Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Kristina Aikens, Program Director of the Writing Support at Tufts University, Medford, (Massachusetts), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Dr. Kristina Aikens. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Dr. Kristina Aikens (center) and students
Though writing is often perceived as solitary, for many writing support professionals, myself included, the most appealing part of the work is the balance between the social and the introspective, the mutual interaction between writer and reader, our community of writers. The tutors’ embrace of this community has sustained and encouraged me over the years. I am proud when I hear writing fellows and graduate writing consultants enthusiastically greet each other during training meetings, work together to share ideas and solve problems, recruit applicants by touting our community’s strength.
When coronavirus sent us online, though, and we scrambled to gain our footing, I admit to doubting whether our community could survive. Writing fellows, whose students are required to meet with them, were unsure how to proceed. Writing consulting appointments plummeted, and I worried about my staff not getting enough work. Thinking ahead to my fall tutor education programs, I told myself: pare down to basics, don’t waste tutors’ time on Zoom with team-building when it’s not actually a job requirement.
Then something extraordinary happened. Instead of blowing off their required meetings, students eagerly contacted their writing fellows. Writing appointment numbers bounced back. Tutors reconnected with students, ready to support them through the crisis. One writing fellow wrote to me, “During such a stressful time when it feels like there is so little I can do to make a difference, being able to talk with the students I’m working with and help them alleviate stress and decide on directions for their papers is more meaningful than ever to me.” Our weekly graduate writing group went online and not only retained its participants, but gained more. One regular attendee wrote in a survey that the group “was always an important way for me to be able to focus and get work done, but since the world has gone online, [it] has been a real life-saver… It seems a simple thing, but somehow getting an email reminder and having a zoom meeting to join is incredibly motivating and helpful. It makes me feel like I am not alone in the universe.”
This surge of remote connection within the writing support community did not end with tutors and student writers. When my colleague Devon Sprague and I canceled the March meeting of the informal group of local writing center administrators we coordinate, we figured that was it. Part of the pleasure of our thrice-yearly meetings was visiting other campuses. But then a group member suggested we host a virtual coffee hour. To our surprise, our Zoom gallery filled with new faces alongside regular attendees. Together we exchanged resources, discussed how best to support our tutors and students—and planned to meet monthly, which would have been impossible previously.
Meanwhile, desperate for ideas for my now-virtual tutor trainings, I attended Rebecca Tedesco’s workshop on experiential education and joined one of her weekly Guided Practice Playgroups. I wanted to gain confidence with online tools, and this goal was undoubtedly met. But what I didn’t expect was that this new group, filled with strangers open to vulnerability and led by the wise and generous Rebecca, would teach me so much about how community forms through shared purpose, values, activities, and experiences. We learn through doing, and we connect as we learn.
Let me be clear: there are disappointments as our writing support goes online. Our tiny, hard-won physical space, which we’ve occupied for only ten months, will sit empty. I miss the spontaneous interactions of running into a tutor in the library or having them drop by my office. Some students will take leaves of absence; others will struggle to access the resources that make remote learning successful. And even the most serious educational setbacks obviously pale in comparison to the devastating grief and loss we suffer due to this global pandemic and the relentless systemic racism that sanctions murder and widespread trauma, both personal and generational.
But as we tentatively prepare for the fall semester, I find solace in the connections that have deepened or emerged this summer, and the eagerness of students and colleagues to show up for each other. Community is not supplemental; it is essential, and empowers our work. Simplifying in this environment creates opportunity and relieves stress, but community cannot be sacrificed in that effort. I learned to recommit myself to this core value and will center our community in everything I do moving forward.