Editor’s note: We would like to thank Keri Carter, Dr. Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, and Dr. James Hamby, Middle Tennessee State University for providing this piece. To contact the authors, please email Dr. James Hamby. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Left to right: Keri Carter, Dr. Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, and Dr. James Hamby
When our writing center switched to all online in March in response to the pandemic, we were already fairly confident in our abilities to carry out our tutoring services. We already had a strong online tutoring presence with audio/visual capabilities, and we had been examining the prospect of incorporating asynchronous tutoring into our repertoire. We were unsure, however, of what would be the best way to keep in touch with our staff in real time. Email seemed clunky, and texting would not work well beyond one-to-one conversations. Then one of our tutors, Max Lichtman, proposed that we use Discord. Discord is a social media app designed for users to communicate with each other while gaming. It provides multiple discussion channels with threads that are easy to read and intuitive to use. Our tutors quickly embraced this mode of communication to ask tutoring questions of us and one another during their shifts, but they also started using it as a means of socializing as well. This gave us the added benefit of having a support system to help our staff through their emotions while struggling with isolation.
The administrative team divided Discord shifts into specific days and times to ensure that writing tutors consistently had support while tutoring online. Each shift lasted three to four hours. During this time, the administrator would say hello to everyone on Discord and encourage them to reach out for support if they needed it. These shifts proved invaluable to problem-solving both for the tutors and their students who were often new to online tutoring. The administration helped troubleshoot technology problems such as providing solutions to audio-visual connectivity issues during live chat sessions. We also served as liaisons to students who did not upload their writing for document drop sessions or who had questions about how sessions work in general. Not surprisingly, our tutors also served as a support system for each other in addition to what administrators offered during shifts. Discord provided a virtual space for writing center staff to give each other instant feedback and ideas—a dialogue that closely mirrored what we would normally see happening in the physical center. Essentially, Discord functioned as a springboard to tutors and administrators alike in working through issues of a fully online writing center operation.
We quickly realized that Discord also supported our non-writing center communication, creating a space for tutors to express their anxiety, to make each other laugh, and to manage the new coronavirus reality. In normal times, our center, like many, are boisterous places. Tutors are loud when working with students, but they are even louder when they engage with each other. We feel this is a good problem to have. Our sense of community is based upon tutors trusting each other enough to ask questions and share parts of their world. We were concerned that would vanish when we went fully remote. However, Discord, perhaps because of its meme-friendly interface, cultivated that community beyond the walls of the center. For example, each day, someone would share a picture of their cat (we have a lot of cat people at the center) and then others would follow suit. We shared recipes and pictures of cakes, brownies, and whipped coffee. Now this might on the surface seem silly, and it was. But it created a space for tutors to be more vulnerable, sharing how much they missed each other and exclaiming how much they needed each other. The best example of how Discord was a place to express and relieve the stress from the coronavirus, however, was that we had a channel dedicated to coronavirus memes, and they were fabulous.
Using Discord as a tool to stay in contact with our staff helped us to better understand our writing center community. Seeing the ways our staff members rely on and support one another was a valuable experience. Moreover, we saw that the ideas behind collaborative learning that we encourage our staff to embrace in their sessions are practiced amongst the tutors themselves when it comes to both tutoring and dealing with a shared crisis. Using Discord not only helped with the daily tasks of running a writing center, but it also demonstrated the importance of communication and community, especially during times of uncertainty and isolation.