By Jennifer Conrad, Faculty Associate in the Writing Center
The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will—diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows—weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.
—Sarah Manguso, “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary”
When we entered the spaces of online learning a year ago, few of us could have guessed what the time would hold. On the one hand, this past year has been one of shared experience: all of us are finding our way through a global pandemic, with all of its uncertainty, political and social unrest, boredom, loneliness, and other associated experiences. On the other hand, this time has been deeply individual: each of us passing time in our quarantine “bubbles.”
On March 10, 2021, the New York Times published a long piece titled “7 questions, 75 artists, 1 very bad year,” in which makers of various kinds responded to open-ended interview questions. Using these queries as a jumping-off point for the ones below, I invited our Writing Center staff members to reflect on the past year, writing, “Know that while you’re welcome to center your experience within the Writing Center and your academic department, you’re absolutely encouraged to include anything that provides a fuller picture of you and your identities.”
The Writing Center, as mentioned in previous posts, is operating fully online this academic year. In the opening salvo of the pandemic, this meant that we transitioned to asynchronous, written instruction. In the summer, we met with students in real time using the synchronous meeting feature of WCOnline, our appointment management system. Last fall and this spring, we’ve continued meeting with students individually in this context while using Zoom and BBCollaborate Ultra for our workshops and meetings with writing group participants. Each has its affordances; none match up exactly with our in-center tutoring in the Before Time.
Though we are still very much in the “the ongoingness of the pandemic,” as one respondent to my inquiry pointed out, there’s little doubt that this event, which some have termed a “mass trauma,” is something that will mark—and is still marking—our present experience (cf. a recent announcement of a cluster hire in “pandemic-related research” in the College of Arts and Science at Oklahoma State University). Another respondent stated that reflecting right now feels unhelpful, “like a scab picked open but instead of just picking it open today, I’m reaching back in time with a knife to cut open the wound early.” This response highlights one of the tensions of trauma: when something is still actively underway, or when one is lucky enough to find that healing may have begun, what does it mean to revisit the site of the wound? Said in another way, what good is there in seeking to understand something when the process itself is (re-)traumatizing?
In a follow-up message to my initial request, I acknowledged “the rawness that may come up in thinking about the past year” and offered that “I did not intend for these questions to open any places that may be difficult to dwell on.” Yet there is something to be said for noting the passage of time, for shaping language to the contours of experience, and for not allowing the rupture(s) that the pandemic has created to pass unremarked. The poet Edmund Jabès, in the dedication to his second Book of Questions, writes of “the edge of knowing” where “The light of going on became our logic.” For Paul Celan, language is that which remains “unlost amid the losses”, and so I suppose this post at its foundation represents an attempt to accumulate, to compile, to record.
Seeing the pandemic from up close, as we still are, it can be hard to make meaning from the fragments that are still making themselves felt. Yet I believe there is value in allowing the fragments that constitute our “now” to exist in their full patterning. In putting together this blog post, it is my intent to open windows into what has shaped experience and helped each of us to “get by,” as someone who responded to my query so aptly phrased it. What can we share in this context that will create a record of the experiences, emotions, etc. that have characterized this year?
It’s my hope that hearing our voices together in this context will create an historical document of the past year we’ve all undergone—one that will, if nothing else, stand as a record of this particular moment in our individual—and, by accumulation, collective—histories.
What have you learned about yourself as a writing center instructor over the past year?
In a time when I have had so few unplanned conversations or incidental meetings new people, I have learned that I really cherish the way that being a writing center instructor continually brings me into (more than surface-level) contact with new people. —Amanda P.
Having previously virtually taught and tutored for a writing center in the past, I had a lot of experience with virtual work that I thought would help me when I started as a Faculty Associate in a fully virtual setting last August. It did help, but this fall was also very different from my previous virtual work. I previously taught on Zoom when Zoom classes weren’t the default and “Zoom fatigue” wasn’t widely in our vocabularies. Then, most students would have cameras on, and being able to show off one’s pet and things in their rooms was novel. When I started with the Writing Center in August, all of campus was gearing up for the first full totally virtual semester. A lot of my previous strategies with Zoom teaching weren’t relevant in an all or mostly virtual semester amid a global pandemic. Now, I’ve learned that I don’t need the level of obviously observable engagement that I would have thought of as essential in the past. A thumbs-up Zoom reaction here and there goes a long way at this point of virtual work. In a workshop with K-12 English teachers last fall, we talked about how educators and administrators were dismayed by the perceived lack of student engagement, but we also felt that engagement looks different right now, so we just needed other ways to look for it. While I look forward to the energy that I gain from the engagement that comes with in-person teaching and tutoring, I’ve learned that I can find it online too. Finally, I have learned that I deeply enjoy virtual writing groups. At first, the disadvantages of running a virtual writing group were obvious, and I wondered if writing groups would be effective without someone being able to look over my shoulder to see that I’m on Twitter or if I could get a feeling of community from a list of participants names on Zoom. Now, the advantages are much more obvious than any potential limitations. Everyone has all the things they need with them, people can participate from around the world, and people can participate while providing care for children, just to name a few. While I’ve never been known to be optimistic, I deeply appreciate a lot of the affordances of virtual writing center work. —Dottie M.
I need to better prioritize mutual accessibility. If I seek to make sessions both accessible for the student and myself, I can provide much stronger writing support to students. —Amy G.
When UW pivoted to online instruction in spring 2020, I was leading a graduate writing group and had to learn to be flexible in the new online format. That experience, along with teaching an undergraduate writing course in the fall 2020 and spring 2021, forced me to think about how to build community in online spaces. I’m sure this is something that other writing center instructors and teachers have been working on. For me, this past year reinforced the importance of one-to-one conversations about students’ academic lives and their writing. Though conversations over Zoom cannot replicate face-to-face conversations, I was reminded of how important one-to-one interactions are for helping students feel supported and that they matter in a time of isolation. —Mike H.
I transitioned into a new position [as a Faculty Associate] at the Writing Center in the midst of pandemic. In some ways, because I never worked in this role pre-pandemic, remote work doesn’t seem unusual to me. I’ve come to enjoy the rhythms of working at home—brewing coffee in the morning, giving my cat a quick cuddle in between meetings, and taking mid-day walks around my neighborhood. —Lisa M.J.
I’ve learned that I work best in a quiet and familiar space. The hustle and bustle of our in-person writing center is fun, but when I am in my home and chatting with a writer over video, I’m so much more focused. It’s easier to connect with each writer when you are the only two people in your virtual space. I also feel more like myself in my home space, which makes relationship-building easier too. —Mia A.
That I am really passionate about helping people feel more confident about their writing. —Danielle N.
What did you do (make, write, give attention to, etc.) this year?
I spent way too much time thinking about the students who “ghosted” me. Did they not show up because they had to deal with a difficult situation at home? Or did they not care because it’s a gen-ed class? Was my teaching that unbearable? Or did they drop my course because they didn’t want an accented Asian woman to teach them writing? “It’s not personal”—I was told. But seriously, what did I do wrong? —Weishun L.
This year (and previous ones!), I gave a lot of attention to television and podcasts. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but this year, I’ve deeply leaned into making elaborate meals that I’d never make if I had a commute time and had to consider having leftovers to bring into work or meal prepping for the week. Additionally, I love the act of making visual art, but being creative with visual arts can be stressful to me. So, I’ve re-embraced coloring books and paint-by-numbers, which were old hobbies that I’ve returned to in the past year. I’ve also made a lot of personalized word searches and crossword puzzles to send in the mail to friends, which is something I did a lot and enjoyed as a way to connect with people when I was in the Peace Corps and had no internet and spotty cell phone service. Finally, I’ve collaborated to make many hours of audio storytelling for an activist organization for asylum seekers. Reflecting on a year of barely leaving home and seeing other people, I can say that I’ve returned to a lot of the things that have given me joy in the past. —Dottie M.
I worked on my dissertation and prepared for (an abysmal) job market. I also tried to be with family while following health guidelines. Spending time with my partner (Jennifer), my parents, my brother and sister, and my two-year-old nephew Henry has been joyful. —Mike H.
Nourishment. The pandemic, global responses, resurgences of eugenics, and Black Lives Matter protests all helped illuminate what relationships in my life, at work, and beyond were nourishing not only myself, but the world around us. Having a keener sense of where to direct my energy has, I believe, also made me a more compassionate and confident person. As a writer, I have achieved a new boldness in my voice that empowers me. —Amy G.
This year, I put a lot of time and attention into nature photography. I love capturing small, overlooked creatures, like mushrooms and frogs. Once the weather got cold and I wasn’t hiking as much, I took some of my frog photos and collaged them into absurd Christmas cards for my family and friends. It was a fun and escapist way to end 2020. —Mia A.
This year I’ve been gentle and compassionate with myself and my expectations around work and productivity given these difficult and challenging times. But focusing on writing parts of my dissertation has also felt therapeutic. —Danielle N.
For six months, I wrote a long poem about the pandemic, though at first I did not know I was writing about the pandemic. The poetry showed up in couplets nearly every day and then, in June, ceased abruptly. I made bread from yeast that expired in 2010 (it worked). I learned a lot about houseplants. I painted the kitchen, one cupboard door at a time. My cooking block (like a writer’s block, but for cooking!) grew exponentially. I co-directed the summer Writing Center and interviewed for my present job. Even when I was sick or in the thick of grief in response to what might euphemistically be termed “life events,” I still recognized the extent of my luck and privilege. —Jenny C.
I spent a lot of time with my toddler, who really had a language explosion at the beginning of the pandemic – it’s been one of my favorite parts of parenting so far, to watch him make sense of the world in words. I also wrote and defended my preliminary exam portfolio and became PhD candidate. —Amanda P.
I’ve always hated cooking, but at the start of the shutdowns I found a lot of comfort in searching for interesting and complex cooking recipes and making them. I made a lot of food that I would never have even attempted before and it made me appreciate cooking. —Ellen C.-L.
In the past year I’ve welcomed opportunities to learn innumerable new skills and to take part in conferences, workshops, and activities that I never would have been able to travel to in person. My teaching and administrative skills will be better because I’ve had this experience. At the same time, I’ve become acutely aware how much is expected of teachers in a crisis like this. So many colleagues and I have worked around the clock throughout the pandemic to meet the challenges of moving and continuing instruction entirely online. I’ve learned that I have the capacity to acquire new knowledge and work more than I ever have before. It has been energizing and absolutely exhausting. I hope that, as a new normal comes into focus, there can be formal acknowledgment of the heroic work of educators in K-12 and higher ed throughout this pandemic. —Emily H.
The pandemic afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty of my neighborhood (Vilas) much more fully than I had before. A baby owl was born near my house just as the pandemic began. His screeching and the reassuring hoots of his parents marked my work day’s end and motivated me to go “owling” each evening. Sometimes my kids came along and we bonded as we scanned the trees for the familiar silhouette. Becoming more aware of my surroundings and of the beauty and preciousness of each sunset is a small silver lining I will carry forward as my life resumes its previous hectic pace. —Emily H.
What would your present self tell your one-year-ago self?
“Go slow. No, slower. I mean, really slow. Actually, just stop.” —Amy G.
I’d tell myself that while it’s useful to be informed and be aware of what’s going on in the world, being constantly engaged in the news/social media is probably not great. I think I’d tell myself to try to contribute positively to the world where I can, while being aware that some things are out of my control, even though they may upset me or make me outraged. —Mike H.
“Sanitizing everything probably isn’t the best use of your time.” —Ellen C.-L.
“Spend as much time as you can outside and with your family, and check in on your loved ones daily. Don’t feel guilty for refusing to move forward with business as usual. There’s no right way to do a pandemic.” —Amanda P.
“There is something called a Nintendo Switch. It will enter your home and, thanks to ______, you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about video games. Just nod and smile. It will be OK.” —Jenny C.
“It’s going to be better than you think. Also, don’t bother having your groceries delivered. It’s a fiasco.” —Mia A.
“Pace yourself.” —Danielle N.
I took these photos from James Madison Park on March 24, 2020, which was 13 days after we received the first announcement that classes would be moving online at UW-Madison. Students in our undergraduate Rose Writing Studio course had shared with me and their peer mentors that they were already missing the sense of community we had in our classroom. I was very much alone when I took the photos on the lakeshore on March 24. The photos show chunks of ice on the rocky shore of Lake Mendota under the sunset. Sheets of winter ice had snapped into jagged pieces that piled against the rocks. For me, these photos symbolize the sense I had at the time that we were living on a different planet—one where our previous understandings and everyday lives were breaking apart. It was an alien world, and I had a profound sense that when things come back together, they won’t quite be the same. But in both our educational spaces and the world at large, I think we can build something new out of what has happened while remembering everything we lost this year. I am looking forward to building community with writers as we return. —Brenna S.
What’s on your mind as the possibility of a “new normal” comes into focus?
This past year living through a global pandemic has changed us in so many ways and I hope we can all support each other as we make this transition back to a “new normal.” —Danielle N.
It’s hard to truly believe that the virus will ever be under control. We’ve all heard so many different prognostications about when we’ll be able to be “normal” again—”in a few weeks,” “by summer,” “before Christmas,” “by March,” and now “July 4.” At this point, normal is a receding horizon. —Lisa M.J.
I’m concerned with speed (heard in “Zoom”, felt in the pressure to appear on it, tangible in the turn-around that prevents retrospection, and hidden by the promised return [to what?]). The transparency speed presupposes, the transparency that often appears as anything but behind the glitches in sound and gaps in transmission of remote learning, forces me to recall and reaccentuate Édouard Glissant as we face the prospect of a “normal” challenged by the “new”: “We [must now and without recourse to the speed of the “now”] clamor for the rights to opacity for everyone.” —Brian M.
I am so grateful for vaccines. And am very ready to resume public life. Especially concerts, but also just everyday hangs with friends and family, and traveling. —Amanda P.
How can we keep the lessons that we learned about access and accessibility in mind as we return to more face-to-face offerings? —Ellen C.-L.
Even though I have been away from my home in Sri Lanka for over five years, I felt for the first time what distance meant when I couldn’t go back home to my parents. The island’s airport closed and there was no physical access. I experienced the oceans in between in a way that I had never had before. Growing up as a Buddhist I was familiar with the idea that life was fleeting; the metaphor often used is, as fleeting as a dew drop on the edge of a blade of grass. During the pandemic, this idea became very real. Living in this moment was no longer a choice, it was something I was forced to do. I kept telling people like a mantra, “just one day at a time,” “count my blessings.” I actually meant these things now, and they brought me relief. I had moments of deeply felt gratitude for things like food, a roof over my head, the fact that I was not sick, yet. As horrifying as the pandemic was, in pre-pandemic times I often didn’t feel like I had the license to take one day at a time; I am expected to make plans, think ahead, be proactive. Last year I simply couldn’t because I didn’t know what the next day would bring. So, I was secretly, guiltily, relieved that I could just take one day at a time without feeling like I was somehow inadequate. I suppose what’s on my mind as the “new normal” comes into focus is to hold on to that “reality” of how fleeting life is, because I know I’m going to forget, it’s all going to fade away; just like when I’m ill or in pain I think to myself “all I want, all I want is to feel better, I want nothing else.” A day later there is already so much that I want. I forget so easily. I hope I remember what “essential” work is and what is “essential” to my well-being and the well-being of others. —Samitha S.
I’m deeply concerned about people’s trust and faith in institutions of all kinds (government, education, etc.). This is a broad sentiment. Basically, I think the past year has highlighted multiple flaws in institutions, and certain leaders in those institutions, who claim (implicitly at least) that they know best and should be trusted. I’m aware that this problem is not anything particularly new in this country’s history, but the new variable seems to be different forms of media, like social media, which is very good for fomenting division and spreading misinformation, not for dialogue about how to work through these problems. If we want a better “new normal,” people who have rightly felt left behind or discarded by various institutions need to be heard and taken seriously. I hope that if we can focus on notions of “interdependency,” and get people talking about how success and flourishing is not a zero-sum game for some in our society (“winners and losers”), we can make progress. But that requires leaders who can work together. Thankfully, I think our writing center and virtually all centers are committed to this idea of interdependency. So for us, I’m very hopeful. —Mike H.
I’m hoping that our “new normal” incorporates much of the compassion and flexibility we’ve afforded one another over the past year, especially when it comes to work-life balance. We’ve shown that so much can be done to accommodate what each one of us needs. Why go back to pre-pandemic rigidity? —Mia A.
 with thanks to Jon H. for his use of this phrase in an email to me
 Anne Carson’s translation in Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan
 Aaron V. raised some excellent questions about the uses of reflecting on the pandemic in his emails to me. He wrote, “All the things I do I just do because I have to [in order] to get by.” Another friend, in conversation, recently expressed a similar (if more dire) sentiment, stating that most of her decisions in the past year were made “in order not to die.”
The header image for this post was provided by Dottie M., who says about it, “I started this in-progress paint-by-number of Copenhagen in November—slow and steady wins the race!“
With many thanks and much appreciation to all who contributed to this post: Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum Interim Co-Director and Undergraduate Writing Fellows Program Director Emily Hall; Faculty Associates Ellen Cecil-Lemkin, Lisa Marvel Johnson, and Dorothy Mayne; Writing Center instructors and TA leadership team members, present and past, Aaron V., Amanda P., Amy G., Brenna S., Brian M., Danielle N., Jon I., Mia A., Mike H., Samitha S., and Weishun L.