Two years on: COVID Snapshot of writing centres in Canada – University of Alberta’s Centre for Writers

Vol 3, No 2 (Spring 2022)

This is the second of three posts from our CWCR/RCCR’s 2022 COVID snapshot of writing centres in Canada. The first post was a snapshot from Hailie Tattrie from the writing centre at MSVU in Halifax. This snapshot come further west–Centre for Writers at the University of Alberta.

Here are the snapshots from 2020 and 2021.


Centre for Writers
Yan (Belinda) Wang, Acting Director
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB

This coming March will mark the two-year transition into remote services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The past year saw the Centre for Writers (C4W) thrive in some areas but also experience unprecedented difficulties and challenges.

What Went Well and Relatively Well
Our clients are happy with online tutoring and other services we provide. We echo some other writing centres’ pleasant surprise in students’ willingness and appreciation for us adopting remote services. In the past academic year, when clients were asked if they were happy with the new online tutoring service, 99% of them said they were very happy or somewhat happy. For the first time ever, C4W services were offered later in the day (sometimes up to 10:00 pm) to accommodate clients in different time zones. The WCOnline scheduling system, especially its online consultation feature, continued to function effectively most of the time. Zoom was also used as an alternative when WCOnline malfunctioned.

Prior to the pandemic, asynchronous tutoring (i.e., emailed written feedback) was only offered to Faculty of Extension, U of A’s  school of distance learning, students. When it became clear that extending the service in a pandemic setting would be beneficial, we started to offer the service to students of all faculties. Soon after the change was implemented, we experienced a surge in asynchronous tutoring requests. Even though we had three dedicated asynchronous tutors providing written feedback, many synchronous tutors had to assist with asynchronous requests when the number of submissions became overwhelming.

Our guided writing groups (for international graduate students) and group writing support (for writing-intensive undergraduate courses) thrived in the first half of 2021. We offered eight writing groups between January and April 2021, a new record for the C4W. We also supported five writing-intensive undergraduate courses in the same period, another very successful record.

The pandemic also impacted the delivery of our tutor training course, Writing Studies 301/603. Dr. Lucie Moussu, the former Director of the C4W, successfully taught the course online for the first time in Fall 2020. A new approach was developed to facilitate the online practicum portion of the course: student-tutors were given the opportunity to develop their tutoring skills and reflect upon their tutoring practice through online observations, online co-tutoring, online supervised tutoring, and solo tutoring at their own pace throughout the term. However, student-tutors’ individual challenges and efforts necessitated adjustments to this plan, with some never reaching the third or fourth stage of tutoring. A detailed spreadsheet was used to track student-tutors’ hours at each stage, as well as their progress. Justin, our Program Coordinator, did an amazing job scheduling and keeping track of everything and everyone amidst the scheduling madness. In the end, out of 18 students, six undergraduate students and eight graduate students from the course were hired in 2021 to fuel our tutor team.

Difficulties and Challenges
The continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light a few ongoing challenges, especially feelings of isolation and mental health concerns. Additional instabilities emerged in the latter half of 2021, bringing with them significant challenges: our previous director left, and we struggled a little in the aftermath of her departure.

Issues with technology
Issues with technology arose for both tutors and clients. Some of these issues included microphone and camera troubles, clients not showing up to online appointments, Internet instability, and a recurring problem with WCOnline malfunctioning and terminating online consultations prematurely. Some of these problems were resolved quickly; for example, we used Zoom to connect tutors with clients during a WCOnline outage. Each tutor was given a private Zoom link (through the U of A) that they shared with clients at the start of each appointment in case issues arose with WCOnline. Some clients preferred Zoom and asked tutors to switch to Zoom at the beginning of their appointments.

Feelings of isolation and mental health concerns
The online environment left many feeling isolated, so it was important for tutors to keep in touch with one another. Justin set up a daily check-in window on WCOnline, where the tutors could connect and socialize. We also gave the tutors our personal cell phone numbers so that they could contact us when needed. Tutors needed to be reachable at all times during their shifts in case clients needed a drop-in session or we had other writing-centre related duties for them. Also, tutors checked in with Justin at the start of each shift between 10 am and 4:30 pm in the WCOnline check-in window, and with the director, by text, from 4:30 pm until 10 pm. More frequent staff meetings were also scheduled so that we could connect with the tutors on a weekly basis.

Isolation due to the pandemic also caused some mental health concerns. While C4W staff had the methods of coping mentioned above, many clients felt very isolated. Tutors often found themselves listening to problems and concerns that their clients needed to talk about. While tutors are not expected or encouraged to act as therapists, they graciously listened to clients when they needed a place to vent their frustrations. Tutors themselves were in turn encouraged to reach out to us with any problems they needed to talk about.

The aftermath of Dr. Lucie Moussu leaving the C4W
Dr. Lucie Moussu leaving the C4W in June 2021 was a huge loss. Her departure and the Dean of Students’ inaction in finding a permanent replacement threw the rest of us into a panic, and we struggled to cope in her absence. The C4W was without a director for two months, after which I asked the Dean of Students to hire me as Acting Director. (I had already been Acting Director during Dr. Moussu’s last sabbatical leave.)

Dr. Moussu’s departure meant that she could no longer teach the tutor training course, which had been essential in preparing well-trained tutors. For the first time in the C4W history, this course was taught by someone other than the C4W director in Fall 2021; it was instead taught by a full lecturer in the Department of English and Film Studies (EFS). The problem with this arrangement was that the lecturer did not train students specifically for the C4W  but rather for other writing tutor positions in EFS. In the end, only two undergraduate students from this class applied for a C4W tutor position. It was very disappointing, as it did not give the C4W any room to select the tutors with the most potential. Also, it defeated the purpose of the tutor training course, which was initially specifically designed to fit the C4W’s purposes.

My limited experience with writing centre work, and even more limited energy as I am trying to complete my own PhD dissertation, means that a number of goals set for the 2021-2022 academic year cannot be achieved. Vigorous promotion of our services, community building, collaboration with various faculties, research-related activities, and professional development opportunities for tutors were greatly reduced, as a result.

Looking Forward
The future of the C4W remains uncertain, but we are hopeful that peer writing support will continue to thrive, at least in some areas. Changes are underway and conversations about the future of our tutoring services are ongoing.

Streamlining services and reinventing workshops
In an effort to streamline our services, limit the unmanageable number of email exchanges, and encourage clients to book synchronous online tutoring appointments, we decided to retire the email system and implement the eTutoring function already available on WCOnline. Our Quick Guide for Online Tutoring was updated to reflect this new change. Justin created a separate eTutoring schedule for Winter 2022 on WCOnline, opening a few eTutoring appointments each day. Three dedicated eTutors are responsible for checking their appointment windows and attaching written feedback to the appointments within three business days.

As our clients and tutors have grown accustomed to the new norm of online learning, interest in and demand for workshops kept growing. As a result, we decided to bring back the writing workshops, which were cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic. Our graduate tutors responded positively to the idea of resuming the workshops in an online setting, and many created new workshop topics and materials relevant to clients’ current concerns. Most of the workshops have been well-attended and all of them well-received.

Resuming in-person services and the future of the tutor training course
We have been having ongoing conversations with the Dean of Students about resuming in-person services once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. We might return to campus in the coming Fall 2022 semester, and we would like to explore a hybrid model to accommodate clients’ different needs. Discussions about alternative formats of the tutor training course are also underway, as entrusting the Department of EFS to teach the course proved to be less than ideal.

Two years on: COVID Snapshot of writing centres in Canada – Mount Saint Vincent University Writing Centre

Vol 3, No 1 (Spring 2022)

In both March 2020 and 2021, CWCR/RCCR published snapshots of writing centres in Canada and their responses to the disruption of COVID 19. Now, two years on, while the thesaurus is busy writing new adjectives to describe our new realities, CWCR/RCCR is providing a snapshot from centres around Canada for 2022. We will post three snapshots—here is the first from MSVU in Halifax.


Mount Saint Vincent University Writing Centre
Hailie Tattrie, PhD Student
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, NS

Making the best of COVID19: Learning together

“I really feel like this meeting has helped me!”, words from one of my regular students, Student M, who visits me at the Mount Saint Vincent University Writing Centre. Some days we edit her work together, other days we converse for the entire hour; sharing ideas, asking one another questions as we sip coffee at our desks, each of us in a different country. Despite the distance and the low hum of our laptops we make online tutoring work.

An image of Paulo Freire sitting in an office or library.
Paulo Freire

Revolutionary educator, Paulo Freire, is known for his work on critical pedagogy, as well as his exploration of the banking-model of education and the problem-posing model of education. The form of education that many in North America grew up with is known as the banking-model of education. This model is a subject-object relationship. As a tutor under the banking-model of education, I would simply sit at my desk and tell the student to remain silent as I edit their paper and make comments; there would be very little conversing. Under this model, the teacher is the subject, the bringer of knowledge, and the students are the object, empty and knowing nothing (Freire, 1970). Under the banking-model of education, students are seen as empty vessels, waiting to be filled with what is deemed the “correct” knowledge. In the banking-model, there’s no room for dialogue, critical thinking, or creativity. The banking model can be seen as Eurocentric in nature (Beattie, 2019; Kanu, 2006). However, Freire dreamed of more than the banking-model; he suggested an alternative, the problem-posing model of education. Continue reading “Two years on: COVID Snapshot of writing centres in Canada – Mount Saint Vincent University Writing Centre”

Trying to capture the full story: Making a post-tutoring session survey

Volume 2, No. 1 Summer 2021
by Emma Sylvester

Emma Sylvester is Coordinator, Writing Centre and Academic Communications, Saint Mary’s University.

Introduction

As Writing Centre (WC) practitioners, how do we know that students are actually benefitting from our work? Plenty of research has shown that WC use improves students’ grades (e.g., Driscoll, 2015; Thompson, 2006; Trosset et al., 2019, Dansereau, et al., 2020), but how do I know that translates to my own unique institution or to the session I had with a tutee this morning? As a tutor, the immediate feedback of seeing a student’s “lightbulb moment” or hearing their expressions of gratitude gives me some indication that I’m doing something right. Unfortunately, these experiences aren’t reliable or comprehensive indicators of the benefits of the WC, and they don’t tell me about the student’s full emotional experience in session or their long-term learning. Further, in the post-covid era, ripe with asynchronous sessions and cameras left off, these moments are potentially fewer and farther between.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Zt4bRIYDrOHFxtgO8iRzuJAZ4DyUp5YLbsA4oAWTrY0/edit

Post-session surveys are widely used across WCs not only to learn about how students value writing tutorials, but also to inform program development, assess and refine tutor practice, collect data for study and publication, and even to justify the existence of the centres themselves (Bromley et al., 2013). The need to collect, analyse, and apply data related to students’ experience in session is obvious and inherent in the ongoing development of WC practice, but taking a rigorous approach to this process is often forgotten amidst other seemingly more important (and let’s just say it, more interesting) work.

Continue reading “Trying to capture the full story: Making a post-tutoring session survey”

Pandemic Graduate Student Writing and Transition Support: Reflections and Predictions (Part 2)

Vol. 2, No. 6 (Spring 2021)
Liv Marken, Contributing Editor, CWCR/RCCR

Link to Part I


PART II: Accessibility and Transition

Last week, we heard from Jill McMillan, a Learning Specialist at University of Saskatchewan, and Nadine Fladd, a Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist at the University of Waterloo. They talked about their pandemic year. Here, in part two, they share their thoughts on graduate student transition, and accessibility, particularly in regard to international students. Continue reading “Pandemic Graduate Student Writing and Transition Support: Reflections and Predictions (Part 2)”

Asynchronous Affordances: WriteAway’s Pandemic Experience

Vol. 2, No. 5 (Fall 2020)
by Megan Robertson

Megan is a BC ELN (British Columbia Electronic Library Network) Coordinator providing support for tutors and coordinators throughout BC and Alberta.


While the rush to emergency remote teaching occurred out of necessity due to the COVID-19 disruption, writing supports already operating only online have an opportunity to reflect on their existing approaches. WriteAway, British Columbia and Alberta’s online asynchronous writing support consortium of post-secondary students, was first piloted in 2012. Through a series of cautious expansions over several years, the service enters this new reality of online tutoring firmly in its operating stage with eighteen participating institutions. Continue reading “Asynchronous Affordances: WriteAway’s Pandemic Experience”

Video Chat || Programming, technology, and resource development during the COVID-19 disruption

A Writing Centre Directors’ & Managers’ Roundtable

Clare Bermingham, University of Waterloo, Guest editor
Stephanie Bell, York University, Co-editor
Brian Hotson, Saint Mary’s University, Co-editor

With all the changes to writing centres due to the COVID-19 disruption, many directors and managers are asking questions, wanting to know, “What is everybody doing to manage this change?” To help with this, we organized the blog’s first Video Chat (hopefully the first of many). These Video Chats are moderated text-based and video-based discussions. The blog editors invite proposals for Video Chat topics and guest editors to moderate them.

Below are the elements from the Video Chat, including:

  • Topics, discussion questions, and agenda
  • Recording of the video-based discussion
  • Transcript of the text-based discussion
  • A google spreadsheet of topics, questions, and ideas from the Video Chat

We hope that you find this useful for your writing centre. Continue reading “Video Chat || Programming, technology, and resource development during the COVID-19 disruption”

Canadian writing centres respond to COVID-19 – March 17, 2020

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson
Vol. 1, No. 6 (Winter 2020)

As Heraclitus continually reminds us, everything changes, constantly, but the tempo and severity of change from COVID-19 has overwhelmed and challenged us all in our writing centres. We wondered how other institutions around the country are coping with the fallout from COVID-19.

We asked twenty writing centres from coast to coast to coast to provide a short description of their centre’s response to COVID-19. We will publish these responses in parts by the day they were received, from March 17th to March 19th.

Below is a snapshot of our colleagues’ writing centres from March 17, 2020. Continue reading “Canadian writing centres respond to COVID-19 – March 17, 2020”