Tutoring Online

Adam Robinson, Associate Director

I was reading back through our blog, thinking about what to write, and I realized that we haven’t talked about our Virtual Writing Center (VWC). Established in 2004 by Carol Mattingly, Chris Ervin, and Chris Carter, the VWC has undergone many changes over the years. But the basic structure has stayed the same. Writers visit our website, fill out an electronic request form, and either ask to meet with a consultant in a live chat or receive feedback via e-mail. Just like in our physical WC, our VWC consultants work with any U of L writer, and like our physical WC, our VWC stays busy.

When I first began consulting for U of L’s Writing Center in 2006, I worked in both the physical WC and VWC. To be honest, I didn’t like Virtual consulting at first. I’d say the time constraint was my biggest source of frustration. I was restricted to working with a paper for 50 minutes, the same appointment time length as our physical sessions. However, unlike a face-to-face session where the writer and tutor negotiate a reasonable agenda for the session, I didn’t have a writer by my side to help me prioritize how I might approach a long document or a document in its early, rougher stages. And given that my advice could only be communicated through what I typed and given that the writer wasn’t present to confirm that he or she understood my feedback, I had to take a great deal of time to type out my comments—even the simplest of concepts sometimes required a lengthy explanation.

But once I got enough Virtual consultations under my belt, I really started to like Virtual tutoring. From a consultant’s perspective, it’s a job with flexible hours and a flexible work location. The work can be done basically anytime and anywhere. And while I found it difficult at first to have to spend so much time being certain that I was being clear with my written advice, I felt more confident in some ways in the advice I was giving in my Virtual consultations as I was able to prioritize and think through the ideas I was relaying to the writer. I felt in control of my response, contrary to some face-to-face sessions, where the fast paced dialogue between me and the writer sometimes led to me saying things in ways that I didn’t mean to say them. And over time, I began collecting my Virtual responses, sharing some of my favorite pieces of advice with multiple writers—I guess I was working smarter not harder in that case. And my VWC work improved how I responded to writing in the composition classes that I occasionally taught as my VWC experience helped me learn how to be thorough as well as selective with my comments.

The writers submitting to the VWC like the service too. For many of them, a Virtual appointment is the most convenient option given their busy schedules. And for other writers, using the VWC is the only option—students taking U of L courses in Panama aren’t exactly in a position to visit our main library for a face-to-face appointment. Others like that they can save our written comments and return to them when writing future papers. If a writer feels that a consultant has made a muddy concept clearer, that writer can save that feedback and return to it whenever that concept starts to feel muddy again. And I know from talking with writers who use the VWC that they also like the opportunity to privately reflect on the feedback their consultants have given them.

Virtual consulting is an exciting part of writing center work because new, improving and simply changing technologies may allow for different types of Virtual tutoring. And for our specific Writing Center, I find Virtual work interesting because there are questions that we still need to answer and there are improvements that we can still make. For example, we want to give effective, thoughtful response. What constitutes good feedback in an e-mailed response?—a question that Becky Hallman, a former U of L consultant, effectively addresses in her recently defended MA Thesis. Or we always encourage students visiting the physical Writing Center to work with a consultant multiple times for any given assignment, taking time to work through the entire writing process, from prewriting to drafting to revising to editing—not necessarily in that order. How can we get students to work in a similar fashion in the Virtual realm, especially regarding prewriting? What about the dialogue that happens in the face-to-face setting that to me is the bread and butter of WC work? And what about the flip side of things? What can a Virtual session do that a face-to-face session can’t? What unique features of VWC sessions can we identify and improve upon? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about Virtual consulting. What experiences have you had either as a consultant or user of virtual services?

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