A Look Back and Continued Commitment to "Community Building in Online Writing Centers"


Beth Godbee, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English, Marquette University

Thanks to Thomas Spitzer-Hanks and the Praxis editorial team for inviting me to look back at one of my first publications, “Community Building in Online Writing Centers,” which was published a decade ago—in 2005. When I wrote this short essay, I was early in my graduate studies and new to thinking about online writing center work. I was also enthusiastic about the possibilities and personally engaged in the use of online chat forums, wikis, and Skype. More importantly, I was committed to equity in education and community building as a way to prioritize relations and the people who are often ignored when talking about technology.

Today my commitment to equity and relational pedagogy remains strong. My sense is that online writing centers offer a lot of potential for both (1) tutoring and (2) collaborative composing. Too often, however, this potential remains unrealized. We fall into the trap of a particular type of online tutoring that reinforces the asymmetrical power relations of tutor as expert or information-provider and writer as novice or question-asker. And by focusing only on tutoring, we neglect opportunities to build innovative, connected means of composing together.

When I wrote in 2005, I imagined that online writing centers might embrace new technologies not only for tutoring, but also for collaborative composing across distance and time. In the words of the essay: “it is not enough to replicate conference structures from face-to-face tutorials. Writers cannot simply ask questions and wait at their computer terminals for tutors to give directions.” Now in 2015, I see that much online tutoring does just that: whether synchronous or asynchronous, online tutoring tends to mirror feedback loops that only go one way (from tutor to writer).

What I hoped for in 2005 and now feel even more hopeful about in 2015 are media that allow for “interactive and real-time” composing, for online conferences to function “as larger workshops or small-group sessions.” Collaborative composing can emphasize the sociality of writing, which writing centers aim for. Today I see that software for video conferencing (e.g., Google Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime) and for document collaboration (e.g., Google Docs and Office 365) allows for online writing groups, for shared composing space, and for talking one-with-one. Through video conferencing and shared document editing, online writing centers can achieve what face-to-face conferences do at their best: allow writers to build and sustain affiliative relationships around writing.

In my own writing life, I experience the immense value of an online writing group facilitated by Google hangouts and docs. Almost every morning Monday through Friday, I log into a hangout and work alongside—sometimes collaboratively, often independently—friends and colleagues Tanya Cochran, Rasha Diab, and Thomas Ferrel. Through the hangout, we hold the time and space for writing; make social what can be a solitary act; motivate continued writing and research; offer real-time feedback on projects in-process; provide mentoring on everyday situations that arise; and, ultimately, strengthen our relationships around (but also beyond) writing. At this point, I cannot imagine my writing life without such a “hangout group,” and I wonder how writing centers might support the development of such social writing spaces.

Like my 2005 self, I believe “It is easier to envision how communities of online writers form when we conceive of online conferencing as larger groups working together.” Writing centers specialize in one-with-one interactions, and though these can also be facilitated through video conferences, I see many of the online advantages as aligned with writing groups (both feedback and composing-together groups). Therefore, as I consider what community building means for online writing centers, I am reminded again that relationships and relational pedagogy are what matters. In other words, I am invested in community building and the people involved.

Finally, I’d ask all of us interested in online tutoring to remember that it’s not the technology that drives our actions, but our commitments—and we need to know and articulate these commitments—to determine our next directions. The technological future for online writing centers may involve better composing and editing capability for mobile devices, more cloud-based storage of multimodal projects, more thinking about visual and digital rhetoric, etc. But the questions remain: Why do we use the technology we do? For whom do we envision, design, and enact the pedagogy of online tutoring? How do we make actionable commitments—like commitments to social and racial justice—when making use of this new media?