Screencasting the Human Element

My thanks to Mike Shapiro for allowing me to share my tutor’s response to his work, and to Anne Wheeler, whose thoughtful framing of writing center “humanity” informed many parts of this post.

A screencast is a video that combines a recording of activity on the tutor’s screen with an audio recording of their comments during that activity. Essentially, it’s a video conference in miniature where writing replaces the tutor’s face. I’ve been helping the UW writing center pilot-test them as a response method for student drafts this summer, and it’s been a pretty great experience. I find them to be a really promising tool, one that pushes me to focus on structuring my comments clearly while allowing me to keep my “human touch” as a tutor.

Here’s how my screencast process plays out: After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make (the first of which is usually of the “existing strengths” variety), each with a brief explanation to guide me when I record. Each explanation has to include at least one concrete anchor in the text, which I highlight in bold; this helps guide my action in the draft during the recording, making it easy for me to find the sentences/phrases I want to visually highlight. If I have smaller comments that don’t fit under those main points, I’ll make an “if there’s time” category at the bottom of the script. Since I pretty much never have time left after my main points, I revisit this section post-recording. If the comments still seem important, I’ll add them as margin notes and send the draft along with the video. (You can watch the result here, if you’re interested.)

At UW, we use Jing to record screencasts. It’s got two major things to recommend it: first, it’s incredibly easy to use; and second, it limits screencasts to a maximum length of 5 minutes. (And also it’s free. Three reasons!) I cannot emphasize enough how useful this time limit is. As outlined in this wonderful blog post by Mike Shapiro, co-director of the Writing Center’s summer session, targeting a few high-level concerns with concrete suggestions for addressing them has been shown to be the most effective form of distance feedback. This sounds easy in theory, but I think most instructors will agree that it can be difficult in execution. You get bogged down in details and never get to the larger issues. You let jargon replace concrete examples in your revision suggestions because you forget that what’s clear to you may be opaque to them. (“Use less awkward constructions;” “work on connecting your ideas”) Or you simply get carried away, forgetting that less is usually more. (I’ve been guilty of all three, but I’m especially prone to the last one. It can be bad – like full single-spaced page bad.)

But in a screencast, you go in knowing you have only five minutes. And that in those five minutes, you have only your voice and what’s on the screen to work with. This makes it very hard not to anchor feedback in concrete examples – because otherwise, you’re just talking over a screenshot. Likewise, there’s no time to get caught in tiny details or grand abstractions. To comment effectively on an entire draft in 5 minutes, you have to have a plan. You have to be clear and concise, and you have to choose the 3 points (at most) that will most improve the draft. Combined with the emphasis on concrete anchoring in the document, I’ve found this to be a recipe for just the kind of feedback research (and experience!) encourages.

Screencasting also makes my “best practices” list for its ability to bring a human element into asynchronous feedback. A big part of writing center ethos is, as Michael Pemberton puts it, “being with people…seeing their faces, hearing their voices, reading their body language, experiencing a strong sense of presence as we talk.” Anyone who’s worked in a writing center knows that this “being with people” about their writing powers up your ability to help them as writers. Building rapport, demonstrating engagement with a student’s individual situation and writing through body language and tone, being able to talk through ideas and suggestions until they work – these are key tools in the writing tutor’s toolbox.

Digitally expanding the writing center can be a fraught topic because at first glance, practices like synchronous chat and email feedback seem poised to drain writing centers of this essential togetherness. If the human element is what makes writing centers successful, this argument goes, practices without that element will necessarily be less effective. (And if they are effective, they challenge a heavily-invested-in piece of the writing center narrative.) Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch worried in 2005 that “online tutoring goes much against the idea of a writing center – the idea of Burkean Parlors, of ongoing conversation” (31). While we understand more about the benefits of digital tutoring than we did then, many still share Breuch’s concern: a 2006 survey by Stephen Neaderhiser and Joanna Wolfe looking at delivery locations across 500 writing centers characterized the response of many administrators to the idea of online chat instruction as neutral at best, a kind of “they can come to us” attitude.

I would argue (and I’m hardly the first) that rather than seeing the human element as something threatened by digital expansion, it should be something that guides that process: we should choose and deploy digital practices that preserve or even expand that ethos. (There are other important things to consider alongside this, some of which I’ll look at in future posts.) Based on my experiences so far, screencasting seems like a slam dunk in this area, especially over email feedback.

When I give email feedback, I don’t get to draw on my full arsenal as a tutor; written words are (at least for me) far less powerful tools than spoken ones. Mike Shapiro commented in a recent discussion about this project that one of the major resources writing centers draw on is the thousands of hours’ experience we have talking about writing – and only a few hundred (if that) writing about it. Screencasting allows a tutor to draw on both the humanizing and pedagogical benefits of the WC’s “talk history.” Even if students can’t talk back to me, my being able to speak to them feels like a big step up from doing everything through writing. I regain tone as a tool for signaling engagement, enthusiasm and inquiry; this in turn boosts my ability to structure and present my comments effectively.

The comments Mike and I have received on our screencasting suggests that students like it just as much as I do. Some of this is for the reasons I’ve discussed above – and also, students just really like videos. I forget that all the time because I hate them; if I see a video instead of a written article I’m closing the tab before it can even load. But students are at home with them. So while video comments may seem like a step down to us, students (for the most part) don’t see it that way. And reaching someone where they can go a long way towards making a human connection. (For more on how students feel about writing and videos, see every chapter in my dissertation.)

The future of screencasting at the UW Writing Center is still up in the air. But I know it will continue in at least one place: I’ll be using it to comment on the drafts of my Intermediate Composition students this fall. Because even if doesn’t prove  to be a best practice for writing instructors overall, it definitely seems to be for me. Hopefully my students’ revisions and feedback will prove me right – and if not, show me where and why I’m wrong.


Works Cited
Breuch, Lee-Ann Kastman. “The Idea(s) of an Online Writing Center: In Search of a Conceptual Model.” Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005): 21-37

Neaderhiser, Stephen and Joanna Wolfe. “Between Technological Endorsement and Resistance: The State of Online Writing Centers.” Writing Center Journal 29.1 (2009): 49-77.

Pemberton, Michael. “Forward.” In Beth Hewitt’s The Online Writing Conference. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2010.