Tutor Responses

By Dr. Chloé Diepenbrock

Creating and deploying a virtual tutor can be a challenging endeavor. For the most part, our Writing Center staff has adopted Susie as one of their own—as they do for every new tutor, but we wanted to know how people really felt about acting as Susie as a part of their jobs, so we sent a survey with ten questions that probed the experience. Of the 17 current staff members, ten responded.

Promoting the Persona

When asked how it feels to promote a persona that is not theirs, all respondents were positive, though two added that it did not come easily to them. Jeff Derrickson’s comment spoke to how he perceives Susie’s role in the Center:

“It’s a lot of fun! In my opinion, everyone on the internet projects a persona that might not be 100% in tune with who they actually are. Unfortunately, many of these personas are malicious, but Susie is definitely a positive persona that most everyone enjoys.”

Others commented on how it felt personally:

Lori Arnold said “I suppose that I have a flair for the dramatic because I have always enjoyed the opportunity to embody a personality other than my own.” And while Adria Weger struggled a bit with adopting Susie’s persona, she also reported learning from it:

“Susie is so cheerful, sometimes it feels awkward to me, but thinking about how Susie would handle certain things also helps me in my regular online sessions to keep calm and positive when the session gets particularly frustrating.”

Susie’s Role

Whether they found being Susie enjoyable or challenging, all of the tutors reported finding value in her function in the Center. Josh Cobb, who was a bit lukewarm about her persona, said her role is “a useful service for students who need a quick question answered.”

Diana North, one of Susie’s champions who says she would like her in real life, added that “[Susie] definitely has contributed positively to our image. She’s friendly, fun and helpful—all good things. And she is very approachable, which reflects nicely on our center. She also allows us to reach writers we might not connect with otherwise.”

Jeff is another strong supporter, and he believed that Susie helps to make the Writing Center a welcoming place:

“Susie’s persona plays a big part in portraying the Writing Center as a welcoming and non-threatening atmosphere. If our virtual tutor was a muscular anthropomorphic hound with orange skin, the effect would be far different. Susie’s function to answer questions in chat or on Facebook has provided a great help to those who are stumped and writing alone.”

Madeline Jones added that having Susie “allows the student to fulfill his/her purpose and move on, and Susie guarantees that an appointment space will still be available for a student seeking a full session.”

Susie as Ambassador

When asked if our description of Susie as a safe ambassador who also challenges writers to think outside the box is accurate, everyone agreed, though Matt Chavez reported that she did not necessarily appeal to his crowd at the university. Erin Forester, one of the younger staff members, commented on Susie’s technological role:

“Susie helps writers to think outside of the box because older writers may not be tech-savvy, and using a chat feature is helping them think/work outside of their box and expand their comfort zone. She also can introduce new ideas to the student to think about in his or her paper.”

Josh, another “millennial” staff member, described her as “a neutral figure who is easily approachable.”

Madeline, who is a returning student, added:

“Susie’s personality is positive, engaging. She encourages curiosity, discovery. Being Susie allows anonymity. Anonymity provides a safe environment in which to explore new ideas, new manners of expression, new levels of self-confidence, etc., as extensively and as imaginatively as you like.”

Diana, another representative of a generation that did not grow up with mouse attached to hand, concluded that Susie “looks, and is, friendly and fun. Also, she allows tutors to connect with writers, which is one of the best things a writing center ambassador can do.”

Jeff reported on a broader view of Susie’s role:

“Susie’s very existence is all about bringing struggling writers into the Writing Center, which provides a peaceful environment of collaborative help. I remember myself as a student writer before I discovered the Writing Center, and there is this overwhelming drive that “I have to do this myself,” or “I don’t need help,” so Susie helps to challenge that notion and say “We know you don’t need help, but just think of how good things could be if we worked together! ^_^”

Working in the Chat Venue

While the UHCL Writing Center staff includes multiple generations, all of the staff reported feeling comfortable with chat technology in general. They did, however, identify difficulties in communicating in this venue:

“The only problems I’ve had are with those who are not familiar with the technology or are unresponsive.”
“The challenge of using chat is that you have to think on your seat (feet) so it feels like you have to answer quickly, like on a game show, and that causes stress.”
“The primary challenges that I find come with the chat venue relate to the communication from students. Students frequently pose random questions without providing background information or they provide too much information, which can make it challenging to provide a helpful response.”
“It is challenging to be succinct and connect with the student. The ability to be succinct can be beneficial if you are explaining a concept that does not require an example and if the student is not clueless. If you have to search for a mutual starting point and then illustrate through numerous examples, it can be an unwieldy conversation.”
“Communication via chat does place constraints on my ability to establish rapport with a writer. The limited time is the main factor, plus the fact that the connection is not face to face. But the benefit of online chat is accessibility—writers don’t have to be on campus to get answers to their questions.”

Our tutors acknowledged that even when they were comfortable with the chat venue, working with others could be a challenge. After several years of offering quick questions via Susie, in the fall of 2012, we converted our email response tutoring service to synchronous chat. This meant that all tutors were now required to work both face-to-face and online via chat. The training they receive to work within Susie’s persona has helped them to convert to the synchronous venue for our full length sessions.

Adria summed up the “Susie effect” nicely: “I just think of the nicest, most cheerful person I know and respond how they would.”

Susie helps to remind us all of our greater purpose here in the center—to make sure that writers receive the help they need, when they need it, and in the best available venue.

Tutor Responses
Student Responses

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