Editor’s note: We would like to thank Martin Kraus, Dr. Esther Odilia Breuer, Claudia Haselhorst, Penelope Allsobrook, Lea Adolf, and Nagihan Gungor at Centre for Writing Competence, University of Cologne, Cologne (Germany), for providing this piece. To contact the authors, please email Centre for Writing Competence. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
When COVID-19 started to influence the university environment at our university in Cologne, Germany, it was the end of the semester, a time when many students had to write their term papers or had to prepare for oral exams. In other words, it was the time of the year when the demand for support in our writing centre is particularly high. One important factor in our peer-coaching sessions has always been personal contact in order to generate and support a feeling of closeness and mutual trust. Because of this, the shift from the physical to the virtual coaching space has been challenging.
While the consultations usually took place in our rooms at the university, now both parties are relatively free to choose the place from where to be coached. On the one hand, this offers a chance to build another form of mutual trust and peer-feeling, in that the institutional character of the ‘office’ is abolished. Being able to see directly into the homes of each other immediately reduces this distance. Having noticed the work environment of the students through the screen in turn allows suggestions for possible improvements in organizing the writing and working processes. Still, we tend not to initiate a conversation about the students’ workspace, so as to avoid feelings of intrusion. Should peer-coaches or students feel the need for more privacy, they are free to use a virtual background through the Zoom function. However, this function is only rarely employed, which shows the evident trust between the peers.
The change in terms of availability has been ambivalent. On the one hand, students who were less mobile or flexible in coming to our rooms, because of e.g. physical impairments or children, can now use our services more easily. Yet, in situations where the students do not have a safe space for communicating online, they might not be as open as they would have been in the protected space of our rooms. There is also a perceived absence of intimacy which can become problematic in those moments when students are need of some comforting.
Compassion and sympathy are usually also expressed through body language which is less effective on a screen. To compensate for this, we try to express empathy through our use of language, yet computer-mediated coaching will always have subtle and yet crucial differences that cannot be bridged. This is even more noticeable with our visitors are not L1 German speakers, and thus not familiar with German prosody of expressing emotions. Last but not least, the online format excludes those who have neither the technical equipment nor a stable internet connection.
The shift to the virtual space has not only modified the relationship between peers but has also changed the consultation processes to a certain degree. Through the screen-sharing option, the visitors have become more dominant in directing the communication. When text was previously brought into the physical session, the students sometimes handed it over to the consultants and then took on the role of a person who was to be revised and not the person who should be doing the revision. The physical distance now asks for more action on the visitors’ side, and for a higher amount of self-determination, which is a good thing since this has always been the goal of our counselling approach. Another aspect that has changed is our way of introducing and testing writing methods. When meeting physically, the trying out was performed during the consultation. Now this testing rather takes place between the coaching sessions, so that the students have the material and space they need for doing this. However, we do not see this as a problem. It rather sets a new focus that might be beneficial, as it accentuates the student’s responsibility for their project.
Although we still perceive some difficulties and weaknesses in our online consultations, we have learned to cope with them and are trying to utilize their strengths in supporting academic writing. After the pandemic, we wish to continue to offer virtual coaching alongside our normal in-person coaching to make it easily accessible to as many people as possible.