Editor’s note: We would like to thank Jamie Sass, Assistant Director of Communication Center at the Ivy College of Business, Iowa State University, Ames (Iowa), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email . If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
“Expect the unexpected” should be the official motto of writing center professionals. It’s a cliched expression, but the meaning holds; in over a decade of tutoring and teaching, I have been surprised more than I thought I would be after this much experience. And yet, no amount of expecting the unexpected could have prepared me, prepared any of us really, for Covid-19.
My unexpected actually started well before the virus. I suddenly became my center’s interim director in August with only two weeks’ notice, just one short semester before Covid-19 became the everyday, worldwide news topic. I had spent that fall figuring out how the rhythm of a semester would look different as a director: Tutor. Train. Guest lecture. Write. Problem solve. Meetings. Repeat.
Like many other universities, my institution instituted an emergency, online only presence for the remainder of Spring 2020 shortly after spring break. Although I had been part of discussions to make this happen, it still took my breath away as I packed my office essentials to begin working remotely. The implications of doing my work from home felt overwhelming professionally. Budgets in higher ed are precarious. Would my Center survive this? Would my job? There was already talk of furloughs. I had a staff of newer graduate students and one full-time professional. Would they still be effective online? Could I afford to keep them? What about students we see? Our center struggles with visibility during normal times. Would students know how to find us? How far will my center’s usage drop? Ultimately, my concern was this: Was I enough as a new director to led them through the unexpected?
I had personal worries as well. I am a capital-E extrovert. I had expected to feel shut off from my professional community, but I hadn’t expected for it to feel so drastic. Video conferences weren’t, and still aren’t, enough. The rhythm that I had worked so hard to perfect just months earlier was suddenly upended, and I felt so discouraged. Expecting the unexpected didn’t come close to covering how out of my depth I felt, despite having good (if socially distanced) support from my staff and administrators.
Yet, I’m still a writing center professional. Those of us in the field know a lot about overcoming change and professional resiliency. As the writing center model has shifted over the years, writing center professionals have worked hard to adapt to changes and challenges in intuitional demands on our time, talent, and budgets.
Switching to online tutoring was not a change I had anticipated making pre-COVID. Our in-person process was netting good traffic and was appreciated by students. We occasionally looked at online tutoring, but always discarded the idea for various reasons. What a mistake that has been! The online switch from COVID 19 has revealed growth potential for my center through virtual appointments. While we did initially experience the decline in numbers I had feared, we rebounded quickly and seized opportunities for growth online. My regular students adapted quickly to our online model and word spread. We are now seeing students we had never seen before, with one even admitting that he liked working with tutors, but got more out of it sitting comfortably on his couch. In hindsight, I should have anticipated that students would so greatly desire a way to transfer this process online, but I was stuck in what had “always worked” for us.
The fall semester for our campus is in-person, but many student support services like tutoring and advising will still be conducted virtually. I miss my students, but I am excited to continue refining our online processes. Our tutoring has always been synchronous. I strongly believe in connecting and dialoguing in real time. However, I’m starting to see a place for well-executed asynchronous tutoring as well. The business students I serve are upcoming business professionals and place a high premium on building their resumes and professional networks. They are some of the most active people on our campus, but that does limit their opportunity to sit with me to talk about biz comm. I plan to pilot some asynchronous tutoring sessions to see how this would work for the students I serve.
COVID 19 told me to put away my expectations and trust that while the processes I know are valuable, they are not the only ones available. I am still worried for fall, for the safety of our campus, but I am excited to know that I can expect the unexpected while embracing changes.