Editor’s note: We would like to thank Jessica Newman, Director of Tutoring Services at Jefferson Community and Technical College, Louisville (Kentucky), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Jessica Newman. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
As the director of a community college multidisciplinary tutoring center, and as a human being, I have faced plenty of uncertainty during this pandemic. I discuss here three such areas of uncertainty and what they might teach us about tutoring pedagogy.
Uncertainty: Tutoring redesign. Pre-pandemic, our only virtual service was asynchronous writing tutoring. We could not afford to develop synchronous online tutoring until it became a necessity in mid-March. We scrambled to design a synchronous system, and it was not until implementation, when I could breathe, that uncertainty snuck in: Is this working? Our drop in traffic accompanying the switch to virtual tutoring was particularly drastic, perhaps due to our nontraditional students’ needs. With fall three weeks away, I’m more uncertain than ever: Is online tutoring feasible given our students’ limited technology access and experience?
Uncertainty: Budget limitations. Fall is around the corner, and our budget remains mysterious. Fourteen tutors want to return, and I’m not sure that I can pay them, let alone hire new tutors. I can’t help but worry that our budget is unknown because it doesn’t exist, even though that’s unlikely. Once the budget is set, we’ll work to maximize support for both tutors and students, but until then, I fear the possibility—despite its low probability—of receiving nothing.
Uncertainty: Success. Having just completed my first year as director, I am suddenly faced with a niggling fear that I am not doing my job or that I am, but that low tutoring traffic will preclude the administration’s recognition of my work. A fear, I suppose, that I or the program will fail. Fear of failure, far from unfamiliar, is nonetheless new to me as a director. My job has always been impossible—I am the sole full-time staff member dedicated to all aspects of a tutoring program for all disciplines for 12,000 students across six campuses—and that very impossibility gave me confidence: I could only do my best. Now is the first time I worry that this best isn’t enough.
Uncertainty is rough, but tutoring is—and should be—full of it. We can never fully understand another person because, quite simply, we are not them. To claim understanding (i.e., a lack of uncertainty) is to believe that we see another, when really we see only ourselves. Rather than performing past approaches based on assumptions, tutors must work within uncertainty, building each session anew.
Reflecting on my paths through uncertainty has helped me think about possible approaches for tutors. These concepts are not new, but considering them in this context can help us better understand uncertainty and maneuver within it.
Tutoring design: Ask questions. A recent internal survey indicated that under 10% of our students lack a reliable computer. These numbers are far from ideal but lower than I imagined. Facts, rather than incorrect assumptions, allow the tutoring program to seek out the students that we need to reach. Similarly, tutors should ask tutees questions so that they can base decisions on context rather than assumptions.
Budget issues: Be honest about limitations. I warned the tutors months ago about the potential budget change. This does not fix their situation, but they are at least better able to plan. Tutors, too, should acknowledge session limitations. Tutor and tutee can then plan together to maximize the tutee’s experience.
Success: Do not claim complete understanding. I must remember that full knowledge is not possible. Rather than automatically applying what worked in the past, I should respond to the situation at hand. I cannot guarantee the administration’s perception of my success, but I can explain what informed my decisions. Tutors should similarly arrive open to the needs of each tutee. Such openness facilitates informed decisions about how to proceed. Ultimately, the tutee will perceive the session as they will, but they are more likely to appreciate and learn from it if the tutor has tried to learn their needs rather than project needs onto them.
My reflections have not rid me of uncertainty, nor should they. Uncertainty is a challenge, but one that helps us challenge our assumptions and thus strengthen tutoring sessions. Administrators should incorporate uncertainty into tutor training, discussing its necessity and difficulties, exploring how to work within it and reassuring tutors of our support during this challenging work. This won’t make uncertainty easy, and some situations, like this pandemic, bring uncertainty of vast proportions, but deeper inquiry into the topic will help tutors navigate the difficulties and reap the benefits.
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Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your perspective with us. As a writing instructor, this piece has helped me reflect on my practice and how I prepare myself and my students for uncertainty each semester.