UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the category “Writing Center Theory”

Behind the Scenes at the Virtual Writing Center

Cassie Book, Associate Director

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As the University Writing Center’s (UWC) Associate Director, I’m always interested in ways to move from practice-based questions to research and practical improvements. The goal of a recent research project was to improve the overall Virtual Writing Center experience for both writers and consultants. During my day-to-day experience in the UWC, I noticed that some writers (the students, faculty, and staff who use our services) had difficulty locating Virtual Writing Center appointments on our online schedule. The “Virtual Writing Center” broadly encompass our website and synchronous (live chat) and asynchronous (written feedback) online tutoring. We offer both forms of Virtual appointments to Distance Education students and those who cannot visit for a face-to-face appointment. In addition to noting that some writers couldn’t find the Virtual Writing Center appointments on our online schedule, other writers accidentally scheduled a live online chat session when they really wanted asynchronous written feedback on their draft. These were not trivial issues. If not corrected, they result in a writer not getting the help they wanted or losing valuable appointment time.

I developed a research project based on “user-experience” (UX) methodologies that would allow me to investigate where the breakdown in usability and/or communication occurred. The most important reason why it is important for writers to be able to successfully use the technology writing centers employ is accessibility. For instance, in physical writing center spaces, stairs leading to an entrance could be a barrier for a writer using a wheelchair or crutches. In online spaces, the clunky setup of online scheduling systems could create barriers to accessing writing centers. Understanding how writers use our UWC’s online scheduling system would help us redesign elements of the system to make it as welcoming and usable as possible for all potential users.

To understand how our website and schedule confused writers, I recruited six UofL students who have never used the Virtual Writing Center and conducted usability tests and interviews. A “usability test” is not really a “test;” it simply provides scenarios for study participants to undertake (such as, “schedule an appointment in the Writing Center; you want the kind of appointment where you do not physically have to go to the Writing Center”) while a researcher (me) observes them. My follow-up interviews asked the students to discuss their perceptions of the scheduling process and the website. Finally, also I observed three Virtual Writing Center consultants as they worked and conducted a focus group about their use and perceptions of the technology. I collected and analyzed the data on the usability tests, interviews, observations, and focus group to create a picture of what was happening “behind the scenes” of the Virtual Writing Center. For example, to analyze the usability test data and interviews, I simply looked for patterns. One pattern I noticed was that most participants did not stop to read the instructions on our website before attempting to schedule an appointment. My data overall showed me how consultants and writers used the technology, which was valuable for me as an administrator wanting to improve their online experiences.

After I analyzed the data, I developed a list of recommendations for changes to the website and scheduling system based on my findings. We’ve already put in place several improvements! These include: redesigning the Appointments webpage using icons and new resources, such as a new Frequently Asked Questions about the Virtual Writing Center. We also added disclaimers and visual clues on the Appointment page and online schedule to grab writers’ attention to let them know where to find the Virtual Writing Center schedule (see below). We changed the names of the Virtual appointment types to more logically descriptive names. Now the choice between “Written Feedback” and “Live Video Chat” in the Virtual Writing Center is, we hope, clearer. We also revised some of the training for our Virtual Writing Center consultants to ease their anxieties about using technology to communicate about writing. If our consultants aren’t 100% comfortable with it, we can’t expect the writers to be.

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The revised announcement on our Ekstrom Library location schedule, which uses visuals to capture users’ attention.

I would like to make two points to conclude. First, I believe that integrating user-experience perspectives into writing center practices benefits both writing center administrators, to make more informed design decisions, and writers, to more easily access centers. Writing centers (alongside other entities in education) can get easily excited about a new innovation or tool, but we need to also think critically about the impact on students, especially in terms of accessibility. Writing center theory already values writer-centered practices and user-experience studies build on that foundation. Second, a major tenant of user-experience research is that it should be ongoing, so our work is not done! We will continue to collect data on how our writers and consultants use our technology and use those insights to make adjustments to practice.

This research was funded by the Christine Cozzens Research Grant from the Southeastern Writing Center Association and will likely appear in more detail in a future publication.

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Silence in Writing Center Sessions

Emily Cousins, Consultantemily-c

I’ve always known that silence can be beneficial in various ways during writing center sessions. It recently dawned on me, though, that silence often requires a conscious effort to create, and that perhaps I could be doing more to actively create productive silences during meetings with writers.

My desire to incorporate more silence into my writing center sessions is largely based on the role silence plays in facilitating my own writing and thinking process. When I receive feedback on something I’ve written, I need time to comprehend verbal feedback and to process my own thoughts. I also need time to think of the words I want to use to articulate my responses. This is why I’m grateful whenever I work with people who, when giving feedback, allow for moments of silence throughout the discussion.

When I have my tutoring hat on while working at the Writing Center, I sometimes forget that the writers I work with may feel the same way about silence as I do. I always try to be ready with the next question or the next suggestion, to keep the trains of thought all moving smoothly forward without much pause. I tell myself that by doing this we’re getting the most out of the allotted 50-minute time frame. But I think it’s worth asking: am I not giving us enough time to nurture certain conditions that might fuel productive, reflective, creative thinking?

One strategy tutors use is to have writers brainstorm and/or write on their own; the tutor might walk to another room and come back after 5-10 minutes or more, depending on the context. This is one way to allow for quiet time for writers to work, and can be an effective way to incorporate silence into a session. However, this is not quite the kind of silence I have in mind. The silence I want to use more during my sessions is a mutually shared, collaborative sort of silence, during which both the tutor and writer are still sitting together side by side, thinking. Sometimes the silence might be broken to exchange an idea or two. I’m thinking of a type of silence that is the opposite of empty and/or uncomfortable – the anti-awkward silence.

The “awkward silence” is an interesting concept I learned about as I became more familiar with social conventions in American culture. Growing up in Japan, I always felt that silence was the default way to exist in the world, a way to convey respect and mindfulness. It was difficult moving to the U.S. where presence often seems to be measured by how much one speaks. There appears to be a widespread aversion to silence in social situations, which is perhaps linked to the phenomenon of “small talk.” So, while I personally appreciate moments of collaborative silence when discussing my own writing with people, I understand that some writers might find silence uncomfortable. So, as tutors, we should be attentive to cues that might suggest whether or not a writer might really benefit from silence during sessions.

I sometimes initiate collaborative silences by asking the writer, “can I take a moment to write this down?” Sometimes I will stop myself from thinking of the next thing to say. It has been surprising how many times writers will then break the silence with a new idea or insightful comment they may not have offered had we not taken a moment to pause. Whenever this happens, I remind myself of how valuable and productive silences can be.

Community Literacy and the Writing Center: Building Foundations

Amy McCleese Nichols, Assistant Director Amy N

For the past two years, the Writing Center has been working to build a commitment to community literacy into our activities. While writers from all over the university come to us for help with course assignments and beyond, writing centers constantly inhabit a liminal space where personal, academic, and professional writing collide. To honor this fact, we also wanted to expand our offerings to value writing that may happen off-campus, whether connected to higher education or not. While the role of writing centers and community engagement is still relatively new to writing center scholarship, we are excited about the potential benefits that what we might call writing center values, with their focus on listening and building trust over time, may have for the way university entities approach community partnerships.

Amy Picture1In Summer 2015, we began conversations with academic support staff at Family Scholar House to find out how our skills might be of use, and started offering workshops and tutoring hours for student writers on FSH campuses. This year, we expanded those hourly offerings and began allowing some of our trained consultants to volunteer as well. Three accomplishments we are particularly proud of this year:

  • Working in conjunction with Bronwyn Williams’ Spring 2017 Community Literacy course, we have been able to expand our spring hours to offer hours on multiple FSH campuses throughout the week, meeting a long-term FSH goAmy Picture2al of providing more in-house academic support for student writers.
  • Assistant Director Amy McCleese Nichols led families in a set of “Story-Making Workshops” during Fall 2016, which focused on composing for fun using family (or imagined) stories. This 3-day set of workshops had a total attendance of 81 adults, 52 children, and 48 hand-sewn booklets with individualized covers were made for participants to write stories in and take home.
  • This spring, we have also added another community partner: the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. Also working with the Community Literacy course, we are providing writing help every Tuesday for K-12 students.

Throughout these conversations, we have kept several values in play: showing up, listening, and building partnerships gradually for continuity. In Bronwyn’s words, we begin by simply “showing up.” Showing up in our context has meant keeping a sense of flexibility when setting up programs and plans. While we have put time and effort into making sure our work is meeting a need articulated by our partners, we also save room for the moments when no one shows up – and then we show up the week afterward. By building our relationships and a sense of trust gradually, we have found ourselves more able to have conversations when offerings need to change for the mutual benefit of both organizations.

We are also creating logistical structures within the Writing Center to support long-term partnerships. As the first Assistant Director working with community literacy, I brought a unique skill set from my previous work as a nonprofit volunteer coordinator. As I have worked with our partners, I have written manuals, kept records of previous conversations, and passed that knowledge on to other staff in the Writing Center so that our partnerships are not bound entirely to a semester-by-semester schedule. While our offerings and volunteer numbers will ebb and flow over time as partnerships evolve, we hope that having a consistent contact who stays in touch from year-to-year within the university will provide a sense of continuity for us and our partners while also providing opportunities for graduate student assistant directors to gain experience in the logistics of managing partnerships.

We look forward to learning more with Family Scholar House and Western Branch Library. This fall, we are partnering with the English 508: Literacy Tutoring course, taught by Dr. Andrea Olinger. The course will cover teaching writing individually and in small groups in academic, professional, and community contexts, and students that have taken it will be qualified to complete internships and volunteer work through these partnerships.

Ultimately, we hope that what Tiffany Rousculp has termed a “rhetoric of respect” will define our community literacy efforts. By putting our partners’ voices first in the conversation, keeping elements of our partnerships consistent, and strategically partnering with service-learning courses, we look forward to learning more with Family Scholar House and Western Branch Library.

 

 

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