Writing the Writer, Part 2

Molly Starkweather,  Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

The first part of this two-part entry explored the possible identities online students construct when engaging in synchronous tutoring that only uses text and audio (no videos). The second part will distinguish how a synchronous online space that does not use videos might be superior for tutoring students whose identities are difficult to negotiate in a traditional, physical university campus.

In a physical space, the writer is already being written by the ideology of the campus. At a traditional liberal arts institution, a student is likely to see a flyer with QR codes near stairs featuring ads for video game tournaments. If a student is a senior citizen in a wheelchair who cannot afford cable (much less a luxurious gaming system) at home, he or she is likely to feel a bit out of place. That is one piece of paper—a literal piece of writing on the wall— amid a series of buildings that require an extra set of steps (no pun intended) for handicapped accessibility to get inside. The metaphorical writing on the wall might include classes with students who are more often than not young, white, able-bodied, thin, heteronormative, and native-sounding English speakers.

In this physical space, a student comes in with the characteristics that were distinguished in his or her application and course registration materials written all over his or her physical body. The tutor then must decide what to do with that information. In my experience, the best case scenario included a tight-rope walk in which the rope I tried to balance on was only allowing elements of a student’s identity to come up organically in discussion focused primarily on the writing. This balancing act was easy if there were not many weights on either side of the “Do not discuss any differences whatsoever” and the “Discuss all differences to clear the air by giving permission for them to be there” baton I carried through the conversation.

During one particularly successful tutoring session when I was a peer tutor in South Georgia, a student came in with a shaved head and some makeup on. I never knew the gender identity of the student, but it seemed a kind of non-heteronormative identity was being performed. The student had a single dollar bill attached to his or her neon pink shirt with a clothespin. I used our common Southern heritage to ask “Is it your birthday?” (For those unfamiliar, it is a common tradition to “pin the money” on someone’s shirt when celebrating  a birthday.) The student enthusiastically responded in the affirmative, and I asked if I could pin a dollar on. With that little ritual, we were able to establish that no differences needed to be discussed, but we had something in common to cling to. I had negotiated what I needed to, and so had the student, so that we could sit down and focus on the writing in a warm and inviting space.

How would that conversation have gone differently online? The student might still have said he or she was celebrating a birthday. True, we might not have negotiated that difficult moment of what to do with the meaning behind the student’s appearance, but we would not have needed to. The fact is that the student did not bring up the makeup or the colorful outfit or anything else, so it was not up for discussion. While it was a moment of hospitality for the student and a moment of growth for me to make a connection in spite of the student’s differences from the norm, that connection could have been made on the student’s terms. In a synchronous online space with no cameras, the student’s identity is much more within the student’s control.

Making room in the writing center for all students might mean embracing what John Lennon described in 1969 on The David Frost Show as “bagism,” in which all participants in the act of total communication hide their outer identities in order to eliminate distraction from their messages to each other. According to the transcript online (Beatles Bible, n.d.), Frost pointed out to Lennon that the bag itself might be distracting, but in cyberspace the situation is much more egalitarian. No one can see each other in the video-less chat room.

Some concerns around using video-less technology for communication involve the lack of connection between tutor and writer that can be facilitated by nonverbal cues, especially in terms of eye contact and mirror neurons or mirror receptors. According to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni (as cited in Lehrer, 2008), mirror neurons are what move us to feel for other people when we see something they experience; in other words, our brains are geared to smile when we see other people smile or cry when we see them cry. Truly, mirror neurons are a powerful factor in effective communication that would be removed when there is no video interface for online tutoring—but what if there were never any facial expressions to factor in in the first place?

A recent study by Sherman, Michikyan, and Greenfield (2013) has revealed that, while bonding might be stronger using face to face communication among those forming relationships, bonding can take place among those who use instant messaging. In fact, those participants who primarily communicated in a particular way (such as using telephone calls and audio chats) reported greater bonding through that primary medium as opposed to a different, supposedly superior medium. In other words, this study indicates that whatever means a tutor uses to communicate with a writer can facilitate social presence and a perceived bond so long as that means remains constant.

Given that the study by Sherman, Michikyan, and Greenfield (2013) focuses on building friendships, and given that a socially present bond can be established and maintained fairly well between friends using only text-based or voice communication, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the singularly focused tutor-writer relationship would need visual cues. The sacrifice of anonymity in the name of forging a supposedly stronger personal bond seems counterproductive when widely accepted communication texts like The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Psychology, Technology, and Society echo the theory that text-based online interaction clears the way for more meaningful communications over a distance (Bartsch & Subrahmanyam, 2015).

In the case of students who complete all of their education online with no physical interaction with peers, professors, and writing center workers, it is in the best interest of inclusivity to avoid adding video technology to the writing center as a default. Currently, there are many reasons why video is not part of the standard tutoring experience at Kaplan, but many of those barriers—including the ease of accessing web cams and software for video tutoring, as well as the availability of strong enough broadband connections to facilitate smooth video feeds—will soon disappear as technology continues to advance. Jonathan Finkelstein’s guide to synchronous online education, Learning in Real Time (2006), warns against using videos simply in order to reproduce the physical campus experience. In the case of providing a welcoming space for marginalized students, reproducing the physical campus might not be the best goal. Instead, digital landscapes can facilitate meaningful social presence in a minimalist context in order to allow students to take control of writing their assignments—and writing themselves.

References for Parts 1 & 2

Bartsch, M. & Subrahmanyam, K. (2015). Technology and self-presentation: Impression management online. In L. Rosen, N. Cheever, & L. M. Carrier (Eds.) The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Psychology, Technology, and Society (pp. 339-357). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

The Beatles Bible. (n.d.) Television: John Lennon and Yoko Ono on The David Frost Show. Retrieved from http://www.beatlesbible.com/1969/06/14/television-john-lennon-yoko-ono-david-frost-show/

Brooks, J. (2001). Minimalist tutoring: Making the student do all the work. In

Barnett, R. & Blumner, J. (Eds.), The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing

center theory and practice. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Coogan, D. (1994, March). Towards a rhetoric of on-line tutoring. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Nashville, TN.

Harris, M. (2000). Talk to me: Engaging reluctant writers.

In B. Rafoth (Ed.), A tutor’s guide: Helping writers one to one (pp. 24-

34). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Lehrer, J. (2008). The mirror neuron revolution: Explaining what makes humans social. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-mirror-neuron-revolut/

Sherman, L. E., Michikyan, M., & Greenfield, P. (2013). The effects of text, audio, video, and in-person communication on bonding between friends. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 7(2), article 1. doi: 10.5817/CP2013-2-3


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