Wednesday, November 30, 2005

tutor training textbooks

I'm here to discuss my review of the tutor-training textbooks The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, ESL Writers, and The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors in WCJ. I'll touch on a couple of issues raised in the review today and write about a couple others later this week and see if there's any response to this blog.
I was particularly struck in reviewing these books by the desire to introduce tutors to the field of writing center theory and research and to some of the critical debates of the field. I take this as a sign of how important disciplinarity has become in our field that tutor-training books, like introductory textbooks in psychology, economics, sociology, and many other fields, function partly as an introduction to the discipline. Tutors are represented not just as students working a part-time job but as novices in a larger community who should be interested in its conversations and invited to participate in the discussions and research of writing center scholars and directors. That's unusual for textbooks in English. Although some schools now have courses that introduce students to English studies or literary studies, first- and second-year composition and literature courses in English departments traditionally have never functioned like an intro to psychology course. Only linguistics and sometimes folklore in English have typically offered intro courses like this, although the situation is changing. This development is also intriguing given the tutor's ambiguous position as a professional and some ambivalence about disciplinarity in writing centers, expressed most memorably by Richard Riley. Tutors are instructed to resist responding to papers and talking to writers as a teacher would, to avoid teacher talk and not view themselves as "paraprofessionals," to use John Trimbur's term.
Because I raised the issue of how textbooks in general tend to regulate instruction, promoting some theories and pedagogies while ignoring others, I want to mention that Toni-Lee Capossela's Harcourt Brace Guide to Peer Tutoring has gone out of print. I don't know the reason for this, maybe Harcourt didn't find enough interest in the book or didn't promote the book enough (Longman and St. Martin's are much more active about developing and promoting books for writing instructors) or maybe Capossela decided she wasn't interested in doing a second edition. Hers is the only tutor-training book that combines a manual and an anthology of readings, and, more importantly, Capossela includes far more discussion about writing than any other book for tutors. The other books take little responsibility for teaching students much about writing processes. Although the Harcourt Brace Guide needs revising and updating, it's a real loss that it's no longer available, and this loss raises a question about why tutor-training books don't cover much about theories and research on composition in general.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Closing thoughts about OWC

As I close my comments this week about the usefulness of metaphors and conceptual models for online writing centers, I want to say that if nothing else, brainstorming metaphors for online tutoring is a fun, creative way to think productively about how students can receive tutoring online. Even if a metaphor doesn't make it to the final web design, it's a great first place to start drafting designs and ideas.

But, if you are serious about going through this process, I would recommend that you follow steps outlined by Jeffrey Rubin on the use of conceptual models. (See Rubin, Jeff. "Conceptual Design: Cornerstone of Usability." Technical Communication 43.2 (1996): 130- 138.) Here are the steps I think are most pertinent to designing online writing centers:

1. Analyze your audience. Get information about who your potential online clients would be: traditional students? non-traditional students? commuters? resident students? undergrad or grads? tech-savvy? non-native speakers of English? Gather as much information as possible about your pool of students that might use your OWC. This step is absolutely critical, for you could come up with a great design that doesn't make sense at all to your target users.

2. Identify your technological capabilites. Ask what kind of technology supports your online writing center (Web? Email? Database?). Write down what kind of technological support you have in terms of web site design, maintenance, and troubleshooting. After doing this homework, with questions 1 and 2, you'll have a better idea of what metaphors might work best with your audience and technology capabilities.

3. Brainstorm metaphors that might describe how your writing center works, or how you’d like it to work. Example: “My online writing center works like telephone conference. Students can dial in and chat synchronously with a tutor online during open tutoring hours.” Brainstorm as many metaphors as possible in a 5 minute period.

4. Pick one metaphor you brainstormed that you’d like to develop that seems most promising.
5. Draw a “paper prototype,” or a simple sketch, of the critical web page(s) of your site that would relate best to your selected metaphor. Take a piece of 81/2 x 11 inch paper, draw a screen, and then sketch out visuals or links that might appear on that web page. You might narrow this exercise to just one web page of your online writing center site. For instance you might pick your home page, or a page just beyond the home page that goes into more depth about your online writing center service. On your sketch, draw buttons, lines, or images where users can “click.” Use visuals and words to guide your users.

6. Give your paper prototype to another person to examine. Ask them to walk through the sketch much as they would on screen (ask them literally to point to or press the links you've drawn).

Going through these exercises can really stimulate your ideas for an online writing center. If you do this exercise with your entire staff, you could generate a lot of ideas and even come to an agreement about which one is best or deserves further exploration and development. It's productive, fun, and guarantees that you will carefully think through your students' experience online.

Well, I hope these have been useful thoughts and ideas about online writing center design. It's been fun to blog here. Good bye!

Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch


So in this post I'm going to talk about another idea for a conceptual model that emerged from the IWCA workshop I gave in November about designing online writing centers.

One of the participants came up with the idea of ROCKCLIMBING as a metaphor for an online tutorial. She explained that writing and rockclimbing had much in common, and that it would be fitting for tutoring as well. For example, she said that when you rockclimb, you have a guide who is with you every step of the way, offering help when needed. However, the guide can't climb the rock for you--(much like writing, you have to do the writing yourself). She added that, like rockclimbing, writing is risky to a lot of people--it takes them out of their comfort zone. It stretches them, requires concentration and hard work, and discipline. Like rockclimbing, writing also requires that you set goals and reach for them. I thought rockclimbing was a beautiful metaphor not only for writing but for writing tutors/consultants. I'm sorry that I can't recall the name of the participant who offered the suggestion, but I know she is from the southwest. Anyway, it's a great metaphor. What's also nice about it is that you don't need to be a rockclimber to understand the metaphor; however, in her particular case, the rockclimbing metaphor would be especially useful since there probably are more rockclimbers in the southwest.

Now, how would this metaphor fit for an online writing center? You see, the importance of a metaphor for online design is that it helps people understand what actions might occur, and how those actions manifest in online spaces. In the case of the rockclimbing metaphor, we might explain the connections between rockclimbing and writing in a small paragraph (much like I did above). This explanation might help students understand that they need to submit their own writing online (a tutor won't write for them); they might expect to get paired with an online tutor who would be their "guide"; they might expect this tutor to point out problem areas in their writing and offer suggestions for further revision.

Then, we might select certain key words from that description to pull out for functions of the web site. These key words could serve as links or visuals to guide the user's online experience. For example, I could imagine tabs or links that say "step 1" and "step 2" with a picture of a rock step in the background. Actually you could have a rock mountain in the background, with links at various points around the moutain outline (not necessarily linear!). You could use the word "guide" to designate the tutor, and have a tab or link that said "guide"; you could also have a link that said "troublespots" with information about common writing "pitfalls" to avoid (handouts on usage, mechanics, grammar, process, revision, etc.).

It's really fun to think about the possibilities, and what's so useful about a metaphor/conceptual model is that it pulls the whole online experience together. Users "climb" into a world and the metaphor/conceptual model helps them understand how to navigate in that online space.

Here ends my example of the rockclimbing metaphor. In the next post I'll offer some closing thoughts about metaphors and conceptual models for online writing center design.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

OWC Models

So to continue my thoughts about OWCs and conceptual models. . . in this post I'll talk about some other conceptual models that I've encountered as ways to structure online writing centers. At the recent IWCA conference, I gave a workshop on how to use conceptual models to structure an online writing center. One of the exercises we did was to brainstorm as many metaphors as possible that would describe their online writing center. Not surprisingly, at this point, one of the participants raised her hand and said "how do you define an online writing center?" A good question. So, step one is to define/describe your OWC. For help doing this, check out an article in Kairos by Jane Lasarenko , who describes different levels of writing center service. Is your online writing center simply a web site that announces your f2f service? is your online writing center an asynchronous tutoring service? synchronous? both? Once you have a good understanding of the level of your service, you can begin thinking about metaphors that might describe your online service.

At the IWCA workshop, several good examples were given by participants. One woman suggested that their online writing center could be best represented by a subway map. Visually, there were different "trains" that students could get on. The "red train" might be a series of links related to asynchronous tutoring. The "blue train" might be a series of links related to synchronous conferencing. The "green train" might be a series of links with writing resources, and so on. The subway map was a compelling visual, as well. I think it's a wonderful example of how an online writing center can be represented conceptually. One of the things we need to remember about OWCs is the visual component is as much a part of the experience as the verbal component. If we can help students visualize the services we are offering online, students are more likely to use the service--and come back again.


Monday, November 14, 2005

Thoughts about OWCs

This week I'll be writing some thoughts about online writing centers (OWCs) as a follow up to my article "The Idea(s) of an Online Writing Center: In Search of a Conceptual Model" which was in the last issue of Writing Center Journal. I'm rather new to blogging and I must admit it feels a bit weird to share my thoughts so publicly, but I also think it will be fun. Here goes!

Today I'm thinking about online writing centers and the connections they have with online education, usability of web sites, and writing workshops. Notice that I did not say "f2f tutoring." I think one of the toughest things about online writing centers is the pressure they experience to be just like a f2f center. In my experience directing an online writing center, training online tutors, and tutoring online, I just came to believe that it was very unlikely that online tutoring could be just like f2f tutoring. It seemed to me, in fact, that making that constant comparison was damaging--online tutoring is often described as "cold" and something "less" than f2f tutoring. I frankly got tired of hearing those arguments. I've seen many wonderful things happen in online tutoring. I've seen many students grateful for the help and advice. And surprisingly, I've seen many repeat visits in online writing centers from students that really take to the medium. There are plenty of good things about online writing centers--but they don't always fit into the "Idea of a Writing Center" ala Stephen North.

What I'm reacting to here is the idea that all writing centers must fit the mold of f2f, non-directive, 30- or 50-minute tutoring session. When you take tutoring online, it just doesn't fit in that mold unless you try really hard--with cameras, synchronous spaces, etc. Most online writing centers are asynchronous, and that conflicts with North's idea. How do you focus on developing "the writer" (not the "writing") online when all you've got online is the student's writing, delivered asynchronously? I think that is a really interesting question that needs much more exploration.

My first shot at answering that question is that in order to "develop the writer" online, online writing centers first need to create a learning environment that is welcoming to the writer. A good online learning environment also needs structure, and context to tell the writer what they can expect during an online tutorial. Context can be created by words, certainly, but it can also communicated through visuals. In addition, it can be communicated through a conceptual model or metaphor. A conceptual model is a mental map that explains how something works. Conceptual models are often communicated through a metaphor that describes how something works: "this [item/product/website] works like a [blank]." Conceptual models are often used in website design, and it makes sense to bring this concept to online writing centers.

Designing online writing centers is hard work. OWCs often start out with the burden of trying to work like a f2f writing center--but then figure out that a f2f writing center is not the right conceptual model for an online writing center. As I wrote in the WCJ article, I explored several online writing centers. But my favorite examples of OWCs are those that are designed around a strong conceptual model. University of Missouri-Columbia's OWC is built around the model of a cafe. There are visuals and even sounds that create the image of a cafe, and these effects set the expectation that students can talk informally with a tutor about their writing, either synchronously or asynchronously. I also like the conceptual model of a studio, which Colorado State uses for its OWC. The studio allows for lots of flexibility: students can post work (like artists post their work in a studio) and receive commentary from lots of people. There are separate "rooms" with different emphases. . . the studio model welcomes constructive critique with a sense of respect for individual and collaborative contributions.

In the remainder of my posts this week, I'll talk about some other models I have been exploring lately. As luck would have it, I'm on sabbatical this year, studying online writers workshops. There are some fabulous models out there that I think apply well to online writing centers. More later!

Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch

Friday, November 04, 2005

Lab Writing/Writing Lab

Sorry to skip a day there, but I wanted to get back to the premise I was working on earlier this week: the ways that writing labs and science labs share a great deal of challenge and promise. As Moira commented on the last post (go KU!), it's easy to be jealous of the ways that graduate students, post-docs, and the occasional undergraduate get to learn in the activity of a science lab. It surely contains the elements of "cognitive apprenticeship" and "situated learning" that's theorized by folks such as James P. Gee, Jean Lave, and John Seeley Brown. At MIT, all undergraduates have the opportunity to work in research labs, either for credit or not, and there's hot competition to get into labs early and often. A resume builder, for sure, but also the kind of hands-on experience that simply doesn't come from classroom learning.

I also wrote in an earlier posting that many of MIT's communication-intensive classes were labs in which students have opportunities for writing and speaking about the problems they're trying to solve in lab. Seemed like a good idea to me, but when I was looking more deeply into the origins of the word "laboratory" as applied to the teaching of writing, I began to find many parallel histories. Teaching science in the laboratory became widespread much later than most folks would guess; it wasn't until the late 19th century/early 20th century that chemistry, biology, and physics were commonplace as laboratory subjects, right around the same time that writing was seen best taught and learned in contexts in which practice was key (rather than elements to be lectured by faculty and recited from memory by students).

Well, just as writing as a laboratory subject became contested in the 20s and 30s, mainly because of the workload involved when overburdened faculty were responding to the writing of 90 to 100 students, laboratory science faced a similar crisis. One point of scrutiny was that science educators were slow to get their heads around how they might assess the more abstract elements of lab science instruction. It was far easier to test for mastery of scientific concepts. And it was far less expensive to have the instructor demonstrate the lab work than to have a room full of butter-fingered students pouring out those dangerous chemicals. Thus, there was a backlash to lab science, particularly in high schools, but in higher ed as well. Still, lab science endured as world events fueled the importance of learning science, whether the atomic bomb, Sputnik, or the Cold War.

Unfortunately, what also endured was a sort of cookbook approach to learning science in the lab that is a distortion of original intent, just as the five-paragraph theme is a distortion of what probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Noticably absent throughout the teaching of laboratory science, and still pretty much absent, was attention to the writing of students' scientific work. In other words, science educators never quite saw students' opportunities to write to learn and to communicate science. One of my particular research interests is tracking down examples of students writing in science labs in the early 20th century and what I have found looks a lot like grammar/usage worksheets in English classrooms: fill in the blank with protocol and some results. Dull stuff.

Ultimately, then, I see terrific opportunities for science and writing educators to work together and provide opportunities for students to learn. We have a common history, and I suppose I'm calling for a common future.

By the way, the photo I show at the top is an Arts Laboratory at the University of Minnesota General College circa 1932. Cool outfits!

Enjoy your weekends,


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Writing Centers in Unlikely Places

One of the sessions I went to at the IWCA/NCPTW conference in Minneapolis featured Carol-Ann Farkas of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Susan Mueller of the St. Louis College of Pharmacy talking about the writing centers they direct in the relatively unusual setting of pharmacy education. I feel an allegiance to this topic because Carol-Ann is my successor at MCPHS, and the six years I spent there certainly taught me a great deal about writing across the health-care curriculum, about being a liberal arts faculty member at a non-liberal-arts institution, and about starting a writing center from scratch.

I've had the opportunity to write some about my experiences at MCPHS, including a piece on the history of writing at that institution, which you can find here at the LLAD archives. That was also my first foray into archival work, a kind of research that has pretty much taken over much of what I do for scholarship, whether that's tracing the history of particular writing centers or of students' use of writing to learn laboratory science. At the time of my research into MCPHS's history with writing, I was newly hired and wanted to get some grounding in the institution itself (you can see a timeline of writing at MCP here), as well as some idea of the precedent for work that looked like writing center work. That college has been graduating students since 1869, and I figured somewhere along the line someone made the move to help students become better writers through one-to-one tutoring. Thus, this piece of institutional history, which I initially wanted to use to broaden my knowledge and to communicate to faculty who were responsive to precedents, became more than a public relations ploy. I like to think of writing center research that way: what might start as a fairly simple attempt to answer a practical question or come up with some strategy can broaden into a piece of writing that's of interest to a wide audience. Another variation on this strategy is how much of my current research on the history of writing centers has broadended to encompass the history of the concept of laboratory methods of teaching, whether that means teacher-student conferences, science laboratories, or any other "experimental" approaches to teaching and learning. It all starts with writing centers, for me, one of the most enduring experiments in teaching at any educational level.

Tomorrow I'll end this week's blog entries with some idea of what I have learned about the history of teaching science in laboratory settings and how strikingly parallel that history is to the teaching of writing one-to-one. It all adds up to the idea of a writing center/writing lab in some places we wouldn't normally associate with those practices.

Neal Lerner

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Coming Clean in Cambridge

Okay, I have to admit it: I'm not currently engaged in writing center work on a day-to-day basis. MIT does have a Writing and Communications Center, directed by Steve Strang, but I work as a lecturer for the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, a job I was hired to do in fall of 2002. In this blog entry I want to describe this work, something folks sometimes have a hard time getting their heads around (probably due to the prevalent images circulating about MIT, such as theMIT nerd test).

Starting in 2001, MIT instituted a communications requirement for all undergraduates. This far more extensive writing requirement than had been in place previously largely came about as a result of surveys of alumni, who reported that MIT had taught them to be terrific engineers and scientists but not-so-terrific communicators. As a result, their career advancement was less than ideal (following the adage I heard earlier this semester, "Engineers who can't write work for engineers who can.").

Now, each undergraduate needs to take four total classes designated as "communications intensive" or CI. Two of those CIs are in the humanities, arts, or social sciences cluster, and two are within students' major departments. The primary class I was hired to work with is a sophomore-level molecular biology lab class, affectionately known as "7.02" (numbers are big around here). My colleague Marilee Ogren (who has a PhD in neurobiology and lots of experience as a scientific journal edtior and writer) and I designed "7.02 SciComm," a stand-alone scientific communications class in which we help students read and write research articles. You can learn more about SciComm at our website for the current semester or at the version of our class that's been put on MIT's Open Courseware site.

The communication requirement as applied to students' majors has largely been applied to existing lab classes. The thinking was that these were already sites in which students were doing some writing and were organized into smaller sections, even if the larger lecture was hundreds of students. In other words, the infrastructure was largely present, and it was a much easier sell to departments concerned about squeezing in yet another requirement.

In addition to SciComm, I also regularly work with a junior-level biology lab class and have worked with CI classes in political science, management, electrical engineering, chemistry, and architecture. That sometimes means offering writing workshops throughout the semester and conferencing with students, akin to writing fellows programs or it might mean only responding to students' writing, never actually meeting with them. Our level of involvement in any individual class varies according to the department, the class, and our time available. It's a very flexible and often funky job.

I do like this work a great deal and have learned tremendously about WAC in the last three and a half years. MIT undergraduates are remarkable folks, many destined to do great things, all very committed to working hard and solving problems for the greater good. Given that as an undergraduate I never took a science course (except for computer science), one would think my background would be limiting. However, I use my skills as a rhetorician to understand how a scientific article in any field manages to do its work, and I use my skills as a teacher to help students acquire and demonstrate that understanding. I also find it fascintating and ironic that the knowledge in science and engineering is socially constructed in ways that the humanities with its continued glorification of single-authored works sure has not achieved in practice, despite frequent lip-service and theorizing. The model of the research lab as a forum for teaching and learning is one I'm hoping will influence the work we do in writing classrooms. It's the writing laboratory reconsidered, and that's laboratory in the best experimental intent of the word.

So you see, I really often feel like I am doing writing center work here, but not in the conventional sense. That says something quite powerful to me about the ways writing centers and their ideals can transform the teaching and learning at our institutions.