Editor’s note: We would like to thank Anne Fleming, K.D. King, Sarah Pultz, and Jeff Schoneman, Writing Coaches of the Writing Center at MiraCosta College for providing this piece. To contact the authors, please email Anne Fleming. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Left to right: Anne Fleming and K.D. King
Left to right: Sarah Pultz and Jeff Schoneman
Our center has professional and peer consultants who work as a team to develop a supportive and welcoming community for students and writing consultants alike. While the pandemic created challenges associated with the distance of suddenly being fully online, it also offered a surprising opportunity for us to (re)create consultant community through arts-based communications, inventive training, and new modes of consultant support. We share personal accounts of consultant community (re)creation in a new, online world.
Community through Creativity
The Writing Center has always built strong connections with students. Without in-person services, students said they missed their Writing Center relationships. So, we decided to remind students that the Online Writing Center is still a place where they can build collegiate relationships and academic skills. Inspired by videos from other educators, we created a video slideshow. Consultants and coaches took selfies. They personalized their selfies by customizing their backgrounds, posing with family and pets (including a pot-belly pig), and adding inspirational messages. The video collage became an ongoing conversation piece in our Writing Center discussion boards. We created a message that we missed our students and hoped they would come visit us soon. We posted the video to YouTube, Instagram, and the college’s newsletters; instructors and campus organizations excitedly shared it through their courses and social media.
Before COVID-19, Writing Center consultants fostered community at the “consultant table” where consultants talked with each other, shared stories, worked on homework, and played word games. After COVID-19, we found ourselves in a purely virtual space–without a table. How could we maintain the sense of community that we had before? Our answer: Slack. As a social media-esque platform, it allowed us to re-create a “consultant table.” Through Slack, we created a channel that was not purely job related. We dubbed it #creativity. Each week we posted a prompt, and we invited consultants to respond with anything creative. We hoped giving the consultants a creative outlet could foster community and also allow them to express themselves during the pandemic.
Slack was consistently active: poetry, artwork, photography, prose, music, stories, and even recipes were shared by many. Consultants supported each other with likes, emoticons, and comments. Did #creativity replicate the in-person magic of the consultant table? No. But it showed that our Writing Center community could hold together–despite the unprecedented changes happening all around us.
Embracing New Opportunities for Community
We had three, two-hour, on-campus training sessions scheduled when our physical campuses closed. These trainings were an important source of community for our consultants; they offered a rare opportunity to see a coach or fellow consultant who worked on a different campus or on a wildly different schedule. We wanted to recreate not only the content of our cancelled meetings but also their collegiality and sense of teamwork. In that spirit, we tasked our consultants to investigate online writing resources individually and then work together in breakout rooms to incorporate feedback from their fellow consultants into finished reports through which we built a collection of virtual writing resources. We reinstituted our Lead roles, charging these consultants with maximizing training conversations. Expectations were clear that this activity should also provide an opportunity to catch up with each other, vent about all the virtual nonsense, and support each other as both students and student workers, an opportunity our crew whole-heartedly embraced.
Lastly, our center has embedded consultants in composition classrooms, and every class utilizing an embedded peer consultant on-ground retained the consultant throughout the online shift. Coaches supported 15 consultants during the shift to online synchronous classroom work occurring within Zoom and in asynchronous classrooms utilizing Canvas. Supporting peer consultants suddenly embedded in online formats meant (re)defining how we communicated. Impromptu consultant table conversations were replaced by chats in Zoom, Slack messaging, and jumping into breakout rooms to talk with consultants about their emerging online practices. The shift enhanced our communication to support embedded consultants; there was more productive conversation overall and a greater frequency of checking in between coach-mentors and peer consultants which allowed for increased dialogue and support. This regular dialogue reinvigorated our consultant community, and it also revealed the power of instant messaging like Slack and Zoom as near instantaneous avenues of correspondence that can minimize feelings of distance during a complex, unstable time. Moving into fall, we plan to build on these strategies and develop new ways to create and foster community with both returning and new consultants.