CWCR/RCCR 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

Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2020)

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.

Video Chat Topics

The Agenda for the Chat was assembled from topics suggest by registrants. The Video Chat moves through the following topics and discussion questions in order:

  • Technology
    • What technology are you using, and which one is working best?
    • What are your expectations for the ethics of support asynchronously?
  • Planning and programming
    • What programming are you offering other other than tutoring?
    • How are you continuing your partnerships with faculty online?
    • What are your plans for spring and summer sessions? Are you planning to be an online-only writing centre for the fall?
  • Pedagogy and practice
    • What are you finding are the best strategies for mirroring the experiential learning opportunities of face-to-face workshop activities within asynchronous online delivery platforms?
    • How are you supporting and creating group online writing sessions and writing groups?
    • What have you put in place to support students’ transition to virtual-only support?
  • Training and staffing
    • How have you changed or adjusted your staff?
    • What tutor training have implemented in this switch to online tutoring?

Video Chat video-based discussion recording

The video discussion was moderated by Clare and Brian.

Video Chat text-based discussion transcript

The text discussion was moderated by Stephanie.

Access the text-based discussion transcript here.

Many participants offered links to valuable materials and resources, which we have included in the information sharing spreadsheet below.

Video Chat information sharing spreadsheet

This spreadsheet provides a space for you and the participants of the Video Chat to ask and answer questions, as well as to provide comments, support, tips-and-tricks, and lessons learned.

Canadian writing centres respond to COVID-19 – final instalment

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson

Now that we’re all a week into this new reality of writing centre work, and university life in general, here are two final submissions from our colleagues at UBC and UOttawa, and their responses to COVID-19.

We continue to want to hear from you. If you have related stories, please contact us at

Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication

University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Patty Kelly, PhD, Program Manager
Liam Monaghan, Program Coordinator
Bo Lehmann, Program Assistant

March 27, 2020
Thanks to the adaptability of our sixteen undergraduate and graduate Writing Consultants, the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication was able to transition to online, asynchronous Writing Consultations within a few hectic days, effective March 17th. We are utilizing WCOnline to host these Consultations and have since added synchronous consultations for graduate students only. Like their Consultant peers, our four graduate student Project Coordinators are also able to complete their work from home. One of them will be hosting a new initiative, a twice-weekly Online Writing Community. This Community will take place on Zoom and will give all members of UBC Vancouver’s community an opportunity to stay motivated and stay connected. Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced us to suspend many of our in-person workshops and events, but we are currently exploring our options for temporarily transforming them into virtual offerings. We never thought we’d so look forward to returning to the office!

University of Ottawa, Academic Writing Help Centre (AWHC)

Janèle Boivin, Academic Success Coordinator
University of Ottawa
Ottawa, Ontario

March 23, 2020
To address the present situation, the Academic Writing Help Centre (AWHC) modified its service delivery model. To support students, a chatting service was made available on March 17th on Facebook from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Friday. Students can use this service to ask questions related to academic writing and study skills. On this Facebook page, we will also publish answers to frequently asked questions, writing tips and useful resources. We are still answering questions by email; if they require a higher level of support, students are encouraged to book a remote appointment. We are looking into different ways to give these appointments (by phone, through Microsoft Teams). We have informed students of these modified services through our means of communication (website, email and phone). We will continue to promote our services to make sure the students are aware. For now, our Academic Success Coordinators offer the remote appointments.

Guidelines for these new procedures are being written and reviewed by our team. We are also looking into integrating our student writing advisors in the next steps of this adjustment (offering services during evenings and weekends). We are happy to report that students are using the chat services and booking remote appointments. As the situation evolves, so are our ways to make sure students still receive the support needed.

Here are the snapshots from March 17, 2020, March 18, 2020, and March 19, 2020.


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

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson

Over the previous two posts, our colleagues spoke to the adaptation and changes they’ve made due to COVID-19. In this third instalment, writing centres from northern Manitoba, Québec, Ontario, and Alberta speak to their experiences.

If you have a story you want to tell about your experience responding to COIVD-19, please send 2-3 paragraphs to Enter “COVID-19 response” in the subject line. Thanks.

University College of the North Writing Centre

Gilbert McInnis, PhD
Assistant Professor
Coordinator, UCN Writing Center,
The Pas, Thompson, and Norway House
Faculty of Arts, Business, and Science
University College of the North
Thompson, MB

March 19, 2020
Here in our isolated northern community, our writing centre has experienced some great news, but I must say that in the wake of the COVID 19, our centre lost most of its steam in the past two weeks. Our shut down was mostly because our centre operates under the generous volunteer work of our faculty. When the COVID 19 hit two week ago, it essentially shut us down because our professors/instructors, including myself the coordinator, had to redirect our energy and time toward building an online environment for our classes. I did locate some excellent advice by Adam Auch at the Dalhousie Writing Centre (through Facebook) about transitioning to the online writing centre model, but the COVID 19 happened here so fast, I lost my volunteers by then, and therefore I was not able to deploy accordingly.

With that said, I am not letting the COVID 19 virus infect us all here with bad memories since our writing centre numbers have almost doubled this year from last year. In fact, we had so much success this past autumn that our centre’s activity made it into our University Academic Plan 2020 as action number two of “Creating Pathways to Success.” In addition, my work at the centre was “spotlighted” in our university’s annual report, which ironically came out at the same time the COVID 19 hit us. We might have fared better if we had implemented Adam’s great advice, but not having a full-time staff member to coordinate his advice surely made us more vulnerable. A learning curve, no doubt.

Bishop’s University Writing Centre

Catherine Campbell
Writing Tutor; Lecturer
Bishop’s University
Sherbrooke, QC

March 19, 2020
Bishop’s University Writing Centre is working to help students finish their semester with as little disruption as possible. To this end, we are offering to correct papers sent by email. This is less than ideal since we are supposed to be a teaching service and not an editing service. However, in light of the current situation, we have been unable to find a better solution. The course English Writing Proficiency 099 is also being completed online. Students will submit their remaining assignments by email. We are still considering how we will handle the final exam.

Huron University College Writing Services 

Mandy Penney, Coordinator
Huron College University
London, ON

March 19, 2020
I’ve been following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus since mid-January, and by mid-February, I had begun thinking through how I might be able to continue to support tutors (a team of 20, comprising peer and graduate tutors, as well as specialists working in their fields) and other students in the event our institution closed. I hoped it wouldn’t need to get to that point, but here we are. Huron closed on Friday, March 13, to do our part in flattening the curve. Here’s what we’re currently doing at Writing Services:

We have moved our consultations online – 16 of my 20 tutors (writing, communication, math, business, economics) have elected to keep tutoring at this time. We are offering both asynchronous (through email) and synchronous (video/audio chat) tutoring options. Instead of keeping the same schedule as we had prior to face-to-face closures, I am instead matching students to tutors directly and they are setting appointment times and deadlines that meet their needs. We’re being as flexible as we can be with each other, and have the ability to be fairly nimble and personal in our response because of the size of our institution (about 1200 students). All tutors will also be paid to the end of the semester, regardless of whether they continue tutoring at this time.

My tutors have been wonderfully flexible and resilient during a challenging time. I’m also trying to be mindful of their mental health, especially for those who are also trying to complete courses and/or take care of family members. I’ll be instituting weekly team meetings via Zoom, and I’ve also been in touch with a few tutors socially using video conferencing: while we’re all here to support students in their academic and professional goals, we’re also doing our best to help people feel less isolated at an uncertain time.

University of Alberta, Centre for Writers

Yan (Belinda) Wang, Interim Director
Lucie Moussu, Director (on sabbatical leave—at least in theory)
Justin Tiedemann, Program Coordinator
University of Alberta, Centre for Writers
Edmonton, AB

March 19, 2020
Writing centre directors and administrators in the United States started the move to offering online tutoring about ten days before the situation became worrisome in Canada. Thanks to this early “warning” of things to come and an amazing exchange of tips, strategies, and documents

on the Director of Writing Centers  Facebook page, Lucie and Belinda were able to start training face-to-face graduate and undergraduate tutors to deliver online tutorials early and without panic starting early March.

We were able to continue offering our usual face-to-face tutorials for a week, as many student writers still had appointments booked on WCOnline, our online scheduling system. At the same time, after having gone through some training, more and more tutors started offering online tutorials on WCOnline to test the system, troubleshoot, and help create support/training guides for all tutors and student writers. (You can see our documents here:  Feel free to use them or any part of them, if you’d like.) We thus gradually transitioned from 100% face-to-face to 100% online.

The university decided to move all courses online on Sunday, March 15 (all classes and exams were cancelled on Monday to give everyone on campus time to move everything online), and tutors at the Centre for Writers were all trained and ready to work 100% remotely by Tuesday, March 17th. Our campus has since scaled back to essential services, and all non-essential faculty and staff are now working from home.

In addition to face-to-face, in-person appointments, we always offered a minimal, asynchronous tutoring option for student writers who were physically unable to come into the centre, such as those who were taking online or distance education courses, students in the Faculty of Extension, and students in practicums, work terms, or internships. Student writers could send their papers by email; a tutor would read it and give some feedback; and we’d return the paper and feedback by email within two business days. We decided to continue offering this asynchronous tutoring option, to train all our tutors to give asynchronous feedback, and to make it available to all student writers who would prefer it.

We had to cancel all our remaining workshops, of course, and make some adjustments with our other programs, like our Guided Writing Instruction Groups, Class Group Tutorials, and class presentations. But overall, we’ve tried to keep the same tutoring schedule for everyone, and there should be no loss of income for our tutors. Justin stays in touch with the tutors through WCOnline all day, and Belinda and Lucie drop in on online tutorials every now and then to make sure everything is going well. We also created a chat room on Padlet, where tutors can stay in touch with us and one another to alleviate feelings of isolation, and where we can ensure they feel supported and appreciated.

We kept informing our student users through mass emails, social media, our website, and lots of phone calls. We had never offered synchronous online tutoring before, so students writers were initially not familiar with WCOnline online tutoring. In addition, some students were not very comfortable with technology, so we removed our usual penalties for lateness and missed appointments. We also use WCOnline to have a feedback form automatically sent to all student writers at the end of their tutorials (to replace the old paper feedback form we used to ask students to fill out).

Overall, we have had a very successful transition, and our tutors have been wonderful in helping us make it work. We are also extremely grateful to other writing centre directors and administrators who have generously shared materials and suggestions on Facebook and through different listservs!

Here are the snapshots from March 17, 2020 and March 18, 2020


Canadian writing centres respond to COVID-19 – March 18, 2020

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson

Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2020)

From the previous post, there are common themes and processes centres are following. What is apparent is the ability to adapt and pull together programming quickly. With so much uncertainty, we’re all planning for the best while looking at all the unknowns.

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 18, 2020.

University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre

Clare Bermingham, PhD (she/her; they/them)
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON

March 18, 2020
At the University of Waterloo Writing and Communication Centre (WCC), we had begun talking about contingency plans about two weeks before classes were cancelled. This was lucky because everything ramped up very, very quickly over a single weekend. Classes were suspended on a Friday and, by Sunday night, most university operations shuttered and staff were urged to work from home. Classes were suspended for a week so that they could be moved online at the end of that week.

At the WCC, we are fortunate in that we already run many of our appointments online, so it was relatively easy shift to a fully online appointment calendar. While we rely on WCOnline primarily, we also have experience accommodating technical difficulties and equipment failure by moving to combinations of phone, Skype, Google Docs, when needed. However, our drop-in appointment schedule presented a different challenge; we had to make a decision about whether these appointments would be needed and, if so, how best to deliver them. We suspended them for a week, and we plan to bring them into the WCOnline environment as same-day appointments and complement them with an Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) Forum / online writing space.

As group activities, workshops and other grad programs are postponed for now. Because we already have an online Dissertation Boot Camp, we were able to quickly pivot on our in-progress 8-week Boot Camp to offer the last three weeks online. We shifted our upcoming intensive 4-day Boot Camp into the online format as well.

One key consideration during this time is how to maintain the sense of community that is central to writing centre and to a University more generally. We had to cancel our in-person writing groups, but we’re exploring options on our LMS to hold them within a virtual space. We’re also hoping to wield our social media platforms to create personal touch-points for our University of Waterloo students and broader community with more opportunities to interact and engage. It’s going to be a tough few weeks, but we can get through this and together we can #FlattenTheCurve.

The Centre for Academic Communication, University of Victoria

Nancy Ami
Manager, The Centre for Academic Communication
Learning and Teaching Centre
University of Victoria
Victoria, BC

March 18, 2020
We have used this week to transition our services from face-to-face to offering only distance support for students. Our first step was to communicate this shift to our core staff and graduate student tutors, who were very understanding and worked quickly to prepare for distance support. This process involved consideration of how we might offer such support initially through WCOnline and then a discussion about how we might transition to offer a greater variety of support going forward (e.g. Skype, Blackboard Collaborate, and FaceTime). We decided to go with the simplest option for us all: reworking our WCOnline schedule to feature “e-tutoring”, which allows students to attach a file and enables our staff to provide asynchronous feedback on the document and upload the file, triggering a WCOnline notification that the document had been reviewed.

Instrumental in the staff preparation and training for this process was a lovely power point created by our lead distance support team member. The slide set focused on “best practices” of offering distance support, including little scripts we might use to query and offer feedback indirectly, use of emoticons to ensure the feedback was not perceived to be overly harsh, and clear guidance on how to use WCOnline to upload a student’s file and then trigger the notification that it was complete.  We have also worked collaboratively to share sample feedback we’ve offered students (confidentially) to facilitate training and strengthen practice.

We look forward to further experimentation and embrace the opportunity to learn new ways to support students’ academic writing skill development!

Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, UofTM

Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, PhD
Associate Professor, Teaching Stream
Director, Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre
University of Toronto Mississauga
Toronto, ON

March 18, 2020
Like many Writing Centres, the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre (RGASC) at University of Toronto Mississauga has been forced to postpone or cancel all of its group-based face-to-face programming (e.g., short courses, workshops, workshop series, writing retreats), as university has effectively closed and moved all classes online. Thanks to the affordances of WCONLINE, however, the RGASC has been able to shift all of its face-to-face appointments to an asynchronous online format, where students upload their assignment instructions and their own written work and writing instructors download that work, comment on it (no editing!), and upload it again to the system by the end of the appointment time.

The RGASC is also offering an increased number of synchronous online appointments and currently in the process of collaborating with a number of course instructors to create a number of course-specific asynchronous online appointments. The RGASC’s large Supplemental Instruction program (operating in over 50 different undergraduate courses) has cancelled all its in-person facilitated study groups, but program staff are piloting the use of Blackboard Collaborate in a large first-year course to offer study groups online. The course it runs for suspension and probation students has been postponed, while programming for graduate students has been cancelled for the time being.

SFU Student Learning Commons

Maintaining Social Cohesion in a Time of Social Distancing
Kate Elliott, SLC Graduate Writing Facilitator
Julia Lane, SLC Writing Services Coordinator
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC

March 18, 2020
Simon Fraser University made the call to cancel all in-person instruction for the rest of the academic term on Friday March 13th. Enacting such measures to protect our communities and those most vulnerable within them means creating safe distance between us. We see this as our duty of care to one another, as the ethical thing to do. — Which it is.

But many of us were left asking ourselves (and each other), “what do we do now?” How do we attend the need for connection in this time of isolation? How can we, in the Student Learning Commons, ensure that the empty tables in our physical consultation space do not tear holes in the social fabric we’ve helped weave at the university?

Just as communities are finding unique ways to recreate togetherness — neighbourhoods of balconies joining together in song, clubs offering virtual dance parties — the SFU SLC, too, has provided virtual spaces for connecting. After the decision to cancel in-person instruction, we quickly let our volunteer Peer Educators know that they would not be expected to travel to campus to offer consultations or attend group meetings. Shortly thereafter, we made the call to move away from in-person consultations altogether.

Our next step was to find a solution to bring our consultations (and the few remaining workshops for the semester) into the virtual space. Graduate Facilitators and professional staff worked together to create a solution using a combination of WCO (to preserve our regular scheduling mechanisms) and Bb Collaborate (a tool found in Canvas, SFU’s existing Learning Management System).

We offered our first virtual consultations on Wednesday March 18th, less than three business days after the decision to move to virtual-only instruction at SFU.

That same day, we also offered our first webinar-style workshop (originally scheduled for in-person instruction), also using Bb Collaborate as our platform. We are planning to go ahead next week with a scheduled workshop on Successful Exam Writing using this webinar-style of instruction.

We have also been directing students to Write Away (a regular part of our service model) and have been working together to address the significantly higher than normal demand for this support from online writing tutors.

We are continuing to feel our way into this uncharted (for us) space of virtual support, and, of course we are experiencing some hiccups along the way. However, we are convinced that it is important to continue exploring these options for virtual support because it allows us to: maintain normalcy in a time of extraordinary uncertainty, continue to offer students support as they hone their skills as writers, and, most importantly, offer a face-to-face and voice-to-voice connection with others at a time when many are experiencing heightened levels of social isolation (for better and for worse).

We have seen our virtual consultation schedule fill up over the past several days and have received many expressions of gratitude from students that our services continue to be offered, even as we all move off-campus. (Even our professional staff are all now working remotely).

While it feels strange, given the circumstances, we are beginning to get excited about the new possibilities available from these virtual connections. Can virtual spaces offer our most vulnerable students — those who are most anxious, those who are far from their home communities, those who are immune-compromised and therefore try to practice social distancing even in non-pandemic times — a way of being with others while still maintaining healthy distance? We wonder if we nourish more than writing when we invite students into these spaces and provide important human connectivity at a moment that is, for many of us, unprecedented.

While we set up these structures quickly, in response to an emergency, we suspect they will continue to serve us even as we find our way back to “business as usual” (and now perhaps more accessible and inclusive) at the Student Learning Commons.

Here is the snapshot from March 17, 2020.

Check back for the March 19th post …

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

CWCR/RCCR editorial team
Liv Marken, Stephanie Bell, & Brian Hotson

Vol. 1, No. 1 (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.

Wilfrid Laurier University Writing Services

Jordana Garbati & James Southworth,
Writing Consultants
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario

March 17, 2020

We heard rumours about the university moving online a week or so ago, so we mapped out a few contingency plans in preparation. When the announcement came, we were (mostly) ready. We didn’t want to end our tutoring programming, as many students rely on us as they finish off their term’s coursework. Especially during this uncertain time, we wanted to offer academic continuity as per one of our unit’s directives. It didn’t take us long to decide to move all of our writing appointments online.

Some of our graduate tutors were trained to offer online writing appointments because this is a service we offer year-round for graduate and distance students. Moving our full tutoring program online meant that we needed to train the rest of our tutoring team. These training sessions were brief given time and workload constraints and often online because in the middle of our in-person training time, we were notified of the new work-from-home policy at our institution. We maintained ongoing email communication with our undergraduate and graduate tutors to keep them informed of their work options. Our tutors stepped up to the challenge of going virtual! They demonstrated eagerness, dedication, and commitment to helping peers during this stressful time. They have amazed us!

Our online booking system isn’t complicated, but moving appointments online is a tedious and time-consuming task. It hasn’t been impossible, though, and we have been working as fast as we can to reschedule appointments and to communicate with students about the virtual writing appointment set-up. In our writing centre, we use Skype and Google Docs to mimic as much as possible the in-person writing appointment experience.

We have continued to post messages on Twitter and Facebook, so our community is aware of online appointments.

In terms of our faculty work, since we’re near the end of the term, our bookings for classroom instruction was minimal. We prepared our PowerPoint presentations and sent them to our faculty partners to share with their classes. We’re not able to offer much more support to faculty at this time beyond answering questions via email. The responses we’ve received from students and faculty has been positive.

They seem grateful for the ongoing writing support at our institution.

University of New Brunswick, Saint John Writing Centre

Jan Waldschutz,
Writing Centre Consultant
University of New Brunswick, Saint John
Saint John, New Brunswick

March 17, 2020

The writing consultants at the UNB Saint John Writing Centre have been working remotely since yesterday [March 16, 2020] morning. Campus has since scaled back to essential services, and all non-essential UNB employees are working from home. The Library/Commons building (where our centre is located) has closed.

At UNB Saint John, we use WCOnline (an online scheduling system) to manage appointments, so we have been able to transition quite smoothly to working from home and providing written feedback to students using tracked changes and margin comments. The communication features (such as a mass email tool) allowed us to communicate this new approach to students very quickly and effectively. (I’ve pasted the email to students below, for your reference).

In WCOnline, students can upload/attach their documents to their appointment. The writing consultant can download it from there, add comments, then upload the reviewed version to the appointment. The system notifies the student when it has been uploaded and the comments section of the appointment can be used as needed by either party.


E-mail to students:

Greetings from the Writing Centre,
In light of the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation and to create appropriate social distance, Writing Centre consultants will not meet with students in person for the remainder of the term.  Instead, we will provide feedback on documents using tracked changes and margin comments.

Due to the time required for this new approach, we will only be able to review written work associated with scheduled appointments. 

If you have an appointment, please open your appointment in WCOnline and attach a Word file before the scheduled start time. 

The Writing Centre consultant will download your file from the appointment schedule, provide feedback within the document using tracked changes and margin comments, and attach the reviewed file to your appointment when finished.  You will receive an email notification once the reviewed document has been uploaded to your appointment, and you can download it from there. 

The writing consultant will review as much of your document as possible within the appointment time and upload the reviewed file at the end of your appointment or soon after.   

If you do not have an appointment, please use the daily waiting list feature in WCOnline to be notified of any available appointment times.

Thank you for your understanding.

University of Guelph Writing Services

Jodie Salter,
Acting Manager, Writing Services
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario

March 17, 2020

The University of Guelph Writing Services is still providing online consultations through WCOnline to all students and staff (we have been doing so for over 5 years now). Our partners in Learning Services are moving to the same online platform to provide support for time management, study strategies, etc.

Through our DBC Courselink D2L portal, we are looking into a new module of delivery for our upcoming Dissertation Boot Camp so that our students will still be supported. They already have access to all workshop presentations, materials, handouts, etc., so we are going to experiment with the Courselink Virtual Classroom platform in order to provide our workshops online and also hopefully create some sense of writing community. We are also looking at creating a virtual writing “room” for our regular users to replace our physical Writing Room.

University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Writing Support

Sarah King,
Director, UTSC Writing Centre
University of Toronto Scarborough Campus
Toronto, Ontario

March 17, 2020

As the University of Toronto has cancelled all classes, but is still asking students and instructors to complete courses using online tools; UTSC Writing Support is responding with as much flexibility as we can to our students and teaching colleagues. We are working as a team to take writing instruction online, depending (as we always do) on the collegiality and professionalism of our writing instructors.

We have cancelled daily in-person drop-in hours and moved all our one-to-one tutoring to synchronous online tutoring through WCOnline. Because we have been offering a limited number of synchronous online tutorials for the last two years, a few instructors are familiar with the process and with online pedagogy, and they are supporting instructors new to it by helping with training and by becoming mock students in the forum.

Tutoring online has challenges, and we humanize these by listening to students and laughing when pets and small children climb into the online frame. We are fortunate that instructors all have internet and computer access from home that seems to be working well.

For our course-based small-group research and writing clinics, where students come to work on assignments and ask questions, we have offered course instructors the option to either cancel or try an online version. After an initial experiment yesterday–a very challenging two-hour session through Blackboard Collaborate–we have realized (we are new at this!) that online group sessions require more advance planning than in-person sessions. It is difficult to be responsive to individuals in a group context online. In the immediate future, we will be offering course instructors the option of online writing instructor drop-in hours dedicated to their course and offered through their course shell in the CMS (UofT uses Canvas, though renamed Quercus).

Writing Support is embedded within the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and we support faculty as well as students. As a result we are also offering faculty consultations through phone, email and online meetings, and posting advice on how instructors can adapt their courses and assignments effectively.

Overall, we see our goal as supporting students and teaching colleagues not just by offering a knowledgeable and interested reader, but also by offering human contact, a listening ear, and an acknowledgment of the stress created by the speed at which things have changed and are changing. Our message is that no one has to figure this out alone.

University of Saskatchewan Writing Centre

Liv Marken,
Writing Help Coordinator
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

March 17, 2020

We are housed in our campus’ busiest library, which is still open as of today, March 17th. I made the decision to shut down and move to online tutoring on March 12th, without the go-ahead of the library, and before a Friday evening (March 13th) campus-wide presidential notice of guidelines and restrictions. I imagine many other writing centres have acted before receiving official direction. Though our writing centre falls under a larger administrative structure, the realities of our day-to-day are often forgotten. While I’m sure that the administration would have consulted with me at some point, I didn’t want to wait. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to go ahead without permission. My supervisor was tremendously supportive.

After closing, my first concern was for my student tutors’ income. They are currently working their full shifts from home. Unfortunately, we don’t have a synchronous online tutoring system established, but I’m researching options right now. I suspect that students using our services (as well as tutors, who are students themselves) are likely overwhelmed by adapting to professors’ various approaches to delivering courses online (e.g., one may be using Blackboard, another Webex, another Zoom), and so we have kept it as simple as possible by using our existing platform. Students submit their questions and/or drafts via a simple-to-use online form, and then receive a tutor’s response via email. Normally, we have a 48-hour turnaround time for online supports, but during shifts, we are offering a 30-minute to 3-hour turnaround time.

I’ve been careful to emphasize (via social media channels and official communications) that we can work to accommodate students in other ways if our current online system isn’t accessible to them. Tutor accessibility is another concern. For example, last night, one of my tutors emailed me her responses to students as our platform (Jira) wasn’t working due to her spotty wifi (she lives in an apartment building where I’m assuming many are self-isolating).

In sum, I’ve made sure that tutors are getting work by moving operations online during their shifts, and by promoting the writing centre services much as possible so that off-shift submission work will stay at our usual March rates. Tutors are paid by the job, and so if we don’t have jobs for them, we have a problem! I am curious to read about what other centres have done around communications and accessibility, especially insofar as I would like to gain new ideas for current and future planning.

University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre

Boba Samuels, PhD
Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, and
Director, Health Sciences Writing Centre
Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education
University of Toronto
Toronto, ON

March 17, 2020

Last week (March 11th, 12th), with the COVID-19 situation in Italy turning dire, I suddenly realized that I could no longer be an observer of this far-off crisis. The crisis was quickly moving, and it would come to us. Over the previous week, we at UoT had received a number of emails referring to the need for contingency planning for faculty, with easily dismissed warnings about the need to ensure academic continuity. It all seemed like information that was relevant only in last-ditch situations, and not really applicable to us at writing centres anyway. When one of the writing centre directors sent an email through our directors’ listserve suggesting that writing centres again seemed to be overlooked by administration in these emails, and that we should prepare our own plans, it prompted me to acknowledge that I had not taken my responsibility for emergency planning very seriously. Over the subsequent week, a number of discussions among writing centre directors, writing instructors, and other faculty increasingly addressed “what if” planning.  It didn’t really become personal for me, however, until Italy. I realized then that several of my writing instructors were vulnerable, as was I myself with a history of two bouts of pneumonia. I realized that the students we saw were vulnerable, exposed to a huge variety of people from all parts of the world, including areas currently in coronavirus crisis. We needed to protect each other.

The first thing we did at HSWC was act on the suggestion by one of our instructors to provide hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes in our offices. I followed up a day or so later with email consultations with the instructors to determine whether a mass email should go out to students registered with our centre, encouraging them to stay home if sick or to book online appointments. We decided yes. Then another instructor sent me an article that argued compellingly for the need to shut down asap to “flatten the curve.” The next morning, I sent an email to my dean stating that I had decided our writing centre needed to move to online only appointments that day. Did I have his permission to do so and contact the other Health Sciences deans and students about this move? The dean agreed, but asked me to hold off until the president of the university had sent an imminent message about the university’s plan to cancel in-person classes. That afternoon, after the president’s announcement was received, I sent my email.

At UoT, we use WCOnline for appointment scheduling. At HSWC, we changed all existing in-person appointments to e-tutoring (asynchronous) or online (synchronous) appointments. In addition, we added the option for telephone consultations, if students preferred this lower tech mode. All instructors were directed to work from home. All events, including professional development and meetings, were cancelled. The conferences that I had planned to attend this spring have almost all been cancelled. All communication is through email, and notices of the move to online were placed on our website and scheduling site. We expect the social distancing measures to continue past our initial end-of-term date of April 3 and now last until at least the end of April, and perhaps beyond. I spend much time trying to keep abreast of the fast-changing situation and trying to determine if changes to our current plans are needed. Luckily, all seven of the HSWC instructors are healthy (so far) and none is in self-isolation.

In this first week of online only appointment, students seemed to initially keep their appointments but then cancel, either after receiving the automatic appointment reminder, or shortly before their scheduled appt. The schedule, however, remains full with a few people on the waiting list. I am unsure if students will continue to cancel at the last minute.  I suspect, however, that this trend will reverse and that we will soon experience significant demand for appointments as students adjust to their classes being moved online and realize that they need more support than ever. Guess we’ll see.

Check back for the March 18th post …

A deeper understanding of writing: A reflection on advocacy

By Stephanie Bell
Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2020)

GIF of Stephanie Bell saying cheers with her coffee mug.
Stephanie Bell

Stephanie Bell is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, York University, and a co-editor of the CWCR/RCCR

With guest editor,
Holly Salmon, CWCA/ACCR board member, Coordinator and Instructor, Learning Centre Instructor, English Department, Douglas College

How do you describe the role of writing centres in higher education? I find that my efforts to articulate a narrative that moves beyond descriptions of programming and pedagogy are centred on advocacy and education about the nature of writing. What is good writing? This question has high stakes for higher education, and writing specialists located in writing centres have the expertise required to shape the answer.

From what I can tell, the predominant sense among faculty across disciplines appears to be that writing is a stable and discrete rule-based system that’s easily teachable and learnable, and available for mastery. It appears that the only perfect thing in the world is grammar. Course-based writing instruction is often driven by the concept of writing as object: a thing to love or hate, craft and perfect. This conceptualization of writing affects a formalist investment in written products−objects perceived to reflect a writer’s skilled mastery of content, syntax, diction, and “correct” processes.

Students are onto this setup, however. They understand that expectations shift from course to course and assignment to assignment, though they’re taught to internalize the problem as a personal failing. However, even Strunk and White (2000) admit in the midst of their seminal writing formalist rulebook (which breaks its own rules!) that there is “no infallible guide to good writing” and that “[w]riters will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion” (p. 64). In fact, over 40 years of writing scholarship has shown that formalism drastically oversimplifies the matter.

For writing specialists engaged in this scholarship, practices of studying and teaching writing involve careful considerations of the interconnections between exigency, situation, scene, tool, modality, purpose, audience, argumentation, impact, affect, uptake, and response. Thomas Kent’s (1999) assertion that student writers must learn to play a “hermeneutic guessing game” because “no codifiable or generalizable writing process exists or could exist” (p.1) is driving writing scholarship as it continues to grapple with how, what, and why to teach writing. This continues to be true in the wake of the digital turn where writing is networked, multimodal, participatory, affective, and highly designed.

Oversimplifications of writing are likely connected, at least in part, to the nature of writing as an invisible social practice. For faculty working outside of writing studies, writing is a familiar social practice that has been learned over time without simultaneous development of metacognitive awareness. The result is that often discipline- and context-specific writing norms are perceived as the gold standard for “good” writing, and the lack of metacognitive awareness means that surface-level issues of grammar and punctuation are identified as the most crucial of writing concerns, as though “good” writing merely involves the application of grammatical rules in the construction of utterances.

What’s pervasive across time and space is an agreement that “bad” writing is widespread, and that it’s getting worse by the year. At the writing centre, we encounter student after student who has learned one thing with confidence: they’re a bad writer, and they need a tutor to edit their grammar. In these moments, we take up our role as advocates for a rhetorical understanding of writing outside of the correct/incorrect, good/bad formalist paradigm.

York University’s Writing Centre, in which I’ve been involved since 2012, begins to advocate for a non-formalist conception of writing in an orientation video sent to faculty to play for their classes. 

The video explains that, at the writing centre, student writers engage in collaborative talk with the power to develop a rhetorical understanding of writing, where shifting expectations and norms make sense because they align with changing contexts. As so many of us have seen in writing centre testimonials, students describe this development in their understanding of writing as an exhilarating and relieving experience.

I have come to believe that writing centres should endeavour to advocate for a deepened understanding of writing on a larger scale than individual interactions with students. In 1984, Stephen North said, exasperatedly, “misunderstanding is something one expects—and almost gets used to—in the writing center business” (p. 71). As we get used to this misunderstanding, we might find that we begin to accept its persistence.

I have trouble doing that. The continuation of the focus on correctness and mastery in school writing is harmful: it overshadows the fluidity of written communication, truncates discussions of writing within disciplinary contexts, and stigmatizes “bad” writers who are disproportionately plurilingual and pluriliterate. Students whose writing skills are deemed wanting are sent outside the disciplinary classroom to writing centres, English language proficiency programs, and composition courses for remediation—is this a continuation of what Mina Shaughnessy (1977) described as the “so-called remedial problem” of the perceived “college contagion” introduced by open admissions in the 1960s?

Formalist approaches to classroom writing lead to assignments designed to be completed individually outside of the classroom with limited consultation with course instructors or collaboration with peers. These are produced for limited audiences—the TA or course director—primarily for assessment purposes. While these assignments have some potential to engage students in course content, their potential to help students develop academic literacies and gain entry into scholarly discourses is limited and their reinforcement of the classroom teacher-student hierarchy is powerful. When these writing products reach their assigned deadlines, they are dead on arrival with no chance of life beyond their submission, forgotten and seldom retrieved by students except as a means to see their grade.

Writing centres must advocate for a shift from formalist conceptions of writing as noun to rhetorical understandings of writing as gerund. Writing specialists have a deep appreciation for the ways in which writing is not only an accomplishment, a first love, a passion; it is simultaneously accomplishing: thing, action, and force. Over the last 50 years, writing scholarship has engaged with writing as social action, propelled by Carolyn Miller’s 1984 description of the rhetorical dynamic involved in the “unification of form and substance into action-as-meaning” (2015, p. 58). This rhetorical turn in writing pedagogy draws on the 20th century’s rich theorizations of language as cultural and ideological sign-system, and now permeates all facets of writing scholarship. If we were to take a page out of John Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed (1897), in which he proclaims “[e]ducation, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living,” we might advocate for an institution-wide re-imagining of course-based writing as a public-facing, active, and productive site of civic engagement.

Writing specialists should push for the use of writing as the classroom itself. I try to make this case in A Maker Model of Composition (2017) and Learner-Created Podcasts (2019), contending that writing can “become the classroom, the site in which students invest in making and re-making course content” (2017, p. 24). This pedagogy understands writing as a gerund.

Writing specialists, among others, have long been advocating for a transformation in the roles writing plays in curriculum. When writing is the classroom, when it’s an opportunity for students to co-construct the classroom and course content, it empowers students and offers them identity positionings beyond learner, skill-demonstrator, and even knowledge-producer. Writing centres must play a role in this important transformation. If writing specialists in writing centres are to participate in advocating for writing as a central means of learning, we need to recognize, avoid, and oppose (often well-intentioned) potentially harmful pedagogical uses of writing that stigmatize “bad” writing and “bad” writers.

Let’s share tactics and strategies and ideas for this work.


Bell, S. (2019). Learner-Created Podcasts: Fostering Information Literacies in a Writing Course. Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie, 29, 51-63.

Bell, S. (2017). High impact creative pedagogy using a maker model of composition. The Journal of Faculty Development, 31(1), 19-24.

Dewey, J. (1987). My Pedagogic Creed. School Journal, 54, 77-80. Retrieved from

Kent, T. (Ed.). (1999). Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm. SIU Press.

Miller, C. (2015). Genre as social action (1984), revisited 30 years later (2014). Letras & Letras, 31(3), 56-72. Retrieved from

North, S. (1995/1984). The idea of a writing centre. In C. Murphy & J. Law (Eds.) Landmark Essays on Writing Centres ( pp. 71-85). New York: Routledge.

Shaughnessy, M. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for teachers of basic writing. New York: Oxford UP.

Strunk, W., & White, E.B. (2000). Elements of style, 4th ed. Allyn & Bacon. Retrieved from

How Ryerson is leading Canadian universities in multimodal writing support

By Stephanie Bell & Brian Hotson
Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2020)

An interview with John Hannah and Tesni Ellis from Ryerson University’s Student Affairs Special Projects & Storytelling team

Animated GIF that reads "creators welcome"
Animation made on iPad with Procreate

Despite a dramatic rise of plug-and-play applications for producing and publishing multimodal web content, their migration into higher education classrooms has been slow. Likewise, support from Canada’s writing centres has remained fixed on traditional genres of writing, such as the research paper, lab report, and literature review. While researching for our forthcoming book on the future of multimodal digital writing support for students by Canadian writing centres/programs, we’ve been unable to find many programs of tutoring multimodal writing and production in university writing centre contexts. A noteworthy outlier is the Multiliteracy Support Appointments program listed on Ryerson’s Writing Support website.

We contacted John Hannah and Tesni Ellis at Ryerson to chat about their multimedia supports. John is Director, Special Projects in Student Affairs and former director of the Writing Centre, English Language support, and Graduate Student Support. Tesni is Coordinator, Student Affairs Storytelling within Student Affairs, and a former Writing Consultant at Ryerson’s Writing Centre herself.

Stephanie: Hi John and Tesni – thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Given that there seems to be slow uptake on this front, we’re interested in how your program got started. Can you tell us that story?  Continue reading “How Ryerson is leading Canadian universities in multimodal writing support”