By Maggie Bertucci Hamper
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:
- “Each year we offer written feedback and screencast feedback on hundreds of drafts written by UW-Madison student-writers.
- We also offer synchronous consultations to students—using Skype and Google Docs—five evenings a week during the academic year.
- Through our writing consultant, we offer answers to brief writing questions, which come from business professionals and students and teachers and government workers around the country.
- We offer information about our Writing Fellows Program for students and faculty, as well as online applications for prospective fellows.
- We provide descriptions and registration forms for some 60 sections of Writing Center workshops and writing groups that we offer each semester.
- Online, faculty can request class visits and co-teaching that we do with colleagues across campus (what we call outreach).
- In our Writer’s Handbook, we offer hundreds of pages of online reference materials about various aspects of academic writing—from advice about writing in common genres (reviews of published research literature, research posters, annotated bibliographies, close readings in literary analysis, resumes, and many more), to advice about the writing process and sophisticated samples, written by UW-Madison faculty and students (about introductions or paragraphing or acknowledging sources and avoiding plagiarism, for example) to advice and samples of major documentation systems, with sample citations featuring publications by UW-Madison faculty (including IEEE, APA, MLA. Chicago/Turabian, CSE and more).
- We offer instructional and professional podcasts, including, for example, interviews with experts about writing center assessment. In an article in The Writing Lab Newsletter, my colleagues and I shared some of our thoughts about principles for designing writing center podcasts (Vee, Shapiro, Karls, and Hughes).
- We host research sites for the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project and for our simulation-authoring software, CS/CR Builder.
- We have a large Writing-Across-the Curriculum site used by faculty across UW-Madison and at many other universities.
- And we host our Writing Center’s blog, Another Word, which you are so kindly reading right now. Our blog–which features reflections on writing center practice, research, and theory, written by our current staff, alumni, and friends—had 205,000 page views in October 2014 (in that one month alone) and 239,000 in November 2014.” (Hughes, 2015).
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.
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.
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, 1981; Lau, 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?