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Maintaining social cohesion in a time of social distancing

As we have gone virtual, maintaining social connection in our networks is important to us. We are still available to help you achieve the academic success you want!
Published March 20, 2020 by Julia Lane

Simon Fraser University made the call to cancel all in-person instruction for the rest of the academic term on Friday March 13th. Enacting such measures to protect our communities and those most vulnerable within them means creating safe distance between us. We see this as our duty of care to one another, as the ethical thing to do. -- Which it is. 

But many of us were left asking ourselves (and each other), "what do we do now?" How do we attend the need for connection in this time of isolation? How can we, in the Student Learning Commons, ensure that the empty tables in our physical consultation space do not tear holes in the social fabric we've helped weave at the university? 

What we are doing now

Just as communities are finding unique ways to recreate togetherness -- neighbourhoods of balconies joining together in song, clubs offering virtual dance parties -- the SFU SLC, too, has provided virtual spaces for connecting. After the decision to cancel in-person instruction, we quickly let our volunteer Peer Educators know that they would not be expected to travel to campus to offer consultations or attend group meetings. Shortly thereafter, we made the call to move away from in-person consultations altogether. 

Our next step was to find a solution to bring our consultations (and the few remaining workshops for the semester) into the virtual space. Graduate Facilitators and professional staff worked together to create a solution using a combination of WCO (to preserve our regular scheduling mechanisms) and Bb Collaborate (a tool found in Canvas, SFU's existing Learning Management System). 

We offered our first virtual consultations on Wednesday March 18th, less than three business days after the decision to move to virtual-only instruction at SFU. To book a virtual consultation with the Student Learning Commons, click here. 

That same day, we also offered our first webinar-style workshop (originally scheduled for in-person instruction), also using Bb Collaborate as our platform. We are planning to go ahead next week with a scheduled workshop on Successful Exam Writing using this webinar-style of instruction. To register for that workshop and get the link to connect, click here

We have also been directing students to Write Away (a regular part of our service model) and have been working together to address the significantly higher than normal demand for this support from online writing tutors. 

Moving forward

We are continuing to feel our way into this uncharted (for us) space of virtual support, and, of course we are experiencing some hiccups along the way. However, we are convinced that it is important to continue exploring these options for virtual support because it allows us to: maintain normalcy in a time of extraordinary uncertainty, continue to offer students support as they hone their skills as writers, and, most importantly, offer a face-to-face and voice-to-voice connection with others at a time when many are experiencing heightened levels of social isolation (for better and for worse).  

We have seen our virtual consultation schedule fill up over the past several days and have received many expressions of gratitude from students that our services continue to be offered, even as we all move off-campus. (Even our professional staff are all now working remotely). 

While it feels strange, given the circumstances, we are beginning to get excited about the new possibilities available from these virtual connections. Can virtual spaces offer our most vulnerable students -- those who are most anxious, those who are far from their home communities, those who are immune-compromised and therefore try to practice social distancing even in non-pandemic times -- a way of being with others while still maintaining healthy distance? We wonder if we nourish more than writing when we invite students into these spaces and provide important human connectivity at a moment that is, for many of us, unprecedented.

While we set up these structures quickly, in response to an emergency, we suspect they will continue to serve us even as we find our way back to "business as usual" (and now perhaps more accessible and inclusive) at the Student Learning Commons. 

Please take care of yourselves during this time of heightened stress and isolation. Reach out to learning-commons@sfu.ca if you need to connect with us. 

- Kate & Julia 

[Note: this content is reposted from the Canadian Writing Centre Association blog, where you can also read about what other Writing Centres have been doing across Canada]

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