Pandemic Graduate Student Writing and Transition Support: Reflections and Predictions (Part 3)

Vol. 2, No.8 (Spring 2021)
Liv Marken, Contributing Editor, CWCR/RCCR

Link to Part II

PART III: Looking Ahead

In last week’s instalment, Jill McMillan, a Learning Specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, and Nadine Fladd, a Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist at the University of Waterloo, shared their thoughts about accessibility, transition, and international student support. In part three, our final instalment, Jill and Nadine look ahead to what they envision keeping and what will be changed in the slow transition back to campus.

Liv: I can imagine for some there will be anxiety in being face to face; it’s going to feel strange for many of us to go back.

Nadine: I’m not sure how it feels for students who are entering a graduate program through the pandemic in comparison to how students a year ago felt, but I think the university as an institution has had a more equitable approach to the transition to graduate studies as a result of the pandemic. For example, our Writing and Communication Centre is tucked away on the second floor of a building. You have to be looking for it to find it. And I think that’s true of a lot of services and information about our campus. So, you would need to run into the right person in line at the coffee shop or happen to be taking a class with the right professor or colleagues in order to get information. And I think that instead of having one day graduate orientation where we throw a whole bunch of information at graduate students, we start the transition much earlier. So, you know, in June and July, before students had even accepted offers to enter a program at the University of Waterloo, people in the Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs office were in contact with them and built a website. We were able to offer information and connect with people just in time and as they needed various pieces of information. So, in this online context, whether students physically came to Kitchener Waterloo area or not, when they arrived, they were already part of the University of Waterloo community; it was a much clearer infrastructure for finding information because everybody had access to the same platform, rather than finding information ad hoc if you run across the right people.

Liv: As professionals who concentrate on graduate writing and communication support, have you found your job changing or do you have any advice for other people who are in similar positions?

Jill: Well, one nice thing has been how the Consortium on Graduate Communication now has a monthly meetup, which allows us to connect with other graduate writing specialists around the world. It’s just great to feel that sense of connection. And again, this is one of those positives to the pandemic where I think we’re going to see much more hybrid approaches in the future and where the online component isn’t simply just going to be, “Oh, here’s a recording of a session.” I think there will be elements designed specifically for people who are participating remotely.

Then just generally, I think my philosophy has been to “try things.” I do a lot of pilots. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s okay, I’m still going to see what happens and ask students to [help] decide if it’s something to refine and continue in future or to discard. So, I think if you are someone who likes play and experimentation this has been the year to try new things and see what sticks and what doesn’t.

Liv: Jill and Nadine, is there anything you would keep from how things have been done during the pandemic, and what are you looking forward to?

Nadine: I personally look forward to returning to an office environment and having other people around me. I’m finding that, and I think students are finding as well, that motivation and focus and all of that executive function activity is much more difficult when you’re constantly alone. And I miss having the opportunity to just run into students in the hallway and hear an update on how things are going.

For me, I think one of the things that I’m likely to keep in terms of the changes we’ve made based on the pandemic, is the virtual offering of writing groups and writing communities. At the University of Waterloo, space is at a premium and traditionally, we’ve had writing cafés where students and faculty could come and drink coffee and tea and eat snacks and write together in a room, and students have really responded to the opportunity to write in community but be in their own physical space where their textbooks and notes and equipment are. And so, I’ve had requests from students to keep that option for accessing the writing communities when we return to face-to-face life. So, I’m hoping that that’s something that we will return to a hybrid model where you could choose to show up in person and be physically present in the room or to simply log on and have a little bit of structure and community while you’re at your home and writing.

Jill: I think it’s similar to Nadine. There’s so much opportunity with the hybrid model. One of the things I was sort of reflecting on recently was the fact that the world of work for graduate students, it might be more of that hybrid model as well. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t their graduate experience reflect the professional context they’re going to enter? One of the things I’m also thinking about in terms of programming would be something about developing that hybrid awareness. So, presenting information online in a more persuasive way, for instance

Right now, I don’t have any specific programming around online communication so that might be an area of development. I’m kind of looking forward to that, actually. Certainly, one of the things that I’m looking forward to is seeing students in person because it’s a valuable connection that happens in those informal chats. And I think there’s nothing that can really replace that. Graduate school can be a cold environment for some students, but I think the pandemic is really forcing us to recognize that we have to be a bit more considerate of how we interact with individuals, recognizing how people have very complicated lives. I mean, now you see people on camera and they have kids walking past or, you know, animals and all that kind of stuff. There’s a recognition that maybe some things have to change. Some things need to be a bit more flexible and human as much as we’re going to retain all of these online elements. I think that the human element is going to gain momentum. What a loss it will be to universities if we don’t grab on to the lessons that we’re learning from this.

Liv: Nadine and Jill, thank you so much for this conversation. I’m sure that others in similar positions to yours will appreciate hearing your reflections.

Nadine: Thank you. It’s been way to think about what’s happened over the past year.

Jill: Yes, the same for me. Thanks for this opportunity.