Session B. 14: “Online Identities and the Evolving Roles of Writing Centers” Reviewed by Joel Wingard email@example.com
This session featured current Writing Center directors from three universities – California State U. at Northridge, Ohio State U., and the U. of Mary Washington (Virginia) – and one emerita: Muriel Harris of Purdue U. The panelists discussed various aspects of how student identities, as writing center clients often using online services, were affected by the media through which they worked to get their tutoring needs addressed.
The first speaker described two problems that have emerged at her university’s online writing center: the anonymity of the clients and the tendency of students to fall into a “game-like” kind of interaction with tutors. She wanted writing center tutorials to reinforce the social dimension of writing instead. The writing center at Cal State Northridge is open only on Sundays, and about ten tutors are available to serve about 34,000 students. She attempted to solve the two problems she identified by purchasing a license for MIRC, a chat space that allows synchronous conversation between writing center client and tutor and that enables a visual display of the conversation. The conversations can be archived for further study of tutorial dynamics in the online environment, and the software allows a single tutor to work with several clients at once. The presenter said that reviews of tutorials showed productive tutoring sessions were taking place in spite of researchers’ initial fears that, because of the multiple-service capability the software enabled, tutors’ attention would be fragmented and scattered.
The second speaker talked about the experiences at the Ohio State writing center of both online and face-to-face tutorials. For one thing, the university had considerable trouble finding a suitable Web environment for online tutoring, and the presenter rehearsed the many versions OSU had tried and the problems associated with each. It seems that a writing center has a choice of poisons in this regard: none comes without problems. However, in terms of comparing the nature of the interaction between client and tutor in online and face-to-face settings, the speaker said that one finding was that if disagreement occurred between client and tutor, the client was much more uncomfortable in the online setting than in face-to-face; it was too easy for a client, for example, to misunderstand a tutor’s attempt at humor. I think we have all seen something similar in email, where tone of voice does not translate well through the medium of the screen.
The third speaker described an institution that has separate writing centers: one for its undergraduate campus and one for its graduate and professional degree campus, which has only evening classes. Her experience was mainly with the second of these two campuses/writing centers. Most of the students in those graduate or professional programs come to class after a full day at work and so have little time for face-to-face writing center tutoring. An online center was tried as a solution to this problem, using audio and visual interfaces as well as chat. This speaker echoed the first presenter’s sense that the archiveable feature of the online chats makes it valuable for research.
The fourth speaker was more or less a respondent to the first three. She distributed a chart that differentiated a number of features of online versus face-to-face tutorials, and she raised the question for debate and consideration: How does the online environment change the personal nature of writing center tutoring? She called her handout a first attempt at a taxonomy of the differences between online and face-to-face tutoring, and she asked the audience of about 60 people what they valued in terms of the taxonomy. What followed was a rich, if inconclusive discussion. The conclusion I took away from the session was that writing center tutoring just keeps getting more complicated all the time, but in an interesting way.