Sharing the Space: Collaborating in Sessions with Laptops

Collaborative Learning, Multilingual Writers, Peer Tutoring, Technology, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Writing Center Research, Writing Center Tutors / Monday, February 10th, 2014

By Leah Misemer @lsmisemer

Leah Misemer is a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center there.  While her dissertation is on serial commercial comics, she is also interested in media specificity and technology in writing centers.  This is her sixth semester working as an instructor at the UW-Madison Writing Center.

Leah Misemer
Photo of the author taken by Nicole Relyea

When I first trained as a peer tutor at Washington University in St. Louis, I was trained to look at paper drafts.  During my first shift as a Writing Center instructor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, a student brought in a draft on a laptop.  I was a bit flummoxed about what to do.  While it was great for the writer to be able to make changes to the draft during the session, it felt less collaborative than sessions with paper drafts.  I had to ask the student to scroll down and up because I didn’t want to touch her expensive electronic equipment, and this felt awkward, like I was shut out of the draft in some way.

This is my sixth semester on staff at UW-Madison and I continue to have a moment of irrational anxiety every time I see a student pull out a laptop during an appointment.  This is not to say I don’t have productive appointments with students toting laptops; when I can get students to cut and paste large sections of a draft, the computer facilitates actual draft work the student can take home.  But appointments with laptops aren’t all like that.  Laptops are inherently designed to be one person tools with small screens and keyboards that don’t promote sharing. Part of my anxiety stems from the pitfall with computers where students can have a tendency to sit and edit every sentence, trying to make it perfect before you can move on.  In these appointments, the student views the instructor as the expert, and collaboration can be difficult to encourage.  The other pitfall, which can be related, is that it is difficult to get a sense of the whole draft when you have to scroll through the draft, and especially when you have to ask the student’s permission to do so.

While it may seem odd for an Online Writing Center Coordinator to have anxieties about laptops this far into a digital age where everyone has laptops, the conversation relates to how the use of space in the writing center signifies a distribution of power in an appointment.  Laptops aren’t going away, so it behooves us as instructors to consider how we can avoid the pitfalls of appointments with computers and the power imbalances they encourage.  Writing center sessions using technology can be

Collaborating with a Laptop
Reza and I working together in our shared space. Student photo used with permission. Taken by Leigh Elion.

collaborative; that collaboration just happens in a different way than sessions where the draft is on paper.  In this post, I will discuss some recent experiences I have had with drafts on laptops during my time as an instructor at the UW-Madison Writing Center, one where the laptop was a hindrance and we established a more collaborative atmosphere with a paper draft and one where we figured out how to include the laptop in our collaborative space.  Throughout, I point to advantages and disadvantages of different spatial configurations and strategies.  Towards the end, I make some suggestions about how to use space most effectively for appointments where the student brings in a draft on a computer.

Pitfalls and Learning Opportunities

One student I had was a returning college student working on finishing a paper that she planned to use as her writing sample to apply to graduate school in education.  We worked together over the course of the semester primarily on organization of the piece.  At the beginning, she would bring only her laptop to the session and make notes on the draft, sometimes cutting and pasting to a document for scraps when we found information that didn’t fit her larger paper.  At the end of each session, she would take some notes in a notebook she had about what she should do for the following session and at the beginning of the next session, we would revisit those notes.  The paper was quite long (30ish pages), and we frequently ran into problems related to me not being able to get a sense of the whole draft. I would ask a question, she would spend some time incorporating the answer to that question in the section we were currently working on, and then later I would find out that she had answered the question in a different section and probably could have cut and pasted the language rather than composing anew.

This issue highlights how this student saw me as holding the power: if I asked a question, she felt she needed to answer it right there, regardless of whether or not she had answered it elsewhere in the document.  The situation also shows how the seeming advantage of being able to get writing on the draft done during the appointment can turn into a session where the student stresses over every word of every sentence, checking with the instructor to see if each sentence is “correct,” another situation in which the student views the instructor as holding the power.

We overcame this power imbalance and had one more collaborative appointment during our time together. For that appointment, the student printed out the section of the draft she wanted to work on and made notes in the margins based on our conversation. I remember her drawing a lot of arrows that day to indicate reorganization, and she didn’t have to use the extra notebook to jot down what she wanted to work on for the next week.  While I still didn’t get a sense of the whole piece because she had only printed out a portion, there was something about the permanence of the language on the page that helped her have more agency during that appointment.

Shared Space

A few weeks ago, I had an appointment that opened up some new possibilities for working collaboratively with drafts on laptops.  Reza was a multilingual writer and visiting scholar in Industrial Engineering working on article revisions.  Both times he brought his draft on his laptop, which was helpful because we were able to look at some other articles as models during the appointment.  What was different about my time with Reza than my time with the student I mention above was that Reza kept a pad of paper on his side of the computer, while we kept a piece of scratch paper that both of us used on my side of the computer, like this:

Shared Space with Laptop and Paper

Even though we looked at the draft on the computer, he changed very little there, but instead wrote notes on his piece of paper about our conversations, sometimes in Arabic and sometimes in English.  This piece of paper also included some of the English phrases I used to describe various aspects of what he was talking about.  On the piece of scratch paper on my side of the computer, he drew diagrams to explain the concept he was discussing (For more on the importance of using visual aids during Writing Center appointments, see Jesse Reeder’s post, “Visualization: What is it Good For?”).

This appointment felt more collaborative than my time with the education student because Reza, possibly because he was writing my suggestions down rather than immediately trying to incorporate them, thought critically about my comments and suggestions.  The shared space of the scratch paper on my side of the computer gave him the chance to be the authority on his subject, while the paper on his side represented my authority.  If you look at the image that starts this post, you can see that our body language—leaning in towards one another—suggests engagement and collaboration.


While instructors have no control over how students bring in their drafts, there are ways to encourage collaboration in appointments with laptops.  Here are some of the strategies I have developed in researching this blog post:

  • Begin by asking the student for a “tour of the paper,” where he or she goes through and tells you what each paragraph does.  This strategy helps give the instructor a sense of the whole piece and can lead to productive conversations about how different ideas relate to one another

    Reza's Notes
    Close up of Reza’s notes in English and Arabic. Used with permission.
  • Suggest that the student take notes on a separate piece of paper rather than taking them on the computer.  They are easier to see and there’s less of a temptation to edit line by line.  In Reza’s case, having that piece of paper also allowed him to take notes in a combination of his native language and English.
  • Don’t be afraid to close the laptop.  I discovered this strategy in a recent appointment where the student’s laptop ran out of batteries.  Before, we had been focused on perfecting paragraphs, and after the computer died, we started talking about how ideas connected to one another.  For some reason, closing a laptop can feel stranger than flipping over a piece of paper.  Sometimes, the conversation needs to be away from the written words, and this strategy encourages that.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to boot up your own computer and suggest you work together in Google docs.  A Google doc has the advantage of being both not the student’s final paper and a collaborative space where the instructor and writer can make notes and move things around.  The instructor can also scroll through the Google doc without having to manipulate the student’s electronic equipment.  We use this technology in our Skype sessions, but it has potential for in person use also.

What methods do you use to encourage collaboration in appointments with a laptop?  How do you create a space that includes a computer where power is shared rather than held by the instructor alone?

14 Replies to “Sharing the Space: Collaborating in Sessions with Laptops”

  1. This is a compelling argument, Leah, that we tutors should pay closer attention to the way the instincts we develop working within one technological framework (the printed typewritten page) may not translate well into new technologies. More dangerously, the techniques may deceive us by seeming to translate to the new medium.

    You make a great argument that revising or composing in a live document may play a key role in changing the power dynamics of a conference! I love that this continues your study of power in writing center conferences.

    Recognizing those risks, though, I want to ask the dumb question: how is working onscreen with a long paper essentially different from working with a long paper that is printed out and stapled together? In both cases it is challenging to get a full view of the argument within the confines of a 60-minute conversation. In both cases, the student and tutor may be distracted by issues of phrasing and avoid conversations about structure. In both cases, the tutor might be better off reading the long draft alone before the session and then using the time together to discuss argumentation and organization. Is the difference that tutors’ instincts are better at asking students to review and outline longer texts when they are printed than when they are digital? Or is the source of the power transfer more complex than that?

    Mike Shapiro
    TA Co-Coordinator, UW–Madison Writing Center

  2. Thanks for this post, Leah! It speaks directly to challenges I’ve had working with students on laptops. A former student in a literature class had a sometimes difficult habit of immediately making huge changes (like deleting entire paragraphs) when I was only offering a possibility or asking a question. The immediacy of a word processor actually shut down his listening until I asked him to wait and engage with me before altering his draft.

    I’ve had a few students with whom I’ve had pretty solid laptop-based sessions, though none quite as collaborative as your work with Reza. I think I’ve had the most success when students indicate in their drafts: highlighting, changing font colors, bolding, underlining text; inserting notes directly into their sentences as we often do in email instruction; adding marginal comments describing ideas or (less frequently) possible specific changes. I’ve even had students work this way during Skype sessions in our shared Google Doc, often with enormous success judging by the revisions I see a week later. I’ll keep thinking about these techniques and how to implement them instead of just stumbling into good sessions.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Leah. A recent thread on wcenter about this same topic led to some discussion in our Center at UW-Milwaukee. In my own experience, I often find that writers choose the medium in which to work based on their goals for the session. For example, I’m not surprised when writers who are concerned with grammatical issues bring in their laptops in order to make changes right away during the session, while writers with HOCs bring in paper copies. This is merely observational, and by no means a hard and fast rule, but I’m curious if others have seen a relationship between the concerns of the writer and the chosen medium for the session?

    Josh Worsham

    Assistant Coordinator, The Writing Center, UW-Milwaukee

  4. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. These definitely have me thinking even more about how laptops function in WC appointments.

    Mike- You are right to point out that long papers presented in any medium can be difficult to get a handle on in one appointment. To distinguish between paper drafts and laptops, I think part of the difference for me stems from the proprietary, personal, expensive nature of the laptop. While, even with a long paper draft, I can flip through without feeling like I’m invading student space, I don’t find the same applies to a laptop, where I have to ask to touch the technology. I can also physically point to places on a paper draft, touching them with my finger, while my finger has to hover over the laptop screen. This tactile difference changes the way the student and I can interact with a draft together. As I point out, I feel like Google docs in an in person appointment with a laptop could get around some of these barriers that stem from the technology, turning them into advantages rather than obstacles.

    Jessie- I love the classification of things like highlighting, bolding, underlining, etc. as “indications.” I might start to use this language with students writing with technology in order to more clearly signal that they should think about changes critically before making them permanent in that digital space.

    Josh- Thanks so much for your comment! It’s good to know that there are other conversations about this going on out there. I like that you direct our attention back to the writer’s goals coming into the center, which is an interesting part of this sharing of space that I didn’t have much room to get into in my post. Thinking back on the sessions I took notes on while researching this post, I’m sure that laptops came to appointments because of certain writer expectations for some of those. However, I hesitate to say that students always choose their use of technology so critically. More often, it feels the laptop comes for practical reasons (e.g. the student doesn’t want to pay for/doesn’t have time for printing out a draft, the student wants the comments in with the working draft, etc.). I know I bring my writing on my laptop when I use the WC because, between my laptop and my tablet, I seldom deal with physical paper at all these days. This shift away from physical paper in my own writing is one of the reasons I feel it is so important to think about ways to mobilize the laptop’s presence in a session for working together.

  5. Leah, thanks for that thought provoking post. It makes me wonder about the kinds of technologies that would allow more collaboration. For instance, if the writer’s draft were on a large screen between the two of you, and there was composing space for the two of you two make notes or comment. That’s kind of what the WCOnline e-consulting space looks like, but I’m thinking of something in a physical space. Back in 1996, Paul Collins wrote a Writing Center Journal piece titled “The Concept of a Co-Operative” (17.1, 58-71) in which he imagined such technology he called a “smart desk.” I think such technology does exist now; the library at Northeastern has lots of really interesting collaborative spaces in which monitors are shared and moving files from one’s laptop to another or to a shared computer can be done with a gesture. At any rate, it seems we might be able to achieve the collaborative environment we desire along with the paperless composing spaces that most of us work in.

    Neal Lerner
    Northeastern University
    Boston, MA

  6. Neal- Thanks for your comment! The Writing Center at UW-Madison is currently undergoing some renovations to make our main space more collaborative and technology friendly, which, I agree, will help mobilize technology in the service of working together. But I think even by incorporating some of these more shared tech spaces into the center, we still have a long way to go.

    I’m thinking primarily about our satellite locations in dorms and libraries across campus, places where, in my experience, students are extremely likely to bring in drafts on laptop computers. These spaces are important because we are meeting students close to home, but many of them don’t provide computer access of any kind (an issue I have encountered as we have tried to get instructors in satellites to use down time to respond to student drafts sent via email). In these locations, we don’t have the option to build new spaces with computers. How can we foster collaboration with the available technology in these spaces?

  7. Thanks so much for this insightful post, Leah! It gets me thinking about whether it would be helpful to incorporate a brief conversation about writing technologies into the opening of each session. Just as we spend the first few minutes establishing the parameters of the assignment or genre students are working on and setting goals together for the session, we could also spend a bit of time talking about whether the student is most comfortable working on the laptop or on paper and discussing the kinds of tasks that each technology facilitates. This meta-level discussion might help students think differently about their relationship to various writing technologies, which could contribute to the larger goal of increasing their awareness of process.

    Mattie Burkert
    T.A. Coordinator of Outreach, UW-Madison Writing Center

  8. Mattie- This seems like a great idea that would allow us to reference some of the “indication” that Jessie suggested earlier. I just worry about time constraints, especially in the satellite locations I mentioned earlier, which are drop in 30 minute appointments where I already feel pressed for time. I think I’ll try this meta-level discussion for a few sessions and see how things go.

  9. Thanks for this article and the prompting tweet!
    While we make full use of electronic tools, our writing centre has a strict, no-laptop policy. (We also do not allow the use of mobile phones in the centre.) All students who come to the centre must bring in a printed paper or section of a paper on which they’re working. The reasoning is two-fold: the first is one of academic integrity; the second relates to the specific learning gained from using pen/pencil on paper.

    That said, like your centre, we do use screens for Skype tutoring, as well as telephone tutoring.

    As to academic integrity, it is often difficult to know with a laptop who is making the changes. If challenged as to the authorship of a paper, the policy helps to mitigate any question of authorship. This has come up from time-to-time.

    The second line of reasoning is that the screen becomes a hindrance and a distraction. Scrolling up and down, as you point out, is a main distraction, but also, a screen becomes like a third person in the session, usually physically between the tutor and student. Paper can be written on, erased, folded, torn — the physicality of this medium allows for a different kind of learning process. Using paper takes the student away from the screen, often for the first time in the writing process. We use pencil on the student’s paper, showing them that the writing process is changeable, erasable, and unfixed. For the notes generated from a session, these are written in pen on a separate pad to show that there are concrete changes being made.

    Here is a Scientific American piece on paper v. screens that I often reference:

    I *am* going to take a look at our telephone/Skype tutoring and integrate some of your suggestions — they’re great.

    Thanks again.

  10. Great post, Leah! I presented at the 2012 Northwest Tutoring Center Conference on this very topic, and it helped inform the training process of the Writing Lab staff at the University of Oregon. The main points I touched on were that bringing laptops into Writing Centers was not going to stop. The majority of students at the Writing Center at UO were bringing in their computers and we don’t have a printer onsite for students, so we had to deal with it! Additionally, many instructors of note at this point are accepting digital copies of papers so they can check for plagiarism, so the idea of printing something out seems pointless to students oftentimes. When clients arrived at the table, our rule of thumb was a) Copy the whole document and paste into a new one, and immediately save as WLEDIT(nameofpaper).doc. Then we would b) teach the basics of commenting and track changes if needed, and go on with the session, with tutors hands off unless it was just to scroll. Students were responsible for making their own changes or making comments about the content or structure, as suggested by the tutor. The collaborative process via Microsoft Word, on the whole, parallels that of the traditional writing lab with pencil and paper.

    The response at the presentation was one of disbelief… many professionals there worked at community colleges, who, as it turned out, had more tricked out writing centers–more tutors, more clients, and certainly more printers! But I had to explain to them that at a school that dedicates MORE RESOURCES TO ATHLETICS THAN TO ACADEMICS! we basically had to do more with less.

    I’ll post my Prezi here:

  11. Thanks for posting, Leah! Really interesting ideas! With the laptop, I find that a pad of paper on the side really helps. I often ask big picture questions and jot down key phrases that I hear the student saying (with things like personal statements). With a more involved paper, though, I usually make them email it to me right then and I print it out for them. I still find it much easier to get a full picture of a paper being able to flip back and forth–maybe just a force of habit.

    This may all be a moot point in a few years. As more students are bringing in Surface laptops that turn into tablets, and as stylus technology gets better, we could be moving to an electronic facsimile of just having a paper in front of us. Maybe? Wishful thinking?

    You definitely got me thinking!

  12. I love the idea of working collaboratively in Google Docs. That is something I haven’t thought of! It does let you work in real time and also helps create a kind of “draft space” or “draft version” of the document, especially if the writer primarily works in another word processing environment. Also, Google Docs kind of takes the pressure of word count…

  13. Your post has given me a lot to think about, Leah! This helps address a problem I’ve had as I’ve tried to move toward a paperless classroom in my writing classes. I like grading electronically but find that this can pose difficulties during student conferences. Adopting some of your methods for taking notes in a shared space seems like an excellent way of preserving the advantages of leaving digital comments while also avoiding the awkwardness of working from the same screen or even two laptops at once.

    I also love Jessie’s idea of encouraging students to leave in-text indicators in early drafts of their work! I can see this making a major difference to the types of feedback they are able to solicit and receive in one-on-one conferences as well as in-class peer review sessions.

  14. Leah-thanks for your post! I love that you address the shift of the power dynamic as well as the idea of laptops as precious and expensive property of the student. I have never thought about writing conferences through that lens, and I love the more idyllic set-up that you Reza use. It seems pertinent that the student take notes in order to take something away from the session (not just an edited draft). I wonder if it might help to have some best practices posted somewhere in the space that describes what students can expect when they bring their laptops. For example, it might be helpful to state that the first 5 minutes will be devoted to talking through the paper or the student’s writing process, and that the student will be expected to take notes rather than make edits.
    I like Neil’s suggestion of Google Docs, too. That seems to have potential.
    Thanks again for the informative post!

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