There will be no switch flipping in my future: A look at post-COVID writing centres

Photo of a light switch

Vol 2., No. 7 (Spring 2021)
Julia Lane, Phd, Writing Services Coordinator, Student Learning Commons

Early in the pandemic, Kate Elliott, a Graduate Writing Facilitator with the SFU Student Learning Commons, wrote Maintaining Social Cohesion in a Time of Social Distancing, a blog post which she generously allowed me to contribute to. The post was about the opportunities that this moment of seeming isolation presents to get creative about supporting connectivity through virtual means.

Here I am over a year later reflecting once again on Kate’s incredible ability to focus on connectivity in the time of social/physical distancing within a week of everything shutting down the first time. We have been told to maintain distance from one another to keep each other safe, but that doesn’t mean that we can safely forego the social. It is clear that Kate’s emphasis on the ongoing need for social connection remains central. Throughout this past year, writing centres have been challenged to re-consider and re-imagine our roles in our wider institutions and to get creative with opportunities to support human connection—remotely—while we all experience ongoing crisis.

This crisis has been at times in the background and at times in the foreground of our lives, but I find it essential to maintain a persistent awareness that we are, in fact, continuing to work and teach through crisis. Some people around us may choose to use the term “new normal,” but the concept of “normalcy” has always been highly problematic (an abundance of queer and disabilities studies work has shown us that). What’s more, for many people, existing in perpetual crisis is also not “new.” These have been unexpected and challenging realizations for me as I have lived in the pandemic.

It strikes me that, as we see the vaccine roll out and increased discussions about returning to campus, it is equally crucial to stay aware of the ongoing nature of this crisis: we are still offering writing, learning, and language support against the backdrop of global crisis. We are still offering that support to students who may be in the midst of personal crises. Some of us who are offering that support are also, ourselves, (still) in the midst of personal crises. We cannot simply flip a switch and get over or past COVID-19. There is no single day on which we will get back to normal. Instead, as with other world crises, efforts to re-build and re-imagine will need to be sustained and collective in order to be effective. And, as Kate also points out, we must do what we can to keep putting the most vulnerable at the forefront of our planning, or we risk compounding their vulnerability.

Recently, our staff team in the Student Learning Commons spent just a few minutes brainstorming questions we have about returning to campus in the fall 2021 semester. We produced three, single-spaced pages. The questions were still being typed into the Google doc as the meeting wrapped up. These questions covered an impressive range of terrain, from the prosaic:

“Do we need to install a screen/barrier on the reception desk?”

to the more existential

“WHY are we planning to return to campus in the fall?

Which of our programs and services are actually best supported virtually/remotely?

How do we need to shift what we are doing, again?

Where are our aims better served by resisting the shift?”

To the question of why, we have been told by our leadership that a significant reason for returning to in-person, on-campus work in the fall is to address the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic. Here I must return to my flip-switching metaphor and state that simply returning in-person to campus will not eliminate or reverse these mental health impacts. It just isn’t that simple. We need each other, yes. But simply being physically together on-campus is not a panacea. Beyond that, there are some kinds of working, learning, and even socializing that are better supported virtually, at least for some of us. I think, for example, of friends who have chronic illnesses and have been able, through the pandemic, to continue with their online classes, even when they are in hospital. I think, too, of our writing centre’s success in offering evening and weekend consultation hours online–hours which proved a hard sell for tutors and students alike when the consultations were held exclusively on campus.

If we want our on-campus programs and services to be a way for members of the university community and beyond to heal from the impacts of this ongoing crisis, then we need to embark on our planning with that goal front of mind. We need to plan to prioritize healing and connection across our service models and use that as a gauge for determining both what we offer and how we offer it. We also need to recognize the reality that healing and connection are not just “natural” by-products of the work we do and that despite our generally caring nature within writing centres, we have not always been equipped or prepared to actually take on this work. I reflect on the number of times that I and my colleagues have advised student tutors to refer on to Health and Counselling services, if they encounter students in distress. So, what to do if we anticipate that most of us will continue to be in distress when we return to campus together? What to do, in particular, in light of that fact that most, if not all, of our on-campus health and counselling services were unable to effectively meet the pre-pandemic level of demand that they experienced. Marginalized community members, including queer, trans, and racialized students, also frequently express that the existing health and counselling services are not responsive to their needs. And campus health and counselling services typically do not support staff or faculty members. It is simply not realistic or fair to expect that those services will continue to bear the entirety of that demand themselves. We can ask ourselves, what part of this healing and connection work will the writing centre be prepared to pick up?

As I ask that question, I think again about Kate’s approach and I wonder, What does this next moment of transition open up for us as possibilities? How do we once again re-imagine and re-create our writing centres to work toward the changes that are required, for students and also for our tutors and our staff?

I write those words with trepidation because I recognize that we are often very adept at taking on too much. The tension that I feel most acutely at this moment is this:

Times of transition are significant opportunities to make the kinds of foundational change that are needed and that are mutually exclusive with maintaining the status quo.


Times of crisis are not times to take on more or expect more of ourselves and each other, despite what has already been required of us throughout the pandemic.

Faced with that tension, I am trying to feel my way into writing centre recovery while simultaneously keeping present in mind the ongoing crisis. This feels like a paradoxical task and yet it seems to be what is required of me right now. I think about Jeff Preston’s recent talk at the 2021 CWCA/ACCR virtual conference where he asked us to apply the logic of disability to the writing centre and to consider how writing centres might be rehabilitated. My own experiences with physiotherapy spring to mind and led me to recognize a few core truths:

  • Recovery/rehabilitation is likely to be slow. In fact, it probably needs to be slow to be sustained and to avoid causing further injury/more crisis.
  • We will probably end up taking several steps back alongside any steps forward we make.
  • We will not be able to do this alone. We will require the expertise of others to make it possible.

I am curious to consider how writing centres can take up the challenge to recover/rehabilitated ourselves so that we can be places of healing and connection through the next phases of this COVID-19 pandemic.

And as I ponder all of this, I am grateful for the recent work done by colleagues who actively take up these considerations as Jeff Preston did in his CWCA/ACCR address and as Jay Dolmage also presented in his talk for Michigan State University’s series “Disability in Higher Education Before, During and After COVID-19 (“Ableism, Access, and Inclusion”). I am also grateful for recent scholarship that focuses on well-being and emotional labour in writing centre. (See, for example, the summer 2020 issue of Praxis, “Well-Being in the Writing Center” and the Press book, Wellness and Care in Writing Centre Work.)

I remain adamant that there will be no switch flipping in my future. For one thing, I don’t think it is possible. For another, I don’t think a stark return to what we had prior to the pandemic would serve us. We have learned and grown through this crisis. And there are some things that are actually better accomplished in the virtual world. There are ways that remote connection serves us that in-person, on-campus connection does not. Some mental health burdens are alleviated, not exacerbated, by being able to reach out to someone online, with cameras off. We dismiss and diminish this learning to our own great detriment. And worse, to the great detriment of the students we serve.