Editor’s note: We would like to thank Catherine Courtney Agar, the Writing Center Director and Interim Coordinator of Peer Tutoring, Keuka College (New York), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Catherine Courtney Agar. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.


        Catherine Courtney Agar

“Pivot” is a word we’ve heard a lot as our institution, like so many others, “pivoted” to online learning. Our writing center was well positioned to pivot quickly. Prior to 2019, we had two writing centers, one virtualfor students in our online and hybrid degree-completion programand the other traditional, on-campus writing center. Our virtual writing center worked almost entirely asynchronously to accommodate our nontraditional students, whose available hours tended to be when we weren’t open (evenings and weekends). Early in 2019 we combined the two writing centers and I, who had been working in the virtual center, was named director of the new combined entity. When our campus moved to all-remote learning at the start of the pandemic, we simply shifted our operations to function in the online mode. Our flexible and tech-savvy professional staff made the change quickly and easily. Having spent years providing online writing support, I happen to believe that it is not “less than” in-person assistance and even has some not-insignificant advantages over face-to-face consultations (as well as, it must be said, some decided disadvantages).

For students, the change seemed less seamless. Usership by our on-campus students dropped as they wrestled with having to now do everything online: course work, lectures, assignments, and discussion forums. All of this was new for them and they, like everyone, were discombobulated and unsure. Coping was probably at the top of their minds; excelling, less so. And that’s okay. The students don’t yet know that this experience has given them practical skills like working online and soft skills like resilience that they will draw upon for the remainder of their lives. Also okay. For now, we breathe. We all made it through the semester: one hurdle cleared, one crisis navigated. Now we have time to think ahead.

No one knows at the moment whether we will be able to have classes as usual in the fall, but for me the COVID 19 pandemic has sped up a discussion we were having before it hit: should we offer online support to on-campus students?[pullquote]No one knows at the moment whether we will be able to have classes as usual in the fall, but for me the COVID 19 pandemic has sped up a discussion we were having before it hit: should we offer online support to on-campus students?[/pullquote] A host of questions trail like ducklings behind that one: will in-person usership drop? Will students be as well served? Better served? What will they gain? What might they lose? How popular would the option be? We were just starting to dig into the research when we had no choice but to go all-online, and I suspect that this particular horse has left the barn and won’t be forced back in: on-campus students, with their new confidence in online academic environments, will want to continue the convenience and ease of receiving asynchronous, written feedback on their work.

I’ve heard the pejorative comment that such-and-such student “requires a lot of hand-holding.” Four days ago my father-in-law died in a nursing home, alone and with no one to hold his hand as he passed from this life. He is far from the only one. In light of the increased significance of hand-holding through this pandemic, when we wish with all our hearts we could physically hold the hand of someone from whom we have been separated, I would like to suggest that we reframe the hand-holding metaphor as the impartation and sharing of comfort and strength that it is. We all need our hands held, in one way or another. If a student likes not having to discuss their work in person or, conversely, if the personal relationship with the tutor is important to them, or if it is sometimes one and sometimes the other, then let’s do that. It seems to me right now that instead of trying to get the horse back into the barn, our mission should be to create an inviting pasture.

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