Canadian writing centres respond to COVID-19 – March 17, 2020

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson
Vol. 1, No. 6 (Winter 2020)

As Heraclitus continually reminds us, everything changes, constantly, but the tempo and severity of change from COVID-19 has overwhelmed and challenged us all in our writing centres. We wondered how other institutions around the country are coping with the fallout from COVID-19.

We asked twenty writing centres from coast to coast to coast to provide a short description of their centre’s response to COVID-19. We will publish these responses in parts by the day they were received, from March 17th to March 19th.

Below is a snapshot of our colleagues’ writing centres from March 17, 2020.

Wilfrid Laurier University Writing Services

Jordana Garbati & James Southworth,
Writing Consultants
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario

March 17, 2020

We heard rumours about the university moving online a week or so ago, so we mapped out a few contingency plans in preparation. When the announcement came, we were (mostly) ready. We didn’t want to end our tutoring programming, as many students rely on us as they finish off their term’s coursework. Especially during this uncertain time, we wanted to offer academic continuity as per one of our unit’s directives. It didn’t take us long to decide to move all of our writing appointments online.

Some of our graduate tutors were trained to offer online writing appointments because this is a service we offer year-round for graduate and distance students. Moving our full tutoring program online meant that we needed to train the rest of our tutoring team. These training sessions were brief given time and workload constraints and often online because in the middle of our in-person training time, we were notified of the new work-from-home policy at our institution. We maintained ongoing email communication with our undergraduate and graduate tutors to keep them informed of their work options. Our tutors stepped up to the challenge of going virtual! They demonstrated eagerness, dedication, and commitment to helping peers during this stressful time. They have amazed us!

Our online booking system isn’t complicated, but moving appointments online is a tedious and time-consuming task. It hasn’t been impossible, though, and we have been working as fast as we can to reschedule appointments and to communicate with students about the virtual writing appointment set-up. In our writing centre, we use Skype and Google Docs to mimic as much as possible the in-person writing appointment experience.

We have continued to post messages on Twitter and Facebook, so our community is aware of online appointments.

In terms of our faculty work, since we’re near the end of the term, our bookings for classroom instruction was minimal. We prepared our PowerPoint presentations and sent them to our faculty partners to share with their classes. We’re not able to offer much more support to faculty at this time beyond answering questions via email. The responses we’ve received from students and faculty has been positive.

They seem grateful for the ongoing writing support at our institution.

University of New Brunswick, Saint John Writing Centre

Jan Waldschutz,
Writing Centre Consultant
University of New Brunswick, Saint John
Saint John, New Brunswick

March 17, 2020

The writing consultants at the UNB Saint John Writing Centre have been working remotely since yesterday [March 16, 2020] morning. Campus has since scaled back to essential services, and all non-essential UNB employees are working from home. The Library/Commons building (where our centre is located) has closed.

At UNB Saint John, we use WCOnline (an online scheduling system) to manage appointments, so we have been able to transition quite smoothly to working from home and providing written feedback to students using tracked changes and margin comments. The communication features (such as a mass email tool) allowed us to communicate this new approach to students very quickly and effectively. (I’ve pasted the email to students below, for your reference).

In WCOnline, students can upload/attach their documents to their appointment. The writing consultant can download it from there, add comments, then upload the reviewed version to the appointment. The system notifies the student when it has been uploaded and the comments section of the appointment can be used as needed by either party.


E-mail to students:

Greetings from the Writing Centre,
In light of the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation and to create appropriate social distance, Writing Centre consultants will not meet with students in person for the remainder of the term.  Instead, we will provide feedback on documents using tracked changes and margin comments.

Due to the time required for this new approach, we will only be able to review written work associated with scheduled appointments. 

If you have an appointment, please open your appointment in WCOnline and attach a Word file before the scheduled start time. 

The Writing Centre consultant will download your file from the appointment schedule, provide feedback within the document using tracked changes and margin comments, and attach the reviewed file to your appointment when finished.  You will receive an email notification once the reviewed document has been uploaded to your appointment, and you can download it from there. 

The writing consultant will review as much of your document as possible within the appointment time and upload the reviewed file at the end of your appointment or soon after.   

If you do not have an appointment, please use the daily waiting list feature in WCOnline to be notified of any available appointment times.

Thank you for your understanding.

University of Guelph Writing Services

Jodie Salter,
Acting Manager, Writing Services
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario

March 17, 2020

The University of Guelph Writing Services is still providing online consultations through WCOnline to all students and staff (we have been doing so for over 5 years now). Our partners in Learning Services are moving to the same online platform to provide support for time management, study strategies, etc.

Through our DBC Courselink D2L portal, we are looking into a new module of delivery for our upcoming Dissertation Boot Camp so that our students will still be supported. They already have access to all workshop presentations, materials, handouts, etc., so we are going to experiment with the Courselink Virtual Classroom platform in order to provide our workshops online and also hopefully create some sense of writing community. We are also looking at creating a virtual writing “room” for our regular users to replace our physical Writing Room.

University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Writing Support

Sarah King,
Director, UTSC Writing Centre
University of Toronto Scarborough Campus
Toronto, Ontario

March 17, 2020

As the University of Toronto has cancelled all classes, but is still asking students and instructors to complete courses using online tools; UTSC Writing Support is responding with as much flexibility as we can to our students and teaching colleagues. We are working as a team to take writing instruction online, depending (as we always do) on the collegiality and professionalism of our writing instructors.

We have cancelled daily in-person drop-in hours and moved all our one-to-one tutoring to synchronous online tutoring through WCOnline. Because we have been offering a limited number of synchronous online tutorials for the last two years, a few instructors are familiar with the process and with online pedagogy, and they are supporting instructors new to it by helping with training and by becoming mock students in the forum.

Tutoring online has challenges, and we humanize these by listening to students and laughing when pets and small children climb into the online frame. We are fortunate that instructors all have internet and computer access from home that seems to be working well.

For our course-based small-group research and writing clinics, where students come to work on assignments and ask questions, we have offered course instructors the option to either cancel or try an online version. After an initial experiment yesterday–a very challenging two-hour session through Blackboard Collaborate–we have realized (we are new at this!) that online group sessions require more advance planning than in-person sessions. It is difficult to be responsive to individuals in a group context online. In the immediate future, we will be offering course instructors the option of online writing instructor drop-in hours dedicated to their course and offered through their course shell in the CMS (UofT uses Canvas, though renamed Quercus).

Writing Support is embedded within the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and we support faculty as well as students. As a result we are also offering faculty consultations through phone, email and online meetings, and posting advice on how instructors can adapt their courses and assignments effectively.

Overall, we see our goal as supporting students and teaching colleagues not just by offering a knowledgeable and interested reader, but also by offering human contact, a listening ear, and an acknowledgment of the stress created by the speed at which things have changed and are changing. Our message is that no one has to figure this out alone.

University of Saskatchewan Writing Centre

Liv Marken,
Writing Help Coordinator
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

March 17, 2020

We are housed in our campus’ busiest library, which is still open as of today, March 17th. I made the decision to shut down and move to online tutoring on March 12th, without the go-ahead of the library, and before a Friday evening (March 13th) campus-wide presidential notice of guidelines and restrictions. I imagine many other writing centres have acted before receiving official direction. Though our writing centre falls under a larger administrative structure, the realities of our day-to-day are often forgotten. While I’m sure that the administration would have consulted with me at some point, I didn’t want to wait. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to go ahead without permission. My supervisor was tremendously supportive.

After closing, my first concern was for my student tutors’ income. They are currently working their full shifts from home. Unfortunately, we don’t have a synchronous online tutoring system established, but I’m researching options right now. I suspect that students using our services (as well as tutors, who are students themselves) are likely overwhelmed by adapting to professors’ various approaches to delivering courses online (e.g., one may be using Blackboard, another Webex, another Zoom), and so we have kept it as simple as possible by using our existing platform. Students submit their questions and/or drafts via a simple-to-use online form, and then receive a tutor’s response via email. Normally, we have a 48-hour turnaround time for online supports, but during shifts, we are offering a 30-minute to 3-hour turnaround time.

I’ve been careful to emphasize (via social media channels and official communications) that we can work to accommodate students in other ways if our current online system isn’t accessible to them. Tutor accessibility is another concern. For example, last night, one of my tutors emailed me her responses to students as our platform (Jira) wasn’t working due to her spotty wifi (she lives in an apartment building where I’m assuming many are self-isolating).

In sum, I’ve made sure that tutors are getting work by moving operations online during their shifts, and by promoting the writing centre services much as possible so that off-shift submission work will stay at our usual March rates. Tutors are paid by the job, and so if we don’t have jobs for them, we have a problem! I am curious to read about what other centres have done around communications and accessibility, especially insofar as I would like to gain new ideas for current and future planning.

University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre

Boba Samuels, PhD
Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, and
Director, Health Sciences Writing Centre
Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education
University of Toronto
Toronto, ON

March 17, 2020

Last week (March 11th, 12th), with the COVID-19 situation in Italy turning dire, I suddenly realized that I could no longer be an observer of this far-off crisis. The crisis was quickly moving, and it would come to us. Over the previous week, we at UoT had received a number of emails referring to the need for contingency planning for faculty, with easily dismissed warnings about the need to ensure academic continuity. It all seemed like information that was relevant only in last-ditch situations, and not really applicable to us at writing centres anyway. When one of the writing centre directors sent an email through our directors’ listserve suggesting that writing centres again seemed to be overlooked by administration in these emails, and that we should prepare our own plans, it prompted me to acknowledge that I had not taken my responsibility for emergency planning very seriously. Over the subsequent week, a number of discussions among writing centre directors, writing instructors, and other faculty increasingly addressed “what if” planning.  It didn’t really become personal for me, however, until Italy. I realized then that several of my writing instructors were vulnerable, as was I myself with a history of two bouts of pneumonia. I realized that the students we saw were vulnerable, exposed to a huge variety of people from all parts of the world, including areas currently in coronavirus crisis. We needed to protect each other.

The first thing we did at HSWC was act on the suggestion by one of our instructors to provide hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes in our offices. I followed up a day or so later with email consultations with the instructors to determine whether a mass email should go out to students registered with our centre, encouraging them to stay home if sick or to book online appointments. We decided yes. Then another instructor sent me an article that argued compellingly for the need to shut down asap to “flatten the curve.” The next morning, I sent an email to my dean stating that I had decided our writing centre needed to move to online only appointments that day. Did I have his permission to do so and contact the other Health Sciences deans and students about this move? The dean agreed, but asked me to hold off until the president of the university had sent an imminent message about the university’s plan to cancel in-person classes. That afternoon, after the president’s announcement was received, I sent my email.

At UoT, we use WCOnline for appointment scheduling. At HSWC, we changed all existing in-person appointments to e-tutoring (asynchronous) or online (synchronous) appointments. In addition, we added the option for telephone consultations, if students preferred this lower tech mode. All instructors were directed to work from home. All events, including professional development and meetings, were cancelled. The conferences that I had planned to attend this spring have almost all been cancelled. All communication is through email, and notices of the move to online were placed on our website and scheduling site. We expect the social distancing measures to continue past our initial end-of-term date of April 3 and now last until at least the end of April, and perhaps beyond. I spend much time trying to keep abreast of the fast-changing situation and trying to determine if changes to our current plans are needed. Luckily, all seven of the HSWC instructors are healthy (so far) and none is in self-isolation.

In this first week of online only appointment, students seemed to initially keep their appointments but then cancel, either after receiving the automatic appointment reminder, or shortly before their scheduled appt. The schedule, however, remains full with a few people on the waiting list. I am unsure if students will continue to cancel at the last minute.  I suspect, however, that this trend will reverse and that we will soon experience significant demand for appointments as students adjust to their classes being moved online and realize that they need more support than ever. Guess we’ll see.

Check back for the March 18th post …