Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Stephanie White, Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist of the Peer Tutor Programs at the University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario (Canada), for providing this piece. The author would like to thank her colleague Marian Toledo Candelaria for her helpful feedback on a draft of this post. To contact the author, please email Dr. Stephanie White. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Dr. Stephanie White
When our writing center moved online in March, there was so much to do. As the coordinator of our peer tutors at the University of Waterloo, I was training tutors in WCOnline synchronous sessions, updating handbooks, ramping up our social media presence since it was the only way we could promote our services—not to mention taking care of my children. And there was so much to process—how long would this last? Would our budget hold? Was everyone okay? I know you can all relate.
As I valiantly tackled my to-do list without ever seeing the end of it, my perfectionism began to take hold. But it really came on strong when I took on coordination of creating workshops for disciplinary first-year communication courses. Where we would normally have graduate-student staff partner with instructors to facilitate in-class workshops on peer review, paragraph structure, thesis statements, and more, two colleagues and I had now had been tasked with creating eight asynchronous online workshops over a six-week period so they would be ready to roll by July for instructors preparing to teach online in September.
The stakes felt very high, and the timeline was tight. Besides, I soon realized, this project was riddled with FFTs—effing first times—to use Brené Brown’s lingo. We acquired Articulate software to up the ante from slides and PDFs to something more streamlined and interactive, so in addition to the stress around learning a new tool, we had to learn to test accurately to ensure the workshops not only met provincial accessibility requirements, but were as universally accessible for students as possible. I had also never coordinated a project like this, where we needed to create content, test it, and adjust it based on testing as though it was not an activity, not an interaction, but a product. I was used to managing people, not projects. Not to mention that, once we’d shared these workshops, it would be almost impossible to make changes to them. All of these FFTs, combined with the lack of in-person feedback and encouragement, had my perfectionism stealing the show. I was cranky, sluggish, anxious, and going in circles with my work—and the deadline was looming.
When I confessed my woes to a friend who works for one of the major tech companies based here in Waterloo, she shared with me a strategy that she and her colleagues use at work to readjust their project goals when needed. Adapting from project management triangles, they consider three things: the quality, features, and deadline for a product, and they adapt those as they go to ensure that their goals are achievable.
Using the lens of quality, features, and deadline highlighted for me how our pivot to online programming now required that we create static “deliverables,” and that is not something we are used to doing at our centre.
Recognizing and accepting this necessary change in mindset from people management to project management helped because it gave me strategies for reflecting on and adapting to this shift. Deadline and quality were not negotiable. But providing shorter and less detailed workshops (i.e. scaling back features) was an excellent choice if we wanted to meet our deadline and provide instructors with top-notch workshops to use in their courses. So we started making decisions based on maintaining quality within a short turnaround by cutting content.
Along the way, I realized that, though we would not be willing to adjust the quality of our workshops, we needed to recognize how good that quality was already. We were adapting existing in-person workshops to an online format, so these were tried-and-true materials to begin with. And as writing center folks, our standards for ourselves are so high. We’re academics, after all. And mostly female, too. Rather than adjusting the quality of our workshops, I began to accept that they were good enough. Good. And enough. That helped me let go of my impossible and vague expectations for “perfect” and focus instead on making smart, confident decisions about what to include and what to let go of in terms of the content.
This experience and so many other projects during the pandemic have forced me to face my crippling perfectionism head-on. I’ve had to stare it down, thank it for trying to help me, and then firmly ask it to go take a nap or have a cocktail. Usually, unlike my darling children, it now leaves me alone long enough for me to get my work done.