During a Global Pandemic, UVA’s Writing Center Is Reinventing Face-to-Face Tutoring

A student writing.
A student writing.

In March, as faculty were faced with the task of bringing 4,200 classes online, one of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ most important student-support programs was completely reinventing how it operates.

In a normal year, the Writing Center at UVA offers in-person tutoring to students struggling with assignments, supports English-language learners, and coaches exceptional students working on the requirements for a Distinguished Major program or just looking for ways to take their writing to the next level. But when the University closed its classrooms in the spring in an effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the center was faced with the challenge of finding a way to remain an important resource for its students at a time when face-to-face interaction is no longer an option.

In less than two weeks after classes resumed, the Writing Center was back in business with a revamped online scheduling system that allows students to opt for real-time, virtual conversations and white-board sessions with writing consultants or for eTutoring exchanges in which students can get in-depth feedback within 48 hours.

“In March when we came back after spring break, I think it really only took a couple of weeks. Our consultants were ready to go almost immediately,” said Claire Chantell, an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Center at UVA who led the transition. “What took a couple weeks was just for students to realize that the Writing Center didn’t go away and getting that message out that we were still here.”

Today, 24 graduate and undergraduate writing consultants, representing a broad range of academic disciplines, are harnessing instructional technology to help students at all levels of ability understand complex or challenging assignments, develop clear and effective prose and master the complexities of a variety of styles from APA to MLA. Employing safe, socially-distanced interactions, the Writing Center allows students to make use of the center’s services from any place with internet access.

“It is a great resource for students who need particular kinds of support, but it is also an optimal resource for the most skilled students and for the students who are doing the most sophisticated work,” said Victor Luftig, interim director of the College’s writing and rhetoric program.

“One of the unhappy things that sometimes occurs in relation to student writing is that the student who gets the A winds up suffering for this because they may get fewer comments on their paper than the student who gets a D,” Luftig explained.

The problem is inevitable in larger classes, Luftig said, but the problem is only compounded when students are cut off from the classroom experience or the access to their instructor or their peer groups that they would normally expect.

“One way to mitigate that effect,” Luftig said, “is to steer students toward the Writing Center where they’ll get pointed in directions in which they can continue to expand and improve. The Writing Center gives detailed attention to every student, including the ones who are achieving at the highest level.”

“Writing can be really lonely and isolating, but having somebody there to get excited about your writing creates so much more motivation,” said Marcus Meade, an assistant professor in the Writing and Rhetoric program and one of the Writing Center’s administrators who helped make the transition to an online solution possible.

“For Claire and Marcus to take the initiative to create a really seamless transition of the Writing Center’s services, on top of all their other obligations, needs to be viewed as extraordinary service,” Luftig said. “And while I do think of it as extraordinary service, it’s not surprising service, because they are extraordinary people and extraordinarily dedicated both to the students who work for and with them and to the students they serve.”