Capturing Tutoring Sessions: Video Recording, Close Vertical Transcription, and Training

At the 2018 Southeastern Writing Center Association (SWCA) Conference last month, I had the opportunity to engage colleagues both near and far. In the coming weeks, I hope to provide a glimpse of the wonderful work of my fellow writing-center practitioners while I brainstorm ways to integrate these innovative practices into my own center.


Many conference presenters saw the conference theme of transition as an opportunity to discuss how writing centers are incorporating multimodal techniques not only into tutoring sessions but also training exercises. Even with the aid of new media, capturing all of the nuances and turns of a session in the writing center remains a daunting task. Alex Funt from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discussed how he uses video recordings  for reflective and training exercises. During his presentation, playfully titled "Embracing the Panopticon: Video Recording at the Writing Center," Funt explained how he set up a designated recording station in his center. Students who were willing to be recorded filled out a waiver form. Using an iPad and the Movie Pro app, Funt and his team recorded dozens of appointments. He rightly pointed out that traditional observation where the director or coordinator sits nearby almost invariably affects how the session unfolds. Both the tutor and student feel like every utterance is subject to scrutiny. While using a designated station and having an iPad off to the side no doubt alters the session to an extent, such recording techniques are certainly less invasive than direct observation. Current staff members watch their recorded sessions and rated their own performance. According to Funt, the recordings have facilitated a new degree of reflection and self-awareness.

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In my center, we are currently working on what I affectionately refer to as The Coordinators' Cut of tutoring sessions. In this recording, my fellow coordinators and I will offer audio commentary as key writing-center terminology pops on the screen. For example, when a tutor slides up and down the directive / non-directive scale or uses a particular technique such as reverse outlining, those key terms will pop up on the screen. In other words, new staff members will see concepts in action. When I worked as a peer tutor at UC Irvine (back when Purdue Owl had barely hatched from its egg), the non-directive / directive and higher-order / lower-order concerns binaries were easy concepts to understand but much more difficult to mobilize when in actual sessions. The video should provide a clearer window into some of the intricacies of the collaborative learning experience. Together with Sarah and Phillip, I think I can also safely say that The Coordinators' Cut will have a bit of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 feel to it. 


Andrew Petrykowski of the University of Central Florida tackled the issue of capturing and representing tutoring sessions in a different register. Petrykowski's talk, "Conversational Analysis as a Tutor Training Tool," discussed how close vertical transcription has made his center more efficient and effective. 

The concept of close vertical transcriptions was first introduced by Magdalena Gilewicz and Terese Thonus in their influential 2004 article, "Close Vertical Transcription in Writing Center Training and Research." The authors noticed that transcripts of tutoring sessions failed to represent the lively exchanges that happen between tutors and students. Building on Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner's "Discourse Analysis" in The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, Gilewicz and Thonus developed a new approach to transcribing sessions.

Standard horizontal transcription tends to resemble dialogue in a play and shows only one participant speaking at a time. For Gilewicz and Thonus, "Playscripts, even when unedited and faithful to verbal data, appear orchestrated and flat; they communicate what was said, but not when or how or with what intent" (27). Vertical transcription, as its name announces, considers the overlaps, pauses, turns, breaks, and feedback channels of a session and should be read up-and-down as well as left-to-right.

Gilewicz and Thonus created a set of transcription terms, conventions, and shorthand to capture the dynamic interplay of one-on-one sessions:

Pause:  (.) Short Pause (1-2 seconds), (5s) Timed pause (2+ seconds)

Filled Pause:  um, hmm

Overlap:  Beginning shown by right-facing brackets ([ ) placed vertically. Overlaps between participant contributions are marked using brackets aligned directly above one another. Overlaps continue until one interlocutor completes his/her utterance.

Backchannel:  uh-huh, yeah, o.k., (all) right    Contributions made by other participants while the first speaker maintains the floor. Backchannels are written in lower-case (o.k.) to distinguish them from minimal responses.

Minimal Response:  Uh-huh (=yes), Uh-uh (=no), Yeah, O.K., (All) Right   Brief responses made by participants when they have the floor.

Paralinguistic:  (( )) = Additional observation - laugh, cough, sigh        ^ ^ = Finger snaps            > > = Hand striking a surface

Analytic:  ***     Indecipherable or doubtful hearing              =>      Turns focused for analysis

Gilewicz and Thonus 29-30

During his presentation, Petrykowski discussed how he spends about two to three hours transcribing one of his tutoring sessions from a video recording. In this instance, the video recording is not the end in itself but rather a productive starting point for further reflection. Transcribing - even more than watching - his own sessions challenged Petrykowski to rethink certain aspects of his tutoring style. For instance, his transcript of a session that he felt went very well showed that he spoke 70% of the time. He also saw that most of the student's speech could be classified as just backchanneling. Using his own sessions as a case study, Petrykowski requires new staff members to review transcripts of sessions.

The conventions established by Gilewicz and Thonus - especially backchanneling and paralinguistic nonverbal features - provide a productive vocabulary to describe what happens in a writing center. Since the conference, I have been paying extra attention to backchanneling. Even without writing a formal transcription, I have noted that I frequently use what I call the "affirmative no" when students are talking. When students start to question strong writerly choices, I tend to whisper-shout "no no no" to encourage them to follow their instincts. More importantly than simply observing this trend about my own tutoring style, I have noted that this backchanneling almost always results in me taking over the floor, which, in some cases at least, can be problematic. 

The terminology of close vertical transcription can be used to examine online appointments as well. In our online appointments, students and tutors type back and forth in a chat window similar to the old AOL Instant Messenger, g-chat, and texting. Because we do not have a video feed during online appointments, we can not document paralinguistic features; however, messages back and forth are visible in real time, meaning that each letter students and tutors type is visible to the other participant immediately before anyone ever presses enter. Such simultaneous expressions represent a mediated form of overlap and, depending on the situation in the session, a form of backchanneling or minimal response.

I hope to use the Coordinator's Cut video in order to write close vertical transcriptions on real sessions and learn more about student needs and tutor trends in the center.

Stay tuned for updates!

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Works Cited

Gilewicz, Magdalena, and Terese Thonus. "Close Vertical Transcription in Writing Center Training and Research." Writing Center Journal, vol. 24, no. 1, 2004, pp. 25-49.