Sunday, August 17, 2008

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 "Reading, 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>.

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