Two summer experiments

Writing Centers / Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
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Warm breezes waft down State Street, students linger on Memorial Terrace, and a thousand construction vehicles purr in the gravel-filled trenches that used to be our roads and sidewalks. It’s August in Madison, and the Writing Center is open.

Many of the Writing Center’s programs continue over the summer—instruction, Fellowing, outreach, and workshops, among others—with a smaller staff and on a smaller scale.

But great summers are about not doing the same things you do during the rest of the year. Summer in the Writing Center is, for us, the perfect time for experimenting with new approaches to supporting student writers. This summer we piloted two exciting instructional programs that really took off.

Writers’ Groups

Leigh Elion
Leigh Elion

By Leigh Elion,
Co-Director of the Summer Writing Center.

Several times per semester, we invite students to our writers’ retreats, workshops where students gather for a four-hour block of structured time dedicated to putting words on the page. After each retreat, when facilitators ask for feedback, students always call for sessions to be offered more frequently.

As we prepared for the 8-week summer session, one of the questions Mike Shapiro, Brad Hughes, and I asked ourselves was, “how can the Writing Center better support UW writers during the summer months?” We realized that writers had, in a way, already answered this for us.

Although the retreats are often quite popular, I did not anticipate how high the demand for a weekly writers’ group would be; within moments of hitting “send” on an e-mail announcement, my inbox was flooded with messages from students looking for support and community over the summer.

I assembled two groups of 13 writers each, comprised of undergraduates and graduates from several disciplines, working on a variety of projects: dissertation chapters, co-authored manuscripts, online course materials, conference presentations, an original screenplay. These writers have met weekly for the past two months on either Mondays, in a group that I led, or on Thursdays, led by the talented and experienced instructor Sarah Groeneveld.

The group’s time is structured into goal announcements, writing, and goal accountability.

Format-wise, the writers’ groups were similar to the retreats. Each meeting began with a goal-setting exercise aimed at helping writers to set small, attainable benchmarks each time they sit down to write (a practice Writing Center instructor Rebecca Steffy-Couch has previously vouched for). Writers share their daily goals with the group and conclude by reporting on their progress. Although Sarah and I made ourselves available for brief individual consultations, the bulk of the three-hour session was devoted to producing writing.

These sessions differed from the retreats, however, in several key ways. In forming these groups, I not only wanted to offer support and structure to writers, but I had two additional goals:

  1. to promote writer accountability and help individuals develop productive habits for themselves
  2. to foster community among a disparate group of students.

Pushing writers to set reasonable goals aims to change how they think about the process of writing, transforming what can feel like an amorphous and open-ended set of anxieties, habits, and hopes into more practical, task-oriented, day-to-day work. Repeating the goal-setting process every week, however, means that others become aware of and invested in a writers’ project. The regularity of meetings, too, seemed helpful—one participant reports realizing that “just showing up” has been crucial to productivity.

Perhaps more importantly, I was pleased to learn that these groups offered a space where the often individual task of text-production became a shared experience, something that can happen only on a limited basis during retreats. In our very first meeting, one writer shared that she was excited to join the group because everyone else who works in her lab was off doing field research for the summer, and she had felt lonely. Another writer reports that she was surprised at how beneficial the group experience was for her—it turns out that many writers, regardless of field or the genre of the project, encountered similar stumbling blocks.

Writers look out over Lake Mendota this August. Photo by Sarah Groeneveld.
Writers look out over Lake Mendota this August. Photo by Sarah Groeneveld.

The groups often brainstormed ways to overcome challenges like balancing academic and family life (whether that meant caring for a newborn or entertaining family visiting from another country), translating advisor or co-author edits into revision, and how to be productive even during short snatches of time. I, for one, am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to work with these writers on their projects and for their support and openness with the group.

During the last session, participants talked about ways that they could transport their writers’ group experience into their home departments and everyday lives. Even though response to the groups has been positive, I wonder how to make them even more successful. How can the Writing center better foster productivity and community? How can we (or even can we?) support writers who want to form independent groups? What other structures, formats, or climates can we experiment with? What constitutes a successful group? In the coming days, I look forward to continued conversation with summer participants and to making plans for future developments.


Mike (in North Bend, Washington)
Mike in North Bend, Washington.

By Mike A. Shapiro,
Co-Director of the Summer Writing Center. 

This is the first summer we have been able to offer online instruction for students writing away from Madison this summer, whether they’re working on research, coursework, or personal statements. To our usual online offerings of email and Skype instruction we added something new: the screencast.

A screencast is a video that records your voice and whatever’s on your screen. Many writing centers use screencasting, and we have been particularly influenced by our friends at the UW-Oshkosh Writing Center and by Chris Anson’s work in progress.

As an example of what this looks like, here’s a screencast I recorded for a student writing a personal statement:

Shared with the student’s permission.

There is no reason screencasts have to fit this scroll & cajole model: a tutor could launch a blank document and model the process of reverse-outlining an argument, or jump to an explanation of semicolons in an online handbook and then apply that explanation to the student’s draft, or even jump between a video of his face and the student’s text to show the human presence at the other end of the conversation. The possibilities are dizzying.

Even though no student requested a screencast—we’ve sprung them on students who requested email feedback—student responses have been unambiguously positive:

  • I’m a visual learner, so it was nice to see exactly what you were pointing toward as you looked at my essay. This method is much more personal and makes it easier for me to figure out what I need to change.
  • I liked the video because it was great to hear what Sarah was thinking as she looked through my personal statement. Written comments cannot convey the same message.
  • I think it’s very smooth and helpful, compared to simply reading written marginal comments or an end note. I like that she was able to scroll through the document as well, pointing out where in the paper she was referring.

Even as someone who argues that the written comment is personal and powerful, I have to acknowledge the appeal of video feedback.

My colleagues Becca Tarsa and Sarah Groeneveld recorded screencasts for a draft of this post, and receiving that feedback in audio and video shocked me with its depth of critique, immediacy of response, and the vitality of seeing a reader moving fluidly through my words.

Students may feel a similar power: most of them rewatch their screencasts five times or more!

Popularity is no evidence of educational value, of course, and before we can understand the value of screencasting as a tutoring tool we will need to tackle some critical questions:

  • How do screencasts compare to written feedback and live feedback in terms of long-term learning outcomes and substantive draft revisions?
  • What learning situations and audiences are the best fit for screencasting? What situations and audiences are a poor fit?
  • How do students conceptualize the reader and the revision process differently if the tutor is recorded on video rather than writing in the margins or talking in person?
  • What differentiates a strong screencast from a weak one?
  • Could students be persuaded to record their own screencasts introducing their assignment, draft, and concerns? Would doing so create a learning-oriented dialogue?
  • How does the tutor experience of making a screencast differ from the experience of writing feedback or interacting with a student live?

Like those blueberry bushes in the shadow of Mount Si, depicted at the top of this post, these summer screencasts have been fruitful and a delight. Whether they are nutritionally rich enough to support long-term growth remains an important question.

11 Replies to “Two summer experiments”

  1. Leigh,

    I’m glad the writing groups have been such a great response to a common plea from our previous participants in the Writers’ Retreats. I know I’m always being approached at the desk about when the next retreat will be or if there are any writing groups in the Madison area we, the WC, are in involved with or could recommend. The summer is a time where we see a lot of motivation in the beginning of the season with a general tapering off of motivation, I’m sure the weekly meetings have helped a lot with students’ progress!


    I’ve enjoyed listening to you and a couple instructors record these screencasts over this summer session at the WC. They are always encouraging to listen to and sometimes if you are in the other room I think you’re actually in a meeting with a student 🙂 I would love to have my professors and TAs engage in this educational tool. It’s always easier and more constructive for me to listen to feedback rather than read comments, probably because I’m more attentive to sound and visuals put together.

    Thanks for the great blog post, and for a great summer at the WC, both of you!

  2. This post describes such exciting developments for the Writing Center here at UW, and I love it.

    I’ve participated in two retreats and found both extraordinarily helpful and eye-opening, and I wished I could join one of the summer writing groups this year. I am very happy to see that the writers’ conversations extended to life outside of writing, perhaps because I know that my own writing/scholarship tends to bleed into everything else I do—and vice versa. I (and many others) often say that graduate school can be awfully lonely and isolating; I wonder now if it is in part because our work tends to be solitary, and even that bleeds into other parts of our lives. Your post has me thinking a lot, Leigh, especially as I begin to consider the work we will do with the Online Writing Center this coming academic year.

    I had the opportunity to record screencast feedback with you the other day, Mike, and was immediately enthusiastic and excited about the possibilities it affords us when we work with students online. For example, we discussed the ways instructors could use a screencast in place of the forwarding note instructors currently write and still attach the draft with comments. It seems like the screencast takes advantage of a significant part of our training as writing instructors: working through drafts out loud. Moreover, the current format answers one of the major draws of email instruction: convenience for the student. I wonder if we could also take advantage of screencasting as a part of continued training in email instruction. A novice or less confident instructor might use the screencast to deliver overall comments to produce clearer feedback more quickly because the delivery of feedback (speaking aloud and pointing to the draft) is more familiar. That might be one way to have a “soft” introduction to email instruction.

    My next question is how to offer screencast feedback to students submitting drafts, especially if we consider accessibility of feedback. Do we have checkboxes on the submission form for “I am willing to receive screencast feedback” as well as “I wish to receive screencast feedback”? Is there a way to take advantage of the visual of the instructor moving through the draft without excluding those for whom aural feedback does not work?

    Again, lots to think about.

  3. Thank you both for sharing these exciting developments! Before responding to each half of the post individually, I just want to note what incredible creativity and commitment it takes to pilot new programs in such a short time frame, and while juggling all the other tasks involved in running a summer Writing Center. I really admire the initiative and thoughtfulness you’ve brought to these projects.

    Leigh, I LOVE the idea of the summer writing groups. As an alum of the Dissertation Writing Camp and a member of an informal dissertation writing group, I am a big believer in the power of community to help writers overcome their anxieties and be more productive. So many of the writers we meet in the summer Writing Center are looking for accountability during a time of year when external deadlines and motivators can be hard to come by. It’s wonderful to see the Center finding new ways to meet these writers’ needs.

    Mike, as you know, I had the opportunity to record a screencast for a student draft earlier this week, and I was pleasantly surprised by how naturally it worked with the existing skills and habits of in-person Writing Center instruction. Like you, I’m curious to see what the educational benefits and outcomes will be. But I’m also excited about how this could be incorporated into ongoing instruction–for example, exchanging screencasts during the off-week with a student I see every two weeks. It would be a great way to maintain momentum and accountability, and allow us to incorporate small- to medium-sized tasks (e.g. identifying a successful sample or reverse-outlining a section of a draft) in between longer sessions.

    Looking forward to seeing where these two initiatives go!

  4. Thanks for sharing these experiments, Leigh and Mike! I’m particularly curious about the screencasts. We sometimes include videos with our reviews at the Walden University Writing Center, but generally they are only a few minutes long and are supplemental to our written feedback. You raised some important critical questions about screencast reviews, and I love the idea of asking students to record their own discussions of their work to help create dialogue. I wonder, though, about students who can’t or prefer not to watch videos due to visual impairments or slow internet connectivity.

    Lots to think about. Thanks for the post!

  5. Thank you so much for writing this post, Leigh and Mike! It has been such a pleasure to be part of both of these exciting new programs this summer. I’ve really enjoyed how summer brings us the freedom and time to focus on how we can improve and expand our instruction, and this post captures that wonderfully.

    Leading one of the summer writers’ groups has been a great experience – Leigh, I really appreciate the emphasis that you put on how these groups foster a sense of community among writers. It’s been great to witness how the writers in my group have shared goal-setting and writing strategies with one another, and how their projects have developed as a result. It’s also fascinating to see the diversity of different writing tasks and challenges among writers from different disciplines. I’m very excited about thinking more about what the Writing Center can do to continue to support students working on long-term projects in the future.

    Screencapturing has also been a blast – I’ve had the opportunity to try it out a few times, and have been surprised at how much feedback I can provide verbally in a short amount of time. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about it is the personal approach – the feeling that I can use the tone of my voice to communicate excitement about a well structured paragraph or hesitancy about a specific word choice much more easily than I can when providing written feedback. Mike, I love your ideas of using a blank document to do a reverse outline or jumping to the online handbook – I’m sure there are many more ways that this medium can be adapted, and I look forward to seeing where it goes!

  6. Mike, thanks so much for making me part of the screencast project this summer! I have so much enthusiasm and excitement for them as a response method. (For anyone who’s interested, you can read more about just why I find screencasts so exciting here, in a post I wrote for my own blog.)

    It’s great to see the comments you’ve gotten from students about them here – hopefully we can find ways to get more, and maybe more in-depth, feedback in the future. You suggest at one point here that you “acknowledge the appeal of video feedback” in spite of your belief in the power of written comments. I think one reason screencasts have so much potential is that they force tutors to stick to the feedback model you outline in that post as most effective for students: a few clearly stated global points supported with concrete revision suggestions anchored in the text. By combining that form with video, screencasts give students the comments they best respond to in a mode they’re most comfortable with. I think it’s easy for us to undervalue video as a mode for instruction because most of *us* would far rather get written comments. But students love videos – and I think it’s important to consider how that difference might blind us to some of its potential uses for our work.

    Jessie, I’m so happy to hear you’re thinking of keeping screencasts going beyond the summer! I second your observation that one of their major strengths is allowing tutors to draw on a big part of our training that’s lost in email instructor. And you and Mattie offer some neat possiblilities for them that I hadn’t thought of, liking keeping up with ongoings.

    But I also feel strongly that screencasts can stand on their own as a form of response. Planning and recording a screencast usually takes me around the same 30 minutes we allot for email comments; and I’ve found that I’m able to cover a comparable amount of ground, though I do have to limit the number of concrete instances in the draft I can point for global comments. I’m not saying screencasts can’t or should never be accompanied by written comments – I’ve done so a few times. But I think it’s a mistake to treat them as inherently/primarily “supplemental.” My fear is that doing so risks missing out on the impact and value a carefully planned and executed screencast can have, by making it something that jockeys for time in that already-tight 30 minute window.

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