Editor’s note: We would like to thank Paula Abboud Habre, Director of the Writing Center at Lebanese American University, Beirut (Lebanon), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Paula Abboud Habre. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Paula Abboud Habre
The past academic year has been an exceptional one for the Lebanese American University (LAU) ten-year old Writing Center. Before the pandemic struck, our fall semester was interrupted with riots, demonstrations and road closures resulting from the ‘October Revolution’ in Lebanon. As many students as well as faculty participated in the uprising or could not commute to any of the campuses; Beirut and Byblos, where the two locations of the Writing Center exist, we decided to provide our students with the E-tutoring option. Since some students were able to come to campus, we kept the face-to-face tutoring yet had to have an alternative for those who could not. Additionally, some tutors were unable to make it to any of the two campuses at times as well. Therefore, I added the E-tutoring option to their schedule whenever they could not make it and had them as the resource that students in the same situation could opt for. Those past trying times taught us how to cope with exceptional conditions.
However, with the total closure of LAU in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had to shift to another consultation mode while maintaining the philosophy of the Center. As of March 10, we expanded by providing students with two options: E-tutoring and online tutoring after consulting with the team who believed we should keep the synchronous and asynchronous options available dependent on the student preference, internet accessibility and type of writing. Our online schedule followed the same timetable from 10:00-4:00 with all of us ready to work in either mode. The Online Consultation Module, built into WCONLINE( the online platform used by the Center like many writing centers in other American Universities), provides a virtual meeting space with text chat, audio and video chat, and a shared, synchronous whiteboard; students can choose audio and/or video and the side text proved helpful anytime the internet connection became weaker.
Initially, I made a mock appointment with the Assistant Director and we experimented with the technology, the camera, the audio only option, and the side bar text chat; the experience was positive, so we thought we should go ahead with the shift after informing the tutors and giving them the chance to try it themselves. After that, we sent an email to all students on both campuses informing them of the shift to virtual consultations and we posted a visual announcement on our social media platforms. Needless to say, with the sudden shift to online teaching/learning, we witnessed the same volume of the usual one-to-one consultations if not an increase was felt.
We tried to help in any way that we could; besides, the experience was beneficial for the tutors as well. To quote one, “it makes us feel needed, and the one-to-one attention gives a purpose in our professional lives despite the lockdown; another sighed, “I feel more useful in an online session than an online class because we are working with one student and giving him/her the required attention.” A third asserted the value by saying, “online tutoring is keeping our sanity!” From the student perspective, many were thankful for the support during the isolation especially with the surge of assignments they had with the sudden shift to online learning. From the video chats, a tutor could feel the student’s need for moral support in addition to the academic one.
The end of an academic year creates an opportunity for a director to reflect especially when writing the annual report. The past year can be described as a new experience with two virtual types of sessions; the online and E-tutoring ones that we had not extensively experienced as our Center was predominantly face-to-face. The E-tutoring option was more challenging for most tutors as they tried to maintain the philosophy of the Center and made sure not to fall in the trap of editing. The constant online meetings with tutors reminded them that by emulating a real session, focusing on a dominant issue, and asking many questions ensures the pedagogy. On the other hand, online tutoring was the closest to an actual session as long as the internet connection was not interrupted. The best outcome of this exceptional year is the reshaping of the space from an only physical one to a network of tutors who have become strongly connected and a student population that relied on the support in linguistic and psychological ways. In the words of one, “The Writing Center is such an emotionally healing place.”