Again, two topics on this week's post. First - online conferencing: what are some purposes for responding in writing to student essays, and what are some strategies?
Responding to a student essay via the written word can be done for many reasons. First, and this is especially good in situations where face-to-face doesn't occur, it can be a way to build a relationship with the writer - your written words have to let them know that there is a person and a face behind the comments, not just a writing mechanics automaton. Thus, word choice and tone play a big role here; more on that later.
A written response can also give tutors the role of disciplinary experts as they provide very specific, very detailed feedback about the student's essay. This specific feedback can help impart the specialized knowledge necessary to succeed in that particular discipline.
Finally, and most importantly, as Longman notes: "your response should enable the writer to learn"(162). Very important statement here! Note the word choice: enable students to LEARN. Written responses are not meant to make tutors into editors and spell checkers. Written responses should aid in learning.
Which brings us to the next question - what are some strategies for doing this? Well, as mentioned before, tone is important. The response should feel personal, like the tutor genuinely sat down and took time to read and think about the paper - not like the tutor just scribbled the same few random comments on a giant stack of papers and called it a day. This can be as simple as addressing the writer by name in a summary response at the end of the essay: "John, I really like where you're going with this draft. Now, ...." or "Jane, you have some strong sections in this. Let's try to build on...."
These two examples also demonstrate the next strategy: start with something positive! No one wants to feel like they're a hopeless case. If tutors can pick out one or two things the student does well, they will be more willing to accept that some things need work and genuinely work to improve those sections. Since they know that they have done something right in some part of the paper, they know they can make the rest work too.
Another thing that can make writers feel like they're a lost cause is a paper that looks as though a red pen just vomited all over it. It discourages writers to see a draft they've worked hard on covered in red, and it can also feel overwhelming: like they have so much to fix that they shouldn't even bother to start. So, a third strategy is to stop at three. If tutors can pick out 3 things for writers to work on - for example, organization, backing up claims/points with examples from the text, and citing sources correctly - then the paper will seem much more manageable. Making three improvements well is much more effective than making 18 improvements very poorly.
As with a face-to-face session, another strategy for responding in writing is to keep higher-order concerns in mind first. If the organization is totally illogical, then making sure none of the sentences are comma splices doesn't really make sense - so noting one of the three concerns as organization, rather than comma usage, is more effective.
Responding as a reader is also an effective strategy. Noting comments in the margin, like "What do you mean here?" "Can you give us more?" "Nice example" or "Transition feels a bit rocky", can be very helpful. Tutors' reactions as readers often help to pinpoint areas that need a little more refinement.
Finally, using a tape recorder or other technology is an effective strategy when responding in writing to student essays. Tutors can tape-record their reactions as they read the paper out loud so that students can hear what sounds awkward and where tutors felt that more detail was needed, the explanation was good, the sentence was unclear, or so forth. Computer technology can be a great tool as well: using the comment feature to make notes in the margins, highlighting areas where citation needs to be re-checked, using a different font or font color to embed comments, or turning on track changes.
With these purposes and strategies for online conferencing laid out, let's also look at the WAC: what is it, what is its relationship with the writing center, and what are some ways a WAC may affect the operation of the writing center?
WAC simply stands for writing across the curriculum: the idea that every major and every profession has the need to communicate ideas in written form, and therefore every student needs to be able write and think like professionals in their chosen discipline. It has grown out of an increasing recognition that writing is essential to learning.
WAC has a varied relationship with the writing center. There are essentially two schools of thought: that tutors should be "specialists" and matched with students in their area of expertise, or that tutors should be "generalists" and able to work with students of any major. Some people worry that specialist tutors, because of their expert knowledge, will overpower students and act more like expert teachers; others worry that generalist tutors are too limited and will not be able to help students figure out the specialized technical areas in which they are often seeking assistance. However, others argue that specialist tutors are not more likely than any other tutor to steamroller over a student, and that generalist tutors actually become better tutors by pushing themselves to help students in disciplines outside their comfort area. Thus, there are valid arguments on both sides.
WAC can either work in conjunction with the writing center or as its own sort of entity. Generalist tutors from the writing center may help students in all majors, or specific majors may establish their own 'help centers' with specialized tutors who do have the very technical knowledge specific to that field. Both strategies can be effective; the main point of importance is to recognize that, whether working as a generalist in a writing center or a specialist in a WAC center, the ultimate goal is to facilitate student learning and understanding.