Is There a Person in This Text? Synchronous Online Writing Instruction and Personhood as a Collaborative Gesture

Satellite Locations, The Online Writing Center, Writing Center Theory, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Tuesday, September 27th, 2011
Coordinator of the UW-Madison Online Writing Center, TA Christopher Syrnyk
Coordinator of the UW-Madison Online Writing Center, TA Christopher Syrnyk

By Christopher Syrnyk

The physical embodiment treatment . . .

When writers come through the doors of the Main Writing Center (WC) at UW-Madison, it’s worth considering how we instructors can process many bits of information about them. Before we meet, we’ve typically reviewed instructor records to prepare us for the session in the here and now. When we meet the writers, we then notice how they appear to us as persons. We observe their faces as they register the activity at the WC. We sometimes find them hunched over a laptop computer while they sit and shift, perhaps lost in thought over a personal statement or literature paper. The point—and during such encounters our senses are processing much data—concerns how instructors, via their amazing powers of observation, can process a world of information about the people who have come to work on their writing, in an effort to help them more completely with their writing.

The cyberspace treatment…

When writers come to UW-Madison’s Online Writing Center (OWC) via Asynchronous (email/Asynch) or Synchronous (chat/Synch) instruction, it’s worth considering how the bits of information we can access about a student create a potentially different picture of the writer. Among my many regular responsibilities as the Coordinator of the OWC this year, I’m charged with the care and feeding of the WC’s website, always searching for the missing, or broken, link, and working with a singularly thoughtful, sharp, and productive staff of nine Teaching Assistants. During our first staff meeting, I revealed one of my primary goals this year. Besides building our audience (I want you to use the OWC!), I asked the staff to consider how we treat the writer as a person during this encounter where we engage in Online Writing Instruction (OWI) in cyberspace.

Cyberspace—Like City Lights, Receding

Or, The Online Writing Center Experience

Allow me to clarify what I mean by treating the writer-as-a-person in cyberspace and how this relates to OWI. In this blog post, I’m thinking mainly about the live “chat” work we do with student writers. It’s worth noting that some students come to the UW Writing Center for their first appointment via Synchronous instruction. Presumably, their first encounter with a writing center is via an electronic interface. I should mention that much of my own rhetorical research involves analyzing arguments wherein personhood factors heavily into the debate. Here, however, I’m interested in what happens to writers and texts via the Synch interface—for these online “chat” conferences we use Adobe Connect for OWI. I’m also curious about whether we appreciate the student as a person when that student seeks writing instruction in the cyberspace environment of OWI, and to what extent our collaborative work on the writer’s text encourages this sense of the writer as person. I should also note that much of my recent thinking about persons in OWI stems from my reading of Jaron Lanier’s You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010). (For more about OWI at UW-Madison, see Rik Hunter’s post on this blog.)

Taking a cue from Lanier’s work, I would further like to know how offering OWI has changed my Synch staff as writing instructors, and as persons. Many questions occur to me. For example, how has the technology the Synch staff uses in OWI influenced how they see the process of writing, in particular, with regard to how technology asks us to think about writing as embodied presence through texts? Does the technology encourage a more dynamically collaborative encounter over the student’s writing? Does Synch instruction encourage us to consider more directly what it means to be a person? My tentative answer: yes it does. Via Synch instruction, we see our words take shape and in return shape the writing instruction experience.

Concerning Synch instruction, my staff has commented on this greater presence of the electronic text. By electronic text, I simply mean the document that a writer pastes into Adobe Connect’s “Draft Window,” which writer and instructor can see and on which they can simultaneously work. Via Adobe Connect, writer and instructor can watch each other’s work manipulating the text in real time. It’s quite something to see your own writing change before your eyes while someone you cannot see is writing in your text. The text moves and shifts on the screen like e-sand: enjambment—the lines in the Draft Window start to cascade at the point of the return. I was watching this cascading of lines while I wrote this: it’s mildly wondrous to see.

So should we also say that the text itself takes on a more active role, a more electric presence during a session? In Synch instruction, the letter of the text is no longer stable, and the writing truly becomes electric. We can see the formerly dead word of print making its eternal return to the living word of speech—I can’t believe I wrote that—all online. All of this Synch work makes we wonder if we should do away with the figurative language that inflects the text as a person, a text as embodied presence: the role of the text; the writer’s presence or persona in the text; the dubious voice of a text? What further complicates this matter of the “person of the text” in an OWI session is that the text is not a physically static entity “in between us” on a table, which is typical writing center protocol. The writer’s text is “live” (as in the “live chat”), it’s dynamic (can we say that the medium becomes the person—am I really saying that?), and it seems to present us with a different means for considering the thoughtful interaction we try to enact with writers over their writing.

However, I also wonder whether the more I feel conversant with and through the online text, that is the more I focus on the writing on the screen, the more I will feel my own presence slip away in the online exchange with a writer? Perhaps OWI calls for the kind of thinking where personhood needs to be appreciated as a truly collaborative gesture and not as part of the collective hallucination which we think of as cyberspace. As such, what defines OWI just might be the medium that fosters this mutual experience of personhood between writer and instructor . (Comments?)

Meanwhile, Back at the Online Writing Center

So far this semester, it’s been my pleasure to observe the entire Synch staff interact with students via Adobe Connect. As an observer, I’ve noted how these instructors have seemingly used more verbal support cues than in a F2F session (“you’re doing great,” “yes, I think that’s good,” “I really like your revision idea”). Or is it that these comments take on more relevance, seem more pronounced, in an online session. In a way, I believe the instructors are doing more to address the person behind the text, the persons who make themselves visible with each typed line in a chat window: typing shows we’re there, and it’s important for the student and the writing instructor to know this about each other.

My staff and I have discussed this matter of the person behind/of the text by also noting how sudden the experience can seem, how immediate an encounter can be when working with OWI via Synch: seemingly more immediate than the interaction in F2F writing instruction. When chatting over a paper (can we “chat up” a paper?), we feel so present, again I surmise, because we feel tied to the moment of the interaction only through the text we generate, yet simultaneously just as much by the silence we allow in between the moments of reading, thinking, and typing. But why don’t I show you what a recent chat looked like when I tried out some of these thoughts, via Adobe Connect, with one of the TAs: Tim Johnson.

Tim Johnson and I discussed some of these issues when I met with him online to work on this blog post. Here is how our ideas played out in some excerpted exchanges that show us thinking through a draft of this blog post:


Christopher Syrnyk: (furrowing my brow in thought)

Christopher Syrnyk: do you always remember that there’s a person on the other side of the chat?

Timothy Johnson: I think that’s exactly right, but the question is what to do with the student who isn’t in a place where challenge is needed but, instead, support.

Timothy Johnson: And I think I sometimes focus too much on the text, and that can be made worse by the chat window

Christopher Syrnyk: putting support into type is tricky

Christopher Syrnyk: sometimes you might opt for the supportive phrase instead of the well-crafted sentence

Christopher Syrnyk: and to what extent does this chat line I’m typing in now determine how I comment to a writer?

Timothy Johnson: definitely, an lol is certainly not the same as laughter

Christopher Syrnyk: -000\

Clarissa looks into the Online Writing Center.
Clarissa looks into the Online Writing Center

Christopher Syrnyk: oops, that was my cat Clarissashe ran over the keyboard—sorry for that

Timothy Johnson: tell her hello

Christopher Syrnyk: Clarissa looks at you with grave indifference

Christopher Syrnyk: sometimes I share a random thought like this with the writer online

Christopher Syrnyk: like, “my cat just jumped up on the desk”

Christopher Syrnyk: I think it frees them up and just as importantly brings out the person in us, for them

Timothy Johnson: very true, I am much less prone to tangents here online

Christopher Syrnyk: I like the tangents here

Christopher Syrnyk: i worry that sometimes the student and I can become “line item fixated”—the line in the draft, the line in the chat window…

Christopher Syrnyk: too much thought on the text, line by line, not enough attention to the producer of the text and the responder

Christopher Syrnyk: I sometimes check in with the writer

Timothy Johnson: how so?

Christopher Syrnyk: for ex. ”how do you feel now as opposed to when we started our session?”

Christopher Syrnyk: they sometimes say, “I feel like I can write this now”

Christopher Syrnyk: or “like I can finish,” “I’m relieved”

Timothy Johnson: that’s encouraging

Christopher Syrnyk: that’s what I think we need to do

Christopher Syrnyk: also remember to focus on the writer as a person

Christopher Syrnyk: and not as a text-producing machine

Christopher Syrnyk: like a Turing creation on holiday

Timothy Johnson: ha, in my experience, I think “how do you feel” always works better than “how does that fit in or work with the text”

The Chat Goes On…

Console cowboys that we are, this chat continued. When I reflect on it, what I like about our exchange is how diligently Tim worked to listen through his responses and to take up my ideas, sometimes line by line, to reflect them back to me via effective writing center instruction. He showed an astute sense of how to consider, through type, the person making the ideas possible, through type, and how to show an honest engagement with the writer (me). In the process, he was mindful of how the technology played a role in our exchange, and he didn’t make me feel like some abstraction, and I saw how he worked to preserve our mutual sense of personhood, as people with writing to discuss. Effective OWI occurs when the writing instructor is able to treat writers as persons discussing their writing instead of overly focusing on some instance of writing with a person attached to it. In Synchronous OWI, when both writer and instructor can engage each other, then we may say that via OWI writing and personhood have become a truly collaborative gesture: the medium is the person.

11 Replies to “Is There a Person in This Text? Synchronous Online Writing Instruction and Personhood as a Collaborative Gesture”

  1. Your idea about the “person of the text” is really interesting. In fact, it seems that even when the text is physically static, on the table, in a F2F session, it’s not all that static–all that observing instructors do makes us see the text in different ways that change throughout the meeting (for example, if the writer seems really interested in or stumped by a certain idea or hesitant to change certain things about the draft).

    It would be interesting to know to what extent writers size instructors up!

  2. This was a really interesting mediation on, well, mediation. In fact, it got me thinking: Could consulting with a student via Adobe Connect actually be a good starting place for a new Writing Center staff member? Rather than treating F2F as primary, what would we gain by treating the Adobe Connect meeting as the starting point? You’ve noted how these online interactions force you to reflect on the nature of the interaction. Perhaps this indicates that Adobe Connect interactions could actually serve to make people approach F2F encounters differently, or more mindfully?

    Obviously, we wouldn’t want to privilege F2F encounters or virtual encounters. Instead, we can see each as its own rhetorical situation. But maybe the defamiliarization of online encounters can force us into a situation where we can question things that have become invisible.

  3. Thanks for the great post, Christopher. I think you’re absolutely spot on regarding “treating the writer-as-a-person in cyberspace.” During my time as coordinator, we talked about how even making gestures as simple as adding in an emoticon could help build rapport and encourage the writer.

    For me, it was similar to the ways Brad talks about using body language in f2f meetings. If you’re seated next to someone and leaning away from them, you’re obviously not communicating an interest in their writing. After that I became hyperconscious of my body. When you’re trying to “say” you like what a writer is doing in their session, leaning in and/or nodding your head speaks for you (or emphasizes what you’re actually saying).

    So we have to find techniques for sync instruction to make connections with the people at the other end of the electronic connection, and I applaud your work to get instructors to do “more to address the person behind the text.”

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post! It sounds like you’re doing a great job. Love the new website design, too.

  4. Rik took the words out of my mouth. I think that when we work online we are in some ways just translating the methods we already have of validating a student into new language. From a vigorous nod or smile to a typed out sentence of support. I don’t know whether this makes us more or less aware of our personhood (and the personhood of our tutees). I fear that both versions can become rote and habitual very quickly, desensitizing us to the vital role such validation performs.

    In this sense, it’s worth thinking about the validation the student gives *us* in response to our validation! When we nod or smile at a student in person, we can often see them smile back, or visibly relax. This is less easy to see online, I think (impossible in asynch!). And so, in cyberspace, with fewer little reminders of how important and effective our validating strategies are, it is all the more incumbent on us to remember to do them.

  5. This is helpful to think through in terms of e-mail instruction, too, where the text perhaps feels less dynamic or electric, and it’s even easier to lose track of the person behind the text. I think sometimes it frees us to be more critical (I find this with grading student papers that I receive through e-mail as well), but it presents a challenge that synchronous does not. I would love to type something like “my cat is curious about the cursor,” but the immediacy isn’t there, and I think I might sound a bit distracted if the exchange doesn’t happen in real time. I will try to be more mindful of the person at the other end of the email, even if the temporal connection isn’t as immediate.

  6. Thanks for the post…lots to think about here. I haven’t done OWI before, so my comment is more of a question: how do you find students reacting to your online validation strategies and humanizing gestures? Do they ever type their own asides? Do they send emoticons? Do they shift from formal sentences to fragments, abbreviations, or online-specific idioms like “lol”? As Jessie noted, students’ body language is often what validates us as instructors, and tells us that our strategies are working. I guess my question is, what is the corresponding feedback mechanism in OWI?

  7. Hi Mattie, thanks for your comment. I greatly appreciate the questions. Since you asked, if I may…yes the students do respond in kind to our verbal gestures during a Synch session. They start to relax, verbally, too. They see us use thoughtful, well-crafted fragments during our chat and they follow suit. Just as I don’t speak in perfectly formed formal sentences using Fowler’s English during a f2f session, when online, I tend to gravitate toward more relaxed spelling and common shortcuts. We all tend to use the ubiquitous abbreviations, and yes, even emoticons. (You can actually see/read the writers give a sigh of relief.) We also find ourselves using verbal-body language like the following: “facepalm,” “I’m nodding to that,” “…with eyebrows raised.” I like that kind of creativity that this medium seems to foster, just as in a f2f session. However, I would say that the students to a large extent seem to key off of our chat cues.

    As for Asynch, Jessie and the others are right about the inherent challenges. When commenting, I try to approximate a dialog or conversation that leaves open-ended questions for the writer to consider: something like insertion points where the writers are supposed to consider their answers. I also try to use the writer’s name in my comments. I strive to continue a thread in my comments, too. I’m very self-referential when I’m commenting, often going back to something I started with, something I’ve said elsewhere in the comments, and in that way I try to connect the dots of the comments for the writer. I also try to imagine a response to a comment (or two) so that the writer can see where I’m coming from. Thus, I’ll sometimes offer an answer to some of my questions so that the writer sees an answer calibrated to my questions. Lastly, I tend to use a very conversational tone in my comments. The research shows that when students read comments that sound “all business,” they tend to use the comments/advice less to their advantage. When the comments show some personality, some human characteristics (be it verbal gravitas, elocutionary pizzazz, slang), then the writers tend to work more diligently at using the comments for revision, and trying to understand them, not just for the sake of “correcting something” but so as to improve as writers.

  8. thanks for this post, chris! the task (in sync at least) of maintaining enthusiasm and personability without that face to face interaction has been, for me, one of the most challenging aspects of working as an online instructor. face to face communication, which is perhaps more informed by facial expression and body language than by what is said, has always come easily for me. in face to face sessions, not only does enthusiasm itself come easily, i also never have to wonder whether it’s working because i can immediately tell just by looking at the student.

    but as an online instructor, the opposite is true in almost every respect. in addition to the hustle and bustle of acting simultaneously as instructor and receptionist for the entire shift, as well as the difficulty of making sure you are getting through enough material in the surprisingly short 45 minute session, you also have to constantly make sure that your tone never takes a backseat to the writing task. and not just because it’s nice to make people feel nice, but because, in my experience at least, making the student feel encouraged and comfortable is a first and crucial step in actually doing any work to begin with.

    although finding that balance has been much more challenging in my online instruction, and although it is occasionally overwhelming and disorienting, it is also thus extremely rewarding. i’ve only just started, but already i feel like my online work has made me approach all of my writing center work more critically and thoughtfully, and i’m looking forward to continuing to push myself throughout the semester.

  9. You know what? You can keep your personhood.

    Christopher, I’ve been sitting on a reply to your post for a few weeks now but something Jim said above has finally helped me frame what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve only had four shifts as a Synch instructor, but I’ve been wondering whether the opposite of some of our instincts are true and whether online instruction actually draws attention to personhood – at least to my own. In all of my WC work, but particularly in face-to-face appointments, my status as a grad student makes me acutely aware of and sympathetic to the emotional challenges that accompany the writing process. For me, online instruction not only requires re-thinking the ways in which we might be able to manage these issues but it’s also called attention to the fact that I REALLY want to manage them. Even though I might not be able to use some of the same body-language/voice tone strategies I’ve come to rely on, I think sometimes my instruction is more effective for it. So, maybe checking this aspect of my own “personhood” in other teaching arenas is something I might experiment with.

    …Which brings me to Jim’s point about the way that Adobe forces instructors to “reflect on the nature of the interaction.” The limited access to physical cues not only makes student writing more “text-y,” as noted in the original post here, it also makes instructor comments moreso. Because I know that my students can’t see me, I feel as if I become somehow more representative of the Writing Center: I’m all “The Online Writing Instructor Tonight” and no “short-ish twenty-something smelling strongly of French Roast.” Moreover, the typed format of the chat means that I am simultaneously providing instruction and writing models. Awareness of these things (and awareness of time constraints) makes me more assertive in my comments. I know that sometimes, in my F2F conferences, if a student is struggling and asks, e.g., “So, should I scrap this entire paragraph and start over?” I’m probably more likely to give a watered-down answer. The online format seems to demand more confidence, even more professionalism. It’s not that I’m not confident or professional in the main WC or don’t think that I need to be so (quite the opposite, of course), but the OWC draws attention to the ways in which I should make sure these qualities transfer to my F2F work. So, while I’m going to continue working on strategies for balancing attention to writer and text in my online work, I’m glad for now to be “less” of a person myself.

  10. Additionally, this discussion of the relationship between the visual, the textual, and the “interactive/interaction” made me wonder: Is there any talk of moving toward video-conferencing?

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