By Ellen Cecil-Lemkin
Last week was the inaugural Online Writing Centers Association’s (OWCA) conference. OWCA is a new professional association (founded in 2020) with the mission of providing support to online writing centers, their professionals, and area of study. Starting off their first annual conference, OWCA’s call for proposals (CFP) invited presenters to consider a theme of interdependence—or “how the agency of individuals relies on others and environments” (“2021 Call for Proposals”).
The theme of interdependence draws heavily from work of disability studies. If you’re unfamiliar with disability studies, it’s a field which (broadly speaking) considers disability as socially constructed, understands disabled people as an oppressed group, and resists ableism. OWCA drew on these concepts to ask for proposals that reconsidered and troubled narratives of independence and dependence, created more inclusive and accessible tutoring support, reviewed methods for training staff in interdependence, and considered how COVID-19 has impacted this support within the context of online writing centers.
Centering disability did not end with the theme of the conference; instead conference organizers planned for access from the very beginning, one of the features that I think sets this conference apart from others in the field of writing center studies. Proponents of accessibility and inclusive design have long argued that conferences consider accessibility as a tacked-on addition, if it’s considered at all. This approach to accessibility has led many D/disabled conference attendees to be excluded and pushed out of conference spaces. (For more information about inaccessible conference designs and the impact they have on disabled attendees, check out the College Composition and Communication’s symposium “Enacting a Culture of Access in Our Conference Spaces.”) However, accessibility has been at the heart of the OWCA conference: planning from the very first conversations to writing and releasing the CFP to centering access in all presentations, something that the OWCA executive board and committee members have been intentional about. To give one such example, presenters were provided access to an accessibility guide and training on designing their conference materials. Presenters then had to submit their materials (transcripts and presentation slides) two weeks in advance in order to be checked for accessibility.
OWCA also took a committed stance to anti-racism. In addition to releasing a statement articulating their commitment to anti-racism on June 2, 2021, the conference organizers also took steps to enact these practices in their methods for soliciting and evaluating conference proposals. The Diversity and Social Justice committee spearheaded efforts to ensure that OWCA accepted proposals that were situated outside of white-hegemonic academic genre conventions and fairly evaluated all submissions. As part of this work and efforts towards accessibility, OWCA offered free one-to-one sessions with a conference organizer to anyone interested in submitting a proposal and who wanted to talk through ideas or get feedback on their submission.The planning and preparation of the conference organizers culminated in nearly 300 individuals registering for the conference and over 20 asynchronous and synchronous online presentations and workshops. In line with this year’s theme of interdependence, sessions ranged in topics from professional development to racial and linguistic identity to cultivating kindness. While all the presentations and workshops offer important contributions, I’ve selected three to highlight some of the diverse content available. To begin with, Megan Velez in “‘Are You Allowed to Help Me with This?’ Interdependence, Academic Integrity, and the Boundaries of ‘Help’ in Online Writing Centers” discussed how she navigated an administrator’s distrust of students utilizing the writing center to improve their writing. Ruge Zhao presented her dynamic assessment-informed tutoring practice for ESL writers in “Promoting ESL Students’ Writing Development in Online Synchronous Tutoring: A Dynamic Assessment Approach.” Finally, in the workshop “Being Here Now: Helping Students (and Ourselves) Write Our Way to Presence, Agency, and Connection,” Mary O’Shan Overton led attendees in chair yoga, mindfulness practices, and reflective writing to demonstrate how mindful wellness practices can benefit administrators, tutors, and writers.
Starting off and providing a focus to the conference was the plenary address “Embracing Interdependence in Online Writing Center Work.” Beth Nastachowski, Lisa Nicole Tyson, and Megan Boeshart Burelle discussed “various layers in which interdependence is a key part of [their] writing center work, especially in terms of collaboration and community,” and in doing so allowed attendees to consider how those layers operate in their daily writing center work.
The inaugural OWCA conference offered an exciting glimpse into how conferences can center accessibility, mentor developing professionals, and offer strong, relevant scholarship in the area of online writing centers. If you’re bummed you missed out on this new conference, you have until January 2022 to access conference recordings and materials from the sessions by becoming an OWCA member. Membership starts at $5 for students.
“2021 Call for Proposals.” Online Writing Centers Association, https://www.onlinewritingcenters.org/conference/cfp/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
Nastachowski, Beth, et al. “Embracing Interdependence in Online Writing Center Work.” Online Writing Centers Association, 2021.
Overton, Mary O’Shan. “Being Here Now: Helping Students (and Ourselves) Write Our Way to Presence, Agency, and Connection.” Online Writing Centers Association, 2021.
Velez, Meghan. “‘Are You Allowed to Help Me with This?’ Interdependence, Academic Integrity, and the Boundaries of ‘Help’ in Online Writing Centers.” Online Writing Centers Association, 2021.
Zhao, Ruge. “Promoting ESL Students’ Writing Development in Online Synchronous Tutoring: A Dynamic Assessment Approach.” Online Writing Centers Association, 2021.
Ellen Cecil-Lemkin is a Writing Center Faculty Associate and an alumnus of Florida State University’s Rhetoric and Composition doctoral program. She serves on the Accessibility Committee for the Online Writing Centers Association. Her research explores ways to create more accessible environments, especially in writing center. Ellen also enjoys learning embroidery and being a mom. Find her on Twitter or the web.