Editor’s note: We would like to thank Susannah Ewing at Schreibzentrum des Universitätskollegs (the Writing Center at the University of Hamburg) in Hamburg (Germany), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Susannah Ewing. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.

                      Susannah Ewing

It was the morning of March 4, 2020, and our Lange Nacht der aufgeschobenen Hausarbeiten (long night against procrastination) had just been cancelled for the very next day by the University of Hamburg’s administration in reaction to the government’s instructions to cancel anything with an expected attendance of over 50 people. Six writing center lecturers and four student assistants immediately went to work reconceptualizing our most popular annual event as well as contacting the library, management, guest lecturers, etc. Our website administration, printers, technical support and we went into high gear, turning the happening into a very different affair.

Our ad hoc writing consultations turned into a telephone hotline with six employees staffing four telephones in shifts. Some of the workshops scheduled became online tutorials as video, PowerPoint presentation, or a worksheet or handout. Within 24 hours we had managed to create an online, physically distanced event for students working on their term papers. In the course of the event we took 15 calls from writers looking for assistance and uploaded materials from four workshops. We were euphoric about our own quick reactions and innovative problem solving.

We did not know it at the time, but of course that was just the beginning.  About half of the team went on vacation in the following week (Hamburg schools have vacation in early March) and we came back to work to find that the lockdown was long-term. While the administration was dithering over what measures to take and whether the semester would begin on schedule on April 1, however, the Schreibzentrum was working hard. We explored the options for digital instruction, both synchronous and asynchronous, figured out how to turn presentations into videos, and spent a lot of time discussing both amongst ourselves and with our management and collaborators which provisions could take place and how.

Several formats not only survived but have been welcomed enthusiastically and will continue to be a part of our repertoire, even when the University of Hamburg and the Schreibzentrum can open their physical doors again.

  • Our Write-ins went online. This provision, a time and space where students and PhD candidates are encouraged to simply work on whatever current writing project is on their desks, moved through a few platforms before settling on Zoom, the most stable one available to us. Students have been invariably thrilled to find an opportunity to experience writing in a community even from a distance, and we are committed to making this a permanent offering for those who are too distant or somehow hindered in reaching our physical spaces to join us.
  • Of course, consultations did, too. The teleworking telephone hotline was set up as quickly as possible, and we set up shifts so that one team member was available for questions or even ad hoc consultations at all times 9:00 to 5:00 each workday. Appointments were made for telephone or video consultations, so that students – who were even more desperate than usual for lack of contact to professors or access to libraries (and their employees), and just general crazy conditions – could continue to count on reliable support from their Schreibzentrum.
  • We instituted a weekly newsletter: Schreib jetzt! … zu Hause (“write now – at home”). Our topics dealt with many of the issues that students and scholars battle under regular conditions, but were aggravated by the current situation: finding and creating writing time and spaces (also with children underfoot), Zoom fatigue, staying motivated or even getting addicted to writing, helpful apps to support writing, and communicating with advisors and professors digitally.
  • Finally, we further developed a concept that had been conceived in summer 2019: “Coaching through Corona”. For this, 26 students working on current projects came together to build community, establish accountability, and support one another with peer feedback and mutual encouragement. Writing center staff supported writers with regular motivational messages and meeting ‘spaces’ as well as helping the students set up and achieve their own milestones, answering questions about structure and organizational issues that arose, and providing feedback on written extracts.

The COVID-19-induced lockdown has been a challenging time for our writing center as for any and every workplace and individual. Still, it has led to not only technical but also pedagogical innovations both outside and within the Schreibzentrum Hamburg. Our university administration has decided that such extracurricular instruction is to continue only online in the winter semester (through next February). Even beyond that, we all look forward to further developing our provisions to meet the needs of even more writers, particularly on a campus which is spread across our beautiful, sprawling city.

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