Teaching in an Emergency: Writing Centers, Wildfires, and What We Take With Us

Technology, Uncategorized / Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

By Leigh Elion –

Leigh Elion has been a lecturer in the Writing Program at UC-Santa Barbara since Fall 2017. Before then, she was a doctoral student in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison and worked in the Writing Center from 2010-17, where she served as TA Coordinator, Coordinator of Multicultural Initiatives, Summer Outreach Coordinator, and Director of the Summer Writing Center.

This blog post was supposed to be published on December 11, 2017. Having just received my PhD from UW-Madison and moved on to my first full-time academic appointment, I’d planned to use this space to reflect on all of the Writing Center teaching I’d done at UW, remember the hundreds of students I’d worked with across various locations and formats, and give them credit for preparing me to work and teach in a new institution and to participate more fully in my new community. I’d planned to consider how working with writers in disciplines from Mechanical Engineering to Pharmacy to Sociology to Theater had given me the opportunity to learn about fields I would have never otherwise had a chance to encounter during my time as a graduate student, and to argue that writing center work helps to achieve all sorts of goals of a liberal education. We talk often about teaching transfer in the Writing Center, about how to help students develop rhetorical skills and efficacy to work across new situations, but less often about teaching transfer – about how teaching skills and knowledge gained in one setting prepare us for new and different settings.

But, on December 4, fire broke out near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, about 50 miles from where I live and 60 miles from where I now teach at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Fueled by drought-parched vegetation and hot Santa Ana winds, the fire quickly spread throughout Ventura County and into Santa Barbara County. By December 19, nearly two weeks later, despite the efforts of approximately 8500 firefighting personnel, the fire was only about 50% contained. It continued to smolder into the new year, even while torrential downpours sent deadly mudslides ripping through nearby Montecito. By the time it was finally contained on January 12, 2018, it had burned through 440 acres – an area larger than many major cities.

The fire destroyed homes, land, and property; the mudslides would claim more homes, along with 20 lives. Above and beyond these concrete, if heart-rending, destruction statistics, though, the disasters’ effects have been incredibly far reaching. Highway closures have impacted high-volume commute routes; many are now displaced in an area already marked by high rents; public schools closed during a time of year when many parents need to work extra hours and when many rely on school meal programs; many are in mourning; and, of course, local university proceedings were disrupted. The fire ignited on the Monday of the last week of classes for the term at UCSB. In the early days of the blaze, colleagues and other seasoned Californians reassured me that the fire was unlikely to reach the city of Santa Barbara; however, smoke and particulate matter in the air rapidly became an issue in the area, including for the university. Given the hazardous air quality and increasing uncertainty, on Thursday, December 7, the university canceled the final two days of classes. During this time, the administration also began encouraging faculty to consider take-home and online options for final exams. On Sunday the 10th, the university officially postponed finals week until the first week of January.

Santa Barbara covered in ash and smoke from the Thomas Fire on December 8, 2017. Photo credit: keyt.com

The end of term tends to breeds a sense of panic and urgency in the best of situations. The fire meant that ordinary stress would be compounded by fear, confusion, and concern – and, as you might imagine these sudden changes to the academic calendar added fuel to the… well, you know. For many students, the fire and these changes contributed to upheaval as they tried to arrange last-minute travel away from campus; others who live in the immediate area weren’t sure where they would be safest, or weren’t sure whether friends and family would be safe. Some faculty and staff had to juggle the needs of campus operations while simultaneously trying to tend to their own well-being. Daily habits were interrupted by e-mailed announcements; middle-of-the night emergency alerts disrupted sleep. As someone experiencing her first wildfire situation, I had trouble concentrating on my students’ work; the only texts that could hold my immediate attention were the Twitter feeds of local news stations or text messages from colleagues sharing information. During my time in Wisconsin, I’d faced my fair share of tornadoes, blizzards, and polar vortices, but I’d never been granted a day off for ashy air.

In which the author learns from friends about firefighting tactics, yet somehow finds additional things to worry about.

When the fire began on that Monday night, I packed a bag. On Thursday, when the city started handing out N-95 particle filtering masks, I skipped town, figuring that both my dog and my anxiety disorder would fare better in San Luis Obispo, about 100 miles north, where we could literally breathe easier. After nearly a week, when things seemed to stabilize, I returned. Less than 24 hours later, after a night of vicious winds pushed the fire westward, downtown Santa Barbara was officially placed on voluntary evacuation warning, and I left again. You don’t have to tell me twice.

I was lucky. My evacuations were a choice, I had the financial means to leave town, and my life and property were never under real threat even if I didn’t know that at the time. Still, I’d never really anticipated having to case my own apartment in search of a practical answer to the question “What would you save if your house were burning?” (A process my colleague Ellen has written about more eloquently here) Looking back, however, I realize that I was asking my teacher self something similar. My new position at UCSB meant that, for the first time in several years, I was again teaching composition courses rather than focusing on Writing Center teaching and administration. This has been exciting, challenging, but also unsettling in lots of ways; even before the fires, I had been homesick not just for Wisconsin but for the comfort and confidence of Writing Center work. Despite the university’s changes to the end of term, and despite lots of sudden departures from campus, though, my students still had the usual end-of-term needs. As my students and I confronted scary stuff together, navigating practical and emotional uncertainties, I was asking another version of that evacuation question: What from my Writing Center home can I take with me?

UCSB Writing Program faculty (from L to R: Leigh Elion, Ljiljana Coklin, Amy Propen) gather in the lobby of a hotel 100 miles north of campus. Photo credit: Ljiljana Coklin

In other words, in the face of a new kind of natural disaster, and while teaching new courses to new students in a new institution, I returned repeatedly to the question meant to drive the original version of this post: how can writing center training – or, perhaps, writing center thinking – help writing instructors support students during times of crisis? Writing center tutors and leaders often describe the work of the writing center in relationship to crisis or to urgency. How often have we felt for students whose drafts “bleed” with professors’ red ink? Described the first moments of a tutoring session as “triage”? Recalled Stephen North’s characterization of the Writing Center as hospice-like? Described tough administrative days as requiring us to “put out fires”? Thought through strategies to work with students who are too stressed, too emotional, too close to a deadline to engage with their own writing? Several writing center scholars have even considered cross-over skills between tutoring skills and the skill sets of social workers or crisis hotline responders. But, as the hillsides burned and then fell down, how far could I stretch these metaphors?

Practical Training for Contingent Plans

The training I received from the UW-Madison Writing Center helped me not only cope with the practical challenges posed by the fire but, perhaps, also stretch my writing pedagogy. Most obviously, my experiences having worked on both the e-mail and chat-based online Writing Center teams helped give me the confidence to continue to work with students when we were scattered across geographies. Uncertain about when I would return and if campus would be open, I offered to meet with students virtually, either through e-mailed comments on drafts or through Google docs’ chat function. Although I was well familiar with my own students’ prompts, these kinds of virtual meetings enabled me to encourage student participation in the revision process that sometimes gets obscured, especially as deadlines approach. As Matthew Fledderjohan and others have discussed, when it comes to commenting, I’m often more direct with students enrolled in my own courses than I am with students in the Writing Center. Because I’m the creator of the prompt, I often feel disingenuous when I ask students open-ended questions about their goals for their writing. When I’ve done so in face-to-face conferences, they’ve sometimes looked at me as if it’s a trick question, since they often believe their primary goal should be to meet my expectations, rather than their own, because I’m the arbiter of their grade. However, chat mode especially enabled me to foreground student concerns and to prompt them to take agency over their own feedback, which my Online Writing Center training had taught me to focus on. For instance, one student in my upper-division Public Discourse class had been tangling for weeks with revisions on one paper on public perceptions of sororities and another on the vocabulary of ally-ship that arose in the wake Trayvon Martin’s death. While we had talked about both of these essays in my office, working together in a Google doc made room for her not only to articulate her argument, but to actually type it out – to do some in-the-moment composing and have the success of that composing both affirmed and preserved in real time. Offering these online conferences also enabled me to meet a range of student emotional needs: they could leave the area if they feared for their safety without having to worry about missing out on an opportunity for feedback, they could have a conversation about their writing that wasn’t rushed or distracted, it enabled me as an instructor to project calm when I was otherwise panicked, and they gained confidence in seeing their revisions put to work in front of a live reader. While I know many instructors utilize digital modes of feedback, the fact that the UW Writing Center had integrated this modality into the everyday work of tutoring meant that I had both the teaching tool and the confidence in it at the ready.

A screenshot of a chat between the author and one of her students (used with permission)

 Troubled Times -> Troubled Authority

The shared experience of disaster also helped to create opportunity for distributing authority over writing among my students and me, a hallmark strength of Writing Center tutoring. In the early days of the fire, for instance, I asked my all-Californian classes to teach me what they knew about fire science and the smoke’s impact on their scholarly lives. One student reassured me: “Don’t worry, Dr. Elion. If you have to evacuate, the government calls your house.” Disregarding for a moment what that quotation reveals about milennials’ questionable understanding of landlines, those moments were equalizing. While not directly related to writing, the context of the fire enabled students – nervous about what finals would say about their capabilities – to bring their individual expertise into the classroom and have it corroborated, complicated, and affirmed by peers.

Moreover, the sudden upending of the university calendar helped to make room for the kind of flexibility and individualization I often think of as a benefit of a Writing Center’s affordances. For instance, university instructors were encouraged to be patient and understanding with students who might be experiencing hardship, and the sudden extension of the quarter suddenly allowed for frank, open, honest conversations about deadlines – about why instructors need them, but more importantly about what it takes for students to meet them. In other words, individual conversations about scheduling made way for discussions that encouraged individual students to reflect on their own writing processes. Students who asked for extensions were granted them, but in order to do so I had to prompt them to identify the milestones they would need to reach in order to meet a new deadline and to do some self-assessment about their own writing processes and speed – surprising moments of the kinds of meta-reflection that tag onto learning transfer. In my Writing Center tutoring, I often had conversations with weekly ongoing students about how to work backward from a deadline and how to set realistic writing goals for themselves; we’d readjust weekly as the student gained self-knowledge. When working with 50-75 students each quarter, deadlines seem like a necessary evil, as something that enables instructors to provide timely feedback and also something important to the post-college world for which we’re ostensibly helping students prepare. Classroom deadlines’ matter-of-factness, though, had let them become invisible, had made me miss opportunities. While custom deadlines for every student might not be feasible all the time, the fire drew my attention both to an ability to customize my course requirements according to individual student need and to a potential future opportunity for these kinds of conversations about goal-setting and writerly self-awareness. Moreover, it enabled me to “pull back the curtain” on the supposed “requirements” of academic life, making room for students to share authority over their own educational goals. While conversations about academic genre expectations and university etiquette had been daily occurrences in Writing Center appointments, it took a natural disaster for me to recognize some of the ways these reveals could happen in the classroom as well. This kind of cross-over between classroom approaches and tutoring approaches might not exactly be newsworthy. However, the Thomas Fire both created and highlighted some extreme logistical, emotional, and institutional needs, and drawing expressly from the Writing Center’s student-focused playbook helped to ensure those wide-ranging needs were met.


If there’s one thing living in California has now taught me, it’s the value of disaster preparedness. On the one hand, I hope this post never becomes relevant to any of you – I hope you never have to think about the training or values or pedagogies you’ll most prioritize during times of crisis. However, it’s also worth thinking about what “disaster” or “crisis” might mean in each of our local contexts, what kinds of pressures those events might place on our students and teaching, and about how the ways we respond to them say important things about the values embedded in writing instruction. While most reading this post (I hope) will never have to contend with fires or floods, each of our campus communities has the potential both for upheaval and to provide relief during that upheaval. For instance, recent news has taught us that extreme cuts to university budgets can result in the sudden shuttering of departments, and pieces of immigration legislation are being passed that impact many of our students’ ability to remain on campus (or to remain safe on campus). Moreover, crises don’t always happen of a moment; students (and faculty!) might experience long-term food or housing insecurity that likewise impact their ability to participate in university life. As we return to campus for a new quarter, these issues and others have left me wondering about the kinds of roles that teachers and institutions can play in responding to the unforeseen and the unsettling. Natural disaster has highlighted for me, if nothing else, the fact of being-in-it-together with the campus, the responsibilities to others’ that this coexistence creates, and about possibilities for supporting students in new and/or strengthened ways.

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts in the comments: without being alarmist, how can we predict the disasters, large and small, that might impact our students and our campus life? What to you is the role of writing instruction and writing instructors in responding to these crises? How have you – as teacher, tutor, or administrator – handled uncertainty on campus? What particular role might Writing Centers play either for students or instructors in these kinds of situations? Or, to end on a lighter note, even in times of calm, as we move through various roles within the university and community, what will you carry with you from your Writing Center home?



4 Replies to “Teaching in an Emergency: Writing Centers, Wildfires, and What We Take With Us”

  1. Leigh–Wow. What a poignant alignment of your recent experiences with a reflection on pedagogy. I wish there hadn’t been such upheaval in your life and at your university, but I appreciate how you’ve used it to call attention to less alarming (if only because less sudden) crises that form the undercurrent of every university campus. The kinds of pedagogies that we use to support students during natural disasters are perhaps the pedagogies we should be prioritizing all the time, even when we don’t know of an immediate, pressing concern. Because there’s always the potential for disaster to strike groups of students or individuals. Obviously we need to find some balance between protecting our own emotional and mental health and being a resource for our students as if we are always in the midst of a disaster… But I do think that being prepared for a disaster at any time might be the best way to signal to our students that if they are facing a personal crisis, or have something going on that’s affecting their schoolwork (even if indirectly because it affects their health and happiness), that they can reach out to us for support. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I expect I will be thinking about this post for some time. Thank you!

    Leah Parker
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  2. Leigh—thank you for writing and sharing this piece! It’s really beautiful. First of all, I’m glad you’re okay but I’m sorry that you had to go through all that within your first few months of living and working in a new place. I’m glad there was a silver lining in the opportunity to become more aware of what you’ve brought with you from your Writing Center home (a phrase I love btw). Of course, I’m thinking about how your points intersect with access. So much of the flexible, multimodal, and individualized pedagogy you describe falls right in line with access-oriented pedagogies and universally designed instruction. I know it’s hard to practice these kinds of pedagogies (access-oriented or Writing Center informed) with 50-75 students, but what your post communicates so well is that there are always more ways to make our instruction flexible and accessible to students in times of crisis and in times of calm.

  3. Thank you for writing this powerful post, Leigh. I find your account of the fires and their impact on your university so evocative. Your post highlights for me how communities can form even across large institutions, and how extreme situations sometimes can catalyze or reveal this for us.

    Your post also makes me want to think more about the pedagogical strategies we have to draw upon in states of emergency. These can occur at different intensities and scales, but it helps me to remember that not all crises students face may be so visible or widespread, but nevertheless require accomodation.

    My thoughts are with you and the affected communities in my beautiful home state.

  4. I’m glad that you, your students, and your university are doing well, Leigh! Lately, I’ve been thinking about how universities respond to environmental disasters and how prepared they are for the slow changes that happen to our climate over time. Your account of what happened at your university was really eye-opening for me. I think one of the things I will take away from being assistant director for the Writing Center at UW-Madison is how I really need to practice empathy to build relationships with students. I think that connection pre-crises can be be helpful when a crisis–environmental or otherwise–comes in the classroom or on campus. So much of working through a problem is based on how well relationships form in the moment of calm. We might take for granted the casual conversations with our colleagues in the hallways or our students during a tutoring session. These brief exchanges may be seeds for building relationships that really do matter when the crises comes. I think I should be more intentional with creating some familiarity with the strangers I meet. They could become a good friend in a time of need.

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