By: Erin Vieira, WIC Intern
As many other student resources at Oregon State University have done, the Writing Center switched to a fully digital model since Spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Going from an in-person studio to an online model has influenced both the Writing Center staff and the students we work with based around the platforms we use to provide our service and the way we assist our students. First and foremost, though, student support always remains our top priority.
As a consultant at the Writing Center, I have striven to continue to assist students in their work, from essays, resumes, project proposals, and more, in supporting good composition and rhetorical practices, even when done from a digital format. Despite now being a digital format, the support we offer to students still stands as it did pre-COVID. The switch from an in-person studio to online has not been the easiest, but thanks to the hard work from the studio staff and a willingness to push through despite the difficult times, the Writing Center continues to flow effectively.
In Spring 2020, the Writing Center moved its services to fully online. Like many others, we have become accustomed to using Zoom services, which allows the Writing Center to provide face-to-face feedback. By still being able to view a student through a camera, I can have direct conversation with students, just as we would in person. Now that students are all over the world, time zones can be a difficulty in syncing up schedules, but thanks to our flexible hours, students are able to easily schedule a time that works for them. Even if there are problems with internet connection, an unavoidable part of working online, rescheduling is easy and allows students to continue to work around their own schedule.
Alongside Zoom, Slack became the new ‘Writing Center’ in our early stages of the digital model. Students would enter the Slack channel and be greeted by a consultant, who would assign someone to help them. Because of the various channels Slack has, consultants were able to chat with one another if they needed another perspective on the issue a student was having. However, students often found themselves confused on how Slack channels work due to the interface. If one wasn’t familiar with the concept of Slack, it was difficult to grasp where the student is meant to go. Although consultants attempted to avoid this issue by using hashtags to indicate where a student was meant to go when they originally joined the server, it was still difficult to navigate at times.
The Writing Center overhauled its online module in Fall 2020. Rather than having direct text channels of communication through Slack, the Writing Center added a live chat tool to the front page of its website known as Freshchat and started using a new scheduling system that would send students direct links to their Zoom session, removing the unnecessary steps between entering our Slack channel and then having to go into a Zoom consultation just moments after. Freshchat provides an anonymous question service for students who have brief questions about how the Writing Center works and the like. During these times of constant Zoom sessions in online learning, students may find the anonymity of Freshchat refreshing; the anonymity allows students to feel comfortable discussing their quick questions with us while still providing a direct line of communication.
Supporting Students in Live Zoom Sessions
Within Zoom, the Writing Center encourages staff to employ facilitative pedagogy rather than directive pedagogy—rather than telling students the direct answer to their problems, we create a conversation to get them thinking of the proper solution on their own. The pedagogy model practiced in-person differs from the way it happens over a Zoom call. In the in-person studio, consultants will generally move from student to student, provoking thought and providing feedback towards their questions before moving to another student. Once the student has had time to make further progress on their drafts, they can call the consultant back over for more feedback.
Zoom consultations, however, have made it necessary to adjust our pedagogy. Rather than going between students, consultants now stay with one student for 50 minute sessions. While the studio pedagogy is more difficult to emulate over a Zoom call, it’s not impossible; in my personal sessions with students, I’ve found myself trying to create ongoing conversation. In my earliest digital sessions, I found there were many moments of silence where I would sit on my laptop reading through the student’s paper. Now, rather than taking the time to read their paper while we sit in silence together, we actively discuss what their issues are and how to combat them. Students share their screen with me so I can see their writing, and I have no ability to edit their document. Any comments or revisions the student makes on their document will be created by themselves, maintaining the pedagogy model.
I’ve done a variety of consultations with students who have different disciplines. Instead of assigning consultants of specific disciplines, the consultant’s main focus is assisting students in framing an argument, organizing ideas, clarifying points, and using research appropriately. Having the student bring disciplinary expertise to the table allows staff to use their focus on writing to help students with these various issues. Sharing specific writing with a reader who may be unfamiliar with it can be helpful in making sure a student’s paper can be understood by a more general audience since that is where undergraduate studies lie. This all still stands true for the studio, even in a digitized format.
Working with a variety of students comes with a multitude of languages and cultural differences. The Writing Center continues to strive to support all students, including English Language Learning students. Because there are potential language barriers between the staff and English Language Learners, it is important for us to highlight what the students are doing correctly so they can continue to employ the methods they’ve learned. Knowing what writing techniques they’ve done well on allows us to support their language development, as they know to continue using those techniques.
The Online Writing Suite
Face-to-face Zoom sessions aren’t the only options for students. Now that everything has become digitized, many are finding themselves with “Zoom burnout”—an instance of feeling fatigued from constant Zoom calls and video meetings. To avoid this, students are welcome to utilize the Online Writing Suite. Rather than meeting with a consultant live over Zoom, students can receive written feedback. Written responses are an equally effective method of responding to students, focusing on specific feedback that the student requests on the Online Writing Suite form.
Students may request specific or general feedback when it comes to an Online Writing Suite response. For example, if they have concerns about the organization of their paper, they can let the consultant know they would like for that area to be focused on. Sometimes, students may hyperfocus on what they’d like to change about their papers, so it is important to incorporate praise into the response as well. By emphasizing what the students are doing well, it shows them what methods of writing they should continue to use.
With the written responses, I’ve found that students will sometimes follow up via email on the feedback I’ve given them, sometimes asking for clarification or specifying there was another issue they wanted to go over. Even though I do not see the student in-person or over a camera when they utilize the Online Writing Suite, emailing back and forth still provides an open bridge of discussion between myself and the student.
Being transparent about the services the Writing Center can provide has been the best method in keeping relationships with the student population. For example, we make sure students know that the Writing Center isn’t an editing service, even the Online Writing Suite. Additionally, I always make it clear that the student is welcome to schedule a live consultation if they have any further confusion and need to talk through something. By keeping open and honest conversations with our students about what the Writing Center can do for them, students are able to feel at ease even in these difficult times.
Despite never having met some of the students in-person, I’ve become familiar with regulars who come to our live studio hours and writers who regularly seek written feedback from the Online Writing Suite. The changes made to our digital services have opened avenues for students to be able to reach us. How the service is provided may have changed because of the switch to digital, but the goals of the Writing Center remain the same.