Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Kristina Reardon, Associate Director of the Center for Writing at the College of the Holy Cross for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Dr. Kristina Reardon. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Dr. Kristina Reardon
During a typical year, our small liberal arts college writing center is warm and inviting: noise travels down the hall of the library, students drop in as they walk by, and consultant artwork hangs on the walls. Our physical space, then, is part of the experience. We offered no online tutorials.
How, then, to attract the same noise, the same energy, and the same creativity—especially as we kept our budget in check?
Our response became: the online rent-a-fellow. And our usage increased by 15% compared to the previous year. The program was so successful that the College supported summer tutoring for the first time ever using this model.
Here is how it worked. Instead of assigning a fellow to a writing-intensive class for a whole semester, classes ‘rented’ a consultant for two weeks. This works well for classes that are not writing intensive but contain one intensive writing assignment. Not only were we filling our schedule, but we found ourselves reaching out to different groups than when we coordinated our small semester-long fellows program for writing intensive classes.
Fellows attended relevant course sessions on Zoom over a period of one to two weeks and then offered individual or group writing sessions online. They meet with faculty to better understand assignment expectations. Additional training included support conversations with the director of the writing center, but no major changes in tutoring policies or practices were adopted.
A quick note: I use the terms fellow and consultant here interchangeably; this is intentional. All peers who work with other students on writing go through the same training, and they all become consultants first. When we work with a specific, we then call our consultants ‘fellows’ to help students and faculty understand the distinction: one is embedded in a course (fellow) and one is available for more general support (consultant).
We found that advertising the ‘rent-a-fellow’ model drove traffic into the writing center in a way that exceeded our usual usage in the spring semester. This excited us, and it ensured that our scheduled remained full even as other tutoring centers across campus saw a drop-off in student usage online. We normally discourage faculty from requiring appointments with consultants, but to justify the investment of fellows’ time, we encouraged faculty with fellows to require or offer extra credit for appointments, which were listed under a separate calendar for scheduling. This definitely helped our usage statistics.
There were several challenges we faced, however, as we think about scaling this up for the fall semester. The administrative support required to set up many small fellows opportunities is high. This includes advertising and conversations with faculty. These conversations are often extensive but worthwhile, as I can offer feedback on writing assignments as faculty work on them so that they become clearer for students and fellows alike.
To mitigate some of this conversation, we developed a worksheet that faculty and the fellow collaboratively fill out about expectations and boundaries during their meeting. This helped clarify the role of fellows with less director intervention. (If you are interested in the worksheet, you may email email@example.com.)
The largest administrative burden, however, involves recruiting fellows from the consultant pool whose schedules allow them to attend another class and setting up schedule that changes on a weekly basis. It is a logistical challenge—perhaps one that will become too high without additional administrative assistant support during the fall semester (typically busier than the spring). We are working on engaging the fellows in some of this work to eliminate copious emails and texts.
One professor wrote: “The papers this term were better quality than I received in past terms, and I could see that everyone who met with [the consultant] improved their writing.”
Perhaps the best endorsement of ‘rent-a-fellow,’ aside from the uptick in appointments, is the level of satisfaction with the program.
Next semester, we will assess students’ perceptions, too. But consultants spoke favorably about the experience. One wrote: “I was a bit nervous starting as a fellow, especially because students coming in solely to fill a requirement can be tough to work with. Yet, on the whole, they seemed to be receptive to the collaborative style of the sessions and were open about their concerns with their writing. Some of them even booked multiple sessions or met with me for longer than the 30-minute minimum. Overall, I think I grew and improved as a tutor, especially in the virtual setting.”
And that last line is music to a director’s ears.