Emma Sylvester is Coordinator, Writing Centre and Academic Communications, Saint Mary’s University.
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.
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.
This three-part series looks at how the pandemic affected both graduate student writers and graduate student writing support.We speak to Jill McMillan, a Learning Specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, and Nadine Fladd, a Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist at the University of Waterloo.
Part I: In the Thick of It
Here, in part one, we learn about Jill’s and Nadine’s roles and work, and how the pandemic has supported intercampus collaboration and better use of resources to benefit the overall student experience.
Liv: Thank you, Nadine and Jill, for speaking with me about your experiences this year.
Could you tell me a bit about who you are and what you do at your institutions?
Nadine: Sure. I am one of several Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialists at the Writing and Communication Centre at UWaterloo. My role, in particular, focuses on supporting graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty, so a lot of the work that I do focuses on developing programs for graduate students, such as Dissertation Boot Camp, a program called Rock Your Thesis that is designed to help students start their dissertation or thesis writing process on the right foot, and orchestrating and coordinating writing groups and writing communities. In between these activities, I also do a handful of appointments with grad students, postdocs, and faculty each week.
Jill: I’m a Learning Specialist, and I work with Student Learning Services. And yes, there’s a lot of overlap in terms of Nadine’s and my dossiers; there is a focus on programming—facilitating workshops, designing new workshops, trying to think of new initiatives that are going to have value for our graduate student population. I’ve also been hosting virtual writing groups and offer one-to-one appointments, though the majority of the one-to-one support comes from our amazing writing help centre. I also offer a course for international grad students. But otherwise, the focus is on designing new programs, creating new initiatives, trying to connect to other campus partners, and thinking of how we can pool resources, which I think is especially important these days as we just try and figure out how we can offer support without replicating services.
Liv: Have either of you have you found that moving online has helped to reduce that duplication and increase communication between communication units?
Nadine: Maybe, but I feel like every university does have that compartmentalizing of units.
Liv: Has that lessened during the pandemic, stayed the same, or intensified?
Nadine: I think that the Writing and Communication Centre had pretty strong collaborative relationships with campus partners before the pandemic, and that has been a blessing. What I’ve seen is more communication between those campus partners and each other than I’ve seen in the past. So, for example, our Student Success Office has traditionally hosted an orientation for graduate students and during the pandemic the Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs office helped design and took the lead on building an infrastructure for an online orientation program and has since handed that program over to the Student Success Office. So there’s collaboration there that didn’t exist before that I think has been really useful.
Liv: That’s positive. Jill, what have you noticed?
Jill: It’s certainly helped me as someone who is relatively new to campus to make some of those connections a bit more easily. Of course, you still encounter some of these instances where there is duplication popping up, but then you reach out and make that connection. And so, it’s possible that that duplication will eventually turn into a collaboration at a future point. So, I think that in some ways I do recognize that there have been some strange benefits to how everything has happened over the last year in terms of the shift to remote teaching and learning. I think it really has forced people to think, “oh, how do we make use of the limited resources that are currently available to maximize the student experience?”
Nadine: We have an incentive system. So, students have a digital coffee card that they can fill out every time they attend a writing session. And when you’ve attended 12 writing sessions, you earn a mug that has a #WaterlooWrites logo on it. We see a lot of repeat members in our writing community, and people get to know each other and talk to each other during the breaks and help each other. We see a lot of regulars in those communities for sure.
Liv: Interesting. Now, in terms of your own work, how have you kept up professionally or what’s really helped to you in your job?
Nadine: I’m lucky because unlike a lot of writing centres, I have a team I work with of full-time permanent staff who do the same work I do. I’ve learnt a lot from other members on the team as we navigated this together. A lot of my professional development this past year has been technological. One of my colleagues, Elise Vist, our digital guru on the team, has taught me how to do things like build online asynchronous workshops through Rise 360, and so now we can build these really slick looking modules full of videos and interactive elements. And that’s not something that I ever would have even considered trying to attempt a year and a half ago. It wasn’t on my radar.
So, in some ways, the pandemic has been a push to expand my range of teaching tools. And in a lot of ways, at the beginning of the pandemic, we were focused on trying to recreate what exists in our in-person programming in an online format. And I think that worked for a while. But what students have needed after a year in isolation and after a year of video calls has changed. I think my approach to teaching has really gotten back to the very basics of starting with what is the goal, what is the objective and building from there rather than trying to transfer an in-person equivalent to an online environment.
Jill: We have an academic integrity tutorial now and we’re currently just beginning to work on some new writing modules. So, you know, it’s been good to learn all about Panopto, WebEx and other online platforms.
In part two, posted next week, Jill and Nadine share their thoughts on accessibility, especially around international student writing support.
Vol 2, No. 3 (Spring 2021) Brian Hotson, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR
At the beginning of the lockdown across Canada and the move to online support, we asked our colleagues to provide a snapshot of their centres. These posts from March 2020 (here, here, here, and here) are historical markers and records of an unprecedented time in higher education in Canada. One year on, we’ve asked again for a March snapshot–how have tour centres changed, what have you learned, and where are we going. Here are the responses.
Presidents writing about their time in office has become de rigueur, so it seems only fitting that, as my 6-year term on the presidential track of the Board of the Canadian Writing Centres Association / association canadienne des centres de rédaction comes to an end, I take a moment to reflect on this period of my career. I don’t expect to garner the royalties of a Barack Obama (unless the blog editors have some marketing tricks up their sleeves that I don’t know about), but I hope my experiences might inspire others to consider whether serving on this Board might enrich their lives and work as it has mine.
I was invited to put my name forward as Vice-Chair of the CWCA/ACCR Board by a chance encounter with then Vice-Chair Lucie Moussu, who I’d met briefly at a conference in 2014. At that point, I had never served on any Board and really had no idea what board service would entail, but I figured it was only a one-year term so I couldn’t get into too much trouble in such a short time.
Kristin Welbourn is the Millwood High School Librarian in Middle Sackville, Nova Scotia. Millwood High School has 800 students.
Millwood High School is a fairly typical school for the area, an area of mostly working-class families. It might seem an odd place for what appears to be the only high school writing centre in Atlantic Canada to originate.
About two years ago, I was invited to a high school staff meeting where teachers were reviewing the Grade 10 provincial exam results from the previous three years. As the school Librarian, I don’t usually attend that type of meeting, but the head of the English Department was kind enough to include me in this one. Even to my non-English teacher eyes, it quickly became apparent that when it came to writing, our students’ scores were slipping. Continue reading “Some free pizza sealed the deal: Founding the Millwood High School Writing Centre”→
The notion of the “development” of the student writer runs through writing centre narratives. Here at York University’s Writing Centre, our department’s constitution, mission statement, and practiced introductions with new students all clarify that we’re interested in supporting the development of student writers rather than the perfection of student writing. This frees us from taking on the urgency of our students’ deadlines, and serves as a straightforward rationale for our refusals to proofread work on behalf of student writers. However, it raises significant questions about how we conceptualize “development.”
What are the assumptions about “good” or “acceptable” writing that inform our understandings of “development”?
How are we communicating these standards to our students?
What are we telling them they need to learn or do in order to “become better writers”?
What forces pressure us to act as gatekeepers, helping to strip away the aspects of student writers’ languages, cultures, or identities that don’t belong in the academy, and what opportunities do we have to resist these pressures?