Navigating the Transition to Online (Writing) Instruction During COVID-19: Challenges, Successes, and Early Lessons Learned

Bates faculty’s transition to remote instruction in March 2020 was an emergency pedagogy. Typically, remote instruction takes months of preparation and training; Bates instructors had a week. During this time they were also dealing with disappointed and fearful students, as well as their own precarious health and family situations. It was messy for all of us.

But even in the midst of the mess, there was hope, clarity, and resilience. In particular, we asked two instructors teaching W2 courses, which focus on disciplinary and interdisciplinary writing conventions (and anti-conventions!), and their course-embedded writing support tutors about the challenges they faced, the successes they had, and the lessons they learned. Knowing that our sudden COVID transition was an anomaly and likely never to be repeated, we can still gain some perspective from our reflections on it.

Professor Erica Rand was teaching two sections of AVGS 287: Gender & Visual Culture, and the students had been working on their second of three graded writing assignments when the pandemic hit: a paper thinking intersectionally, with sources, about the representation of gender in a contemporary artwork. Instead of sticking with a more traditional form for that assignment, Dr. Rand gave students the choice to write “several blog-type pieces” on the artwork they had chosen or to pitch their own idea for an alternative to this second paper.

In ENVR 337: Social Movements, NGOs, and the Environment, Professor Sonja Pieck had been guiding students in phases towards a 20-page “research paper modeled on a social scientific, case study-based journal article.” They had their research questions and topics selected, and had just completed a face-to-face workshop on the components of a literature review to ground their own arguments. Dr. Pieck then had to move the literature review peer review to fully online, which she did using the “Workshop” function of Lyceum, and offered her own feedback to students in writing and in one-on-one Zoom or phone consultations.

While both professors’ writing assignments were scaffolding students towards a final product, they chose slightly different paths to the finish line due to the COVID pandemic. Dr. Rand gave students greater choice, by allowing them, for their final paper, to either revise one of their two previous writing assignments, to build a final project from a class presentation or discussion thread, or to pitch something else altogether. Dr. Rand and the students conferred to assure these projects were still meeting course outcomes, and that they “ideally aimed to have about 10-15 pages altogether in a final portfolio composed of all the writing they turned in after we moved online.” Dr. Rand hoped the change would “accommodate different relations to sustained periods of attention and access to sources” that students were up against in the COVID transition.

On the other hand, Dr. Pieck doubled-down on the research paper, prioritizing it over course content and honoring students’ already considerable investment in their projects by then: “In that way,” she told me, “the W2 component ended up being the glue that held the course together these last weeks—a pleasant surprise for me.”

Both approaches worked well, suggesting that flexibility mattered. In particular, Dr. Pieck was pleased with how well the peer reviews went and that students took “great care” with providing “critical yet encouraging feedback” to each other. Dr. Rand enjoyed reading “assignments of varied length and form” in students’ final submissions: “I found that the opportunity to write shorter pieces—my own favorite writing form—suited many students.” This also encouraged Dr. Rand to rethink when argumentation and source research might be taught in future W2 course sequences. If it were more “front loaded” or “middle-loaded,” Dr. Rand concluded, “students can have even more flexibility on final writing projects.”

But challenges existed. In particular, Dr. Pieck wonders “whether there is a middle ground . . . between in-person/interactive and remote/asynchronous,” particularly in how to make a course “come alive” while still attending to “equity in access.” Dr. Rand was overwhelmed by the organizing logistics for the student-led  discussion threads, which substituted for the in-class topics they were supposed to facilitate based on a collectively-formed curriculum, a challenge the course-embedded tutors helped mitigate. “Their work was amazingly helpful,” Dr. Rand said. Though even then, keeping up with discussion thread responses was difficult.

Both professors placed a high value on their course-embedded tutors’ collaborative spirit and willingness to work through the COVID challenges to continue their support of W2 writers. Dr. Rand explained, “I can’t say enough about how fabulous Priscila [Guillen], Mayele [Alognon], and Callie [Abouzeid] have been as co-organizers and thinking partners.” Dr. Pieck commented on how her “wonderful PWSA,” Grace Warder, “immediately sprung into action to support the class!” This reflection highlights the importance of one of the staples of the Bates academic writing experience: plentiful skilled peer tutoring, which we are poised and ready to provide in the 2020-2021 school year, whether online, hybrid, or in some version of person-to-person.

We also learned a few things from our peer tutors during this transition. Generally, they stayed very busy! Having had already established relationships with many students in the W2 courses was likely what helped students feel comfortable reaching out for remote support. A big change, however, was the switch from entirely face-to-face, synchronous support to entirely remote and asynchronous tutoring. This support, as Grace pointed out, “quickly became centered around GoogleDocs.” Though Zoom, Lyceum, and WCOnline were available as tutoring platforms, the tutors and student-writers seemed much more comfortable using a combination of email and GoogleDocs for comments and editing, for giving and receiving feedback, and even for asking follow up questions. Peer Educator Mayele spoke about the unique COVID-related challenge of “getting familiar with certain technology and figuring out the best way to easily and productively communicate with students.” Callie said that the challenges of online peer tutoring really made her “appreciate in person tutoring.” 

Hermione Zhou, a peer tutor in another 300-level Environmental Studies W2, noted that students really seemed to enjoy using GoogleDocs for communicating about their writing. Hermione even noted that, in remote learning, “being open to more options and possibilities of supporting students via different channels can work really well. I was reluctant to use GoogleDocs before remote learning but found it super useful during this period.” Grace’s student-writers also preferred asynchronous GoogleDocs support over synchronous Zoom support. Grace noted that “Zoom is often awkward and leaves obvious gaps in the ability to connect with another student over a piece of writing,” whereas GoogleDocus “forced me to be more purposeful and concise in the feedback I gave since I didn’t want to be sending back long paragraphs of feedback and overwhelming students.”

One interesting point that tutor Grace brought up was the challenge her peers faced when they were “no longer in the headspace of academic thinking and writing”—that doing a “hypothetical [academic] writing exercise in a home environment,” when, typically, they were in an “environment of academia provided by living on Bates campus,” made it “difficult” for her peers to finish and for her “to make [the] work relevant.”

Perhaps, next year, this insightful comment may help us reconsider the kinds of writing assignments that we ask students to complete in our W2s:

  • Are shorter writing assignments as effective as longer, typical research papers? 
  • What are the writing alternatives we might test out, particularly if we are partially or fully online? 
  • What role can course-embedded peer tutors play in providing us with ideas about the kinds of writing assignments students will find engaging and meaningful in the time of COVID, particularly if students are displaced, removed, and disconnected from the typical Bates academic environment? 
  • How might we build upon and create spaces where the writing tasks we assign are meaningful?

We might start by considering what Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Learner conclude in their 2016 research study, The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education.  Eodice et al, found that writing projects become meaningful for students when they combine the following characteristics in a productive way, asking students to:

~ tap into the power of personal connection;

~ see what they’re writing as applicable, relevant, real world, and connected to their future selves;

~ immerse themselves in what they’re thinking, writing, and researching, including engagement in the processes of writing. (108-109)

Are you interested in developing or revising your course writing assignments to make them more meaningful? Wondering how you might use your course-embedded PWSAs or TWAs—or ARC writing tutors—more effectively? Please reach out to your Writing@Bates writing specialists, Drs. Stephanie Wade and Bridget Fullerton; we’d be more than happy to chat about writing and peer tutoring with you, particularly as you think about teaching meaningful assignments and engaging peer tutors remotely in the coming months.