Writing Center embraces virtual operations


The Writing Center’s planning for virtual operations was led by Jennifer Rowe, director of Tutoring Programs and Academic Support and director of the Writing Center. Services include new asynchronous sessions. Photo provided by Jennifer Rowe. Photo credit: Nadia Crawford

photo by Nadia Crawford

One memorable aspect of the Trinity student experience is the late-night writing session, spent trying to craft the perfect paper, or rather, one that is completed by the assignment deadline. Tasked with aiding that process is the Writing Center, who has had to alter operations to accommodate the changes in student needs due to the pandemic.

Like most other facets of Trinity, the Writing Center, a group of student-tutors who assist students with writing-related questions and issues, was pitched a curveball when the COVID-19 pandemic moved over one-half of students off of campus. While the move to majority-online learning for fall 2020 could have prompted a reduction of the center’s responsibilities, the staff has instead made it an opportunity to rethink not only their role in the computer-mediated realm, but how they contribute to issues of diversity and inclusion in higher education in general.

Jennifer Rowe, the director of Tutoring Programs and Academic Support and director of the Writing Center, discussed how COVID-19 has forced the center to think outside the box.

“For a long time, the gold standard for the Writing Center was in-person tutoring. Asynchronous, submit your paper and send it back type tutoring was looked down on as less valuable than meeting face to face with someone. So we never offered asynchronous before because we wanted to encourage students to come to meet with tutors,” said Rowe.

Now, with the added element of COVID-19, the in-person model has begun to shift.

“I think one of the things that a lot of people are noticing is that, for one, you have to have an asynchronous option during COVID because students are just Zoom fatigued. And so for us to say, ‘in order to meet with a tutor you need to get back on Zoom,’ is a lot. But we’re also realizing that asynchronous can be a really nice feature for students for that, for whatever reason, to have a problem meeting with someone one-on-one in an enclosed space,” Rowe said. “In terms of an equity and inclusion issue, we are realizing that maybe we should have always had the option for students to get feedback asynchronously, that it’s meaningful for people.”

Rowe also discussed the other ways that the Writing Center has begun to tackle diversity and inclusion issues in higher education.

“In order to make the Writing Center a center for all Trinity students, we have to become aware of the ways that it’s not. We know a lot about who comes to the Writing Center, but I think we need to be thinking about who doesn’t come, and if there’s something that we’re doing that makes that the case,” Rowe said.

One aspect that the center is working towards is respecting non-traditional dialects of the English language, including AAVE — African-American Vernacular English — as well as the words spoken by English Second Language students.

“One of the things we tried to do as part of the training was to try and start recognizing how microaggressions are likely to appear in a tutoring situation. You might implicitly, even unintentionally, judge a student on their use of English. Well, whose English?” Rowe said. “This sort of goes for international students as well. Thinking about how we can be aware always of what we are bringing to the paper and thinking about how we can communicate in ways that are helpful to the student and not judgmental to the student.”

While the Writing Center has charted a course toward inclusivity and diversity, it has also had to adjust to the flexibility required by the online-only environment. One of the more difficult things has been to try and create a Writing Center experience that is able to cater to student’s new and changing needs.

“We’re all kind of making it up as we go along, but it’s working out surprisingly well,” said Hannah Friedrich, senior English major and Writing Center schedule coordinator.

Those who have sought the services offered by the Writing Center have noted the fondness of the staff towards their peers and those that they help. While that environment was hard to replicate virtually at first, a new culture of camaraderie developed within the virtual Writing Center.

“We have actually been able to get to know each other to some extent. Because the tutors are always really close together, and we kind of build that friendship by working together and working in the same space,” Friedrich said. “I think the drop-in room is helping that because we can talk to each other face-to-face.”

The online drop-in room, the brainchild of Ben Falcon, junior history and political science double-major, was designed as a way to increase the center’s accessibility. As a service, it has already proved to be very popular with both staff and students and has the potential to remain virtually after the pandemic ends.

“Personally I would keep the online drop-in room. I think that’s something that we would continue doing. If I have quick questions, or if they need real quick help. Because if you have something that is only gonna take like 15-20 minutes, it might not be worth it to go all the way to the library for that. And if you just have like a quick citation question or something like that, it’s much easier to do online,” Friedrich said.

Friedrich also noted that the center has adapted well enough to handle any kind of writing question, big or small.

“We’re all excited to have people. We want people to show up, no matter how far along their paper is. I feel like sometimes people are intimidated, thinking like, ‘oh, I have to have a draft to show or I have to have something.’ You don’t. We’re just happy to have you show up. Show me your messy outline. Show me nothing, and let’s just brainstorm. Any stage is great, we’re just happy to see you.”