The Online Tutor as
Cross-Curricular Double Agent

Email As a Tutoring Medium

The DSU OWL uses email and is therefore essentially asynchronous. Although it is often the case that an incoming piece of mail will be dealt with as soon as it arrives (thanks to about 40 staffed hours per week), that still means that the fastest reply occurs in about fifteen minutes. Essentially all requests are answered within 24 hours.

Although a somewhat synchronous dialogue is possible through an email interface, we found that few students using the OWL seemed interested in a dialogue about their writing. They were interested in issues of correctness that do not lend themselves to dialogue, as our rhetorical analysis of tutoring sessions evidenced.

Not only did the kind of help our OWL users wanted work against the the creation of a dialogue, email technology itself may promote "one shot" interactions. A benchmark essay by Harris and Pemberton discounts this possibility: "email dropboxes may seem to invite quick questions in the same manner that Grammar Hotlines do, but Purdue's experience indicates that the questions sent via email are--for the most part--vastly different. . .emailed questions, because they are presented as text messages, tend to be larger and more complex, asking about audience concerns, writing strategies, and so on" (151). Harris and Pemberton do, however, caution that "Online interaction is also problematic in that it has the potential--if not approached thoughtfully--to move tutoring away from collaboration and to take on the characteristics of the more familiar response in the margins of a paper" (158).

In an article about the genre possibilities of email, Spooner and Yancey claim that "what email does depends on how and why people use it" (272). Our Basic Composition OWL users had an agenda. They knew what was valued by their teachers and made sure they received the kind of help that would promote their success in Basic Composition. The most popular (and, we assumed, most successful) tutor was the one who best served the Current Traditional goals of the course.