Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Joe Essid, Director of the Writing Center at University of Richmond, Richmond (Virginia), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Dr. Joe Essid. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Dr. Joe Essid
For a long time, I told my Writing Consultants who asked about it, “we will never, ever adopt online tutorials.” My resistance was iconoclastic. I was among the first Humanists on my campus to learn HTML in the mid 90s, and I still administer a Web Server.
Why not change earlier? Tradition. At a selective residential university we treasure what, over a summer of difficult choices, we have heard senior administrators call “The Richmond Experience.” It involves some unfortunate, even dangerous metaphors: “close contact,” “personalized learning,” and others. Every Parent’s Weekend, a few Writing Consultants and I do things now forbidden as we show off the Center: shaking tuition-paying hands, hugging alumni, handing out cookies, crowding into the collaborative-learning area of our Library. I’ve a feeling we will not be doing these things for a while. Even the metaphors vanished, with our entire student body, after Spring Break.
What surprised me was how quickly we “pivoted,” to use an overworked verb. After two weeks off, colleagues new to teaching with technology learned Zoom, Google Drive, and other collaborative tools. My composition-theory students got a “pandemic partner” for journals and commentary. Then it hit me: won’t all these new technologies encourage the sort of multimedia textuality we’d so long avoided on campus?
We faced the very questions recently posed in WLN, about a shift to multimodal and new-media composition:
What is our understanding of the way technologies shape idea generation?
What technologies are supportive of a multiliteracy approach? At what point (if any) should these technologies be integrated into conversations between tutors and composers? Are tutors trained to use and maintain such technologies? (Cheatle and Sheridan 9)
The transition semester gave us room to enact change, on a campus where traditional printed essays had predominated. We crossed The Rubicon: a metaphor from another time, yet one apt today. Many things we do now will continue when the infections end. Logistics proved simple: I set up a Google form for requesting a writing conference, then reopened online, albeit slowly. We asked 72 hours to exchange drafts and pair writers with Consultants in their fields of study. At the request of staff and writers, we’ll resume drop-in work, via Zoom, in the Fall.
We conducted about 80 meetings, many of them with a video conference, in the final weeks of school, compared to the 100 we would normally hold. Now, with the Fall semester in-person, at least for a while, we have learned that:
- Many Consultants want Zoom Rooms even when campus life goes residential. That will provide drop-in help via the waiting-room feature, on a fixed schedule like the one we have when students are physically present on campus.
- Our training class will shift to e-books and laptops. At least temporarily, Consultants will skip learning how to address printed drafts.
- Whatever the medium, our principles remain those of Bartholomae’s system of Error Analysis: we find patterns of error, then discover why writers have misunderstood a rhetorical, stylistic, or sentence-level convention.
- We must adapt to time-zones. International students (about 11% of our student body) may not be able to return to campus. Maintaining our university’s international focus means some by-appointment work at odd hours.
- We can resume full-remote tutoring quickly, if circumstances mandate it.
One advantage of being an old-timer? Recalling how difficult it once was. We once shared typewriters (remember them?) and worked in a basement office that flooded. I kept canoeing shoes and a garden hoe to clear the drains outside the door, during downpours. One disadvantage of being an old-timer? Blindness to black-swan events. I had recently finished an anthology with a co-editor and eleven authors from around the world. We focused on change and writing centers, yet not one sentence concerned a global shutdown from something like COVID-19.
Oddly, in a difficult summer when the Confederate monuments came down locally and tear gas filled our streets, I had a strange sense of hope. My university has weathered a Civil War, student deaths, hurricanes, and an earthquake. Writing Center folk are resourceful. While the material conditions of our centers have largely improved, we have not forgotten our origins or mission, even in a pandemic.
Bartholomae, David. “The Study of Error.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 3, 1980, pp. 253-269.
Cheatle, Joseph J. & David M. Sheridan. “Multimodal Composing: Beyond the Text.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 44, no. 1-2, Sept./Oct. 2019, pp. 3-10.