By Leah Misemer
Leah Misemer is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she has been working as a Writing Center instructor for three years. She served as the TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center at UW-Madison for the 2013-14 school year.
Usually, we think of a writing center appointment as a collaboration between two people, the tutor and the student. If there are more than two people in an appointment, we frequently assume that there are more students working with a single tutor. In the Spring of 2014, my Skype team, in a professional development activity modeled after a previous in-person paired tutoring experiment, discovered that there are many benefits to sharing the task of instruction, both for instructors and writers. Jessie Gurd and I had complementary skills and working together showed us not only the gaps in our knowledge, but also offered strategies to help us fill those gaps.
The Writing Center at UW-Madison has offered Skype instruction for a few years now. During a normal Skype appointment, a student and instructor from the Skype team chat via Skype while working through a draft together using Google docs. The intimacy of being able to hold or have an appointment from your home or your dorm coupled with the affordances offered in the shared space of the Google doc, make Skype appointments rewarding experiences. In a previous blog post, instructor Anne Wheeler reflected on the many affordances and opportunities Skype offers. However, like most writing center appointments, Skype appointments are mostly between one student and one tutor.
In the Spring of 2014, as the TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center, I led an activity that challenged the assumption that writing center instruction is a one person task by asking my Skype team members to pair up for a shift. In order to make logistics as simple as possible for students, we decided that tutors would pair up in person and share a computer, rather than working together virtually, which would have made the experience something like a conference call. Afterwards, we debriefed about the experience as a team.
On the day we were supposed to work as a pair, Jessie Gurd and I met at her house a little before Skype appointments started for the day to set up and talk about how we would run the appointment. We decided that she would be “in charge” most of the time, meaning she would speak first and she would have control of the keyboard. We modified our sign up sheet to let students know they would be working with two tutors this evening, and then we were off. When a student signed on, he or she got to see both of our smiling faces on the screen.
Here are some notes I wrote immediately after the session:
“Teaching with Jessie was an interesting experience, moreso than I originally thought it would be. We worked with two students Jessie knows already, so I felt a bit like the odd one out at first. However, as we took turns offering opinions during the session, we found that we frequently agreed with one another and were able to reinforce suggestions by modeling multiple audience members for the writer.Both the students we worked with seemed genuinely pleased to have two perspectives on their writing. We both noticed that we pay attention to drafts in very different ways even though both our comments were largely structural: whereas I’m someone who pays attention to more broad concepts, Jessie thinks about how the style of writing influences how ideas come across. I think working together helped us see our different approaches in a way that working alone does not. “
Overall, as these notes suggest, both students and instructors found this to be a positive experience. Students loved having two readers because they got to see how their draft played with multiple audiences. They also were privileged to have two people excited and enthusiastic about their work, which can help build writer confidence. Paired tutoring also helped build tutor confidence. I consider myself a seasoned instructor, but there will still sometimes be moments in an appointment where I wonder if what I’m doing is best for the student or right for the assignment. When another instructor is sitting with you, you get to verify your teaching choices with another well-trained, talented teacher.
In addition to building instructor confidence, paired Skype tutoring, in my case, put two complementary instruction styles together, which benefited students and tutors. As my notes suggest, Jessie tended to focus on global concerns by looking at style, while I tended to suggest reorganization on a paragraph level.
On the one hand, when you put both of us together, the student received two different kinds of quality instruction that helped the paper improve, whereas, if we had been working alone, the student would have received only my kind of instruction or Jessie’s kind of instruction. On the other hand, as tutors, both of us were not only able to see the gaps in our teaching styles, but also observed a model that would help us address those gaps in the future. After this session, I started thinking more about how working on individual sentences can help improve student papers.
While many of these lessons can be learned from any kind of paired tutoring experience, whether in person or via Skype, there were specific advantages of the paired tutoring experience for Skype instructors. These advantages were generally related to the plethora of techniques available for Skype instruction using the Google doc: gestures on camera, highlighting text, taking notes on student dialogue within the document, writing comments, moving text around, and just generally using the Google doc as a place to experiment with writing. Just as with instruction style, each tutor tends to employ specific techniques during sessions, and working together exposed instructors to alternate techniques and affordances our Skype service has to offer. What’s more, because tutors were paired, rather than just observing one another, they got to experiment with those new techniques immediately within that Skype shift, which helped them incorporate the new techniques into their practice.
It is clear that there are many benefits to paired Skype instruction, but there were also some wrinkles to be worked out. In our first appointment, Jessie and I felt the need to check in with each other a lot, which meant the student didn’t get to talk much. In our second appointment, though, we turned responses into a cycle, asking each other and then asking the student about what she thought of our suggestions. There was also the problem of the single keyboard, which several tutors struggled with. Because we had decided Jessie would be in charge of the keyboard, I found myself having to verbally describe places within the Google doc, which was awkward and inefficient. The ideal scenario would be to have two keyboards sharing a screen, but that is uncommon. The other solution would be to hold the session more like a conference call, though you would ultimately lose some of the camaraderie generated by the two instructors being in the same place, and having two people to juggle on video might be overwhelming for the student. In any case, the benefits far outweigh some of our struggles, especially knowing about those struggles and being able to brainstorm about how to overcome them beforehand.
Have you experimented with paired tutoring either in person or in a virtual environment? What was your experience like? Tell us in the comments.