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Composition Forum 50, Fall 2022

Writing in the Dark: Keeping the Lights on in Writing Centers during the COVID-19 Pandemic

April Toadvine, Rasheedah Jenkins, and Christine Jeansonne

Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus is the flagship of the only historically Black university system in the nation. We are ranked number one in the state of Louisiana in the production of black graduates with bachelor’s degrees. With an enrollment of more than 7,000 students coming from forty-six states and from at least forty foreign countries, widespread achievements of our faculty, students, and alumni have positively impacted society at every level. Despite our accomplishments, Southern University has been, like many other postsecondary institutions across the United States, facing ongoing problems of declining enrollment and retention.

Reeling from a decade of recession and deep budget cuts starting in 2008, the pandemic only exacerbated the disadvantages we face at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Southern University had previously endured its share of loss of programs, faculty, and students. Marybeth Gasman, renowned scholar of minority-serving institutions, has long documented “the history of underfunding and discrimination that disadvantages HBCUs” and the measures taken by leaders who resist challenges that threaten the stability of these institutions (26). Such resiliency is examined in Collie Fulford’s Subverting Austerity, Advancing Writing at a Historically Black University. She asserts, “because HBCU faculty are no strangers to scarcity, they can sometimes piece together curricular projects under inauspicious conditions” (230). Despite the “austere conditions” brought on by the recession, Fulford discusses how she and her colleagues developed an advanced writing program at a southern HBCU in much the same way that we spearheaded the inauguration of writing centers at our institution.

These centers, the Writing Den and the University Writing and Communication Center, emerged at a time when the campus community was changing as a result of COVID-19. We discuss them side by side as the separate experiences they were, while addressing the shared struggles in utilizing resources, facilitating for staffing, and organizing outreach in the midst of the pandemic. Despite the challenges, we succeeded in developing two programs that serve the students.

The Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) Process

During the Fall of 2019, Southern University began to prepare for accreditation and as part of the process, the University undertook a series of steps to improve academics through a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) developed with input from constituencies across campus. We were tasked with addressing the high rate of students who drop, fail, withdraw, or take an incomplete in our content area, English, particularly our English Composition I and II courses. The high rates of failure in these general education (“gateway”) courses were intrinsically linked to the university’s overall poor retention record. Based on data from Fall 2014 through Spring 2019, it was revealed that an overwhelming number of our first-time freshmen (39.2%) do not return for a second year. Using the same data, the campus’ Office of Strategic Planning, Policy and Institutional Effectiveness reported pass/fail rates for both composition courses. On average, 40% of Composition I students failed the course in the 2018-2019 academic year, while nearly half of Composition II students (48.6%) failed during the Fall 2018 semester.

As members of the QEP Development Team, we (April Toadvine and Rasheedah Jenkins) reviewed the feedback from our colleagues gathered during department and focus groups meetings where we discussed the barriers our students faced and possible solutions. A much-needed writing center within the English department was an element the QEP Committee members identified as important to address the needs of first-year students, especially those who were at risk of failure. In line with the QEP’s objectives, we established a writing center, The Writing Den, which offers assistance with composition courses. It is staffed by student writing tutors and faculty volunteers: English professors and instructors who give up some of their time to be on the schedule weekly. The Writing Den’s mission is to facilitate retention through an interactive and productive tutoring environment for first-year composition students aimed at growing confidence and self-sufficiency by advocating resourcefulness and ownership of their own writing.

Before the QEP process, university support for writing services was limited. After that process, the university shifted to provide support for the formal creation of a long-needed campus writing center that emerged alongside the Writing Den. Instead of one writing center, our campus, which had been struggling with retention and high failure rates in English, had two: The Writing Den and this new university-wide writing center.

The university-wide writing center, called The University Writing and Communication Center (UWCC), is housed in a different location on campus, a few buildings away from the English Department. It offers university-wide help for students needing assistance in communication-related work, such as English courses (not composition) and other writing-intensive work outside of English, including technological help, presentations, visual rhetoric, speech, and multimodal approaches to communication. Unlike the Den, which is staffed by faculty volunteers and student tutors, the UWCC has hired communication consultants to tutor the students.

While the two centers are different in their purviews, the Den tutoring composition students and the UWCC tutoring a broader range of communication-centered work, they share in the vision to create a helpful environment for students looking to improve their communication and writing skills. We see them as separate entities that work in tandem with one another and shared in one central experience: Over the past several years whether we were literally without lights in our tutoring space due to lack of resources or figuratively unable to see our way through the pandemic, we were both, in varying ways, “in the dark.” And our respective starts, both around the beginning of COVID-19 in 2020, unfolded in exceedingly different ways.

Where We Started: The Writing Den, Rasheedah Jenkins and April Toadvine

With a small reception, the Writing Den opened on campus in February of 2020 and had a small gathering of faculty, the Chair of the department, and our Dean. As the culmination of collective efforts, it was exciting to see writing classes come through for snacks as visitors toured the room and students learned about getting help with their writing.

One of the things that guided the development of the Writing Den was the mission that recognized the value in face-to-face interactions between tutors and individual students. This model has long been defined by leading scholars in the field, among them Stephen North, who argues that “the ideal situation for teaching and learning writing is the tutorial, the one-on-one, face-to-face interaction between a writer and a trained experienced tutor; and that the object of this interaction is to intervene in and ultimately alter the composing process of the writer” (28). Although assumptions about the ideal writing center have changed throughout the decades based upon student needs, budget constraints, and increasing technological advancement, this traditional model was (initially) preferred to serve our students.

After our initial launch, some students were interested in signing up for tutoring, though the numbers were small. Given that the Den opened a month after the start of the Spring semester, the expectation was that the numbers would continue to increase as the workload in classes grew. By midterm, the Den staff planned for a steady stream of students referred by instructors for in-depth work on their mid-semester papers. We were also anticipating word-of-mouth advertising once students realized what we could offer. What we could not have known was that one short month after opening, we would be shut down during the school’s virtual transition while the world was undergoing the previously unthinkable: a pandemic.

Where It Continued: The University Writing and Communication Center, Christine Jeansonne

At the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, April and Rasheedah asked me to take on the role of Writing Den facilitator. But after working at the Den for only a couple of months, I was presented with the opportunity for a career shift when I was asked to direct the new university-wide writing center. This would be a writing center that served all students on a broader scale than the Den’s more specific English studies focus. I accepted the offer and started the process of making that transition, and my capable colleague, Jesus Avila, would later take the baton for the Writing Den, working as its new facilitator.

Speaking to the Dean about our shared vision for this new writing center, we had high hopes for a writing center that would attract students from all disciplines and years in college. First, we imagined a multimodal approach to tutoring communication. In other words, we wanted to invite students who needed help not just with research papers but also with prepping their interviewing skills before hitting the job market or sharpening their use of visual imagery to convey messages in presentations, and so on. Second, we imagined hosting workshops and events in the writing center. We also envisioned a Communication across the Curriculum component, where we would train faculty to certify their courses as communication-intensive. Our expectations felt boundless, and we shared an enthusiasm that this writing center would be an invaluable resource for students.

However, once COVID-19 made its way to our part of the country, we started to realize that our expectations would have to adjust, drastically. While we would maintain a multimodal focus, we would not be in person; we would not host in person workshops. The goal of training faculty to certify their courses as communication-intensive would have to be put on hold. At that point, in March 2020, it seemed the day of moving to in person tutoring would never come.

Like everyone else, I was navigating the mania of trying to stay healthy, from spraying down groceries with Clorox to double masking. In the midst of this chaos, I was grateful that the administration decided to keep the writing center, despite the financial challenges our university faced with this new pandemic. But as a team of one, I was concerned about how to create a writing center from the ground up in an online setting. Not to mention, I had never even heard of Zoom until that point.

When the Lights Went Out: Writing in the Dark

Reflecting on the origin stories of both the Writing Den and the University Writing and Communication Center, we discovered that despite the different purposes and audiences for our respective centers, the basic problems we faced were not different: We both were attempting to provide services to our students despite roadblocks in resources, staffing, and outreach.

The Writing Den was initially established to be a small, autonomous, in-person resource, and operation was not possible during the first months of the pandemic. We (Rasheedah and April) hoped it would allow us to work closely with individual students, but also allow for some flexibility in operation, since it would be administered by the English department where it was housed. Staying small and autonomous also had some unintended consequences. Because we had no budget, our access to resources was limited, which only exacerbated our ability to respond to the pandemic. Because the faculty was moved online relatively quickly in March of 2020, potential volunteers for the Writing Den were too busy trying to move their courses online. Worse, most faculty members were not given access to university-provided technology in the form of laptops until November of 2020, meaning they had to provide their own devices. Our hiatus lasted during the summer of 2020 as we waited to hear whether the school would remain online or change to in-person operations for the fall. Once the fall semester started, it was clear that the Den would need to rethink and transition to an online resource. We were not able to provide more than limited services to students until Spring of 2021.

Our pre-pandemic model of staffing was based on volunteer faculty who chose times that fit their teaching schedules to spend time in the Writing Den. Once the pandemic started, faculty were no longer on campus. When faculty were moved online, it meant that some were able to offer help to students at times that were more accessible than the previous hours in the Writing Den. Finding student workers was also difficult because of a stalled hiring process that required seemingly endless paperwork. With most of the administration shut down due to the pandemic, it was difficult to communicate with those responsible for the process to keep it moving along.

A problem that the pandemic brought into stark relief was the ability of the Writing Den to connect with and reach students. Given the communication structure at Southern University, there was no way to directly reach out to students, either via email or text, without going through an intermediary. To communicate, we had to ask Web Application Services to send an announcement about our services to the campus community once a week. There was often a two-three week lag time in posting these email announcements, which also meant delayed communication. Given that the Writing Den opened just before the shutdown, students were left with little knowledge of the Den, and no real way to communicate or set up appointments. It wasn’t until the Spring of 2021 that online scheduling was set up in a way to allow students to use the services the Writing Den offered.

The UWCC also faced the same roadblocks in resources, staffing, and reaching students in those early days. We were online only in the beginning, and while I (Christine) had access to a computer and the Internet, making it easy to meet with students, many students struggled to find ways to meet virtually. I quickly learned that the students from disadvantaged homes did not have important resources, such as the Internet or a quiet space in their homes, which would have allowed them to meet with me to discuss their work. This was something the UWCC had to navigate on a case by case basis.

I was a one woman show in the beginning and for quite some time afterward. There was no way to hire at that point in the pandemic, due to the limited availability of human resources staff and the fact that hiring writing tutors was simply not a priority for the administration. Instead, the main goal was to keep the university as a whole afloat. So, similar to the Writing Den, the UWCC did not have adequate staffing for several months.

Eventually, the writing tutor job ad emerged in the Fall 2020 semester. I eagerly waited for job applications to pop up in my inbox, as my tutoring load was beginning to increase. At this point, I was overwhelmed with student appointments and needed a team of tutors. Actually, I was so busy that students were starting to double book appointments, which was a flaw in our university’s scheduling system I had yet to discover. I quickly requested that we move our scheduling platform to a different service. And after much searching, we landed on Calendly, which has since proven effective and user-friendly.

The Dean and I were also trying to determine when the UWCC should move to in person tutoring. As the stay at home ordinance and other stricter COVID-19 measures were starting to lift in Louisiana, the University offered online, in person, and hybrid classes. I told the Dean that tutoring students virtually proved to be effective. Other Writing Center directors around the country agreed that an online modality was the most responsible approach to tutoring during this time. In July 2020, Brooks-Gillies et al. confirm, “... we recommend online tutoring as a primary platform for tutoring to ensure learning environments and interactions that are safe and healthy, pedagogically sound and consistent, and accessible and equitable.” Our Dean agreed that if it was not necessary to come back in person, staying online was the responsible course of action, given that the virus was still very active and that we still didn’t have a staff.

A few job applications trickled in, and I interviewed all of the applicants. I quickly learned, however, that a lot of these individuals were wary about the possibility of tutoring in person. I told them it would happen further down the road. This shared hesitancy resulted in many applicants backing out from the job. But I finally found two skilled, eager applicants willing to brace themselves for the possibility of in person tutoring later on. But then, I encountered more COVID-19-related roadblocks to effectively communicate with human resources about their hiring paperwork. Several HR employees were not working due to COVID-19, and again, and emailing did not yield fast responses. With much disappointment, we did not officially hire the new tutors until early Spring of 2021, when we were still online.

Finally, like the Writing Den staff, I also had difficulty reaching students. Unlike the Den’s facilitator, I did not have an opportunity to invite students to the Center, to have an “open house” with refreshments and conversation about how we planned to serve them. Instead, I had emails. I emailed Web Application Services to regularly email the student body population about our availability. I promoted the website and our services on social media. I emailed all of the Deans and department heads to promote the UWCC to their classes. It was a struggle to get the word out. We had a working website that allowed students to schedule appointments, but they did not know it existed. It was an overall slow battle to get their attention.

Several causes influenced how the three of us navigated the common issues of limited resources, staffing, and communication. First, both centers operated with different approaches to the mission that we both had: helping students to communicate. Since the Writing Den was working specifically to help at-risk students who were in most danger of failing the first year writing courses, it focused on in-person strategies that targeted composition. The UWCC broadened its reach to interdisciplinary areas of communication, particularly written communication. This allowed the UWCC an edge when it came to transferring services online. At its founding, the Den prioritized face-to-face tutoring based on North’s work outlined above and so was initially stalled; conversely, the UWCC was forced to tutor online because of the pandemic.

One other distinction that influenced the different outcomes of the two services was the fact that there was a difference in the staffing of both. The loss of Christine as the Den’s coordinator left a void that was not to be filled until Spring 2021. Additionally, volunteer faculty who were working in the Writing Den were caught up in dealing both with the effects of the pandemic in their own lives, as well as the problems of revising their courses to work online. The situation left little time for faculty to volunteer for tutoring of students who were not enrolled in their classes. Because of our focus on recruiting faculty, we did not prioritize an onboarding and training process for student tutors until our return to campus.

The UWCC trains the communication consultants (tutors) to follow one of our core institutional values to be student-centered. We offer the students commentary on their papers, written up on a form given to them once their sessions are over. Some of the commentary pertains to issues in writing that need explicit correction: grammar, research issues, formatting. However, we focus more on issues in content and voice. An example of such commentary follows: “Elaborate upon your thesis” or “Highlight your main point in this first topic sentence.” The student is therefore expected to take the reins, so to speak, to be an active participant in her experience of revising her work at the Center. In order to achieve this student-centered approach, the communication consultants must attend a session where we review the types of commentary we offer students, emphasizing the importance of giving content-related commentary, such as organization of ideas, thesis development, research synthesis, and other macro level issues beyond the sentence level. We also cover the effective ways to interact with students in both face to face and virtual settings.

For example, communication consultants are taught to encourage students to talk more than listen and to collaborate with them when they find difficulty in working through a problem. They are given sample essays and are asked to provide written feedback, which we go over together once they have completed writing their comments. When they meet with students for the first time, I (Christine) am usually present or nearby and able to assist if there are any difficulties, but mostly, the communication consultants are empowered to find their own teaching styles within the student-centered framework we have set up.

Flipping the Switch: Lighting the Way

When the campus returned to normal operations in Fall 2021, a lot of confusion returned with the students. We (Rasheedah and April) slowly began developing means to overcome the previous obstacles of scheduling and communication led by Writing Den facilitator Mr. Avila, with a determined effort was able to build a system to coordinate tutoring services for students. Before we had a way to get the word out to the campus community and had a presence on the school’s website, Hurricane Ida hit during the second week of the semester, adding yet another catastrophe to an already tenuous situation. After the initial storm, there was an entire week lost due to lack of power and other post-hurricane concerns. What that meant for the Den was a loss of opportunity. Just at the point when we had hoped to open and start connecting with students, we went into several weeks of confusion before students and faculty began to settle back into routine. We worked on building momentum, and eventually the work of tutoring students began. As a result of the combination of hybrid class design and weather disruption, it seemed unlikely that the Den would find its footing for the fall semester. Despite that, the gradual changes being made to the website and scheduling were helping, as we were able to book, tutor, and get data from students in a streamlined online space that would allow for future growth.

In the fall of 2021, we had an unusually large freshman class despite routine accounts of exposure and infection. In addition, we were expected to meet classes in person, while students were able to meet either in-person or via video link. The Den saw fifteen students over the course of the semester, though that does not include missed or mistaken appointments. With over 1,400 students in composition in the fall of 2021, numbers alone indicate we should have been seeing more students. While the low number of visits was initially disappointing, given the hurricane disruptions and confusion about hybrid courses at the beginning of the semester (the decision to stay hybrid was not clear until very close to the beginning of the semester), as the semester progressed, we saw students find their way in person and online as their instructors publicized the Den as a useful resource. Once students found our online scheduling and availability, we saw demand start to grow.

Much like Rebecca Cofer’s experience at Georgia College, detailed in her article “Covid 19 As a Learning Assistance Professional: Face Masks, Online Platforms, Budget Cuts, AND...Growth,” being online was not part of the initial plan for the Writing Den. Despite that, the Den became more flexible, and we were able to meet student needs; it “allowed us to consider a future with more of an online presence” (403) than we would have originally anticipated. Cofer points out the new skills she and her supplemental instructors have gained in addition to the benefits to students who were appreciative of the convenience of the new online format.

Unlike the Writing Den, the UWCC was online only at the beginning of COVID-19 and then switched to in person tutoring in the fall of 2021. Based on a survey we send out at the end of every tutoring consultation, students overwhelmingly preferred the online setting over the traditional face to face meeting. Many students conveyed resistance to coming back to an in person setting because of their concerns about the virus. For example, one student, a junior at the time, told me she planned to finish out her college career virtually, regardless of whether the university would require in person learning again with the virus remaining a threat. I (Christine) asked her where she would go, and she shrugged and said she would have to figure it out when/if the time would come. Now that we are back in person, and she should be in her senior year, I often wonder about if she held on to that conviction of finding an online avenue or if she changed her mind. I have checked in with her via her school email address and have yet to receive any responses. Her situation was representative of many students’ hesitation to rejoin this traditional in person learning environment, and our task was meeting students where they were post-pandemic while also meeting the administrative expectation to return in person.

As COVID-19 became a more “normal” part of our lives, students took new or maintained their previous jobs and worked around school, which prevented them from being available to meet on campus during our hours of operation. One student, for example, met with me during her break at her job. And I’m sure that many other students who hid their cameras were also working and finding ways to meet with me while juggling their jobs. Sometimes, students had to be at home to watch younger siblings because their parents were working overtime at the hospital; or they couldn’t get to campus because they didn’t have access to a ride at that point in the day. And this virtual option afforded them access to help with their work.

I was informed that in fall 2021 we would be in person and ultimately, we were. I was under the impression that the Center would be ready for this transition. But when I arrived in August 2021, I was disappointed to learn that it was not. Only two out of a dozen or so lights were working, and a ceiling tile above my desk was missing. We needed light to tutor, but the maintenance department on campus seemed overwhelmed with work orders and was understaffed, though this is just my speculation. So, I brought lamps from home and decided we would not miss the fluorescent lighting, anyway.

Despite the lack of resources, as the pandemic continued we were being asked to come back to campus in what seemed like an unsafe situation. Many writing center employees around the country faced similar reservations about returning to an in person tutoring model. In Writing Center Administrator Guidance in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Progression of a Position Statement, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Writing Center Director at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, reflects on her similar hesitancy to return to in person tutoring during the pandemic: “My already under-resourced writing center was expected to open for in-person programming in the fall, and given what was known about the coronavirus, I worried this was the wrong decision for promoting public health and pedagogically sound writing center programming.” Because of Southern University’s similar uncertainty about how to protect public health and provide services to students, tutors also experienced similar fears about returning to campus. At the UWCC, one of our communication consultants (tutors) quit because she did not want to come in person. This was the first time in over a year that everyone was required to come to campus, and it was in the middle of the fourth and biggest surge of COVID-19. South Louisiana was a hot spot, the epicenter for COVID-19; we had the highest rates in the country, due to low vaccination rates primarily and a growing resistance to mask wearing.

Also uneasy about returning to in person tutoring because of the pandemic, Duane Theobald, Director of the Writing Center at University of West Georgia, affirms: “To ensure that we were providing services to any and all of our students, I was told that our writing center had to offer some in-person services. This made me nervous for a variety of reasons—chief among them that I, my part-time employee, and many of my consultants have autoimmune diseases” (Brooks-Gillies et al.). Again, our situation reflected this sense of worry about employee health and safety. While we lost one communication consultant, the other was also reluctant but decided he would brave the halls with two masks. I did the same, and we sanitized the walls, floors, desks in the Center. Eventually we hired others, and the UWCC continues to find ways to adjust to in- person, as we were conceived as an online entity and are constantly trying to adapt.

Making the shift to in person has been difficult because students became used to the Microsoft Teams format. As addressed earlier, they seemed to like to stay home or go to the library or elsewhere to meet with us and discuss their work via “Share screen.” Even during the spring of 2022, students still sometimes schedule appointments thinking they will be online, despite the website policy explicitly stating we are in person only, except for evening hours, which are still virtual. Thus, once they realize that the appointment will be in person, they sometimes cancel or don’t show up at all. Encouraging students to attend in person tutoring has been our biggest challenge thus far. However, when we were online only, we did not allow students to walk in for appointments. It would have been too onerous to do that. Instead, they had to schedule online ahead of time. Now that we are in person, we allow walk-ins. And this seems to be a perk to students, who sometimes don’t think about scheduling ahead of time.

Shadows and Illuminations: Reflecting the Paths Ahead

Despite our different origin stories, we recognize the unique needs of our students and that flexible and inclusive practices must be implemented to best accommodate them beyond the pandemic. Such considerations are needed when, as Harvard correspondent John Laidler points out, African American students face a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and its long term effects, including psychological damage (anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma). These health risks, both physical and mental are compounded by other stressors that were only exacerbated during the pandemic. Speaking at a Harvard forum, Pace University President, Marvin Krislov acknowledged that the pandemic was especially challenging for “first-generation, low-income students of color...whether it’s through the illness, the availability of technology, social justice questions, financial challenges, and also the sense of community, which can be much more challenging in a remote environment.” He urged campus leaders to commit to better serving these students’ needs (Laidler).

Other than the fact that no one can predict a pandemic, we learned several valuable lessons as we navigated the COVID-19 confusion as we were setting up our writing centers on campus. We learned that both students and faculty needed adaptable scheduling options. We also learned that our communication strategies were limited and did not adequately connect with students. If we knew then what we know now, we would have provided more flexible scheduling, utilized various tutoring modalities, and developed better communication strategies.

The pandemic highlighted the differences in socio-economic status that caused our students to have to work, sometimes even during class, to afford school. This was not a pandemic-created situation; however, with the damage done to people’s lives by COVID-19, we were increasingly aware that some students faced varying degrees of financial challenges, some of which were significant. Some students were working to support out-of-work family members. Others had school-aged children who were also enrolled in virtual classes, leaving limited time for our students to get help in a system of haphazard scheduling. In After Pandemic Pivot, Writing Center’s Footprint Grows, Deann Gayman states, “...the virtual appointments have opened the door to helping more students that maybe wouldn’t have had the time to come to campus.” Given the difficulty students had in balancing all those competing pressures, virtual appointments allowed easier access to tutoring that did not require on-campus presence. We hoped this would prevent putting students in situations in which they would be forced to choose between an extra shift or child care and a tutoring session.

When starting the Writing Den, the concern that students be engaged in the process of revision as part of face-to-face interaction with a tutor seemed opposed to the idea of individual virtual conferencing. What we learned as we compared notes was that both the Den and the UWCC had to become flexible in their approach to tutoring students. In both cases, the essential one-on-one interaction and active participation in the tutoring process remained the essential ingredients for student success. We don’t yet know whether student behavior will change permanently as a result of the pandemic and whether they will eventually abandon face-to-face classes and tutoring in favor of virtual sessions. While beneficial to some students, it became clear to us that many did not have a quiet space to hold virtual sessions or lived in homes with limited Internet access and devices, and in effect, the modalities we offered did not suit their circumstances. So, what we know now is that we could have reached more students by using multiple modalities much earlier in the pandemic, including chat or instant messaging tutorials.

As we become more familiar with navigating a pandemic, we look forward to dealing with the problem of lack of flexibility in both the Writing Den and the UWCC. For the future of the Writing Den, we intend to offer a wider variety of hours, both in-person and virtual, which should allow students to have more access. We plan to offer evening and weekend hours to attract those students whose schedules require them to access services outside of regular business hours. Similarly, the UWCC will increase availability to students, offering not only morning-evening hours during the week, but also some weekend hours. Additionally, we plan to offer workshops later in the day, as this seems to be more conducive to most students’ schedules.

We also learned that both the Den and the Center struggled to communicate with students during the pandemic. If we knew then what we know now, we would have developed better communication modalities outside of the university, such as What’s App or social media messaging. While the institutional structure did not easily enable direct communication with students, the UWCC later had more success reaching students. Initially, at the height of the pandemic, the Center experienced the same struggles to communicate as the Den. Currently, we continue to send out emails through the Web Applications Services, but we are still unable to directly connect with students.

In the Den, we had similar difficulty in contacting students, and have yet to find a solid strategy, like tours, that would bring in students. For now, we rely on instructors and classroom visits to spread the word. Given the communication problems that the Writing Den and the UWCC encountered at the beginning of the pandemic, some of which are still problematic as the pandemic continues, we need a better communication strategy in the future. While the UWCC has had success with using email communication and providing in-person tours, the Writing Den needs to emulate the UWCC’s approach. Specifically, we intend to directly reach students by hosting tours, visiting classrooms as well as posting information on class syllabi and the Learning Management System for each class section. Additionally, we would like to collaborate with the school’s First Year Seminar to make sure word gets out to freshmen students about the service.

As we reflect upon our experiences of building these centers during the pandemic, one last takeaway stands out. When we started both the Writing Den and the UWCC, we had the greatest possible autonomy in decision-making. While that was beneficial in giving us the space to grow differently and complementary to each other, it also put the tasks of assessment and accountability solely on us. While we had been in flux during the beginning of the pandemic, and therefore did not have the procedures to appropriately assess our progress, we are currently in the process of developing ways to assess our own progress and to set goals for the futures of both the Den and the UWCC. The past two years of COVID-19 brought challenges that dimmed our hopes for building and then maintaining two writing centers. But since then, we have come to realize that we are more prepared for the future than when the pandemic began: We had to learn to embrace unpredictability and find the light in an otherwise dark situation.

Works Cited

Brooks-Gillies, Marilee et al. Writing Center Administrator Guidance in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Progression of a Position Statement. The Peer Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 2021, Accessed 18 July 2022.

Cofer, Rebecca. Covid 19 As a Learning Assistance Professional: Face Masks, Online Platforms, Budget Cuts, AND...Growth? The Learning Assistance Review, vol. 25, no. 2, 2020, pp. 401-404.

Fulford, Collie. Subverting Austerity, Advancing Writing at a Historically Black University. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 19, no. 2, 2019, pp. 225-241.

Gasman, Marybeth. Historically Black Colleges and Universities in a Time of Economic Crisis. Academe, vol. 95, no. 6, 2009, pp. 26-28.

Gayman, Deann. After Pandemic Pivot, Writing Center’s Footprint Grows. Nebraska Today, 16 March 2021, Accessed 17 July 2022.

Laidler, John. COVID’s Triple Whammy for Black Students. Harvard Gazette, 28 October 2020 Accessed 19 July 2022.

North, Stephen. Writing Center Research: Testing Our Assumptions, Writing Centers: Theory and Administration, edited by Gary A. Olson, National Council of Teachers of English, 1984, pp. 24-35.

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