Vol. 3, No. 3 (Fall 2021)
An interview with Sarah-Jean Watt, Athabasca University Write Site Coordinator, and AWCA contact
Liv Marken, Contributing Editor, CWCR/RCCR
Liv: Could you please explain for our readers what the Alberta Writing Centres Association is and what it does? How is it different from the Campus Alberta Writing Network (CAWS)?
Sarah-Jean: The AWCA began as an informal connection between institutions that participated in eTutor Alberta, an online tutoring service modelled on BC’s WriteAway. eTutor Alberta was formed in 2014 as a consortium of institutions, each of which lent a certain number of tutor hours per week to the service. Students from these institutions could submit written assignment drafts through an online system and receive feedback from a writing tutor. Helping us to build the system was the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, which shared its code.
When eTutor Alberta ended in 2017, several institutions built their own platforms to continue offering asynchronous service. Thus, tutors with participating institutions were eager to stay connected as they developed their own ways of replacing eTutor.
Liv: I’m sure that blog readers will be interested in hearing how the AWCA came together.
Sarah-Jean: My colleagues at Lethbridge College have very dependably kept us in touch and organized an annual virtual symposium about online writing tutoring, without which coming together would have been much more challenging. In early 2021, we surveyed our colleagues around the province with the idea of formalizing, and all agreed. At the same time, we chose to expand our focus beyond just online modes while continuing to keep in touch virtually. This may seem odd, given that other writing centres are probably looking in the opposite direction (in-person to online) because of the COVID-19 restrictions! However, it ensures an inclusive approach for institutions that do not provide asynchronous service.
Liv: What are the most meaningful and practical aspects of keeping in touch with one another?
Sarah-Jean: eTutor Alberta has left a great legacy that joined many institutions around well-researched best practices of asynchronous writing tutoring. It’s particularly meaningful that we can continue to share our knowledge of best practices with institutions who join us now, especially considering the impacts of COVID-19, while also ensuring that together we develop, maintain, and evolve a high standard for supporting students in their writing. Looking at this a bit more generally, in my opinion, strong writers can be strong drivers of change in society. When we, as writing tutors, coaches, guides, and so on, support each other to do our jobs aptly and dynamically, we provide a good service.
Practically speaking, it’s not always easy to keep in touch. That’s why the yearly symposium is nice—it’s something for us to look forward to and know we can rely on. Now that we’ve formalized as the AWCA, the symposium can help keep us accountable to each other and perhaps get others involved in planning and hosting if they haven’t before. It will be great to see, over time, how our collective vision of AWCA unfolds.
Liv: What are some of the topics you have discussed at past symposia?
Sarah-Jean: Our topics range from technical to practical to theoretical. For example, when APA 7 came out, we were all eager to learn how others were tackling the transition. “Pain, sweat, and blood” was one response! However, despite the challenges, we were happy to discover that APA 7 has more student-friendly features than APA 6.
That year, since we were focused on online writing tutoring, we also participated in a lively, open discussion about how to respond to a student who requires more help than can be given asynchronously and how to gauge the student’s understanding of the feedback, which can present particular challenges in an online setting. The use of surveys and encouraging students to resubmit their revised papers were common methods for the latter.
In 2021, we ended up with a more low-key approach with two presentations: one about commenting on student strengths in an asynchronous environment, and one about affective experiences and academic kindness in reaction to the COVID-19 situation by guest Megan Robertson, British Columbia’s WriteAway Coordinator. We experimented with breakout rooms in the first session, but we ran short of time. I hope to see a bit of a mix in the future, with a presentation and a couple of open discussions.
Liv: CWCA/ACCR is excited to expand to include representation from more colleges. The AWCA includes many colleges. What would make our organization appealing, inclusive, and helpful to colleges such as the ones in the AWCA?
Sarah-Jean: I think one thing everyone will find helpful is a rejection of our own insularity, which can just happen naturally, because we are wrapped up in the day-to-day mechanics of our jobs. Remaining the same often translates to being able to devote more time to students in the short term because research, resource building, and change take time and energy. I hope, therefore, that we can share the fruits of our labour with each other. Maybe this will be appealing to institutions that do not have enough resources to devote significant time to long-term projects. In the big picture, this could increase inclusion for not only our members but also for the students we serve.
Liv: What are the AWCA’s plans for the future?
Sarah-Jean: No firm plans yet! Our chosen mode of communication is Slack, which is helpful because it can significantly decrease email overload, in contrast to a listserv. However, it can also be harder to engage with because it’s an extra activity to incorporate into the day. Now we are working on preparing our next symposium for the spring. Slowly but surely, we’ll work together to achieve our mission: “To connect Alberta post-secondary writing centres and encourage the sharing of ideas, challenges, and best practices.”
Liv: Well, thanks so much for taking the time for these insights into the AWCA. It’s really great hear how the AWCA has developed so organically over the years to get to this point.
Sarah-Jean: It was my pleasure!