In the Company of Ninjas

This is the third post in our blog series on how “We Create Community” in the time of Covid-19.

By Patricia Morelli, University of Hartford

In ancient Japanese feudal history, ninjas were clandestine mercenaries whose values and warfare methods were considered corrupt, ignoble, and contemptible.  However, over time, the ninjas depicted in legend and literature were softened, and they were characterized as super-human figures with noble goals and humane missions intended to improve and elevate their communities.   In animated contexts and media venues in popular American culture, ninjas further evolved and were cast as youthful, sometimes invisible, and anthropomorphic heroes who, like their legendary counterparts, served to redress grievances, to promote order and justice and fairness, and to uplift the human condition.  . . .   

And then there are the ninjas of the Centralized Tutoring Center at the University of Hartford.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Summer waned, seeming to evaporate in its own heat.  The days were still hot, but the evenings had begun to cool” (Chapter 5, “Honest Dirt,” in Tara Westover’s Memoir Educated).  . . .  The first day of fall here in Connecticut was a typical, New England early-autumn day: the nippy chill in the morning, sunshine muscling up throughout the day, afternoon warmth asserting itself, a glowing evening sky ideal for a cleansing walk – and more work than any one person should have to do in one day!  However, despite the sheer volume of work and its critical impact in our current time of COVID, reassurance sat quietly over my shoulder, just as it had done most of the time since March 30, 2020, the day UHart launched its first ever all-remote tutoring operation.   

A twenty-two year veteran of learning community pedagogy, I teach my Learning Community Academic Writing course only in the fall, so my last participation was fall 2019 until we re-opened and restarted classes on August 24.  During our campus lockdown, my sense of community with students took on a different dynamic, and it took place in a different dimension – cyberspace.  (Oh, how I would love it if the theme music from Star Trek could be gently piped in at this very moment!)   With no discernible borders anywhere, our team of roughly 50-60 undergraduate peer tutors helped bridge a gaping hole in the personal and academic lives of our 4,750 undergraduates who had been rather brusquely scattered from our 350-acre hub to approximately 48 states and 40-plus countries. 

And so it was that our students experienced firsthand the initial impact and consequences of an international pandemic and an American public health crisis. On one side of the hole loomed fear and insecurity, concern about health and safety, uncertainty about the future, the hunger of not being able to physically reach out to loved ones and friends, and, in typical adolescent style, boredom and impatience.  Where our ninja tutors stood on the other side of the hole, there was animated humor and humanity; kindness, patience, and attentiveness; and, calm and compassionate leadership.   There were offers of personal outreach and academic support proffered by some of those same 4,750 undergraduates who had been unceremoniously tossed back to home and hearth!   With creativity and seeming fearlessness, tutors extended their reach beyond and above discreet borders, from coast to coast, and across continental and international time zones.

Students helping students: it is a dynamic collaboration that presents a powerful message, perhaps at times more powerful (as much higher education research asserts) than the conventional instructor-student model of teaching and learning.  Such student-centered and student-facing initiatives serve institutional retention goals, but they also promote scholarship, leadership, and community in all participants.  Tutorial participation in the academic pursuits of peers deepens the intellectual engagement of both tutor and tutee.  Workplace readiness in the forms of collegiality, team work, and problem solving are also by-products of the tutorial exchange.   These are civic values that serve not just individuals or pairs of campus citizens, but the campus community at large – all in preparation for democratic participation and civic responsibility after commencement.

Campus has been reopened for weeks now, and I am once again teaching my Academic Writing course, this year to nursing students.  Most of our classes have been outdoors in a small semicircle on the lawn that blankets a space near the University President’s office.  One of my students is in quarantine now, so our classroom is the “Collaborate” room in Blackboard. 

And I have not yet seen even one tutor in person on the few occasions when I have been on campus!  And it’s not because I have difficulty recognizing everyone in our new mask-to-mask world.  I just have not seen them.  But I know they are “present.”   Most are back on the residential side of campus, but some are still home for their all remote learning.  As in the spring, our workplace has no defined perimeters in physical space.  With the exception of just four sessions to date that I am aware of, our tutoring is taking place in the virtual world of cyberspace, where ninja tutors deliver important academic support to their peers.  . . .  Ninja tutors.  Students helping students.  Students committed to elevating the intellectual engagement of their peers and themselves.  A most powerful message for these hurting times.  And, yes, with comfort and satisfaction, I rest somewhat easily – for I am in the company of ninjas.

Patricia Morelli is the Director of the Centralized Tutoring Center at the University of Hartford

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