Editor’s note: We would like to thank Erin Todey, Peer Review Groups Coordinator and Dr. Sarah Huffman, Assistant Director of the Center for Communication Excellence at Iowa State University, Ames (Iowa), for providing this piece. To contact the authors, please email Dr. Erin Todey. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.

  Left to right: Dr. Erin Todey and Dr. Sarah Huffman

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a creative adjustment for one programmatic offering at the Graduate Communication Center (GCC) at Iowa State University. The GCC, an academic communication support center created in 2015 to meet the emerging communication needs of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at this large R1 university, shifted its entire functioning to an online format during the Spring 2020 semester. Transitioning the GCC’s Peer Review Groups (PRGs), groups of 5-10 graduate students from similar disciplines who meet once weekly to review each other’s academic communication, to an online format yielded a surprising result.

PRGs in the GCC address the constructive peer review of documents in such genres as the empirical research article, theses/dissertations, grant proposals, posters, presentations, and job application materials. Traditionally these groups have been held face-to-face to facilitate interaction and provide collaborative and constructive peer review. When ISU announced the transition to online classes in mid-March, we immediately began using Webex, a video-platform the GCC had been using for some time.

We assumed that because of the established PRG schedule and cohesiveness of the groups, we could transition the PRGs to an online platform with minimal disruption. Webex supplied what seemed to be initially a smooth adjustment; however, after the first week of fully online PRGs, we saw a substantial drop in participation. The PRG facilitators realized that our assumption that meeting times would remain the same did not match students’ realities as their commitments and priorities were changing. Providing uninterrupted peer writing support necessitated a recognition that priorities had shifted for many of our graduate students: research and teaching assistantships were disrupted, lab work was delayed, and personal hardships, such as food insecurity and new childcare responsibilities, were a reality. To adapt to these needs, we surveyed our participating graduate students to establish the existing need for communication support and how that could be best integrated into students’ changing realities.

Given these shifting realities, we had an ethical responsibility to reconsider how to incorporate more flexibility into our PRG model to account for illness and other more pressing needs on our members’ part. One way we adapted was in re-forming the Spring 2020 groups to reflect the new time availabilities of current members. Learning from that adjustment, heading into summer, the PRGs were created to contain more members in case some participants were unable to make regular attendance part of their routine.

Another adjustment entailed dedicated time during the weekly sessions to discuss the emotional burden of the pandemic and the additional challenges graduate students were experiencing. Just as valuable as constructive peer feedback, our PRGs became a place of continued community where we could provide support while remaining physically distant. The PRGs also inadvertently became a safe space for our international students who were unable to return home to their own country or who had become the targets of xenophobic visa policies.

Holding our PRGs synchronously online via Webex has not been without technical difficulties. Members sometimes struggled with internet accessibility and were often unable to use their video. One of our PRG facilitators was unable to lead a session because of his unstable internet connection. While these limitations cannot be ignored, the affordances should not be denied. This platform has allowed students from different geographic locations in the United States to safely join our PRGs; we are excited for this expanded accessibility as in our traditional face-to-face structure, these students would have been excluded.

The GCC has taken this national crisis as an opportunity to reconsider the myriad ways in which our PRGs can more inclusively serve graduate students and their academic communication needs. We have been given a unique circumstance to reconsider what graduate communication support can look like in the midst of a pandemic and in a state of violence against individuals of color. This has become an opportunity to recognize that writing support cannot come without supporting the whole student, including, if students are comfortable sharing, addressing their own personal struggles during this unprecedented time.

We have to learn to operate in an online environment and be open to shifting our practices to fit the needs of our students. This might mean “less than ideal” scenarios that lack the subtly of in-person tutoring to continue to support graduate student communication development. Ultimately, our writing centers have to be willing to approach new situations with an open mind and with an overall goal of fighting to uphold the integrity and well-being of our students.

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