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Preserving the Rhetorical Nature of Writing Centers When Going Online

by Lisa Eastmond Peabody

As of mid-September, 1999, there were 278 online writing centers linked to the National Writing Centers Association Website,” and the number is growing (Leander 3). With such swift advances in the world of technology, American universities feel the pressure to be on the cutting edge, which often means giving in to the pressure to go online before thoroughly considering options. Karen Rowan, writing center director at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, suggests that the excitement surrounding online tutoring is best served as an appetizer to a substantial entree of research and scholarship” (10). Yet online tutorials are taking place at an alarming rate, considering the lack of research and scholarship dealing not only with how the service is being accepted by student writers and peer tutors, but how the tutoring process itself has been altered by the Internet as a medium. With an understanding of writing center theory, it is clear that although the prevailing trend is toward Online Writing Labs (OWLs), a rhetorical shift has taken place that alters dialectic, discussion-based tutoring and often omits the holistic approach by eliminating handouts, reference sources, and forums for specific questions. 

Writing centers ought to provide a variety of resources, but they also ought to center around peer tutoring to accomplish their goals. Speaking of the ideal function of a writing center, Stephen North states, Our job is to produce better writers and not just better papers” (qtd. in Gillespie and Lerner 30). Part of this goal is accomplished by keeping the tutorial student centered. In theory, tutorials should be student owned. The tutor merely acts as a sounding board and facilitator of discussion. However, no matter what the student’s desires for revision include, a tutorial should never turn into a proofreading, editing session, for as Mary M. Dossin of SUNY Plattsburg points out, “Tutoring is valid only when it is part of the learning process” (16). Clearly, tutoring is challenging as it strives to adhere to these goals of writing center theory. 

Ideally, face-to-face writing center tutors work one-on-one with student writers for approximately twenty minutes to an hour, depending on the program, focusing first on the broad issues of organization and content, and second on sentence-level revision issues, keeping in focus the task of creating better writers and not simply better papers. In the Harcourt Brace Guide to Peer Tutoring, Toni-Lee Capossela outlines the broad-co-narrow focus that tutorials ideally use, starting with appropriate ness for assignment, then topical focus, followed by organization and development, introduction and conclusion, and finally, the surface features of grammar, usage, and style (12). This approach allows the tutorial to remain process based as opposed to product based. In addition to the global-co-local, process-based approach, in these face-to-face tutorials, tutors are able to clarify the roles of student and tutor, rely heavily on methods of questioning and reader response to facilitate discussion, redefine and clarify words and phrases as well as read the silences, facial expressions, and body movements of the writer, all part of a dialectical approach. Sarah Kimball, writing center director at the University of Texas, maintains that 

in the face-to-face session the questions are viewed as un-problematically ephemeral. Baker claims that because nothing is written down, the terms and concepts which they denote remain slippery, somewhat indeterminate; the tutor has not defined anything for the student; the tutor has simply attempted to help the student come to a workable definition for herself.” (33) 

In face-to-face tutorials, the dialectical tutoring process defines the roles of student as owner and tutor as facilitator in the learning process and demands interaction and recognition of nonverbal social cues in order to better the writer and not only the text. 

Depending on a tutor’s training, a tutor may facilitate this discussion and learning process in a number of ways. Many tutors make use of the Socratic method by leading the writer to conclusions about or solutions for revising the paper, through questioning. Both learning how and when to use indirect and direct forms of questioning is a key component of most tutor training in an attempt to draw student writers into interactive discussion. Additionally, tutors often use the reader response approach to engage the writer in thinking about the audience’s needs, thus clarifying and organizing the paper or arguments presented by the writer. Often tutors use a combination of these types of comments and questions, and because of the dialectical nature of the face-to-face tutorial, students have a chance to thoroughly defend or explain their reasoning or presentation of the paper, or express confusion at the tutor’s examples or questions, allowing the dialogue to be transmitted through both verbal discussion and nonverbal communication

Unlike face-to-face tutorials, online tutorials tend toward a local, product-based focus, void of vital discussion; in such tutorials, individual roles are often misunderstood, and questions or calls for interaction go unheeded. Online tutorials based in Online Writing Labs and email postings generally have students post their papers to the tutor with a brief overview of the assignment and, in ideal situations, two or three specific questions. Tutors then access the text and respond within a 24-48 hour period. If the purpose of a writing center is to allow student writers to improve basic writing skills through peer interaction, then the online tutoring process and the dialectical structure of OWL postings and email exchange tutorials should also maintain this function. However, Kimball suggests that “in working with student writers online, we are not merely transporting what we do in face-to-face conversation in our real-life writing center into cyberspace” (30). Jackson agrees that there may be rhetorical shifts in the peer tutoring process, saying that the face-to-face tutorial cannot be processed through fiber-optics, for both the writer and the tutor are real individuals, with real writing needs; it is an ongoing dialogue and indirect questioning, and the writer’s response.” Clearly then, if the dialectical tutoring methods of “on-going dialogue and indirect questioning, and the writers response” cannot be used in online tutoring practices, especially those based in email exchange or OWL postings, then the rhetorical structure of online tutoring must be different (1-2). 

Though posting via email or OWLs is convenient, it does not adhere to writing center theory and goals. David Coogan, an online tutoring program coordinator at SUNY Albany, says he has 

learned that if e-mail tutorials “work,” they change the meaning of tutorial work by challenging the rhetorical constraints of face-to face conferencing. In other words, by replacing talk with asynchronous writing, e-mail disrupts the most familiar boundaries in the writing center: shared space and limited time. fu a result, e-mail changes the conferences discipline by slowing it down (from 30 minutes to several days), and by collapsing the self into text where it becomes a rhetorical construct, not a social given. Interpreting student text, rather than the student, becomes e-mail tutoring‘s centerpiece. (1) 

OWL postings and email tutorials simply do not allow for both student and tutor to be simultaneously present in time and space. The online version of the peer tutoring process potentially omits the “peer” and makes what in physical writing centers is a discussion-based, dialectical activity, into an endeavor in which the peer becomes the expert, in a drawn-out dialectical endeavor, or one in which the writer is left with only “corrected text.” 

One problem that comes with the rhetorical shift of putting tutorials online is the misunderstanding about both the peer and the student’s role within the tutorial. Some writing center directors see this posting of papers as equal to the student who comes into the center, unfamiliar with the peer tutoring process, and asks to drop off a paper and pick it up again in a few hours after it has been “corrected.” Clearly, these students do not recognize their role in the process of revising their own papers. Joan Hawthorne of University of North Dakota’s Writing Center stresses that “‘our rationale [for not permitting such a process] has to do with wanting to work with rather than for the writer”‘ (qtd. in Moe 15). Tutors and writing center directors acknowledge that current online tutoring systems, especially OWL postings and email exchange, have the potential for such limited discussion, rhetorically changing the peer tutoring process dramatically. 

In online tutorials, unlike face-to-face tutorials, tutors are not able to read the student without an opening discussion or visual social cue, though many try to simulate it in a brief survey, to be completed before sending a paper in for a tutorial. Kimball notes that “this lack of information about participants’ attitudes and intentions makes a difference in a medium that seems like conversation” (5). That difference is what prevents dispelling the myth that students can simply drop off papers to be “fixed.” Often, then, the lack of dialectic discussion in online tutoring may simply exist because the students do not understand their role within the tutorial. 

When expectations are unclear not only are tutors left with only a guessing game, but the writer is often left with disappointment. Holly Moe, a peer tutor at Modesto Junior College in California, offers her experience with, a commercial online tutoring program, as a perfect example. Though enthusiastic about the possibilities of peer tutoring online, Moe found that the online tutor, when looking at Moe‘s writing, misread the prompt and offered me all the wrong solutions. Furthermore, he or she edited my sentences, changing my voice and meaning(14). In this case, the rhetoric shifts from dialectical discussion to disconnected expert advice where the tutor owns and corrects” the paper and then emails or posts the product to the waiting author, disrupting the bounds of peer tutoring practice and falling out of line with writing center goals. 

Unfortunately, this local, product-based approach to tutoring is not uncommon when time and space are not shared by both student and tutor. Undoubtedly, it is easier for the tutor to fall into the role of editor when the student is not present. This tendency toward the product-based approach has many writing center directors and peer tutors worried because it is not in harmony of the goals of a writing center. J. A. Jackson of Purdue’s Online Writing Center relates this fear: “The most frightening prospect of the online tutorial is that all one is left with is the writing and not the writer, the product and not the process” (2). This shift to editing rather than tutoring is especially easy because writing centers serve students from across the disciplines, and tutors certainly do not and cannot comprehend the content of such a wide range of texts. For this reason alone, tutors may assume that the student authors “know what they are talking about,” and revert to looking at formulaic concepts of structure, style, and grammar and usage, all part of a local focus

However, many tutors recognize this tendency to move an online tutorial toward a local, product-based focus, and attempt to interact with the writer by the familiar methods of questioning. Tutors may try to ask questions, both direct and indirect, to essentially help students engage in the learning process. Jackson admits, though, that unfortunately the tutor’s questions often go unanswered and there is hardly ever “follow-up feedback” from the writer (6). Again the rhetorical shift is evident as online tutorials move farther and farther away from the dialectic, discussion-based approach. 

However, online tutoring is not completely destined for failure. While it is clear that there are rhetorical differences between face-to-face peer tutoring and current online tutoring practices, overcoming some of these obstacles may be easily done, by shifting from postings on OWL and email, to more chat-based programs. Currently several universities are experimenting with programs such as chatrooms, Multiple User Dialogue or Dimension (MUD), and MUD, Object Oriented (MOO). All of these programs allow students and tutors to share virtual time and space, making way for conversation—questioning methods, reader response, clarification of roles, and so on. Working with programs such as MOO in conjunction with email or OWL postings also allows for the text to be present for both the student writer and the peer tutor. These simple changes begin to preserve the familiar dialectical tutoring approach of traditional tutoring as the practice is taken online. 

But even if they maintain the rhetorical nature of peer tutoring, online writing centers are not complete in their practice and goals without additional resources for student writers. Most offline writing centers offer many resources for students visiting their physical space such as reference books, handbooks, handouts, and knowledgeable tutors who can provide quick answers to specific questions. In response to the contrast between current practices in most online writing centers and the proposed holistic practice, Eric H. Hobson in the introduction to Wiring the Writing Center suggests that 

in their first forays online, many writing centers are creating themselves in the form of their antithesis, that nemesis writing lab. Put bluntly, many OWLs consist primarily of the contents of old filing cabinets and handbooks—worksheets, drill activities, guides to form—pulled out of the mothballs, dusted off and digitized…in addition to a reliance on these types of materials, by allowing—even encouraging—writers to make use of these online resources, many of these writers write in isolation. (xvii) 

If writing in isolation is the end product of these online programs based in OWL and email exchange and supported only by online versions of handbooks, then these virtual spaces fail as writing centers, which champion collaborative learning based on peer tutoring. Clearly, there is a need to preserve the rhetorical nature of peer tutoring as interactive, placing peer tutoring at the heart of online writing centers, but not offering it as the sole service, for there again would we be falsely presenting the concept of a writing center

Although peer tutoring is the main activity of a writing center, students also come in for the quick fixes offered by handouts, handbooks, reference books, and by asking tutors a few specific questions about a specific assignment, and these resources must also be preserved as part of a complete and complex writing center. Instead of tucking these resources away online, they should play an integral role in the service provided by an online writing center. Undoubtedly, students who have a question on common punctuation or even need to know where to start when writing about critical theory could use online handouts as a jumping off point for their writing. Additionally, if students have questions that go beyond what handouts cover, especially those dealing with style, online writing centers should offer links to the APA, MLA, and Turabian homepages, so that students can troubleshoot their own questions just as they would if handed a manual in the physical space of a writing center. Likewise, online writing centers need to offer access to dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, handbooks, and other such references. While interaction between student and tutor should attempt to remain discussion based in tutorials, much of the time student writers have a few specific questions that the tutor can answer directly or refer the student to a resource that contains the answers to those specific questions. These quick exchanges can take place via email or OWL in contrast to the more extensive chat programs where peer tutors and student writers can focus on discussion based tutoring. 

Empire State College, in Saratoga Springs, New York, has created a Writer’s Complex as part of their virtual library or “cybrarythat offers more of a holistic approach to putting writing center services online. Not only is this online writing center visually appealing (, but it offers a variety of resources besides just student tutor interaction. A student writer needs only to identify the type of help he or she needs and then click on that portion of the Writer’s Complex to access the support needed. Empire State College’s Online Writing Center, the Writer’s Complex, offers everything from the basics of essay writing to ESL resources, in addition to their Tutor’s Mailbox, which allows student writers to ask specific questions and/or submit their papers for review (unfortunately, not discussion-based review)

Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, Utah, also offers a varied approach and achieves a more complete transfer of their writing center online as they keep peer tutoring at the heart of their services with additional resources provided to further support student writers. Though there are no handouts or links for students to access, Salt Lake Community College offers three styles of online tutoring—email advising, web board advising, and real-time advising. Each has a clearly defined purpose that attempts to meet an individual writer’s various needs, whether that be a full tutorial, an answer to a quick question, or peer feedback for several students ( 

Finally, despite all the work that writing centers are employing to get their services online, the possibilities that accompany the internet as a medium for teaching composition are endless as new hardware and software are continually emerging, and undoubtedly, online practices will change with the ever-advancing medium. However, writing centers can not simply avoid experimentation and wait for someone else to figure out how to preserve the rhetorical nature of peer tutoring online while augmenting it with other resources. It is through experimentation that writing centers will discover the previously unknown pathways for transmitting writing center services online. Indisputably, we must admit as does Eric Hobson in quoting Diana George that 

the technology is here. We cannot ignore it. Furthermore, we already know that computer technology-the communication revolution-is more powerful than skillsand-drills work books on screen. What we dont know, I am convinced, is how this New Worldreally will configure our teaching and our tutoring. (ix)

Although the current trend in online writing centers is toward OWL and email posting tutorials, we have not seen the end of interactive, dialectic peer tutoring at the heart of writing center practice, and in fact, we will continue to see advances that help secure the rhetorical nature of peer tutoring as we are willing to work with computer microphones, web cameras, and so on. Michael D. McMaster, a social theorist, claims that “to make the shift in thinking [into the information age], we need the willingness to unlearn the old and the courage to grapple with the new and unfamiliar” (Murphey and Law 190). In essence, the near future of writing centers online is full of experimentation and offers plenty of room for research in both that which is currently being done in online writing centers and the many possibilities that are to come that will keep the rhetorical nature of peer tutoring, the holistic approach to writing center services, and the goals of writing center theory intact. 


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