Coding the UWC

I’m not the nimblest programmer, and because I can count my successes with PHP on one hand, I feel compelled to document them, to extend and preserve them through self-congratulatory accounts like this one.

I am working this semester as a faculty consultant to the University Writing Center. I probably mentioned that before. Basically, my charge is to get online consulting systems up and running at EMU, provide a few months of support and training, and spread the word. The main piece here is asynchronous consulting via email. Much like what we built at Syracuse, this process relies on a form. The student fills it out, uploads an attachment, submits it. The submission calls a PHP script, which in turn displays a You did it! message, a readout of the form data fed to the screen (for saving, for verification), and an email message that routes the form data and the attachment to a listserv. The listserv consists of a handful of subscribers who will comment and send back the uploadeds in turn, in time.

The system works reasonably well, but managing the queue can become a headache. Whose turn is it? At Syracuse, the queue was filled in with four or five rotations, and then as form-fed drafts arrived, consultants would access a shared Google Spreadsheet and manually enter a few vital details: name, email address, time received, time returned, and turnaround (time returned minus time received). These few crumbs of data were helpful, but many of the trackable-sortable pieces of the form were not otherwise captured systematically.

Until Zend Gdata. With this installed, it’s now possible to run a second PHP process that will push all of the form data into a shared Google Spreadsheet automatically. I puzzled over this on Friday, figured it out on Saturday. My initial stumble was that I was trying to integrate the new PHP code into the script that turned out the email and screen readout. Didn’t work. But then I figured out that I could instead route the form to a relay file (I doubt this is what programmers would call it, but I don’t have the vocabulary to name it anything else). The relay file was something like simple.php.

Simple.php is a script with a couple of lines: include formemail.php and include formtospreadsheet.php. Now, when the form gets submitted, both scripts run. The email routes the document like it should, and the Google Spreadsheet (queue) grabs a new line of data. The only element requiring manual entry is the time the consultant returned the commented draft. The shared spreadsheet does everything else: calls the list of consultant names from another page, calculates the turnaround, and records a comprehensive record of who is using the service, the classes they come from, etc. Over time, the comprehensive record will allow us to sort by different classes, different faculty, different colleges, which will help us identify patterns that might prove insightful for how writing is assigned and taught across the curriculum.

I should add that our recent launch of the service limits it to four targeted programs. This is necessary because we are not currently staffed to handle a deluge of submissions, and while we do want the service to get solidly off the ground this semester, we want foremost to extend it to a segment of the 17,000 students who are enrolled in some sort of online class.


We’re experimenting in the WC this semester with consultation by
discontinuous email
. Students can upload up to five pages of whatever they
are working on, the draft then zigs and zags (taking two lefts and then a
right?) through the internet to a listserv account where five always-on
consultants take turns commenting and returning drafts, usually within 24 hours
after the draft is sent. The system seemed to be working fine until recently
when we realized a flaw in the design of the upload form. Basically, the
form allows students to 1.) upload a file or 2.) copy and paste a chunk of text
into the form. ‘Submit’ The form then calls up a PHP script, which, when
there is an uploaded file, puts the file in a temporary directory, builds the
email message to the listserv, attaches the file, sends the email to the
listserv, and finally clears the file from the temporary directory. That much
seemed to be working fine for, oh, ten weeks, and we have 45 such consultations
to show for it. But:

Continue reading →

Consulting by Discontinous Email

In preparation for a Writing Center mini-seminar this Friday, I just finished reading the Yergeau et al. article, “Expanding the Space of f2f,” from the latest Kairos (13.1). In this nodal hypertext, Yergeau, Wozniak, and Vandenberg suggest a few of the ways AVT (audio-visual-textual) platforms productively complicate face-to-face or “discontinuous email”: two default modes of interaction in writing centers. They include several video clips from consulting sessions using Sight Speed, a cross-platform (and bandwidth heavy?) AVT application.

This is a pro-AVT account, with lots of examples to illustrate some of the
challenges students and consultants faced. The authors offset the positive
tenor of the article with grounding and caveats, noting, for example, that while
"[they] revel in the recomposition of f2f via AVT, [they] want to avoid an
attitude of naive nostalgia." Most accept that face-to-face consulting
allows for communicative dimensions not neatly duplicated via distances,
interfaces, and so on. But AVT consulting refreshes the debates between
synchronous and asynchronous, conversation and response, f2f and online.
The piece goes on to deal with the haunting of f2f genealogies of interaction,
Bolter and Grusin’s remediation (i.e., matters of transparency and opacity), the
(unavoidable?) regulatory role writing centers play, the degree to which
discontinuous email consulting undercuts much of what has motivated the growth
of writing centers over the past 25 years, and the bricoleur spirit of
online consulting initiatives. (I would link to the specific locations in the
piece where this stuff comes up, but the nodes-as-frames presentation
unfortunately does not provide identifiable URLs for any of the sub-content).

Computer technology’s rapid half-life aside, we also realize that
individual writing centers have their own specific needs, and any discussion
concerning potential AVT technologies must consider that center’s available
resources, as well as its student requests.

This point about reckoning AVT possibilities with local considerations is,
among other things, the purpose of Friday’s meeting. We have been piloting
online consulting sessions this summer, both by IM and by discontinuous email. I
tend to cautiously embrace consulting by IM because I experience the
conversational quality that makes writing center work worth doing. I have
many concerns about the way our email model is set up right now, and I suppose I
shouldn’t air those out here.

Along with Yergeau et al., we’re reading Ted Remington’s
Writing, and the Role of the Online Tutor," (PDF)
which argues that email
consulting is potentially promising because it makes for a more
text-focused experience. Interpersonal dynamics and conversation don’t
detract from the text-as-written in quite the same way as in f2f sessions.
Also, he emphasizes that consultants, by writing, respond in kind, modeling the
textual qualities they value by virtue of the response itself. I’m not
convinced, at least not from this summer’s pilot, that students regard the
comments I make on their emailed drafts as any sort of model. But perhaps
this is because our current set-up doesn’t give us any way of knowing whether
students ever even read the comments at all, much less whether they regard the
writing the consultant does as exemplary. The time constraints (i.e.,
consultants are still paid hourly when responding via discontinuous email) also
throw a wrench in the works: there is only so much fine-tuning the
writer-consultant can do when dedicating one hour to a five-page draft.

Yergeau, Melanie, Kathryn Wozniak, and Peter Vandenberg. “Expanding the Space of f2f: Writing Centers and Audio-Visual-Textual Conferencing.” Kairos 13.1 (Fall 2008). 17 Aug. 2008. < yergeau-et-al/index.html>.

Feed Reader Live

Back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back consulting appointments in the Writing Center today. Nine of them; every time slot filled between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., although my third appointment (slotted for a half hour) was a no-show. Just now I had to check my “tutor utilization” report in Tutortrac to make sure I had the count right. By about 3 p.m., I was beginning to feel a little over-utilized. Simple fatigue more than disappointment or dissatisfaction. I singed up for this, and longish Fridays keep a couple of other days of the week free (free-ish) for pure, uninterrupted work on the blissertation.

The conversations went as follows:

  1. WRT205 inquiry essay on the constraints on graffiti as it is co-opted by corporations trying to appeal to a market niche while it also faces scorn as a vulgar form relative to more traditional and legitimized art forms.
  2. WRT205 cultural memory essay on the iconic force of MLK Jr.’s photograph in front of Lincoln Memorial. The claims and propositions have been a struggle in the essays about popular photos and American cultural memory; they risk tumbling into the abyss of grand sweeping declarations about what most Americans think.
  3. No show.
  4. First regular meeting with a student enrolled in WRT220: Writing Enrichment. This one-credit course pairs a student (who opts in) for weekly meetings with a consultant throughout the term. It is taken for pass-fail credit, and in the meetings we are concerned with writing across the student’s full set of courses (the focus is not exclusive to WRT courses, in other words).
  5. Break. But for the first half hour of it, I joined a conversation with an SU alum (recently finished undergrad) who set an appointment in the WC to talk with her former WRT instructor about how best to approach admissions to an MA in a comp-rhet program that would allow her to explore interests in creative nonfiction, TESOL, and professional/technical communication. I don’t know whether I helped matters any by carrying on about stuff to consider. Any thoughts?
  6. A SOC101 paper on the “sociological imagination.” Lots of references to “society”, which is, I take it, a major issue in today’s introductory sociology curriculum.
  7. A GEO paper on push-pull theories of migration.
  8. A follow-up (returner from last Friday) with an essay for WRT205 on food politics: the burst in organic goods.
  9. The rough half-draft of a 1000-word personal statement for a McNair Scholarship application.
  10. Another WRT205 inquiry essay: explain how specific examples of humor deepen and complicate a pressing social issue. Here the focus was on Moore’s Sicko and private health care.

I was warned that Fridays might be light and breezy, with few students checking in because it’s the spring semester and, well, it’s Friday. Need more reason than that to steer clear of the Writing Center? The packed Friday doesn’t leave any room at the end of my week for double-dipping (working while at work), but it definitely has its advantages. The conversations are focused and time-bound. Today someone suggested that my Friday hours were freakishly demanding, but I tend to think of it more along the lines of seven hours with an RSS reader, only the feeds are embodied differently; the writers of the works are sitting down with me and having a conversation: Writing Center work as a nine-scene Google Reader Live skit with a clearly defined “Mark all as read” at the end of the day.