Slouching toward virtual spaces: Reflections on writing support during COVID-19

By Patty A. Kelly
Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2020)

Patty A. Kelly’s research focuses on scientific, medical, and psychiatric discourse from rhetorical and discourse analytic perspectives. Her recent article, “The Development of American Psychiatry’s Professional Style: DSM-III’s ‘Common Language’,” is published in Rhetoric of Health & Medicine.

As Program Manager of the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, she designs evidence-based programming for undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”

Why do I keep thinking of that opening line from the W. B. Yeats[1] poem “The Second Coming”? Each time I click on a link to join a meeting or start a workshop, my English literature past returns to haunt the rhetorician in me with fragments from the poem. Each day, my fatigue with physical distancing builds, and the at-home workplace finds me slouching toward virtual spaces.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

Like other writing centres in Canada, the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication (CWSC),  at the University of British Columbia Vancouver transitioned in-person writing consultations, workshops, and retreats to virtual spaces (almost overnight) in response to growing concerns about COVID-19 and in concert with the move to online classes at UBC. Up to that point, on a Friday in mid-March, everything seemed to be ticking along as usual. With a colleague, I co-facilitated a workshop on writing the Statement of Teaching Philosophy, albeit to a very small group of doctoral candidates. As I stood at the front of the room, I looked down the length of the main aisle, out through the glass doors, and into the still-busy Learning Commons. A little further still, and I could see students arriving for their writing consultations in the room known as the “Pavilion.”

“Surely some revelation is at hand”

Unlike some Canadian writing centres, before the pandemic the CWSC offered in-person writing support only. What’s become clear over the past weeks and months is that virtual programming reduces barriers, for some. Before the pandemic, writing communities never really took off. At workshops, graduate students often expressed interest in writing in community on campus, but their actual uptake of the programming—say, showing up in-person every Tuesday at 2pm—never quite mirrored their intent. Now, however, we facilitate three weekly virtual writing communities. Two are open to all members of UBC Vancouver and have more than 100 registrants in each (and counting), including students, faculty, librarians, staff, and postdoctoral fellows. The newest writing community, Candidacy to Completion, is in partnership with Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and, as the name implies, is for doctoral candidates only. Given the positive response to these virtual community spaces, in the post-pandemic world that I imagine somewhere in the future, when we return to campus, the CWSC will continue to host these communities virtually. For me, that’s a positive revelation about programming that emerged out of the pandemic.

As we move closer to summer, undergraduate and graduate student uptake of CWSC programming continues to increase. The second annual, 3-day Graduate Writing Retreat, which takes place in early June—virtually, of course—has more than 100 students registered. (No need to worry about instituting a cost-recovery model to cover the catering budget this year, or capping registration at 36 because of room size constraints.) While we won’t be able to share coffee in the morning or sit down together for lunch, we can still provide students with writing support through evidence-based instruction in the mornings and one-on-one synchronous consultations in the afternoons. And we’ve learned from the writing communities that using the Pomodoro technique to structure dedicated writing time works well virtually, as students write alone-together at the Retreat.

“A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”

As I reflect on the ways in which virtual programming reduces barriers for some, I understand that it throws up barriers for others. In fact, just now I took a break from writing this to read the feedback from the Personal Statements workshop I gave earlier this week to 60 students from across the disciplines and professions. One UBC student who had returned home to China lamented that the workshop began at midnight local time, which made it difficult to concentrate on the instructional component and challenging to revise a draft Statement during the writing portion (now, almost 2 am local time).

As spring moves into summer, I’ll continue to co-facilitate writing workshops with my CWSC colleague who, thankfully, converses with me when students remain silent. As we talk to each other about genre, purpose, and disciplinarity, and use real-world examples to point out textual features, students use the chat function to ask questions and make comments. Sometimes, though, in those extended moments of silence, when I’m in that uncanny virtual space of multiple student tiles, cameras and mics off, I begin to feel the pull of the widening gyre, turning and turning, and I think again of Yeats writing 100 years ago during the pandemic.


[1] Yeats, W. B. (1920). The second coming. In Michael Robartes and the dancer (p. 10). The Cuala Press.