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

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson

Over the previous two posts, our colleagues spoke to the adaptation and changes they’ve made due to COVID-19. In this third instalment, writing centres from northern Manitoba, Québec, Ontario, and Alberta speak to their experiences.

If you have a story you want to tell about your experience responding to COIVD-19, please send 2-3 paragraphs to Enter “COVID-19 response” in the subject line. Thanks.

University College of the North Writing Centre

Gilbert McInnis, PhD
Assistant Professor
Coordinator, UCN Writing Center,
The Pas, Thompson, and Norway House
Faculty of Arts, Business, and Science
University College of the North
Thompson, MB

March 19, 2020
Here in our isolated northern community, our writing centre has experienced some great news, but I must say that in the wake of the COVID 19, our centre lost most of its steam in the past two weeks. Our shut down was mostly because our centre operates under the generous volunteer work of our faculty. When the COVID 19 hit two week ago, it essentially shut us down because our professors/instructors, including myself the coordinator, had to redirect our energy and time toward building an online environment for our classes. I did locate some excellent advice by Adam Auch at the Dalhousie Writing Centre (through Facebook) about transitioning to the online writing centre model, but the COVID 19 happened here so fast, I lost my volunteers by then, and therefore I was not able to deploy accordingly.

With that said, I am not letting the COVID 19 virus infect us all here with bad memories since our writing centre numbers have almost doubled this year from last year. In fact, we had so much success this past autumn that our centre’s activity made it into our University Academic Plan 2020 as action number two of “Creating Pathways to Success.” In addition, my work at the centre was “spotlighted” in our university’s annual report, which ironically came out at the same time the COVID 19 hit us. We might have fared better if we had implemented Adam’s great advice, but not having a full-time staff member to coordinate his advice surely made us more vulnerable. A learning curve, no doubt.

Bishop’s University Writing Centre

Catherine Campbell
Writing Tutor; Lecturer
Bishop’s University
Sherbrooke, QC

March 19, 2020
Bishop’s University Writing Centre is working to help students finish their semester with as little disruption as possible. To this end, we are offering to correct papers sent by email. This is less than ideal since we are supposed to be a teaching service and not an editing service. However, in light of the current situation, we have been unable to find a better solution. The course English Writing Proficiency 099 is also being completed online. Students will submit their remaining assignments by email. We are still considering how we will handle the final exam.

Huron University College Writing Services 

Mandy Penney, Coordinator
Huron College University
London, ON

March 19, 2020
I’ve been following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus since mid-January, and by mid-February, I had begun thinking through how I might be able to continue to support tutors (a team of 20, comprising peer and graduate tutors, as well as specialists working in their fields) and other students in the event our institution closed. I hoped it wouldn’t need to get to that point, but here we are. Huron closed on Friday, March 13, to do our part in flattening the curve. Here’s what we’re currently doing at Writing Services:

We have moved our consultations online – 16 of my 20 tutors (writing, communication, math, business, economics) have elected to keep tutoring at this time. We are offering both asynchronous (through email) and synchronous (video/audio chat) tutoring options. Instead of keeping the same schedule as we had prior to face-to-face closures, I am instead matching students to tutors directly and they are setting appointment times and deadlines that meet their needs. We’re being as flexible as we can be with each other, and have the ability to be fairly nimble and personal in our response because of the size of our institution (about 1200 students). All tutors will also be paid to the end of the semester, regardless of whether they continue tutoring at this time.

My tutors have been wonderfully flexible and resilient during a challenging time. I’m also trying to be mindful of their mental health, especially for those who are also trying to complete courses and/or take care of family members. I’ll be instituting weekly team meetings via Zoom, and I’ve also been in touch with a few tutors socially using video conferencing: while we’re all here to support students in their academic and professional goals, we’re also doing our best to help people feel less isolated at an uncertain time.

University of Alberta, Centre for Writers

Yan (Belinda) Wang, Interim Director
Lucie Moussu, Director (on sabbatical leave—at least in theory)
Justin Tiedemann, Program Coordinator
University of Alberta, Centre for Writers
Edmonton, AB

March 19, 2020
Writing centre directors and administrators in the United States started the move to offering online tutoring about ten days before the situation became worrisome in Canada. Thanks to this early “warning” of things to come and an amazing exchange of tips, strategies, and documents

on the Director of Writing Centers  Facebook page, Lucie and Belinda were able to start training face-to-face graduate and undergraduate tutors to deliver online tutorials early and without panic starting early March.

We were able to continue offering our usual face-to-face tutorials for a week, as many student writers still had appointments booked on WCOnline, our online scheduling system. At the same time, after having gone through some training, more and more tutors started offering online tutorials on WCOnline to test the system, troubleshoot, and help create support/training guides for all tutors and student writers. (You can see our documents here:  Feel free to use them or any part of them, if you’d like.) We thus gradually transitioned from 100% face-to-face to 100% online.

The university decided to move all courses online on Sunday, March 15 (all classes and exams were cancelled on Monday to give everyone on campus time to move everything online), and tutors at the Centre for Writers were all trained and ready to work 100% remotely by Tuesday, March 17th. Our campus has since scaled back to essential services, and all non-essential faculty and staff are now working from home.

In addition to face-to-face, in-person appointments, we always offered a minimal, asynchronous tutoring option for student writers who were physically unable to come into the centre, such as those who were taking online or distance education courses, students in the Faculty of Extension, and students in practicums, work terms, or internships. Student writers could send their papers by email; a tutor would read it and give some feedback; and we’d return the paper and feedback by email within two business days. We decided to continue offering this asynchronous tutoring option, to train all our tutors to give asynchronous feedback, and to make it available to all student writers who would prefer it.

We had to cancel all our remaining workshops, of course, and make some adjustments with our other programs, like our Guided Writing Instruction Groups, Class Group Tutorials, and class presentations. But overall, we’ve tried to keep the same tutoring schedule for everyone, and there should be no loss of income for our tutors. Justin stays in touch with the tutors through WCOnline all day, and Belinda and Lucie drop in on online tutorials every now and then to make sure everything is going well. We also created a chat room on Padlet, where tutors can stay in touch with us and one another to alleviate feelings of isolation, and where we can ensure they feel supported and appreciated.

We kept informing our student users through mass emails, social media, our website, and lots of phone calls. We had never offered synchronous online tutoring before, so students writers were initially not familiar with WCOnline online tutoring. In addition, some students were not very comfortable with technology, so we removed our usual penalties for lateness and missed appointments. We also use WCOnline to have a feedback form automatically sent to all student writers at the end of their tutorials (to replace the old paper feedback form we used to ask students to fill out).

Overall, we have had a very successful transition, and our tutors have been wonderful in helping us make it work. We are also extremely grateful to other writing centre directors and administrators who have generously shared materials and suggestions on Facebook and through different listservs!

Here are the snapshots from March 17, 2020 and March 18, 2020