Editor’s note: We would like to thank Jennifer L. Conrad, Faculty Associate in the Writing Center and Calley Marotta, former Writing Fellows Assistant Director at University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison (Wisconsin), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Jennifer L. Conrad. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.

Jennifer L. Conrad

Calley Marotta

The transition to online work that occurred with the onset of COVID-19 was lightning-like in its efficiency. One week found us talking as a writing center staff and wondering whether we should develop contingency plans; a week later, university announcements made it clear that spring break would demarcate our “before” life from this strange and suspended “after” in which we move between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, WCOnline, and a host of other platforms in our tutoring and teaching. Although it may feel counterintuitive to consider a pandemic something capable of increasing access and connection, the shift online has, in our experience, opened new spaces for conversation, for alignment, and for the practices of writing—including writing in community.

In May 2020, our writing center held its first virtual Dissertation Writing Camp, co-sponsored by UW-Madison’s Graduate School and facilitated by three Writing Center instructors. The central goal of this camp, which began in 2011, has always been to support writing and its production during a compressed timeline—but an equally important and connected outcome has been to provide dissertators with a community of fellow graduate student writers. Moving into a virtual format, we weren’t sure how this community might unfold. Would it be more difficult to establish with our faces confined to their separate onscreen rectangles?

While the pandemic amplified the already-isolating experience of dissertating, the online camp facilitated connection.

As the week unfurled, we found ourselves surprised at the heightened desire for connectivity that writers expressed. Alexandra, a dissertator in education and environmental studies, reflected, “The virtual structure ended up being a perfect balance for me between connecting to peers, getting support, having a social structure and having windows of time to write without the distraction of being around so many other people.”  Like Alexandra, most writers expressed gratitude for the chance to write with others—and, to our surprise, even elected to remain present in a virtual “room” together throughout the day while working individually on writing projects. Writers could—and did—participate in the camp while geographically dispersed (including one writer conducting research outside the U.S.) or in the flux of relocation. And when a dissertator found herself on a plane without internet access during our closing session, she sent a video reflecting on her experience that we shared in our live meeting.

The virtual format increased writers’ opportunities to connect. In order to visualize a form of community and facilitate sharing, participants placed their names on a Google Slide depicting a virtual roundtable (a template adopted from trainingforchange.org), which gave everyone a chance to speak out in turn, sharing experiences and tips with each other. Participants appreciated using randomized breakout rooms for small-group discussions at the beginning and end of each day. Mike, a dissertator from composition and rhetoric, affirmed:

In a lot of ways, I felt the online mode made the transition between larger group and small group activities more efficient. I also appreciated how there were optional (and very useful) guest speakers on topics like working with your committee and academic style, and if I was in a writing ‘zone,’ I could skip the guest speaker and watch the recording later. In these ways, the virtual camp provided flexibility and efficiency.

(And a bonus: while breakout rooms were in progress, facilitators could return to the main space for a check-in while participants chatted with each other.) Breakout rooms, more than almost any other practice, helped to build rapport—and writers actually requested that they be given more time in these smaller groups. Similarly, the Zoom chat box added a layer of participation during workshops and our daily opening and closing sessions. Writers utilized chat to ask questions, contribute to discussions, and offer support to one another, interactions particularly evident during our midday workshop on “Dissertation Writing and Anxiety.” Facilitators wove chat contributions into the large-group discussion and used this space to provide written instructions for writing prompts and group activities. The increased accessibility and interaction provided by these communication channels helped writers to connect in unexpected ways.

Through our online dissertation camp, operating during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that graduate students deeply crave support from the Writing Center and each other at this moment in time. In the absence of physical proximity, they continue to want to form communities in which their experiences of writing can be expressed, normalized, and discussed—and, this May, we found that a virtual Dissertation Writing Camp offered one path toward making this a reality.

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