The Online Writing Center Is About Equity for Students (and You Too)

Technology, Uncategorized / Monday, February 5th, 2018

By Maggie Bertucci Hamper

A picture of me--brown hair, glasses, and a weird smile (classic nerd) with a literacy poster in the back
Maggie is a PhD Candidate in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison studying the intersections of working-class students’ literacies and their broader sociomaterial lives. She is currently serving as the coordinator of UW-Madison’s Online Writing Center and is grateful to have been able to work as a Writing Center tutor both in-person and online.

Are you one of the many students who lives kinda far (or really, really far) from campus? Are you a primary caretaker? Do you work full-time? Go to school part-time? Perhaps you have a physical disability that makes coming to campus–or talking and reading with a Writing Center tutor–really tough, even impossible. Or, perhaps you have a psychiatric disability that can make coming to campus feel impossible. Or, maybe you just learn better working with tutors online.

The Online Writing Center is for you.

What do we mean when we say “Online Writing Center”? Our Director, Brad Hughes, wrote an excellent post in 2015 (the OWC’s 20th-ish anniversary) where he provides an overview of what we offer online… and from which I will now shamelessly quote: 

I know, right? So, so much of what we do at the WC happens, at least in part, online. And, certainly, this is in large part because so much of what everyone does happens online. But the tutoring we do online, especially through Skype and email, has some crucially important implications for supporting educational equity. 

The Online Writing Center is about sociomaterial equity.

A figure which explains the most common risk factors for college student attrition. Read it here:
(Engle and Tinto, 2008)

One of the most important goals of our Online Writing Center is to serve the students who often have the least amount of support both in and out of school: those for whom coming to campus for a Writing Center session means taking time off work, finding a caretaker, taking a really long bus ride, or finding and paying for parking–all of which cost money that could be used for a number of reasons that might feel more pressing.

That’s what the OWC is for.

I mean, it’s not the only thing we’re for. But it’s one of the most important things that we aim to do: serve those students who are most at risk of not making it through college. And that risk is great for low-income students, the students most likely to have at least three of the most common risk-factors for attrition (see the Engle & Tinto figure above). A 2016 nationwide, longitudinal study by the NSC Research Center found that only 24 percent of low-income students earn a degree in six years; that number drops to only 18 percent for students from high-poverty high schools.

An NRC Research Center infographic which can be found here:
NRC Research Center, 2016

These students are often the most in need of what the Writing Center offers, especially since the academic literacy skills of students from low-income families have been found to be (in general) five years behind those of their high-income peers (Reardon, Valentino, Kalogrides, Shores, & Greenberg, 2013). But the same sociomaterial factors that led to this academic “literacy gap” can also prevent students from being able to come to the Writing Center. This is why a number of scholars have argued that the Online Writing Center is especially important for these students (Kalteissen and Robinson 2009; Bell 2009; Summers 2013).

My own research tracks how material issues like childcare and transportation play a crucial role in retention for working-class students (rather than the anti-intellectual attitudes often attributed to students from working-class backgrounds), but a number of other scholars have shown how access to college support services and student life organizations that build community and belonging is also an important piece of the retention puzzle (Shapiro and Levine, 1999; Flowers, 2004; and Rocconi, 2011 to name a few). Even more research has shown that, especially for students with socioeconomic risk factors, even one meaningful relationship with a teacher (something deeper than chit chat and friendly waves in the hallway) can drastically improve a person’s chance at making it through college (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1977, 1991, 2005; Bean, 1981Lau, 2003; and, seriously, like a lot of other studies).

As a Writing Center tutor, especially an online WC tutor, that person

–that life-changingly-important relationship–

could very well be you (and you might not even know it).

Matthew Fledderjohann and Elisa Findlay, both amazing writing center tutors!

The Online Writing Center is about disability equity.

Socioeconomic status and material conditions make up a significant portion of those for whom coming to campus for a Writing Center session (or any university service for that matter) can be prohibitively difficult. So does disability.

Just as only between 18 and 24 percent of students from low-income backgrounds graduate, a national study found that only 12 percent of students with disabilities graduate from college and that access to college support services are a crucial factor in retention for students with disabilities.

The McBurney Center–UW-Madison’s Disability Resource Office (DSO)–reports that 30 percent of the students it serves have a psychological disability (most commonly depression and anxiety), 25 percent have ADD or ADHD, 19 percent have a significant health issue, 12 percent have a learning disability, and 8 percent have a mobility, visual, or hearing disability (McBurney Annual Report, 2015-16). More than this, McBurney estimates that they are probably only reaching about half of the students on campus who have a disability. The Institute of Educational Science’s National Longitudinal Transition Study finds that only about half of students with disabilities think of themselves as having a disability and, out of those, only about 40 percent will disclose their disability to the college. There is still a very large gap between the number of students who might benefit from college support services and those who are receiving them. 

Students who disclose to the DSO most often request testing accommodations and flexibility with deadlines. What the OWC offers can help address similar issues. Email instruction is often valued by students because they can take their time with your feedback, read it over and over, or engage with it in a quiet and relaxing space (rather than our often lively in-person locations). Student with disabilities have also come to the OWC because their visual or hearing impairments make it difficult to interact with a WC tutor in person.

Some writing centers haven’t been thrilled about email instruction because of the distance it can create between tutor and student (though experiences with the OWC often allay these concerns). And there’s no denying that email instruction is not the same thing as talking synchronously with a writing tutor, in person or online. For those with disabilities like anxiety (something even those without disabilities often experience around writing), that little bit of distance might be the magic that allows them to use the Writing Center at all. Online instruction can provide writers a bit of emotional and temporal distance, the ability to engage with you and your feedback on their own turf and in their own time.

The Online Writing Center is about equity for you too.

Even if, as someone who uses the Writing Center, you don’t identify with the issues of access I’ve raised here (and so, so many of us who work in the Writing Center are also students in the Writing Center), the Online Writing Center provides an important service for you–a Writing Center tutor–too.

There are lots (and I mean lots) of important reasons you should try your hand as an Online Writing Center tutor. Aside from the fact that it’s really fun, those on the email staff often remark that doing email instruction taught them how to write better (and faster) feedback on student papers in their classes. Leigh Elion recently explained how her experience with the OWC “gave [her] the confidence to continue to work with students when [they] were scattered across geographies” after being displaced due to a natural disaster. On the job market, experience with online pedagogy is becoming one of the most sought-after experiences and the OWC gives you the chance to become experienced with both synchronous and asynchronous online pedagogy. Among the many, many other reasons that the OWC is fabulous and important and you should be a part of it is flexibility. 

People often request to work on the OWC for two reasons (usually both): they love or want to learn about online pedagogy and they have the same kinds of family and work responsibilities that often lead students to seek out the OWC. As an email tutor, you can choose when and where (inside 24 hours) to give feedback to students. As a Skype tutor, you can tutor students from home. Skype, in a lot of ways, can be even more intimate than in-person sessions. Students love meeting pets and kids just about as much as you’d love meeting theirs (a lot I’m guessing). Email, too, is a whole different way of engaging with students–students who really, truly care about their writing, but also really, truly aren’t able to make synchronous appointments.

Choosing to be an online writing tutor means you’re working to provide equitable opportunities for your students, for yourself, and–in the process–becoming an even better teacher with even stronger employment prospects.

I mean, seriously, if you haven’t done it already…

Why else does the Online Writing Center Matter? 

Are there other ways the online writing center is especially able to support student writers?

Have you used the email or Skype instruction yourself? Why?

19 Replies to “The Online Writing Center Is About Equity for Students (and You Too)”

  1. Thanks for this post, Maggie, and for making such strong (and so many!) cases for growing and being a part of online writing centers! Your focus on equity has me thinking about how online modalities and pedagogies might contribute to WAC and outreach efforts as well…

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Angela. And for being an amazing Skype tutor yourself!

      And you’re so right–I especially wonder if outreaches over Skype, say for online and part-time programs, could be a possibility for online outreach!

  2. Thanks for this post, Maggie, and for your passion to serve all people, no matter their circumstances. I hadn’t really considered how well online instruction can help people with anxiety and depression, and I’m going to be even more aware of this in my role of assisting students and helping them find the services that work best for them. I worked for a few years as an online writing tutor, and I admit that I was hesitant starting out for the many reasons that you described. I didn’t think that I’d be able to reach people in the same way that I did in a classroom. But I quickly learned that that wasn’t the case, and I loved how the classroom expanded to include so many people who I might not normally interact with. I now spend much of my day communicating via email, and I know that I’ve developed many collaborative, working relationships without ever seeing someone face-to-face.

    1. I know just what you mean! I, too, have really productive working relationships with colleagues mostly through email and, truly, that’s what works best for me not only because I have a complicated schedule, but because I process things better through writing. 🙂

  3. Maggie, I appreciate what you have to say about the way online writing center work promotes equity for both the writer and the tutor. As a online tutor, I’ve certainly appreciated the flexibility of an email shift, but I hadn’t considered this as just another facet of equal access. For me, this equity has meant being able to sit in my kitchen and engage with students’ writing while my son is napping. Having that flexibility to not go into campus has meant being able to spend more time engaging as a parent.
    Which is to say that, in addition to everything else, online writing center work has the capacity to promote familial bonds!

    1. That’s awesome, Matthew! Thanks so much for sharing. It’s so lovely to see how–for students and tutors–online instruction really does often mean more time with family. I have loved, for example, meeting my students’ kids via Skype. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

  4. Maggie, thank you for your post! I especially value the way you call attention to groups of people who really want to succeed at college but yet struggle because of material factors that prevent them from fitting the “traditional college student” mold. And I also think your point about students with disabilities benefiting from the Online Writing Center is excellent.

    Your post also makes me think of the students I now teach at my small liberal-arts and professional-studies university, many of whom attended low-income high schools and quite a few of whom are the first in their families to attend college. On the one hand, online help is wonderful because it’s easier for students who work a lot or take care of children to access. However, I was surprised by one thing I learned about many of my students: they didn’t always have the basic computing skills that I took for granted at UW. I’m finding that I spend more time going over information that would otherwise be assumed in 2018: using a word processor and a digital learning environment, logging in to a student account, checking email regularly, interpreting prompts and feedback, opening and saving computer files. I also find that if I don’t hand something out on paper, it doesn’t exist for many students; if I do, they use it. I haven’t fully figured out why this is occurring, but I think it speaks to the need to offer a range of services given that not everyone fits the mold.

  5. I really like how you laid out the research on why online writing tutoring is matter of equity and access. I think as writing instructors we can get use to the routines of our work (i.e. lesson planning for a class we’ve taught before, tutoring students in writing genres we’re familiar) that we forget that for students looking in from the outside, we’re doing really important work. This blog post really knocked me out of the routines of writing instruction and helped me re-see the goals of my work from the perspective of the students I will come to work with. What I really want to do now is de-center my perspective on writing and see what writing means from the students’ perspectives and then step into that view to better connect with them.

    Really nice post, Maggie.

  6. Maggie! This is so beautifully researched, and it really reinforced all of the reasons I’ve sought out opportunities to work on the email and Skype staff of the Writing Center. While reading, I was thinking too about some experiences I’ve had working with ongoing student writers during the summers—by way of Skype and email. {These experiences were different from my OWC work at other times of year because, during the summer, these sessions were built into my regular shifts in the main Writing Center location.) The students I worked with were living far from Madison for the summer for a variety of personal, professional, and financial reasons, had large writing projects that they needed to complete, and expressed a sense of disconnection from their programs and mentors, since they were so far away. Regular engagement with the OWC helped to bridge that gap in both a practical way (i.e. access to the university’s tutoring resources) and also in a more affective way (i.e. access to the energy of campus/feeling like a part of things). I think that affective connection is an interesting benefit of the OWC—that sense of being a part of the comings and goings of the university even from a distance.

  7. MAGGIE! I love how you’ve seemingly effortlessly intertwined scholarship and writing center innovations in ways that matter so profoundly to so many. WPA work is intellectual work, and intellectual work is facilitated in the writing center. Thanks for highlighting access.

  8. Thanks for your excellent post, Maggie. It’s really important to be sensitive to these issues and to give them voice–and hopefully one that begins to circulate widely. The Online Writing Center is not just about adapting pedagogical practices to the 21st century; there is a very strong ethical component behind offering these services. Having more empathetic and enlightened attitudes toward those with disabilities is very important, but it’s not enough: we need to provide real accessible services that takes into account the needs and concerns of disabled students. And you articulate an important class issue as well. There are many gatekeeping barriers for low-income populations to even enter post-secondary education, which continue after enrollment. Online writing center services can address some of the material obstacles that are often underestimated or ignored altogether.

  9. Maggie — thank you so much for bringing all of this together! I am thinking a lot about how a writing center can best work on a commuter campus, and so I was really excited to read your post about what an online format can do. This post covers so much more than I was even thinking about! While I was primarily thinking about the challenges posed by distance, you show how there are just as many challenges to in-person tutoring that are really important for a writing center’s social justice mission. Thanks fo all of these great resources as I keep thinking about these possibilities!

  10. I’m convinced! The OWC is now the only WC. I’m interested if the lowering of barriers to increase access might have some drawbacks to those who might benefit more from face to face interaction. I’d imagine, as you bring up, that the increase in community is a great way to mitigate some of those drawbacks.

    Thank you for the article!

  11. Thanks for putting your efforts and explaining them in such a wonderful way. Especially, what you said about the way online writing center work promotes equity for both the writer and the tutor.

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