Essay Help During COVID
Cassandra Matthews ~ Assistant Editor
Students and tutors at the Wilmer Writing Center are adjusting well to a new system of virtual appointments.
The Wilmer Writing Center offers help with writing to students at the undergraduate, graduate, and advanced graduate levels.
Jer Bryant, director of the Wilmer Writing Center, explained, the “Center is essentially what probably was originally called a writing lab, and it is a place where student writers help other student writers through collaborating and critical thinking and sharing ideas. And we actually do a lot more than I think people are aware of. We help people brainstorm, get started, [and] we help people with any stage of the writing process, whether that be drafting or revising or learning editing skills. I think a big misconception is that the writing center edits grammar, but we actually don’t do that, and writing centers actually moved away from writing in the 1990s, but people still see writing centers that way. And I think another misconception is that only weak writers come to the writing center, but we have students with 4.0s who come to the writing center because they enjoy the discussion that happens in the writing center, and they also enjoy having a second set of eyes look their work over.”
Julia Melone, a senior who has tutored at the Wilmer Writing Center for just over two years, said, “So we help students with their papers at any stage, so prewriting, writing, or reviewing [what] they have already written, and we can help them improve their paper, and we do not really write on their paper, [we] teach them to improve their paper themselves.”
Before, students would come to the center’s location in Hopwood Hall for their one-on-one appointments. However, the writing center now only offers virtual appointments, in order to keep students and staff safe in the pandemic.
This adjustment took place in the spring semester of 2020. Bryant says that the adjustment has not been too difficult, because “the writing center, for seven or eight years, has offered online tutoring for students who are online students. For example, they might be in the Doctorate of Medical Science program, and they are not on campus. This semester, I listened very carefully to the concerns of the tutors, and many of them wanted to remain online. And I took their wellness and their sense of wellbeing seriously, so we decided, with the support of the provost, to remain online for the semester.”
Melone adds, “I think in some ways, it is good for us. Like right now I am able to work from home which is a little bit safer, […] then we have some commuters who are choosing to work from home.” She explained that some tutors still use the center to conduct their virtual appointments, even though this is closed to students. “It probably was a smart decision to move online this semester, but I think I do miss the face to face interaction, and I hope we move face to face next semester.”
Virtual appointments are being offered both synchronously and asynchronously. Bryant says, “We are offering online tutoring, which can be confusing because what that technically means is live tutoring, where a person chats live either through chat, or video, or audio with a tutor, and the e-tutoring which is not live, and that is where the student uploads their paper, assignment directions, and their agenda, what they want to work on, and they receive feedback through email.”
Something that has surprised Bryant is that “there is not a big gap in the amount of students requesting online and e-tutoring.” He explained, “I thought that many students would prefer e-tutoring because students have busy schedules, and that they would prefer being able to upload everything and just wait for feedback, but we have many students who want the live session, which makes me happy. [And] something that I hope I can express well is that even when it is e-tutoring, the tutors work really hard to give personalized feedback, because they are not computer programs.”
He continued, “You know a lot of times when you look at online tutoring it is [a] computer giving you feedback, especially in the early days of online tutoring, but [the tutors] work really hard through like salutations, even a note at the end of the paper that is personalized. I have found that some tutors use smiley faces throughout their feedback, they are trying really hard to form that connection that would happen in person. […] The tutors are giving very thorough feedback, and so they are not receiving follow up questions, because they are addressing what we would call like higher order concerns, [such as] content, organization, use of evidence, and lower order concerns, which would be grammar.
He finished by saying, “So the feedback has been, in my opinion as I am reviewing it, really beneficial for students, and I think the fact that we have students who return to us for [more] feedback, for different papers, says that they are getting what they need. […] We are really mindful that if we are not working with a person live, we want to do our very best to help them, to make them feel valued and respected, and to give them the opportunity to follow up if they have questions.”
Melone and Bryant both report that the shift to virtual appointments has not hindered attendance. Melone says, “I do not know if it is just [that students] feel more safe, or they actually find this more convenient, but in general we are seeing a little bit higher requests for tutoring […] and I think maybe even students are feeling less nervous about it.”
Meanwhile, Bryant claimed, “We are [having a really good turnout] and that is very interesting because when I looked at data from last academic year, we are right on point. So it has not slowed us down at all.”
Virtual tutoring will continue, even when the threat of the coronavirus has passed. “In the past, we only offered online tutoring to students enrolled in online classes, and we are not going back there. Going forward, even when we resume in person tutoring, we will continue to offer both types of online tutoring,” said Bryant. This is because he recognizes how the flexibility of online tutoring has been beneficial for busy students: “We are cognizant of athletes. So many are involved in the arts, or are doing clinicals, [and] they need that flexibility for online tutoring, and so one thing that the pandemic has shown me as a director is that that flexibility has to continue going forward.”
Whether online or in person, synchronous or asynchronous, Bryant said that “it is important for people to just realize that the writing center is a judgement free zone that celebrates diversity and inclusivity, and that the tutors really enjoy their work because they learn about subjects that they may have not studied. And so if people are nervous about having their work looked over, because I know that is a very vulnerable thing to experience, they should know that the tutors are intelligent and compassionate and willing to help and learn themselves. So, it is very important to know that the center is a safe and effective learning environment.”