Editor’s note: We would like to thank Julianne Stratman and Adam Daut from the University Academic Success Programs at Arizona State University, Phoenix (Arizona), for providing this piece. To contact the authors, please email Julianne Stratman. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
As a writing center that serves a growing graduate student population at a large public university, the COVID pandemic prompted us to pivot our summer graduate writing camps to an online format. Since 2012, our writing center has hosted week-long dissertation writing camps for doctoral students, with a 2016 expansion to an online iteration to meet the needs of online doctoral students. In 2015, we introduced the Success in Graduate Writing Camp, which offers a week of instruction on the academic writing and research demands of graduate school for master’s degree students and beginning doctoral students. We, along with two colleagues, were responsible for adapting the curriculum of the Success in Graduate Writing Camp to an online modality.
Transitioning to an online writing camp occurred over a brief period of time. Where we normally have a semester to make revisions to the curriculum, we had to adapt the content, materials, and format in less than six weeks. This also included revising the message in our marketing to graduate students. The initial student response to our new marketing played a crucial role in shaping the new delivery of our curriculum. We received myriad inquiries from students asking about live attendance and asynchronous options to accommodate a range of schedules. Furthermore, while the original in-person camp was co-facilitated by writing staff each responsible for leading a cohort of 20 students through a full schedule of workshops, the amount of student interest in the online camp immediately precluded maintaining small group sizes and demanded a new model. Another critical issue was sustaining student engagement in the online modality.
To meet these challenges, we developed a webinar model using Zoom that required streamlining our content and restructuring our format. Content sessions were condensed into one-hour webinars, with the first 40 minutes dedicated to lecture and the remaining 20 minutes spent on Q&A with students participating live. We recorded the sessions and uploaded them to Canvas, our central hub where students, particularly those participating asynchronously, could access camp recordings, resources, and handouts. We translated our in-person workshops, originally designed with student-driven activities and embedded with class discussion questions, into lectures that captured the heart of the content and also gave students the tools to apply strategies on their own. We intentionally co-presented the majority of the sessions to allow for organic dialogues between presenters that provided a relaxed lecture structure. Moreover, we collaborated with our guest speakers, including university librarians, faculty panelists, and staff, so that they intentionally presented more online resources and virtual tools for researching, writing, and balancing life as a graduate student. This helped keep the camp’s content and format varied and engaging.
To promote an immersive online experience, we structured several digital spaces for students to converse and collaborate with each other and staff. Each morning, we opened with a “coffee time” in Zoom where participants chatted with each other and staff, who led conversations on themed topics from popular culture. Staff also facilitated afternoon check-ins with small groups where students shared their thoughts and asked questions about topics and strategies introduced in the camp. A channel on Slack provided a virtual space where participants networked and shared resources with each other and staff posted camp updates and reminders. These digital platforms were crucial tools that enabled us to immerse participants in a camp community.
Our online camp provided a resource for a much larger audience than anticipated. Over 450 graduate students participated in the camp, which had enrolled 55 the previous summer. Another unexpected but welcome discovery was the level of engagement in the live Q&As, which regularly went beyond the allotted time. In their feedback, students shared that the Q&As allowed them to ask for more clarification on content and receive additional tips and resources. As staff, we were able to understand better the needs of the participants and personally connect with them in the Q&As. As the week progressed, we noticed that the students participating live also forged new connections with each other during the webinars.
The pandemic challenged us in ways that led to new and innovative ideas about how to adapt in-person curricula and foster engagement and community in an online modality. We plan to take students’ feedback and what we learned from the experience to build a sustainable online model that continues to offer graduate students an opportunity to develop their research and writing skills.