a webtext by Chloé Diepenbrock, Katie Hart, and Ellen Birdwell

Why a Virtual Tutor?

Does your writing center need a virtual tutor? Creating a Susie-like character does require an investment of time and talent, but we believe that this investment can result in several positive contributions to your center.

We were initially motivated to create Susie because we had questions about how best to engage writers in virtual space. The questions we had can be easily translated into goals:

  • To encourage writers to participate in online chat conversations—especially when they were not familiar with or comfortable with chat technology.
  • To build trust in the online relationship by:
    • Ensuring that students recognize us as trained experts.
    • Ensuring that students feel respected and safe in their virtual interactions.
  • To develop a method for training tutors to work effectively in this space.

As we worked on Susie, we focused on addressing these goals: encouraging writers to interact with us, offering a consistent voice that represents our expertise, and always remaining friendly and helpful. The training we provide for tutors helps them to maintain these standards for interacting with writers online. For the tutors’ responses to this training, please see the Reponses section.

Unexpected Benefits

Surprisingly, as we “deployed” Susie on campus, online, and in other regional and national venues, we discovered the following unexpected benefits to having a virtual tutor.

The Ambassador Function

Susie has become the Writing Center's unofficial mascot, our ambassador to the campus community and to new students at recruiting functions like Previews, Open Houses, and Orientations. New students are immediately attracted to her and then drawn into conversations with us about the Writing Center and its services. When we give off-campus presentations, we have a chat with Susie to show others how easy it is. Audiences love her. (So do we!)

The Branding/PR Function

Having an ambassador has also allowed us to brand ourselves on campus. Doing so increases the Writing Center’s profile. Even our university President knows who Susie is, and whenever he sees a publication with her image on it he knows it comes from us. It’s always a good idea to have an easily recognizable profile on campus.

The Gateway Function

The Writing Center introduced Susie in fall 2009. In fall 2012, we stopped offering online tutoring via email (a service begun in 1998) and converted to synchronous chat. In the first year, sessions held via chat doubled. In our second year, we doubled that figure again. We believe that Susie has helped our campus community to transition from simple email tutoring to chat technology and the concept of conducting a full-length tutoring session via chat.

The Mentor Function

In fall 2014, we welcomed our first lower-division students. Since its founding in 1974, UHCL has been a junior-, senior-, and graduate-level institution. The new class of first-years included Sammy Queue—Susie’s younger brother. Susie and Sammy interact on our web page, via Twitter, and Facebook. These interactions allow Susie to give Sammy excellent, non-threatening, and fun advice about how to approach and accomplish his writing challenges in his first year.

The Fun Factor

In the fall of 2010, we presented Susie at the IWCA/NCPTW conference in Baltimore. My tutors wanted to do a poster session on Susie as well, so we could display her images. As we stood talking with conference attendees, a writing center director approached in a state of wonder. He said “you’re having fun!” He explained that he had been trying to convince the students in his graduate writing center theory course that working in a writing center could be fun. They were dubious. It’s true; we have fun. We allow our creativity to influence the way we shape and characterize our center, our interactions with each other, and our interactions with writers. Writing should be fun—challenging, yes—but also rewarding and infused with creativity. If we can feel this way about our work, our enthusiasm will translate for the writers we work with and help them view writing as the invigorating form of intellectual play it truly is.


Chat with Susie Susie's Facebook PageEmail the Writing CenterReferencesA Virtual Tutor Implementation Guide