Editor’s note: We would like to thank Bethany Widen, Writing Advisor and Dr. Julie Prebel, Director, at the Writing Center at Occidental College for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Dr. Julie Prebel. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Left to right: Bethany Widen and Dr. Julie Prebel
Until the COVID-19 global pandemic forced the closure of our college, our writing center rarely offered online or asynchronous tutoring sessions. At our residential small liberal arts college, we offered drop-in sessions for students to work face-to-face with our writing advisers. Our training program did not include materials or practice in online tutoring. As students hastily packed up their dorm rooms and left campus, we found ourselves in uncharted territory and tasked with an expeditious move of our services to an online platform. We rebuilt our use of WCOnline for asynchronous appointments where students could upload an essay, created a rubric for advisers to provide their feedback (adapting the template from Gallagher and Maxfield), and held Zoom training sessions so advisers could practice using the new rubric. We offer our reflections as a faculty director and student adviser on the main challenges and unanticipated benefits of moving our center online, and conclude with ways to strengthen our work whether in person or remote.
We found that our challenges fell into three main categories: time, connection, and inclusivity. Kastman Breuch and Racine found that tutors spend significantly more time per client when tutoring online versus in person (10). Similarly, we found that advisers spent twice as much time as usual because they were trying to provide written feedback with the same depth as their in-person verbal conversations. Advisers were concerned about their ability to build rapport and maintain connections with students asynchronously, without seeing each other even virtually face-to-face, and worried that their feedback might read as disconnected or flat in tone.
We also realized that our long-established practices might not be as inclusive or accessible to students as we would like. One benefit of moving our center online is that we recognized the limitations of offering only in-person consultations, especially in terms of flexibility and equity which are central concepts of universal design for learning (UDL). Kiedaisch and Dinitz propose using a UDL approach in “conducting all sessions that make them accessible to the widest audience possible” (51). We realized that by offering both synchronous (in person or virtually online) and asynchronous opportunities, we can offer students greater choice. Some students may find that they learn more effectively when working live with a tutor while others prefer asynchronous written feedback as they revise at their own pace. Prioritizing these principles of UDL will keep us accountable in ensuring the writing center is an inclusive space for all students.
We have developed other ways to enact changes to our center and address the challenges we faced when moving online. We will continue to offer students the option to upload an essay for feedback, and will address our advisers’ concerns about time by blocking out two hours to allow for feedback that is both constructive and meaningful. To encourage a sense of connection in written feedback, we will ask advisers to mimic approaches they use in person by adopting a conversational tone, introducing themselves at the start of the rubric form, and inviting students to work with them again in their concluding comments.
We see the move of our center online not as a challenge to overcome and more as an opportunity to enhance our services and reach more students. Outreach and inclusivity are especially important to our work given the ways the global pandemic and co-occurring racial justice movements have highlighted social inequities. We will recommit ourselves to creating a writing center space for advisers and students to co-think ways to critique and transform our world.
Gallagher, Daniel and Aimee Maxfield. “Learning Online to Tutor Online: How We Teach
Writing Tutors.” In Johnson, Karen G., and Ted Roggenbuck, eds. How We Teach Writing
Tutors: A WLN Digital Edited Collection. 2019, wlnjournal.org/digitaleditedcollection1/
Kastman Breuch, Lee-Ann M. and Sam J. Racine. “Tutor Time Commitment in Online Writing
Centers.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 26, no. 9, 2002, pp. 10-13.
Kiedaisch, Jean, and Sue Dinitz. “Changing Notions of Difference in the Writing Center: The
Possibilities of Universal Design.” The Writing Center Journal vol. 27, no. 2, 2007, pp. 39-59.
www.jstor.org/stable/43442271. Accessed 30 June 2020.