Editor’s note: We would like to thank Darby Simpson, Lisa Cahill, Derek Keith, and Tristan Rebe at University Academic Success Program, Arizona State University, Phoenix (Arizona), for providing this piece. To contact the authors, please email Darby Simpson. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Darby Simpson Lisa Cahill
Writing center spaces can provide common ground enabling tutors to build collaborative relationships, which can contribute to a more supportive, productive environment for student users (Geller et al.). During Spring 2020, the Writing Centers at Arizona State University expanded synchronous Zoom online offerings by transitioning our four-campus in-person writing centers to an online environment in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We acknowledge the privilege of already having online tutoring in place and having institutional access to technologies like Zoom and Slack. These resources allowed us to quickly plan and implement training designed to prepare our in-person tutors to work in an online tutoring environment. Since we didn’t have to create an online model from scratch, we focused on improving our online services. Despite having initial confidence in our model, our experience during the semester taught us many lessons.
Derek Keith Tristan Rebe
As our administrative team moved in-person writing centers from four campuses to being fully online, we experienced a variety of challenges. One of the most pressing was helping tutors transition from their familiar in-person workplace communities to a new online workplace community. Consequently, our team recognized the need for rethinking and co-creating enhanced, collaborative supervisory approaches to better fit our new context. Doing so required our team of six coordinators, who were accustomed to working with their tutors on a specific campus, to co-develop new processes and revise their own work schedules; this enabled coordinators to be available in real time to provide all tutors with additional mentoring and emotional support. Another challenge included ensuring all tutors had the technologies needed to work successfully from home; this required learning more about university resources, coordinating with other departments, and regularly checking in with tutors about internet access, computer capabilities, and availability of tools including earbuds or headphones. Thinking through and responding to these initial challenges required our team to be increasingly collaborative, reflective, and innovative.
While we grew as an administrative team working remotely, we also remodeled how we structured and fostered community for tutors within our writing centers. In transitioning online, we recognized the need to be more intentional about using Zoom to facilitate quick check-ins, or short “water-cooler” chats, between tutors as well as meetings with supervisors. To create spaces to check in with tutors, we created a Google form that tutors completed weekly to reflect on how they were doing and to share questions related to tutoring strategies, content knowledge, or technology issues. From tutor feedback, we learned almost immediately that they needed and wanted opportunities to still feel part of the team. They needed to feel connected to one another and to us, their supervisors. To meet this need, we repurposed our professional development training to be weekly team meetings where tutors could connect and share how they were doing while working in quarantine. Similar to many people across the world who were finding new virtual ways of meeting with family and friends, we began using Zoom to foster community among tutors in ways beyond just offering them glimpses of their colleagues as they went in and out of Zoom rooms. Overall, tutors noted feeling more connected by the end of the spring semester, but some felt the virtual environment still lacked the community they loved and relied on when working in person.
We continue to develop and refine our practices for building community without a physical presence. In fall 2020, we plan to offer some in-person tutoring while still relying heavily on online tutoring. Successful community-building practices will continue: asking tutors to complete weekly reflection forms, viewing recorded sessions to provide meaningful feedback to tutors, and holding regular staff meetings. While successful, these strategies were administrator-driven. Moving forward, we plan to increase opportunities for tutors to play more active roles in building and maintaining our writing center community in the virtual environment as they have done in person. We will use recorded tutoring sessions as peer observation tools, empowering tutors to learn from each other. We will increase use of Canvas and Google Docs to encourage tutor collaboration on creating and using writing resources virtually. Additionally, we will ask tutors to lead discussions and present content during virtual meetings and training as we have done in person. We hope to see tutors reclaim ownership of their expertise and, in turn, strengthen the community not only for themselves but also for students who use our writing centers.
Geller, Anne Ellen, et al. “Introduction.” The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice, 2007, Utah State UP, pp. 5-14.