In March of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic closed campus facilities, the Graduate Writing Fellows (GWFs) at U.C. Davis transitioned writing consultations from in-person sessions to synchronous digital sessions over Zoom. In the Winter of 2020, I interviewed three GWFs about the transition and inquired about the tools they found most helpful in these digital sessions. Each of these GFWs were experienced with in-person consultations and as such were able to reflect on the difference. Our conversations revealed the challenges that the new digital interface presented for experienced tutors; specifically, that tutors struggled to establish and maintain the same level of emotional connection with their consultees in the Zoom sessions compared to their in-person sessions. However, these tutors also found new ways to emotionally connect and empathize with their students via new technological tools, despite the very real physical divide between them.
The Emotional Side of Tutoring
The emotionality of writing tutoring was starkly presented in each of my interviews with GWFs. During Zoom consultations, GWFs battled technological constraints to maintain the emotional connection with their tutees despite numerous challenges such as unexpected internet connectivity issues, tutees keeping their cameras off resulting in tutors communicating with disembodied voices, and difficulty finding the best technological tools for reviewing work. Each of these instances demonstrated to the tutors how much of their work was truly emotional work. As one tutor expressed: “Writing can be really personal and can sometimes get emotional and that’s a lot harder to handle virtually”. This GWF described a Zoom session where a consultee started crying due to the pressure they were under with their writing. As the internet dropped in and out, the tutor waited for the right moment to connect with the tutee. When it never came, the tutor was left feeling helpless to comfort the person. This experience was difficult for both GWF and consultee; it highlighted the painful loneliness of quarantine and captured what the writing fellows described as the “disconnected”, “transactional” experience of tutoring over Zoom.
Writing Center scholarship strongly acknowledges the emotional dimensions of tutoring. In their pilot study of tutor perceptions of emotion, Oweidat and McDermott (2017) found that tutors believe that empathy is part of their jobs, emphasizing the emotional aspect of writing tutoring. Perry (2016) argues that writing sessions are inherently emotional and built tutor training that fosters “empathetic engagement with clients’ emotional states” (n.p.) in order to better manage and recognize this emotional dimension. Recently, Driscoll and Wells (2020) made a case for developing the emotional intelligence of tutors in “recognition of the importance of tending to both cognitive and emotional domains in writing center tutorials” (p. 20), emphasizing a need to tutor the “whole person” versus just the product of writing. This scholarship confirms that emotional connection is salient part of the work of writing tutors and explains why the difficulty GWFs experienced as a result of digital consultations in making emotional connection felt so important.
Tools for Connection
Over time, the tutors realized they could begin to build emotional connection with their consultees despite the limitations they experienced. First, during sessions, tutors began using Google Docs in tandem with their tutees as a preferred tool for reviewing texts. While concerns arose regarding ownership of the text in this space, the ability to work simultaneously within the same document seemed to better connect the tutors to tutees and their writing, and vice versa. The tutors regarded the Google Doc space as a “collaborative”, “shared” space with their tutee, unlike a static Word Document or a shared screen. This sentiment is also found in research that suggests Google Docs’ collaborative function is helpful for student learning (Liu & Lan, 2016) and produces better writing experiences (Blau & Caspi, 2009). Further, Google Docs used in these sessions allowed the GWFs to have access to the entire text, rather than a snapshot of the text through screensharing where it was “much harder to get a sense of the overall organization of the document” and provide accurate feedback.
More importantly, elements of Zoom consultations that began as logistical necessities, such as introductory scheduling emails, became ways for tutors to bring additional humanity to sessions. Prior to the digital sessions, GWFs had no contact with their consultees until the consultee walked into the room; in the era of Zoom sessions, tutors now used intro emails to welcome their future tutees, express excitement about the session, setting the stage for each session. For some tutors, this set a positive tone for the consultation that they and their tutees benefitted from.
These communications also allowed tutors to learn more about each person and their goals prior to the session, which did not occur before in-person sessions. As one GFW noted, when consultees receive the introductory email informing them that they were free to choose the topic of the writing consultation session, consultees felt more able to open up about their overall writing needs rather than feeling pressured to just focus on a single text. Because the emails also served to set up the priorities for each session, tutors also felt there was more time to work on the writing and addressing consultee concerns in the consultation than before. In the interviews, some tutors even suggested this practice should continue when in-person consultations resume.
Overall, while the tutors at U.C. Davis found creative ways to leverage technology to connect and humanize their time with tutees, the time spent online made each tutor realize that much of their work as a tutor was emotional work— work that was made more difficult and more distant by their own fatigue. As one said, “I realize now that like 25% of this work is coaching and connecting with the person”.
Digital Consultations in a Post-Covid World
The dramatic shifts that occurred do to the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to have long-lasting effects on how GWFs conduct consultations in the future. Each GWF who was interviewed commented that while the transition was difficult to manage initially, the Zoom consultations were a welcome, flexible alternative to solely offering in-person consultations, suggesting that this could be a complimentary offering to in-person consultations in the future. As such, the lessons learned by the inaugural GWF digital consultations will be invaluable in assuring that future digital sessions are productive for both the GWF and consultee and that some semblance of the emotional connection between tutor and tutee is maintained.
Blau, I., & Caspi, A. (2009). What type of collaboration helps? Psychological ownership, perceived learning and outcome quality of collaboration using Google Docs. In Proceedings of the Chais conference on instructional technologies research (Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 48-55).
Driscoll, D. L., & Wells, J. (2020). Tutoring the whole person: Supporting emotional development in writers and tutprs. Praxis, 17(3).
Liu, S. H. J., & Lan, Y. J. (2016). Social constructivist approach to web-based EFL learning: Collaboration, motivation, and perception on the use of Google docs. Educational Technology & Society, 19(1), 171-186.
Oweidat, L., & McDermott, L. (2017). Neither brave nor safe: Interventions in empathy for tutor training. The Peer Review, 1(2).
Perry, A. (2016). Training for Triggers: Helping Writing Center Consultants Navigate Emotional Sessions. In Composition Forum (Vol. 34). Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition.