Canadian writing centres respond to COVID-19 – March 18, 2020

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson
Vol. 1, No. 7 (Winter 2020)

From the previous post, there are common themes and processes centres are following. What is apparent is the ability to adapt and pull together programming quickly. With so much uncertainty, we’re all planning for the best while looking at all the unknowns.

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 18, 2020.

University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre

Clare Bermingham, PhD (she/her; they/them)
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON

March 18, 2020
At the University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre (WCC), we had begun talking about contingency plans about two weeks before classes were cancelled. This was lucky because everything ramped up very, very quickly over a single weekend. Classes were suspended on a Friday and, by Sunday night, most university operations shuttered and staff were urged to work from home. Classes were suspended for a week so that they could be moved online at the end of that week.

At the WCC, we are fortunate in that we already run many of our appointments online, so it was relatively easy shift to a fully online appointment calendar. While we rely on WCOnline primarily, we also have experience accommodating technical difficulties and equipment failure by moving to combinations of phone, Skype, Google Docs, when needed. However, our drop-in appointment schedule presented a different challenge; we had to make a decision about whether these appointments would be needed and, if so, how best to deliver them. We suspended them for a week, and we plan to bring them into the WCOnline environment as same-day appointments and complement them with an Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) Forum / online writing space.

As group activities, workshops and other grad programs are postponed for now. Because we already have an online Dissertation Boot Camp, we were able to quickly pivot on our in-progress 8-week Boot Camp to offer the last three weeks online. We shifted our upcoming intensive 4-day Boot Camp into the online format as well.

One key consideration during this time is how to maintain the sense of community that is central to writing centre and to a University more generally. We had to cancel our in-person writing groups, but we’re exploring options on our LMS to hold them within a virtual space. We’re also hoping to wield our social media platforms to create personal touch-points for our University of Waterloo students and broader community with more opportunities to interact and engage. It’s going to be a tough few weeks, but we can get through this and together we can #FlattenTheCurve.

The Centre for Academic Communication, University of Victoria

Nancy Ami
Manager, The Centre for Academic Communication
Learning and Teaching Centre
University of Victoria
Victoria, BC

March 18, 2020
We have used this week to transition our services from face-to-face to offering only distance support for students. Our first step was to communicate this shift to our core staff and graduate student tutors, who were very understanding and worked quickly to prepare for distance support. This process involved consideration of how we might offer such support initially through WCOnline and then a discussion about how we might transition to offer a greater variety of support going forward (e.g. Skype, Blackboard Collaborate, and FaceTime). We decided to go with the simplest option for us all: reworking our WCOnline schedule to feature “e-tutoring”, which allows students to attach a file and enables our staff to provide asynchronous feedback on the document and upload the file, triggering a WCOnline notification that the document had been reviewed.

Instrumental in the staff preparation and training for this process was a lovely power point created by our lead distance support team member. The slide set focused on “best practices” of offering distance support, including little scripts we might use to query and offer feedback indirectly, use of emoticons to ensure the feedback was not perceived to be overly harsh, and clear guidance on how to use WCOnline to upload a student’s file and then trigger the notification that it was complete.  We have also worked collaboratively to share sample feedback we’ve offered students (confidentially) to facilitate training and strengthen practice.

We look forward to further experimentation and embrace the opportunity to learn new ways to support students’ academic writing skill development!

Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, UofTM

Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, PhD
Associate Professor, Teaching Stream
Director, Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre
University of Toronto Mississauga
Toronto, ON

March 18, 2020
Like many Writing Centres, the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre (RGASC) at University of Toronto Mississauga has been forced to postpone or cancel all of its group-based face-to-face programming (e.g., short courses, workshops, workshop series, writing retreats), as university has effectively closed and moved all classes online. Thanks to the affordances of WCONLINE, however, the RGASC has been able to shift all of its face-to-face appointments to an asynchronous online format, where students upload their assignment instructions and their own written work and writing instructors download that work, comment on it (no editing!), and upload it again to the system by the end of the appointment time.

The RGASC is also offering an increased number of synchronous online appointments and currently in the process of collaborating with a number of course instructors to create a number of course-specific asynchronous online appointments. The RGASC’s large Supplemental Instruction program (operating in over 50 different undergraduate courses) has cancelled all its in-person facilitated study groups, but program staff are piloting the use of Blackboard Collaborate in a large first-year course to offer study groups online. The course it runs for suspension and probation students has been postponed, while programming for graduate students has been cancelled for the time being.

SFU Student Learning Commons

Maintaining Social Cohesion in a Time of Social Distancing
Kate Elliott, SLC Graduate Writing Facilitator
Julia Lane, SLC Writing Services Coordinator
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC

March 18, 2020
Simon Fraser University made the call to cancel all in-person instruction for the rest of the academic term on Friday March 13th. Enacting such measures to protect our communities and those most vulnerable within them means creating safe distance between us. We see this as our duty of care to one another, as the ethical thing to do. — Which it is.

But many of us were left asking ourselves (and each other), “what do we do now?” How do we attend the need for connection in this time of isolation? How can we, in the Student Learning Commons, ensure that the empty tables in our physical consultation space do not tear holes in the social fabric we’ve helped weave at the university?

Just as communities are finding unique ways to recreate togetherness — neighbourhoods of balconies joining together in song, clubs offering virtual dance parties — the SFU SLC, too, has provided virtual spaces for connecting. After the decision to cancel in-person instruction, we quickly let our volunteer Peer Educators know that they would not be expected to travel to campus to offer consultations or attend group meetings. Shortly thereafter, we made the call to move away from in-person consultations altogether.

Our next step was to find a solution to bring our consultations (and the few remaining workshops for the semester) into the virtual space. Graduate Facilitators and professional staff worked together to create a solution using a combination of WCO (to preserve our regular scheduling mechanisms) and Bb Collaborate (a tool found in Canvas, SFU’s existing Learning Management System).

We offered our first virtual consultations on Wednesday March 18th, less than three business days after the decision to move to virtual-only instruction at SFU.

That same day, we also offered our first webinar-style workshop (originally scheduled for in-person instruction), also using Bb Collaborate as our platform. We are planning to go ahead next week with a scheduled workshop on Successful Exam Writing using this webinar-style of instruction.

We have also been directing students to Write Away (a regular part of our service model) and have been working together to address the significantly higher than normal demand for this support from online writing tutors.

We are continuing to feel our way into this uncharted (for us) space of virtual support, and, of course we are experiencing some hiccups along the way. However, we are convinced that it is important to continue exploring these options for virtual support because it allows us to: maintain normalcy in a time of extraordinary uncertainty, continue to offer students support as they hone their skills as writers, and, most importantly, offer a face-to-face and voice-to-voice connection with others at a time when many are experiencing heightened levels of social isolation (for better and for worse).

We have seen our virtual consultation schedule fill up over the past several days and have received many expressions of gratitude from students that our services continue to be offered, even as we all move off-campus. (Even our professional staff are all now working remotely).

While it feels strange, given the circumstances, we are beginning to get excited about the new possibilities available from these virtual connections. Can virtual spaces offer our most vulnerable students — those who are most anxious, those who are far from their home communities, those who are immune-compromised and therefore try to practice social distancing even in non-pandemic times — a way of being with others while still maintaining healthy distance? We wonder if we nourish more than writing when we invite students into these spaces and provide important human connectivity at a moment that is, for many of us, unprecedented.

While we set up these structures quickly, in response to an emergency, we suspect they will continue to serve us even as we find our way back to “business as usual” (and now perhaps more accessible and inclusive) at the Student Learning Commons.

Here is the snapshot from March 17, 2020.

Check back for the March 19th post …