Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Kevin Sitz, Director, Ariel Loring and Bridget Mabunga, Writing Specialists, and Heather Sturman, English Language Learner Specialist at the Writing Support Center, University of California, Davis (California), for providing this piece. To contact the authors, please email Kevin Sitz. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.

From left to right: Heather Sturman, Dr. Kevin Sitz, Bridget Mabunga, and Ariel Loring

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced many new stressors for students. They had to consider health concerns, confront difficult questions about racial justice, and cope with remote learning, which presented several unique challenges such as:

  • Learning Zoom and document sharing technology
  • Having slow/unstable internet
  • Changing campus policies
  • Attending asynchronous and synchronous online instruction

In response to these difficulties, the staff at the Writing Support Center in the Academic Assistance and Tutoring Centers at UC Davis changed what we could in our virtual spaces. While we already brought a sense of care to each student interaction, our team implemented more flexible policies and strove for more meaningful interactions with students—what we now call the “amplification of care.”

Considering the stressors mentioned, we immediately removed our late cancellation appointment penalty to avoid creating more policy barriers for students. For no-shows, we reduced the penalty duration but didn’t remove the policy outright to ensure access for as many students as possible. If returning students skipped their appointment, we emailed to ask if they were okay and needed to reschedule, striving to show care as well as empathy remotely. We also extended appointment lengths from 30 minutes up to 55 minutes to help ease the pressure of technological challenges and provide heightened synchronous assistance since much instruction had become asynchronous. With a Biochemistry faculty member, Bridget co-taught a synchronous First Year Seminar that had fixed deadlines. They regularly reminded students to reach out if challenges arose and granted extensions when asked.

Since much of the university became asynchronous, human interaction became crucial to our practice.

We started sessions with questions like, “How are you doing today?” and found that most students appreciated venting about classes or juggling home and school life. Heather recalled using the longer appointment time to talk more freely with a student beyond the paper’s scope. They laughed together and Heather’s openness encouraged the student to share more personal anecdotes, allowing them to connect on a personal level. The student appreciated this relaxed appointment structure, and during this crisis, we too learned the importance and joy of inviting students to talk freely with us.

Sometimes students shared more challenging anecdotes, and we provided empathy without taking sides or casting blame. We demonstrated care through responses like “not having an opportunity to talk to your professor after class sounds challenging.” By empathizing with students while staying in sync with university messaging, we earned students’ trust and could share campus resources sincerely and empathetically. For example, when students disclosed past emotional distress, writing specialists discussed Student Health and Counseling Services. When students mentioned food or housing insecurity, we shared links to our Basic Needs Center. This practice fits within our “soft hand-off” philosophy, which shows care by gently transitioning (and not pushing) students toward campus resources.

As with appointments, care became the driving force in classes. Bridget committed to teaching a new First Year Seminar for First Generation students to support them through this unprecedented time. From the beginning, the instructors encouraged everyone to keep their video on and began each class with check-in questions such as:

  • Please share a challenge you had with one of your classes and how you solved it.
  • Are there any books/resources/shows/etc. that you have read/watched/used in the past few weeks that have given you comfort or made you feel grounded?
  • Who would play you in a movie about your quarantine experience and why?

Students showed care for one another quickly, likely as a result of the honest conversations and video-sharing practice. To cement care for students, the instructors made an end-of-the-quarter thank-you slideshow with photos and descriptions of how each student added value to the class. Many students said this was their favorite class, they never kept their video on in other classes, and they felt the instructors cared for them. The quarter ended with no student drops, and this seemed due in part to the amplification of care.

Supporting students during the pandemic has necessitated reflection on how we can continue innovating on flexible writing support options for students while ensuring care-driven interactions. When the COVID crisis ends and we return to our physical spaces, we do not anticipate eliminating our remote best practices and policies completely. Instead, we will keep amplification of care part of what we do and who we are.

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