In Summer 2012, I became the director of the Writing Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (UL). I was not new to the university or the Writing Center; I had been a faculty member since 1996 and held other administrative positions in the department. So when I stepped into the position, I had some ideas of what I wanted to do to expand our center.
University students are asked to act within and master a diverse range of genres as student writers and researchers (Nesi & Gardner, 2012). Although the difficulty in performing such a task is considerable for first language (L1) writers, second language (L2) writers face similar yet also different rhetorical and linguistic demands and challenges.
The purpose of this article is to share lessons learned in setting up three different peer online writing centers in three different contexts (EFL, Generation 1.5, and ESL). In each center the focus was on the language learner as a peer online writing advisor and their needs in maintaining centers “for and by” learners.
The history of online writing centers is a history of doubt. I experienced those reservations in 2009, when, in addition to traditional face-to-face peer tutoring, I launched my own online peer tutoring program and began training undergraduates to respond to student submissions.
Like many writing center directors, I was hesitant to introduce online tutoring. However, because of limited physical space on campus, the internet provides the only room for growth available to us—a problem faced by many writing centers (Carpenter 2). The inevitability of online growth is also supported by the increase of tertiary-level online and blended courses being offered at most post-secondary schools.
In what follows, I briefly situate this conversation about distance tutoring within the rhetorical canon of delivery. Then, I describe my own experiences tutoring in a graduate writing center (GWC) at Penn State University as a way to add experiential examples to Grutsch McKinney’s discussion of Skype and Google Documents (Google Docs).
Although text-based communication has become the primary way institutions of higher learning deliver and receive information, Hewett (2010) observes that clear communication in text-based, online environments is challenging even for the most experienced online instructors and tutors:
In preparing peer tutors for responding to student writers in an asynchronous Online Writing Lab (OWL), writing center administrators must engage tutors in activities that focus on writing about students’ writing rather than talking face-to-face with writers.
This study directly compares face-to-face writing center consultations with two closely related variations of Online Writing Instruction (OWI). Although the study takes place in a busy, dynamic writing center, the authors try to make their comparisons as systematic as possible so they can better foreground some of the benefits and disadvantages of various conferencing environments.
Writing centers can help multilingual students who hear many varieties of World Englishes and need to learn to write academic English, but in order to do this, writing center directors must guide their tutors on questions such as the following: In a digital environment, how can tutors engage L2 students in dialogs that are productive for academic writing? How can online tutors overcome comparisons that pit the many varieties of students’ writing against a hegemonic “ideal text”? What are the alternatives for responding to perceived errors of form?