Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Matthew Fledderjohann, Director of the Writing Center at Le Moyne College, Syracuse (New York), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Dr. Matthew Fledderjohann. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Much about Thucydides’ firsthand account of the plague that swept through Athens around 430 BCE is chillingly familiar (Mark). Athenians self-isolated. The disease traveled from patient to caretaker. Corpses accumulated in the streets. The similarities to our current global struggle against Covid-19 showcase our grim kinship with the victims of plagues past. However, while rampant, contagious disease remains part of the human experience, things aren’t as bad for many of us as they were for Thucydides. When disease was annihilating ancient Athenians, no one was asking, “How can we keep the agora open?” Missing from Thucydides’ history is any concern for the plague’s influence on rhetorical education. The scope of human suffering associated with Covid-19 ignites primordial terrors. But things can be both bad and better (Rosling). Pandemics are terrible. This isn’t new. But supporting writers during a pandemic is. That change speaks hope into the turmoil of our current moment.
Covid-19’s influence on my life underscores my historically and socially privileged position. In March, I was marginally inconvenienced by the need to move our writing center’s instruction online. Naturally, there were stressors and frustrations. Remote tutor training was rushed. Webcams stopped working. Tutoring demand initially plummeted. But these challenges were mitigated by an existing technological infrastructure for online tutorials (WCOnline supported by Google Docs, Zoom, and phone calls), my institutional context and background, and the empathetic resourcefulness of my peer writing tutors.
It helped that this was already a transitional season for tutoring at my institution. I was hired as the inaugural Writing Center Director last year and tasked with moving the existing writing support from the Student Success Center to the new Writing Center. I had wanted to add online consultations to our feedback repertoire eventually—maybe in a couple years. When that expansion became a necessity this spring, I drew from experience I’d gained as a coordinator for online tutoring at UW-Madison. Before rolling out our new, synchronous, online appointments, I had our sixteen tutors read handbook excerpts and Anna Worm’s article about online tutoring. I met with them on WCOnline to test the technology. “This is a time for flexibility and grace,” I reminded them. “We need to be extra kind to ourselves and patient with writers. It might feel strange, but you’ll still be doing important work.”
And they did. On top of the other pressures they had weighing on them as young adults in the uncertainty of Covid-19, these tutors accepted the responsibility of helping their peers. “We were kind of made for this,” one tutor told me. She was referring to her generation’s capacity to connect online. But her reflection serves as an unwitting recognition of writing tutors’ ability to develop “strong, respectful, and collaborative relationships with family, partners, and friends” (Hughes et al. 33). This was confirmed when another tutor shared about the important social function she was serving as a writing tutor. “At the end of my online sessions,” she said, “there’s often this pause, and then writer is like, ‘This is crazy.’ Then we talk about how wild the semester has been.” Beyond writing assistance, tutors were offering social support for students struggling with the current disruptions, fears, and uncertainties.
As we read about pandemics past and present, it’s easy to feel despondent. It’s difficult knowing we haven’t stopped being vulnerable to malignant microorganisms. It’s hard to acknowledge our ineffective social responses and the unequal burden these tragedies place on disenfranchised populations. As a writing center practitioner, I wonder how we can work out our commitment to health, wholeness, and justice in the midst of Covid-19. What can writing centers offer? But the fact that we’re in a position to ask and respond to such questions provides hope. This time around, writers holed up at home still had supportive conversations about their work. This time, writing tutoring modalities broadened at my institution. This time, rhetorical education continued. This time, the agora stayed open.
Hughes, Brad, et al. “What They Take With Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 30, no. 2, 2010, 12-46.
Mark, Joshua J. “Thucydides on the Plague of Athens: Text & Commentary.” Ancient History Encyclopedia.1 Apr. 2020, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1535/thucydides-on-the-plague-of-athens-text–commentar/. Accessed 18 June 2020.
Rosling, Hans. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think. Flatiron, 2018.
Worm, Anna. “A New Window: Transparent Immediacy and the Online Writing Center.” Computers & Writing Proceedings, 2016-17, 41-7.