Via Negativa Blog

“Welcome” in the Online Writing Center


As an angsty teenager back in 1999 who didn’t feel welcome almost anywhere I went (a by-product of my self-imposed, and kind of embarrassing, “punk rock” identity) Nancy Grimm was taking about how “the ability of a writing center to move differently within [a pluralistic democracy] is dependent on a better understanding of how literacy and power operate within a democratic system” (pp. 82-83).

Sounds like a tall order, especially as writing centers usually attempt, very hard, to position themselves as cozy, homey places where anyone and everyone is welcome and can get help. But can they? Feel welcome, that is. And is it the writing center’s job to push, perhaps aggressively, for such an environment to be shaped? After all, as writing consultants and directors and coordinators (and the many other jobs and titles and duties that come along with writing centers) shape and refine their welcoming spaces, those spaces are crafted in images of the folks who work there–and are those images appealing to everyone all the time? Let’s be real. Probably not.

McKinney (2013) asks, “If a writing center is a home, whose home is it? Mine? Yours? For whom is it comfortable? Everyone, likely more than once, has entered another person’s home and immediately felt uncomfortable, however welcoming the host or however strong our desire to be there” (p. 25).

And these are just the physical spaces. What about online, where identities, environments, messages, and meanings all get filtered through additional lenses?

This is where a talented graduate student and myself are currently sitting. We just composed a proposal for The Peer Review Journal, which aims to look at how writing consultants are using tutoring discourse to shape (or maybe even dismantle) a sense of welcome when tutoring online. Here’s the gist:

Examining How Discourse Shapes “Welcome” In Online Writing Consultation

When consulting online, a tutor’s discourse becomes their sole and primary means of both facilitating pedagogy and creating a positive, meaningful, and productive learning experience. While consultants may, by default, try to develop welcoming spaces that mirror the physical writing center, the mere nature of online consultation prevents this replication, instead offering unique and challenging opportunities to shape “welcome”. Understanding how discourse constructs, or possibly deconstructs, a writer’s ability to feel welcome may potentially lead to better consultant training, more effective consultation, and, perhaps most importantly, happier and better equipped writers.

This study aims to answer three research questions:

  • What discourse practices appear within asynchronous online tutoring sessions that build or dismantle a sense of welcome for a writer?
  • How does discourse function within asynchronous online tutoring sessions to build or dismantle a welcoming environment?
  • How do consultants represent their understanding of the relationship between discourse and welcome when working online?

We’ll see how it goes. The journal first needs to accept our proposal. Though, I get the feeling we might just do the study regardless. It’s too damn interesting not to.

Grimm, N. (1999). Good intentions: Writing center work for postmodern times. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook.

McKinney, K. G. (2013). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan: Utah State University Press