The Primacy of Writing in Online Teaching: Creating Presence and Voice in Digital Learning Spaces

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Does it make a difference if we use “you” or generic passive voice when responding to a student? How about terse, succinct feedback vs. detailed commentary? In a highly interactive session, we will explore the nuances of writing--rhetorical, grammatical, cultural, and pedagogical choices--in crafting optimal online presences.


As Professor of Writing and Language Studies at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, I focus my research and scholarship on methods and means to improve students’ writing experiences. Online teaching has created a vast new area of scholarship, to which I have contributed numerous publications and presentations. I have taught online since 2014 (six different upper division online courses, two required FYW courses as hybrids, and an upcoming online grad class in Fall 2019). In Spring 2019, I received my institution’s Excellence in Online Teaching Award. Also in Spring 2019, one of my online courses was certified by Quality Matters. My publications and professional presentations address issues in translingualism, online learning, teacher preparation, and the online learning needs of non-traditional students.

Extended Abstract


In a recent Online Learning article, Buelow, Barry, and Rich write that “online learning requires more self-discipline and initiative on the part of students [and] . . .  alters the roles of faculty members” (2018). In a study of online teaching of writing, Scott Warnock (2009) estimates that instructors may write 30,000 words of instructional text in a given semester. This presentation will focus specifically on the primacy of writing as a delivery system in the realm of online teaching and learning.

Online learning can be frustrating for learners who are unclear about how to adjust expectations grounded in face-to-face teaching which necessarily are transferred to writing mediums in online learning. For faculty, online learning introduces an added pedagogical responsibility: they have to learn how to reconstruct interactions into writing-based venues. Through interactive participation, this presentation will explore core adjustments and recalibrations necessary to optimize both teaching and learning in online spaces when writing becomes a pivotal delivery system.

Learning Outcomes

Participants will:

  1. Explore opportunities to use writing to synthesize the best of face-to-face teaching into online teaching,
  2. Engage in mini activities that operationalize best practices in modulating writing choices in online classes,
  3. Apply rhetorical, grammatical, and cultural exigencies to craft learner-centered course communication,
  4. Rework expectations for effective pedagogy (learning objectives, clarity of lessons, assessment, and communication) in the context of writing


5 min.: On entry, participants will respond to a “poll” that asks participants to consider how they use writing in their online teaching and to share hot spot stories (times when linguistic or rhetorical choices compromised pedagogical efforts) and best case outcomes (when writing choices enhanced the overall pedagogical atmosphere).

20 min.: We will explore how to modulate choices in writing to address pillars of online learning, such as redundancies to ensure learners do not overlook vital expectations; possibilities that learners might get lost in online work despite the best constructed framework; ways to address students’ possible misreading of messages, instructions, and general course expectations; strategies for keeping online learners engaged through clear, concise writing; realities of integrating logistics for online learning with discipline-specific content; and identification of writing strategies that help us avoid misunderstandings. We will cover two strands in this segment: (1) writing to communicate and (2) writing to teach. In the communication component, we will apply the communicative constructs posed by Pennebaker (2011) to consider how simple choices, such as using second person in communication with students creates an accusatory tone and could undermine high expectations. We will explore how crafting email messages in first person contributes to establishing consubstantiation and how using third person, passive voice detaches both instructor and learner from personal responsibility for infelicitous learning or teaching decisions. In the writing to teach segment, we will explore how Fisher and Frey’s (2014) gradual release of responsibility model can be adapted for a robust online learning environment. Flash activity: a preliminary set of best writing practices illuminated by our collective work as online instructors in different disciplines.

15 min.: In two more strands, writing to learn and writing to access, we will explore the centrality of writing in assessment by discussing several sample rubrics, considering possibilities for written feedback, and operationalizing a cultural of high expectations through our written communication in the context of assessment. In a series of interactive flash activities, we will share concerns about the time-consuming realities of rubric construction, about wording rubrics to optimize access to success for all learners, and about linguistic exigencies in constructing formative and summative feedback in online settings. This segment will demonstrate how traditional assessment practices (Brookhart, 2013) can be reconstructed to optimize students’ access and agency in online learning.

5 min.: Our closing forum on the “tranformativity” of online teaching and learning will focus on how we can use our writing craft to create best online teaching selves and help learners discover potential and possibilities in online learning.

Selected Resources

Brookhart, S. M. (2013). How to create and use rubrics for formative assessment and grading. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from Ebook.

Buelow, J.R., Barry, T., & Rich, L.E. (2018). Supporting learning engagement with online students. Online Learning, 22(4), 313-340. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i4.1384

Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence. (2019). Grading smarter, not harder: Making and using a rubric. Retrieved from

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Retrieved from

Hewett, B. L. (2015). Reading to learn and writing to teach: Literacy strategies for online writing instruction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Ko, S., & Rossen, S. (2017). Preparing students for online learning. In J. Buban (Ed.), Online & blended learning: Selections from the field (61-75) []. Retrieved from

Ko, S., & Rossen, S.(2017). Teaching online: A practical guide, 4th ed. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury Press. Kindle book.

Quality Matters. (2018). Why QM? Quality Retrieved from

St. Clair, D. (2015). A simple suggestion for reducing first-time online student anxiety. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11.1, 125-135.  Retrieved from

Warnock, S. (2009). Teaching writing online. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Warnock, S., & Gasiewski, D. (2018). Writing together: Ten weeks teaching and studenting in an online writing course. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.