Writing the Writer, Part 1
Molly Wright Starkweather, Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University
This blog entry is the first of a two-entry discussion around anonymity as a productive starting point for online students wishing to make genuine connections as they learn.
In 1994, David Coogan wrote in “Towards a Rhetoric of Online Tutoring” that “Without the ‘distracting’ elements of personality, computer mediated discourse establishes a more egalitarian atmosphere” (p. 4). Synchronous online tutoring acts as the best setting for developing personality elements germane to the context of improving writing through forming a meaningful academic relationship between tutor and tutee. These personality elements, while not always distracting, as they may be in a face-to-face setting, are not as lacking as they would be in an asynchronous setting. The writer, when beginning a session somewhat anonymously, shows the most important aspects of identity for the context. By not knowing any personal details about a student who logs in with just a name, tutors know only the basic information about that student, thereby reinforcing that the writer understands that he or she is a writer seeking help.
Many students start off as confessional because of that anonymity, saying “I’m not a writer” or “I just failed my last writing assignment,” and that is helpful to get the conversation going about just what makes a writer (someone who writes) and how difficult it is to write (how even great writers fail). The details come out pretty quickly as they are necessary. Trust, however, becomes more difficult to establish, so educators must play up hospitality much more in the online setting since they do not know what kind of physical environment the student is in. There is no furniture, candy dish, or stress balls around to defuse tension coming into a consultation; instead, educators must create a safe space within a tutoring room, including an accepting person to help with the writing, no matter who is on the other end of the screen.
In the standard writing center setting, which is face to face, training guides include advice that is specific to sharing a physical space. Mimic a student’s body language, one director advises (Harris, 2000). Another guide says to sit next to the student, making sure to sit to the student’s right if the student is right-handed, to make sure to keep distance to prevent oneself from writing on the student’s paper (Brooks, 2001). The vast majority of the advice given in training for effective writing center tutoring can apply to synchronous online settings as well as face-to-face settings. Across the board, a writing center worker is likely to find the following as pieces of advice when training to become a tutor:
- Greet each student warmly and make a plan for the tutoring session.
- Focus on higher order concerns and only significant patterns of lower order concerns.
- Offer resources for students to refer to as they improve a particular skill.
- Follow up with the student after the tutoring session.
During the tutoring session, tutors are responsible for creating a hospitable environment in which a student feels comfortable sharing his or her writing for feedback. Writing centers facilitate this environment by inviting students to collaborate on the agenda for a tutoring session, emphasizing the authority of the student as the writer, and offering feedback without formal assessment (no grading) of the student’s writing. All of these measures establish an egalitarian framework in which students can improve their writing skills.
Where online settings edge out physical writing centers is in any circumstance where the writer feels that a physical setting would prevent focus being on the writing itself. Potential distractions from focusing on the writing might include the following:
- Accessibility due to a documented disability
- Identity as a traditional student due to age/time spent away from school
- Cultural identity due to diverse racial/ethnic identity
- Language barriers due to speaking English among other languages
These potential distractions might reside primarily with the student in being self-conscious, or these distractions might also reside with the tutor working with the student (also likely feeling self-conscious). The fact is that when a student is significantly different from what has been culturally inscribed as “traditional” for a university student’s identity, those added factors—age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, etc.—have to be negotiated in the meta-conversation of how the tutor and tutee will discuss the writing. In a physical writing space, that meta-conversation might involve one of several approaches, including “We just are going to ignore the fact that you are different,” “We are going to address the fact that you are different immediately and establish how okay that is,” and “We are going to let you bring up your differences only if you feel it is important to the conversation about your writing.” While all tutors strive for this last approach, the most effective way to guarantee a student’s identity comes up in the context of discussing the writing itself is for the space to allow the writer to compose his or her own identity as part of that discussion.
Brooks, J. (2001). Minimalist tutoring: Making the student do all the work. In Barnett, R. & Blumner, J. (Eds.), The Allyn and Bacon guide to writingcenter theory and practice. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Coogan, D. (1994, March). Towards a rhetoric of on-line tutoring. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Nashville, TN.
Harris, M. (2000). Talk to me: Engaging reluctant writers. In B. Rafoth (Ed.), A tutor’s guide: Helping writers one to one (pp. 24-34). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.