making them more effective teachers. Many in attendance at the retreat including myself could vouch for the effect tutoring has on teaching.
The recent MA graduate on the other side of me both tutored and taught. He reminded me of myself too (10 years ago). After graduate school, I received a full-time lectureship at a university where I taught composition half the time and received two course releases to tutor in the Writing Center the other half. In Writing Center discourse, we call this “wearing two hats,” and roughly half of the KUWC’s staff also wears two hats. All have either a PhD or Masters Degree and most teach composition at Kaplan or elsewhere and then also tutor online. Two-hat tutors understand students’ needs like nobody’s business.
At the retreat, however, I believe I was the only professional, full-time writing tutor present. There were a number of full time directors and coordinators, but here we were talking about professionalism in Writing Centers, and the main message was that tutoring helps you become a better teacher or that all your years of peer tutoring will help you to reach your teaching goals. True, and true, and vice versa.
At the KUWC, we all have the credentials and experience to teach, and we likewise have the opportunity to teach a course if we choose, but even if we don’t, as tutors we are professionals in our own right. The KUWC staff includes two-hat tutors, full-time tutors, a Writing across the Curriculum Specialist, and a Writing Center Specialist. We are not peers still learning how to tutor, nor are we in the process of learning to teach and tutoring in the meantime to bolster those skills. And we are not faculty first and tutors second.
At KU, the Writing Center and the Department of Composition equally form the Writing Across the Curriculum program. Our KUWC mission is to “empower students and support faculty” (KUWC Mission, 2013). During the retreat, my Topic Table discussed the ways our centers use social media to support faculty, and I shared that we get faculty involved as contributors and collaborators of our content. We also use social media to advocate that KU faculty refer their students to KUWC resources only, not to external, online writing labs.
“Is that because you are for profit?” asked one of the tutors at the table. A great question, and kudos to her for acknowledging the elephant in the room!
We recommend our faculty use our resources because KUWC tutors and staff design our tutoring services and develop our media-rich resources for KU students in response to their specific writing goals as global, online, adult learners with busy home and professional lives. We accommodate their varying learning styles and accessibility needs with media-rich and ADA compliant, PDF versions of our 1000+ pages of writing support that anyone logged into KU Campus can download and view or read offline. In fact, you don’t need to be logged in to access our Effective Writing Podcasts and many of our video tutorials such as those featured on our Citation Guides page. We also want our KU students to understand that their university has the resources needed to support their academic pursuits.
What’s more, the tutoring support services and resources we provide are free to all KU students, and our public-facing resources are free to the world.
KUWC online tutors are also tech savvy, and I imagined my regional colleagues at the retreat would ask me how the KUWC has recreated the synchronous, “face-to-face” tutoring experience online using audio-enabled meeting rooms with screen and document sharing. But more were interested in our asynchronous tutoring and email platform for “paper review.” Wow were folks surprised to hear that we provide video reviews as a standard service; we first comment in the margins then create a screencast to talk through our remarks and suggestions. I also shared that one to two reviews an hour is about right.
“Two an hour?” a tutor asked. At her center, tutors spend 50 minutes per paper providing traditional reviews with no comments in the margin, just an endnote, and this service has a one-week turnaround time. “Is that because of the bottom line,” she continued, “you know, because you are for profit?”
I appreciated her question, but no. Our turnaround time is shaped by the needs of our online students. Our writers don’t have a week to wait for a review then still have time to revise. I know my student in South Korea doesn’t; she’s already a day ahead of me here in North Carolina. We provide a 48 to 72-hour turnaround time for Paper Review because it meets the needs of our students, and we have figured out how to use technology to help us do this well. KUWC tutors are efficient because we are proficient. Like all the wonderful tutors I met at the retreat who reminded me why I love Writing Center work, KUWC tutors are motivated by a love for teaching and more, tutoring, and I happen to love to write and to work with writers.
I left the retreat knowing that the KUWC has much to contribute to the field of Writing Center pedagogy for many reasons. Here are two:
1)We are uniquely positioned online and serving a global student body allowing us (driving us) to learn to be effective in the arena.
2)Our positions as professional tutors may further develop, strengthen, or redefine the role of professional tutor for the writing center community.