Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Anne Brubaker, Lecturer in the Writing Program and Coordinator of the Writing Tutors at Wellesley College, Wellesley (Massachusetts), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Dr. Anne Brubaker. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Dr. Anne Brubaker
When Wellesley College moved to remote instruction in late March, we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of appointments we would typically have in a given semester. This did not come as a surprise: students’ lives were in upheaval, their learning environments were disrupted, assignments and expectations were adjusted, and grades shifted to a credit/no-credit system. We did not see any first-time tutees signing up for appointments during this time; however, tutors who had already established a connection with their tutees continued to work together frequently in the remaining weeks of the semester. It was an excellent reminder that building rapport and relationships with tutees can be a lifeline — a way for students to feel support and belonging that goes well beyond academic work and intellectual engagement.
Despite these significant shifts to their typical work, the tutors felt that their approach to the work and to their tutees was fundamentally the same in an online setting. “Tutoring sessions were one of the few things that didn’t seem to change much when we switched to remote learning,” reflected one tutor during our final Zoom staff meeting of Spring 2020. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, we conducted all of our tutoring in person, and, admittedly, we were disinclined to consider online tutoring for fear that it might compromise our goals of interactive, student-driven sessions. However, this situation taught us that we can still maintain our usual methods and goals in an online setting, and that this format has benefits for many learners.
The WCONLINE scheduler’s online tutoring option worked well for us; it provided continuity in registering for appointments and offered a consistent mechanism for videoconferencing and screen sharing. That said, some tutors occasionally turned to other platforms such as Google Chat/Docs or Zoom with screen share when they encountered technical difficulties or a tutee preferred these tools. The tutors not only demonstrated their adaptability and resourcefulness during this time, but their efforts also reminded me not to overdetermine the medium of delivery and that any platform has its pluses and minuses. As one tutor reported, “In one memorable session, when my Wi-Fi died completely, I had to Skype my tutee from my phone! We definitely had to get creative some days in order to preserve the core function of the tutoring session.”
In the fall 2019 semester, we had begun efforts to decentralize our tutoring by offering a few new tutoring spaces around campus, rather than holding our sessions exclusively in our library’s Learning and Teaching Center. By offering sessions in residential common spaces, the international student center, and more private spaces within the library, we hoped to reach more students for whom our traditional space might feel uninviting, perhaps for reasons of privacy, accessibility, health, comfort, or some other factor. This recent venture into remote and online tutoring will give us another way to realize these goals of broadening our tutoring spaces moving forward.
We also want to better understand what barriers continue to limit students’ access to the writing tutors. How can we help students who might be struggling to gain reliable WiFi access in the first place? What about students who want help with their writing, but don’t have the mental or physical bandwidth to engage in the session the way we might ideally want? What forms of non-synchronous guidance might be provided? Our year ahead will undoubtedly present new challenges to the work we do: it will shake loose our usual practices and expectations and demand our flexibility, adaptability, and resilience.