The Moveable Feast — How USD’s Writing Center Stayed Open During the COVID-19 Crisis

The Moveable Feast — How USD’s Writing Center Stayed Open During the COVID-19 Crisis

In his memoir, The Moveable Feast, American author Ernest Hemingway retraces his path to becoming a writer, chronicling how he came to understand that writing isn’t so much about writing as it is about “rewriting.”

Writing as a recursive process, or “rewriting,” has been the pedagogical approach in USD’s Writing Center since its inception in 1977. During one-on-one in-person sessions, Writing Center consultants collaborate with student writers who come in during different stages in the writing process. For 40 years, the Center has continued to serve the USD community in the same way.

However, when COVID-19 started spreading, and USD leaders decided to shutter the university, the Writing Center had some rewriting of its own to do. If the doors to Founders Hall, Room 190B, couldn’t remain open to the 1,500-plus students it serves in an academic year, it would have to make some quick, hard pivots.

During the first week in March, Hugo Werstler, executive assistant for the Writing Program in the Department of English, had been receiving updates from the system operators at WCONLINE, the online source the Writing Center uses to book appointments. The system operators were expanding the online tutoring module, and informed us they were prepared to transition our services online should the need arise. The prescient decision made by WCONLINE combined with Werstler’s quick thinking gave us the agility we needed to change course.

On March 9, I gave Werstler the approval to explore the online modules to see whether or not they offered comparable capabilities with our current in-person services. Werstler, along with Writing Program Director Amanda Moulder, PhD, had already begun the “what if” conversations with the Writing Center staff. Writing Center coordinators Nicholas Cohn and Jordane Schooley, plus Federal Work Study student Anthony Cataranzo, explored the operational side of the system. Within a few days, Werstler and the Writing Center staff identified the key components of the new module we would use to take our service online.

An underlying health condition forced me to leave campus a few days before the campus itself closed but, in the ensuing days, Werstler and the entire Writing Center staff were ready to train the consultants on the new system.

On March 12, just three days after the initial alert from WCONLINE, the Writing Center staff held its weekly scheduled training workshop at 1 p.m., during which the Writing Center staff trained 35 consultants on how to switch to online tutoring. Even more remarkable, for a group of students who are drawn to the in-person act of collaborative process, every consultant committed to maintaining their same consulting schedule in a virtual setting — 105 hours of weekly sessions would continue to be available to our USD student population.

On March 25, 12 days after USD closed its doors, we moved our feast to the virtual world. To date, we have served over 200 students. Although there have been a few glitches as consultants experienced unanticipated problems with audio or video, and others found more user-friendly platforms for keeping documents or chats, the writing process continues unabated.

What can’t be replicated, however, is the camaraderie among the consultants who found their USD home inside the walls of Founders Hall, Room 190B. Missing in the lack of physical connection is the elusive nature of being one and the same, yet uniquely different. Those walls hold all their stories, and the words and stories of all who entered in real time over the last 20 years.

In the fall, the Writing Center will move (fingers crossed) to the new Learning Commons, where the feast will continue.

— Deborah Sundmacher, Writing Center Director

The University of San Diego’s Writing Center is an inclusive community serving undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines. In one-on-one consultations, our experienced consultants provide critical reflection and constructive feedback during the multiple stages of the writing process, from planning to composing to revision. In this process, it is our goal to help students develop strategies for improving their writing, for gaining confidence in their writing, and for developing educational independence.

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