Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. James Cochran, Director of the Writing Competency Program and Writing Center at Hartwick College, Oneonta (New York), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Dr. James Cochran. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Dr. James Cochran
This past August, I started my first position as writing center administrator. I spent the first few months cleaning and revitalizing the physical space of the writing center. Out went old bulletin boards and faded posters; in came freshly printed schedules and updated “meet-your-consultant” posters. Out went decades-old English breakfast tea; in came new coffee and an electric kettle. I opened curtains, bought plants, and rearranged furniture to showcase our writing center. I wanted to build a space that students wanted to occupy. I even wrote the writing center’s mission statement to emphasize the physical space: “Overlooking the Susquehanna Valley and the foothills of the Catskills, the Writing Center is an ideal space—quiet, comfortable—in which to practice writing.”
COVID-19 and the temporary closing of the writing center paused these efforts to make the writing center an inviting space. Like many other writing centers, ours had to pivot to online services, but we had very little experience with online writing support. Several years ago, the writing center offered asynchronous email feedback on students’ submitted writing assignments, but the practice fizzled out—likely due to the lack of interest. Over the past two years, we have offered some limited synchronous video conferencing, but we have not advertised this service to the entire campus.
To quickly and seamlessly transition from physical to online writing consulting, our writing center restarted our retired asynchronous email support. We also hosted video and phone conferences when requested. When we transitioned in March, I was not sure what to expect. I anticipated that fewer students would use the writing center. This predication came true. We had a slight drop-off in appointments—likely because of a lack of awareness about our newly relaunched email support, a limited amount of time for academic support as students spent their time keeping up with their online courses in a new environment during a pandemic, and much-needed pass / no-pass grading policies that provided students greater flexibility with their coursework.
I also anticipated that the students who would use our online support services would be returning clients who had previously visited our physical writing center. I could not imagine that students who were not familiar with our friendly and professional in-person support would seek out this seemingly less personable email support. I was wrong. Our end-of-semester data showed that sixty percent of our online appointments were made by students who had never used the writing center before.
This finding demonstrated, to me, the crucial importance of making our writing support services available to as many students as possible. Surely, even in “ordinary” post-COVID times, students will continue to use the online writing support services. Last fall, I invested so much time in decorating the physical space of the writing center that I neglected students who did not want to or could not occupy the physical space of the writing center. Some of these writers might have anxiety about writing or about one-on-one conferences; some of these writers might have physical disabilities that make traveling to the writing center difficult or impossible; and some of these writers might have a schedule that does not allow them to make an appointment during our hours.
It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to recognize that online writing support can and should be used to help serve a greater range of students. Even so, this was a needed reminder that writing centers need to continue to evaluate and expand our services to support as many students as possible.