Navigating and Adapting Writing Centers through a Pandemic: Justifying Our Work in New Contexts

Russell Mayo, Purdue University Northwest
Elise Dixon, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Eric Camarillo, Harrisburg Area Community College


In this multimodal video dialogue, three writing center directors at small, regional, public colleges and universities discuss their experiences with remote tutoring amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Each speaker came into new writing center administrative positions during the pandemic. Speakers each discuss their recent experiences with the technological shifts they, their tutors, and their institutions have developed, and how those changes impact perceptions of collaboration and equity. In so doing, they hope to highlight the ways in which writing center administrators are thinking about technology’s influence on tutoring, instruction, and students’ daily lives, as well as highlight the challenges and opportunities this pandemic has provided them.

Keywords: writing centers, peer tutoring, technology, online learning, critical pedagogy, higher education administration

Click here for link to the audio/video recording for this transcript.

Russell Mayo: Hello! We are three new writing center directors working at regional and local colleges and universities across the US, and we’re having a conversation together about navigating and adapting writing centers through a pandemic and justifying our work in new contexts. We’re going to introduce ourselves and talk a little bit and have a brief conversation around this work and the experiences we’ve had this semester.

My name is Russell Mayo. I am an Assistant Professor of English at Purdue University Northwest (PNW) in Hammond, Indiana. I’m also the Writing Center Director there. This is my first year at PNW. My teaching and research focus is on writing, pedagogy, and environmental humanities. Currently I’m teaching First Year Writing (FYW) courses, but I will also be teaching English Education and Writing/Rhetorical Studies courses in the coming semesters.

Eric Camarillo: Hi everyone. My name is Eric Camarillo. I am Director of the Learning Commons at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC). It’s a role I started in August 2020. I oversee testing, tutoring, the library, and user support services—and of course the Writing Center is contained within the Tutoring Center there. My research focuses really on asynchronous tutoring at the moment, but in the past I’ve discussed things like anti-racism in writing centers, as well as “neutrality” in writing centers and trying to break some “best practices” there.

Elise Dixon: Hi, I’m Elise Dixon. I am the Writing Center Director and an Assistant Professor of English at University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP). I started that position in August. Currently I’m teaching FYW, Writing Center training courses, and currently I’m slated to teach a graduate course on activist rhetorics in the summer. My research focus is generally on queer and cultural rhetorics, and those intersections with activists making, and of course writing center studies.

Russell Mayo: We are all former TPR contributors. We were all featured in the 2018 Special Issue 2.1 on Cultural Rhetorics (Choffel, Garcia, & Goodman, 2018). Eric and Elise, you have contributed to other issues as well, right?

Elise Dixon: Yes.

Russell Mayo: And so part of this conversation again is just to talk about our experiences in this unique semester, and especially being new administrators. So I’m going to start by talking a little bit about what I’ve been struck with in my work with FYW students and writing tutors this semester, which is this sudden shift to technologically-mediated education, and the pandemic has thrust this upon us whether we wanted it or not. And in thinking about this shift, I am reminded of the 1998 talk by cultural critic Neil Postman (2014) entitled “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.” I read this first with some of my students in a FYW class a few years ago where we focused on the social impacts of technology. I think it’s really great, and I think you should check it out. It might be really useful for yourself or for your tutors as well thinking about these questions.

Postman (2014) asserts the five critical points on technology and change. While it’s quite old, I still think it speaks to our current lives in schools today. I’d like to quickly summarize Postman’s (2014) five main points, and then I’ll talk through a couple of them and how they relate to tutoring at the moment. These are the five Postman (2014) says:

  1. All technological change is a trade-off. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.
  2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. That means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.
  3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful, sometimes hidden, idea. And so every technology has a philosophy of sorts that gives expression in how people use their minds, what people do with our bodies, how it understands the world, how it amplifies and what it disregards.
  4. Technological change is not additive, it is ecological. So the consequences of technological change are always vast, unpredictable and often irreversible.
  5. Media tend to become mythic. So cars, planes, TV, movies, the Internet—they achieved this mythic status where we perceive them as gifts of nature, not as artifacts of culture and certain political and historical contexts.

I want to talk about the first three. So the first one, “all technological change is a trade-off.” For this, Neil Postman (2014) is pushing us to think dialectically about how moving to something like remote learning has offered many benefits but also drawbacks for writers and tutors. So I have a lot of experiences and anecdotes to share for this; I’m sure you all do.

I’m thinking about how, in a positive way, how nimbley and quickly so much of our peer tutoring work was able to shift online—especially in comparison to the struggles of K-12 education, FYW classes, or many other university functions. Rhetorically speaking, that’s because writing centers operate around a logic of one-to-one dialogue, an ethos of peer-to-peer learning, and we also harness the kairotic moments of learning (Bruffee, 1984; Kail, 1984; Harris, 1992; Wood, 2017). This is all instead of the top-down curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, happening at pre-set times and determined places that are common to other schooling arrangements. Part of what peer tutoring offers, I think, can remain in an online format, and we’ve seen that this semester, successfully (Yergeau, et al., 2008; Bell, 2006).

But I think a lot is lost in the move online as well, as we want to make sure not to forget about those. I think in particular for the tutors, there’s a sense of a loss of mutuality and a shared sense of a space and a place where the tutors work together and interact together. Not during the session necessarily but before and after—those in-between times. We haven’t found a way to replicate that in any digital space. The camaraderie between tutors is not necessarily as strong. And I also think that potentially leads to some burn-out or some sense of dislocation: an unmooring for tutors. For some of them, the real joy was that in-between space of tutoring, and that also pushed them to be better, to ask questions of each other (Geller et al, 2007; Boquet, 2002). And the connections of an administrator certainly, and as somebody who teaches tutors really—a lot is lost when I don’t see them on a given day. So we’re really struggling to figure out how to train new tutors for next semester which we didn’t do this fall, given the lack of face-to-face interactions or the ability to overhear something in the writing center that you don’t quite do online.

The second point that Postman made is about “the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies,” and the unevenness of that. Another way to say that is that COVID-19 has affected everyone, but not everyone is affected equally by COVID-19. This semester seems to have exacerbated the socioeconomic gap for tutors and for writers overall. The ‘haves’ seem to be doing fine. Many of them with the time, the space, the technology, the strong internet may even be thriving in an environment like this[1] . There’s wider availability of recorded lectures and teacher notes, and that level of accessibility really wasn’t a part of higher education before this point. But, on the other hand, I’m meeting with far too many tutors and writers who are taking a full load of classes and working full time. They’re calling into my class while at work. Many don’t have a reliable computer or internet access, or a quiet place to sit and learn and study, and they’re not able to do that in the way they used to on campus. This is true for the large number of our First-Gen students we have at PNW. I see a lot of people who are overworked and exhausted and just kind of going through the motions. They’re not experiencing any intellectual joy or connection that we have with in-person learning. What’s lost for them is due to no fault of their own. Many of them are going into debt for an education that is unfulfilling and unresponsive to their needs at the moment, and I think that’s something for us to think a lot about.

The last point, and then I’ll end here, is that “embedded in every technology there is a powerful [but potentially hidden] idea.” I don’t really know what that is for Zoom. Is it that learning is done by lecture and presentation—a virtual TED Talk? Does Zoom reduce teaching to talking and learning to listening, what Paulo Freire (1970/2000) would call “banking education”? If so, has the pandemic-induced, video-mediated learning environment degraded the central closeness and connection we have sitting at a table together, listening to each other, looking together on a screen, and sharing and negotiation through speaking and listening in a common space that we once did and are not currently doing? These are just some of the questions that I think Postman’s (2014) work helps us to think about—as teachers, scholars, writing center administrators, and tutors—and keep me thinking about as I move forward.

Eric Camarillo: Great, thank you. I think that kind of aligns with some of my own research with asynchronous writing center consultations. So I first became interested in asynchronous tutoring in Fall 2019 as part of one of my Ph.D. classes, when I realized there really was this gap in the knowledge of how we understand (1) how online tutoring works, and (2) asynchronous online tutoring and how that works. At my former institution, they had a really long track record of asynchronous tutoring. It was really part of their services, part of their suite of things they were doing. And so I never thought much about it, I just assumed others also understood how to do asynchronous writing center consultations. That turned out to not always be the case. At some places before the pandemic, they weren’t really doing any online tutoring: they didn’t have the platform, didn’t have the infrastructure.

So for my own research, I draw a bit from a few different areas—really from Kathryn Denton’s (2017) “Beyond the Lore: The Case of Asynchronous Online Tutoring Research.” One of the points that she makes early on in the text, and kind of throughout, is this idea of asynchronous tutoring as being some kind of subpar alternative “step-child” of writing centers, where people don’t really want to do it. They will do it sometimes if they have to, if there’s a demand or if administration is like, “You should really be doing this.” They’ll do it if they really have to but there’s not always a lot of interest in it. By far, most centers are more interested in that face-to-face, traditional consultation, which is understandable. It’s a very rich, powerful form of tutorial, and steeped in history. It’s really where we’re getting a lot of our research and data from. There’s just decades of research—and probably more, if you want to go really, really old to tutoring generally (Van Horne, 2012; Neaderhiser & Wolfe, 2009; Breuch, 2005; Rosalia, 2013; Wolfe, & Griffin, 2012; Palmquist, 2003; Lerner, 1998; Casal & Lee, 2014). Certainly, with modern writing centers, decades of research on face-to-face consultation.

The problem, I think, that many writing center administrators have with trying to implement asynchronous tutoring is that they’re trying to apply traditional writing center best practices to this model. I’ve argued elsewhere (Camarillo, 2020; 2020), where trying to just overlay best practices from a synchronous model to an asynchronous one is just not appropriate; it’s just not going to work. Because the key tenet in the best practices is this idea of “being there” with the student (Riley-Mukavetz, 2014). So a lot of that collaboration requires being there in real time with the student, especially when it comes to asking leading questions or Socratic questions, which don’t really make sense if you’re leaving feedback on a document in an asynchronous way. Because then your questions are acontextual; you have to do a lot more explaining in order to make them work.

So coming from my background at University of Houston-Victoria (UHV), where they had a long history of asynchronous writing tutoring, to my current institution HACC, they had only really done drop-in tutoring for years. That was really their primary mode of tutoring. In early 2020, they started a pilot for online Zoom tutoring, and then of course by March that was all they were doing. And so it was very interesting comparing UHV’s experience to HACC’s. Because at HACC, when the pandemic started, pivoting to online appointments was really simple. We were using Upswing, which is a third-party product to help host all of our appointments and host all of our actual sessions. And so really it was just a matter of listing every tutor as an “Online” tutor. Very simple. HACC’s experience was a little bit different. Suddenly, you had to deal with Zoom links, making sure the Zoom room works, and making sure that everything was password secured, or that there was a waiting room because you didn’t want to get “Zoom Bombed,” things like that. I’m in this really interesting position of comparing, of trying to draw on one experience and comparing it to another.

We’ve begun our HACC’s Online Writing Lab, which means students can submit essays to us electronically through email—but carefully tracked and assessed. To me, it’s just really exciting to be in this kind of position where everything is really new and everyone’s really open to new ideas. I’m able to bring some of my experience and my research that I’ve been advocating for about a year now, that we should really be doing more of. And so thinking about technology and asynchronous tutoring, and about how this will shift the way HACC, and probably other institutions, work in the future is also really exciting. How does that change tutoring for us? We’ve opened this door, right, and there’s probably no going back to just drop-in tutoring. I think students will always want the flexibility of doing something on Zoom so they don’t have to come to campus. Being able to submit things to an email account so they can go to work, and then in the evening, or the next day, they can come back and their essay’s there and then they can then apply that feedback. I’m at a community college, I’m working with students who work, and we’re trying to make sure that they’re able to access the services that we offer when they need to access those services.

Elise Dixon: Okay, wow. You both brought up so many great points and I think I want to touch on a couple of things from what you both said. First, when I’m thinking about Postman’s “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change,” I’m thinking about the fourth idea, actually, that “technological change is not additive, it’s ecological.” This to me really harkens back to cultural rhetorics, ideologies of understanding that our lives are made up of these layers of interactions with each other and the stories that we’re telling each other over time (Powell et al., 2014; Bratta & Powell, 2016). And I see that quite clearly at my institution right now, in terms of what we’re doing in the writing center but also what our students are responding to to the primarily technological education that they’re getting right now over Zoom. 

They key point that I wanted to talk about today was: I think, for me, at my institution, the writing center now has a lot of evidence—a lot more evidence than usual—of the big gap between student understanding of what’s going on in the course and teacher understanding of what’s going on in the course. I see that evidence popping up in writing and in the way that teachers are evaluating. It’s no longer just a hand-written note, but it’s something that is on Zoom, WebEx, or Canvas, that the student can then just send right over to me as the Writing Center Director. So the metacognitive capabilities of talking about the moves that writers are supposed to make, those are difficult skills for faculty members to learn. And it takes a lot of time, and it’s especially hard if you don’t have a rhetoric and composition or English background. I see those gaps in understanding all the time. The additional complication of that is that there’s now the metacognitive conversation about the moves we’re supposed to be making technologically over Zoom, or over an online course. 

One example I wanted to bring up was this: for some background, my campus is very racially diverse and very unique. We’re the most racially diverse campus in the Southeast. What I’ve seen is that there’s a big gap in what our faculty members say to primarily the students of color who come into the Writing Center. One example that I can think of is: one day, I received a phone call from a student who was desperate. And she said, I have gotten a note from my professor that says that I have “markup” on my paper, and that any further papers that I turn in with “markup” will be immediately given a zero. And she said, “I don’t know what ‘markup’ is, and I said, “I don’t know what ‘markup’ is either! I’m not sure what your professor means.” And she indicated to me that she felt a little bit unsure of asking this professor because not only was there a gap in understanding, but there was a gap in proximity. She’d never met this man in person. She did not know how to interact with him, and all of her interactions had been either over Zoom or via email. So I volunteered to give him a call or to send him an email to ask what this meant. I think she was hoping that the Writing Center Director could tell her like, “Oh, well, this is the overarching definition of ‘markup,'” but there isn’t one. 

So I emailed this professor and he got right back to me and said, “Her ‘track changes’ are on in her document, and I can see all the changes that she has made. But, I don’t want a document like that.” And so really it had nothing to do with her writing. But he was giving her zeros for not turning off her track changes. Technically, the problem was that she didn’t know to accept all of her changes before she turned her paper in. Because as we might know, from our own personal experience, you can hide the “markup,” but that doesn’t mean it goes away. So when I emailed the student back and told her, she informed me that he had given her zeros on five papers because of this, and that she had not even turned in one of the papers because she knew that he was going to give her a zero, even though she had no idea what it was. 

The gap in communication there was just one tiny explanation that could have been fixed if there was a better system for having a conversation, if there was an understanding of how much of writing is about the correct or adequate utilization of the technology that we’re given. How do we communicate those needs to our students in a way that gives them the space to make mistakes and still learn? It taught me a lot, I hope that it taught the professor something too because I emailed him back and said that, “Your student was just confused, and I told her what to do. And I hope that you give her points on this and the other papers you gave zeroes to.” 

For me, in those moments, it was a realization that technology has become a part of UNCP’s ecology. And it has become a part of how students and teachers interact or don’t interact with each other, and how students can feel supported or not supported. I was not blind to the fact that this professor was a white man and that this student was a Black woman. And I was very sensitive to the understanding of all the power dynamics that exist in that situation. Especially on a campus that is very racially diverse, I think it’s really important for instructors to understand that we can’t just expect our professors to have these metacognitive understandings of the kinds of moves that we need our students to be making in writing but also the kinds of moves that they need to be making with technology. We have to be able to know how to explain it well. And the Writing Center can’t necessarily always do that explaining when we’re not really sure what something like “markup” is. So I think I’ll stop there, and then we can kind of have a conversation from there.

Russell Mayo: Awesome. Yeah, let’s kind of unpack these and talk a little bit more. And we just met really today. So we’ve also been sharing a lot about our campuses and our roles and kind of what we’re learning in the process of this pandemic semester as well. So, yeah, where should we start?

Eric Camarillo: Well, I’m really intrigued by this idea of technological prowess, Elise, about the instructor using one set of vocabulary, and that just not translating at all to what the student is capable of doing or, you know, connecting with the student. And I think it’s one way that we assume a lot of knowledge on the part of students, both in terms of what they’re able to do maybe with writing or what we expect them to do with writing, but also in terms of what we expect them to be able to do with technology. So often, I mean, we call our younger students especially “digital natives,” but really, it depends on the context, right? Like, we know that they’re very comfortable with TikTok or Twitter or Instagram, right? Snapchat. So they’re very savvy with mobile applications. But the more professional suite of services, or a professional suite of applications, is something that’s really foreign to them. So they may or may not know how to navigate Word, right? I’ve met plenty of students who really have no idea they’re even in track changes. They have no idea that they’ve even turned them on. They just think it looks like that. Or when they need to print out a paper, they don’t know how to leave them on there so they can show their instructor what they did. And these are all things that they need training on. We can’t just assume that they know these things, but increasingly that’s become part of things we just expect them to know or to already have knowledge of.

Elise Dixon: Yes, I think something that that experience showed me too was that the Writing Center is often treated by both faculty and students as a go between of what students should know how to talk about and what faculty should know how to talk about. And in that case, I was a go-between. And really, the truth was that it wasn’t just a gap in student understanding, but also a gap, in fact, of this faculty member’s understanding of how to talk about how to use the technology. And we know, I think, as writing center administrators, we’ve seen an assignment sheet that a student brings into a session that don’t make no sense. And then realizing that the faculty member might not really fully know how to express in writing their own expectations of what writing looks like. When we have now this big gap in interpersonal experience, we can’t sit in a room with someone and say, “What do you mean by ‘markup?'” or whatever, we don’t get that chance to do the back and forth. One thing that I wanted to say in my little chunk of time, Eric was, we also are doing a lot of asynchronous tutoring this year. And it’s going very well. But I’m finding that, again, the work for me is finding ways to articulate how to access the technology, in such a way—through the technology—I have to teach people how to access the technology through the use of the technology and find ways to verbalize it, or put it in writing in a way that is most useful to students, and that it just feels sometimes like that gap in understanding is really more like a cavern, you know. It’s very, very tough.

Russell Mayo: If I can just jump in and add on to that, too. We’ve been working with asynchronous tutoring, which there was a little bit of that before [at PNW]. So similar to what Eric was saying, that is sort of new to the students and to the tutors. And, like you’re saying, Elise, communicating that through the technology rather than face-to-face, somebody just saying “I want an appointment, where do I even begin?” Normally, people would say, “go to the second floor, and go to that particular space.” And now they’re just emailing into the web and hoping that somebody can help them from there. But it reminds me, I think there are some really good points here about how, essentially, these are two different forms of communication—the face-to-face and the digital asynchronous—and how they require different levels of trust, and detail, and explanation, and back and forth, and all of these things that is really new to students, and also to us and faculty or administrators too. There’s a lot of learning going on, and learning is messy and frustrating and takes us, you know, one step forward and two steps back sometimes. 

I like this idea that you brought up, Eric, about how the Socratic questions and the “being there” nature of face to face tutoring is both something that we always talk about as being really essential. And, I talked about that a little bit in my talk as well, but also that sort of rhetoric allows us to overlook some of the potential benefits of asynchronous tutoring, like you said, for the student who needs to drop off the paper before work, who can’t just go to a tutoring session at noon. And you know, for our campus, we have two different campus locations across [Midwestern state] that merged in 2016. We have two different writing centers, one very small at the Westville campus, and one that’s a bit larger at the Hammond campus. This semester, we were able to pool those tutors together into our writing center online platform and to offer both online and asynchronous tutoring for people across the campus. So in a way, we are more accessible, we’re more versatile, and we’re more connected than we ever have been before. There’s something about being there, which is both a benefit but also potentially a drawback. Because if you’re not there, then you can’t take advantage of being there. But the tutors are really learning a lot about what it means to communicate, like you said. 

One of the ways we’ve been doing it is—and this is actually something that we did in my former university as a grad student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is that they adapted that I think it was just brilliant—is utilizing the communication technology between the tutor and the writer. So rather than writing up the client report form as being something for us or internal or potentially something that you email to a professor, we started to formulate it as a letter to the writer. So at the end of each session, the writer gets a letter summarizing what they did, encouraging them to keep going, talking about next steps and making sure that they feel welcome to come back. And so creating those forms as a student-facing document, as the audience for those. If your professor wants proof you came, you can forward that on to them, but that’s something that you can have that agency to do. I think just sometimes changing some of these communication techniques can be really powerful in a lot of ways. And that’s something that I’ve been reminded of that is new to what we’re doing this semester, and I think has been really, really beneficial. There’s a lot more than tutor back and forth between the writer and the tutor after that session is over. Normally, it’s just sort of sealed, but now there’s a lot more of that back and forth happening because that letter is forward-facing and generative too.

Eric Camarillo: Yeah, I think when it comes to, you know, face-to-face, or online or asynchronous, to me, it’s not really about, you know, “is one better than the other?” It’s that they’re different and they serve different students differently. Being able to drive half an hour to campus for an hour-long appointment, and then drive half an hour back is a privilege. Not all students can do it, especially working students who just don’t have time. And so being able to offer a variety of supports in a number of different ways, I think is a way to maximize that kind of accessibility. And I liked what you said, Russ, about a forward-facing document. UHV has something very similar, where they were essentially asked to do a couple of different things: they would leave feedback on the paper, they would write an email back to the students, and then they would write a form, just like a short note taking thing that was internal. And so the email was something that we spent a lot of time with training folks on how to do right, because one of the things made clear to me when I first came on board was the asynchronicity there where it’s the last thing that you’re writing, but it’s the first thing that the student is reading. So you have to take that into account as you’re generating it. 

And I think, Elise, to touch a little bit on your point too about how technology mediates this experience for students now and how we’re using writing to talk about writing. If students have to now read to understand, right, you can’t just verbalize it. So they already have to have, or try sometimes a little harder depending on who the student is, to understand what’s been written, so when working asynchronously, the student may not have as strong of a writing ability, but perhaps their reading ability could also be strengthened, right? And so there needs to be a bit more explanation, a bit more breaking down of things in that process. Which is why I wish there was more research on asynchronous tutoring practices, to be able to know what other institutions do and how they approach this kind of work. There are a variety of ways. One thing HACC is doing that I love that I never thought to do at UHV is that you as a student can submit a paper for feedback. And then they can request a Zoom follow up session about that paper, which I think is so cool. Because then you have a student and they’ve gotten this feedback and they want maybe more. They have other questions, they want to get that additional feedback. And now they can. They can just request a Zoom session through TutorTrac or sometimes a drop-in one if one is available, depending on the tutor’s availability. But I think this is one way, at least, I’m trying to maximize that flexibility that we currently have. What is for most people, a very stressful time to be anywhere but I think especially to be a student.

Elise Dixon: That makes me think of, you know, when I read through various writing center scholarship about online writing centers, quite frequently in my own research, especially up until 2010, a lot of the research was about how do we replicate a face-to-face collaborative session, right (Yergeau et al., 2008; Reno, 2010)? We’ve all been there. And this pandemic has really forced us into—maybe not forced but have given us some opportunities—to think through what you were saying, Russ, about what opportunities there are in new technologies or in using technologies in a different way that look, perhaps on the surface as not collaborative, which is what we always want, to have a collaborative writing center space. And when I first came to UNCP, I had never done an asynchronous tutoring program of any kind. And we already had one going partially because of a money situation, we were using And the administration had found out that our students were using—the writing portion of—and it was costing them $28 an hour, I think, to provide that service, when the writing center was already readily available and had open spots. And so our previous interim writing center director had a talk with our dean of the University College, and they both decided that it would probably be a best idea to just create an asynchronous tutoring opportunity through the writing center.

So often in my meetings this semester, even though I had some reticence over how do I make this a “collaborative” experience, I was also sort of being pressured: “Are you having a lot of asynchronous appointments? We want to make sure that you’re having a lot of asynchronous appointments because it’s all about, you know, the bottom line.” But over time, what I realized is that my students were very organically doing what you both were talking about in terms of the front-facing documentation. Because writing center tutors are trained or shown through our own work that we’re peers, that we want people to progress, and want them to learn how to be good writers on their own through our guidance. My tutors started organically having those conversations with students over email and making sure that their feedback was really explicit and gave step-by-step: “Maybe you should do this? How about this? These are three options for what you might do.” We tend to have this idea, and I think sometimes it stems from really our oldest most original writing center scholarship, like Jeff Brooks’ (1991) “Minimalist Tutoring,” that tells us that in order to be collaborative, we have to be hands off, and in order to be hands off we can’t touch the paper. And it’s very hard to be hands off when you are doing an asynchronous session. But we’re never not collaborating, even if it’s asynchronous. And, gosh, if there’s anything the pandemic has taught us it’s that we’re never not collaborating when we’re online with each other because people have continued to get things done—albeit, in weird and exhausting ways. But we have continued to get things done over the internet in many different ways. 

Russell Mayo: To build on that point, Elise, I think it’s really good to point out to the people who are in charge of budgets, or who ask questions about things like or other services: There’s something the writing center offers that goes beyond the bottom line, too, right, which is that it is a professionalizing space for the students who become tutors, and it’s a learning space. They learn so much about writing and rhetoric that our courses can’t teach them through that hands-on learning. And they move in a “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991) kind of way away from the periphery and more toward the center of what it really means to do academic writing and collaborative learning. And so it’s such an invaluable resource for the people who are tutors as well that an outsourced kind of website may be cheaper—although, as you’re saying, it’s not actually—it doesn’t offer those other benefits to the university community and the community of writers that I think we can develop at a center. 

Eric Camarillo: Yeah, we’re in “competition” with SmartThinking, our third-party service that we use. HACC had it when we were initially in that five-campus model that I mentioned before. Now we’re in a one-college model. In that five campus model there was—and there still is a virtual learning department, and they used SmartThinking, and it was initially only for their students. So the virtual students were students taking courses asynchronously, so they were the only ones really—I don’t want to say allowed to use it, anyone could’ve used it, but it was really for them, that’s why we subscribed to them or bought them whatever you want to call it. And now, with HACC’s Online Writing Lab, that’s one of the reasons I think we have the follow-up Zoom sessions, finding ways to differentiate us from SmartThinking tutors, not to mention the other feedback that we provide. For me, I’m also a big believer in the peer tutoring model or at least the context-oriented model, right, people who know and understand the institution. Not to discredit other types of tutors who work for these companies—they know the content, but not the context. They do not know who the instructor is, they do not know what their expectations are, and sometimes you have to know in order to give that kind of—I call it actionable feedback in my research. So this kind of, “I know this professor prefers it broken down in this way,” or “They may not think of the thesis in this one way, perhaps you can revise it to this other way.” 

And one point I also kind of wanted to jump on is how asynchronous tutoring really breaks from the traditional face-to-face model. So with minimalist tutoring—really great example. How do you give feedback without touching the document, you know? Without “writing” on it, you know what I mean? It’s impossible. I mean, there are other places that try and do it, and maybe they do like, just a letter and the letter will give feedback about the document, and it’ll give tips here pointing to particular sections but nothing in the paper itself. But, we know that Beth Hewett (2015) posits in her various research on online writing instruction that sometimes, and I don’t usually advocate for this, but sometimes writing within the text itself is what you should be doing, especially if you’re trying to model what a sentence could look like or what the various options are, right? So, while I’m very oriented toward just leaving the comments, there are others that definitely advocate for more what is definitely not minimalist tutoring, right? Or perhaps what it means is that you have to think about minimalism and collaboration differently in an online context. So, what does it mean to be minimalist when you’re leaving feedback? Maybe it means just leaving ten comments or something and being very selective about what that means. I think there are definitely ways to translate some of the best practices to an asynchronous paradigm, but there definitely needs to be a translation happening. Like, there won’t be a one-to-one, direct layover—or overlay—of those practices.

Russell Mayo: Okay, so to wrap up, maybe each of us could go around and share out a little bit about looking forward, looking forward to next semester, next year, of continuing our work in our new institutions, in our new roles. What are we excited about? What are we concerned about? Future challenges or plans in your centers. I guess I’ll leave it open there and either one of you can jump in.

Eric Camarillo: Yeah, I can start. What I’m really excited about is what new practices emerge as we better understand asynchronous tutoring. So, how do we better understand racism or antiracism, right? So, these issues that we’ve grappled with for so long with the traditional model, what does it mean now to grapple with them in the asynchronous space? So how do we achieve equity or racial justice, how do we embrace multiple languages, other types of discourses in an asynchronous context? I’m really looking forward to how writing centers continue having those conversations and what research develops. And I’m looking forward to hopefully also being able to contribute to those discussions. Those are things that are definitely interesting to me, right, learning more about how do we deal with both students who are hurting because of a pandemic that is maybe biologically related and students who are hurting from a pandemic that is more culturally related, right? Many things happened in 2020, but those two things stick out to me. A pandemic of both a virus and racism and a great reckoning of and working through—achieving antiracism. So that’s one thing I’m looking forward to, definitely, with asynchronous practices at least. 

And I guess my concern, really, is trying to adapt what we’re doing now in one way to, ultimately, perhaps a hybrid way, or when we go back to campus, which I believe will happen eventually. So, worrying a little bit about how we adapt our practices that have—you know, my institution has adapted really well to this context; we did a really tremendous job. What does it mean when we return to our five separate campuses? How do we divvy up resources? How do we divvy up the work? In what ways can we continue on with our online tutoring? Who will be assigned that kind of work?

Elise Dixon: Eric, those are such great concerns and excitements, and they seemed to be interconnected, which I think always happens. I think similarly. I just finished teaching my tutor training course, which happens every fall, and my tutor training courses are always very social justice oriented and we had lots and lots and lots of conversations about race and racism this semester, more than ever before for obvious reasons, I’m sure you can guess why. And what I think I’m most excited about is that—in my previous work, some of which is in The Peer Review (Dixon 2017, 2019), I tend to focus on wanting us to think through the everyday moments of our writing center, and especially the uncomfortable everyday moments of our writing center that we tend to gloss over. And what I saw in a virtual form was that one story I told you today about this markup situation. It was an uncomfortable everyday moment of the new “pandemical” research—or new “pandemical” writing center. And I was pleased to see that I and my tutors were able to notice, in those uncomfortable everyday moments, issues of power and equity and inequality (Denny, 2010; Greenfield & Rowan, 2011; Greenfield, 2019; McKinney, 2013). So, for instance, as I said, the conversation between this student and her professor was raced because we all are raced, and because of that there were power issues that existed, and I was pleased to see that it wasn’t just me that noticed those things but that my tutors noticed those things even in their asynchronous sessions.

And I think I look forward to finding ways to continue to have conversations about equity and equality and how we can foster that work in our writing center to create a more social justice oriented, activist writing center, and I look forward to knowing that it can be done online, asynchronously, in person, face-to-face, we can do it all. And I think that is also the great challenge that will be the great challenge of, I think, my writing center career, is finding ways to train tutors to holistically understand issues of equity so that when they are thrust into a new situation like they were this year that they have various tools to enact the activism that they can through whatever medium they have to. So, yeah, that’s my challenge and my excitement.

Russell Mayo: Wonderful. I want to echo what you both mentioned, and I think it was fantastic. I, too, am looking forward to bringing in critical questions about the work we do in schools and how with that, as scholars (Grimm, 1999) said, in spite of our “best intentions,” that we can do harm unintentionally in our work and, therefore, we need to be anti-oppressive and it’s not going to happen by happenstance. It has to be deliberate, and it’s not something you do once and then it’s over. So I look forward to having these conversations with tutors and with faculty about ableism and racism and all the other aspects that are wrapped up in the human work we’re doing, really. And I look forward to doing more with those conversations. One thing I’m really excited about, and that’s an exciting opportunity to be honest with you, I’m not—I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, I think it’s something that needs to happen and can happen more, and I think that it takes a long time for those conversations to really make a difference in a community, so I look forward to doing that. 

I also look forward to, so one of the ways of justification and justifying is something—one of the themes from the TPR, for this issue—one of the things that I did immediately was starting to have concerns and worry about justifying. What happens to those sessions that don’t get booked? Where we’re paying a tutor, but they don’t have a writer there? In a face-to-face or in an in-person writing center, there’s lots of work to be done in the space, but when tutors are working from home or not in the same room, what do we do with that time and how do we make it meaningful to the people who are paying their checks, really? So, we developed an ad hoc professional development research project, so the students could develop something. Some students are really taking over the social media—which they would’ve done if we’d been together—social media for the center. Some students are studying writing across the disciplines, interviewing engineering professors about what writing looks like in their courses, and some students are comparing different majors and looking at different pedagogies for engaging students and studying what it means to be a writing partner—you know, working with the same writer week after week for a whole semester, a very unique project or problem they’re engaged with.

What I’m really excited about in the Spring is that our tutors are going to be presenting on those, so we’re going to have a monthly meeting, which we didn’t have this semester, to have presentations. So tutors are going to be presenting their work, their professional development, ongoing questions, and inquiry projects. And then we’re just going to have some social time together because that’s something the tutors really, really missed. So just giving them that time to connect and bring in the new tutors that we’ll be training to connect with the tutors as well, to bring in more of a social sense of space that we didn’t have before because we lacked a place together, or we’re without that place for the temporary moment. So, really looking forward to those conversations and bringing those projects to bear and to learn from the tutors and with them as well.

So, I guess we should wrap up there. It’s so good to talk to you both and meet you finally, virtually. And thank you, thank you for doing this.

Elise Dixon: This was very invigorating. I don’t know how you all feel—I’m very excited.

Eric Camarillo: I am, yes.

Russell Mayo: Thanks!


  1. We want to acknowledge that this phrasing is perhaps somewhat oversimplified. Certainly, many students who have a great deal of privilege are struggling in the pandemic, and many students who experience various levels of marginalization and economic struggle have found ways to thrive. Regardless, studies have continually shown that socio-economics impacts educational success, and that is what we’re discussing in this passage.



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