Editor’s note: We would like to thank Kristi Polidore, William Paterson University, Wayne (New Jersey), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Kristi Polidore. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
In the face of Covid-19, as well as events that have proven the deeply rooted suffering and inequality present in our nation, I have accepted that more than ever, the need for our development of empathy is as crucial to survival as our need for an effective vaccine. How could embracing empathy affect things like racial inequality or the unavoidable surges of Covid-19? How could embracing empathy affect our relationships–both home and professional–during a time where crises have become the background noise to our ever busy lives? How does all of this and none of this have to do with the roles we play as students, tutors, and faculty in Writing Centers?
As a peer tutor in the midst of global chaos, who resides in a country whose president lacks the simplicity of basic human consciousness (empathy), these questions are hard to avoid, but even harder to ignore as they sit quietly in the background of my online sessions. Suddenly, social connection can only be maintained by the reliability and access to our Wi-Fi connection. How do we consider all of this while supporting the expectations of our centers? How can we do our communicative jobs as writers when life as we knew it is no more, still loading, in the middle of drafts, and needing, desperately needing, a thorough revision?
The answers may start with progressing how we translate empathy to the online, writing center sphere. What was once a small table made up of chairs, a student’s paper, and in person dialogue, is now replaced by a webcam and text chat. Body language is hard to determine. Eye contact is not promising when the majority of the session is spent in the window of an electronic document. Smiles, physical presence, reassuring grins, and concerned facial expressions, all no longer guaranteed in the unanticipated world of masks and MACs.
While emojis and exclamation points will never replace the natural excitement that once accompanied a productive writing session, they reflect the ongoing reality we find ourselves in. The way in which we conduct and connect ourselves is changing simply because of the virtual limitations we now face. Zoom’s access and reputation seems reliable until the system becomes overloaded by the amount of users online at one time. Skype is great when you live closer to the city with more tech towers, but otherwise, can be considered a platform with low quality sound if a user has a slow ISP. Google Meet has been my go-to choice, assuming the student has access to it, many of them do not. Here and there, all platforms have failed myself or my students, and a good old-fashioned phone call has saved the day during these desperate times. Maybe the answers that haunt our future are simpler than we’ve considered all along. Still, the question remains as to what tools can be utilized to recreate the empathetic space that exists in f2f writing center sessions when the world has gone exclusively behind screens.
Google Meet has a screen sharing feature, that much like the rest of the features, proves easy and accessible to even the non-tech savvy individual like myself. Google Meet offers word captioning, which believe it or not, has fewer translation issues than our good friend, Siri. Like anything else in our technology driven environment, the emphasis is never what can technology replace to make this easier or better, but rather, what can technology add to make us evolve our thinking and practices that better suit our growing human needs?
At this time, in a world of unprecedented human interaction, it is apparent that we are moving into a realm that has yet to be fully explored. Our future promises increased technological participation due to the dangers of in-person socialization that threaten our very species. The demand for f2f human interaction is seemingly, and as much as we hope, temporarily, being replaced through an interface. This forces us to remember as well as reconsider what it means to be writers and tutors and people. We are all living through such unknown and yet have been given the opportunity to explore and enhance, create and integrate, through the ways we utilize our technology.
The future is only as promising as our adaptation of our humanness is; wherever the world goes, whether we like it or not, we will go with it. Empathy must persist.