1 A Matter of Method: Wellness and Care Research in Writing Center Studies by Genie Nicole Giaimo

Keywords: Wellness, research methods, experimental design, critical race theory, writing center studies


Perhaps because wellness is a nascent research topic in our field, there are relatively few texts that bring specific methodological lenses to bear on wellness and care research in writing center work. While there are, of course, a variety of ways to study this emergent phenomenon in writing centers, and there are a number of fine texts (Ianetta and Fitzgerald; Kinkead; Grutsch McKinney; Babcock and Thonus; Mackiewicz and Babcock) to guide such research, we have not yet taken stock of what has already been studied about these topics and, specifically, the methodological tools utilized to do so. While other empirical studies (Mackiewicz; Hall; Mackiewicz and Thompson) in our field take as their focus specific methodological approaches and topics, such as corpus linguistic analysis of tutoring sessions and discourse analysis of writing center artifacts, few studies (Hashlamon) provide methodological reviews of topically specific research in the field, though Sarah Liggett et al. do provide a broad taxonomy of the field’s research methodologies. Therefore, this chapter provides something new alongside something that is fairly common: it provides an in-depth analysis of individual methodological approaches that have been used in wellness scholarship while also offering methodological guidance for scholars who are interested in further examining this wide-ranging topic. This chapter, however, does not cover the other chapters in this Digital Edited Collection on wellness and care. This review only focuses on previously published scholarship. Additionally, the introduction to this book focuses on the important and, in many ways, holistic contributions that the other chapters in this DEC make to this emergent area of research.

Overview of Research on Wellness in Writing Centers

There seems to be a split between earlier and later wellness research in writing center studies. Articles on wellness from the first decade of the new millennium (2003–2008) focused far more explicitly on applying Zen Buddhism concepts and practices, such as mindfulness, yoga, and philosophies (Right Mind, intentionality, compassion, etc.) to writing tutoring practices, often with the intention of improving tutor practice. Deborah Murray’s “Zen Tutoring: Unlocking the Mind,” Paul Gamache’s “Zen and the Art of the Writing Tutorial,” and Erika Spohrer’s “From Goals to Intentions: Yoga, Zen, and Our Writing Center Work,” all offer tutoring practices that are informed by Zen, such as meditation and yoga. Murray and Gamache do not discuss assessment, instead focusing more on praxis-orientated advice, while Spohrer creates case studies about tutoring sessions that have not been successful and uses them as evidence that mindfulness training for tutors may help them to forego rigid expectations of their tutoring sessions. These articles are focused on utilizing mindfulness interventions to improve tutor behavior and tutor labor.

Recently, however, articles on wellness in writing centers have become more common and more empirically rooted, especially in the last decade. Furthermore, a subset of pieces has emerged that critically examines the state of writing center labor and extends wellness interventions beyond the goal of improving or otherwise optimizing tutor labor. Two such articles have focused explicitly on tutors and their challenges with wellness issues while on the job. In 2015, Hillary Degner et al. published “Opening Closed Doors: A Rationale for Creating a Safe Space for Tutors Struggling With Mental Health Concerns or Illnesses.” In 2017, Elizabeth Mack and Katie Hupp published “Mindfulness in the Writing Center: A Total Encounter.” While Degner et al. and Mack and Hupp differed in their methodological approaches to studying wellness and care in writing centers, both focused on tutors rather than clients. Degner et al. administered a survey on mental health to tutors across multiple writing centers. The survey asked a range of open-ended, multiple choice, ratio scale, and Likert scale questions regarding tutors’ experiences with mental health concerns. The survey also asked questions about whether tutors were trained to identify and address mental health concerns in their work. Through an analysis of survey responses using primarily descriptive statistics, the study found that most mental health training focused on clients’ mental health rather than tutors’ mental health, though tutors, like many others, struggle with mental health concerns at fairly high rates; overall, tutors reported wanting more explicit training on mental health and its application to writing center work (32). Recently, however, articles on wellness in writing centers have become more common and more empirically rooted, especially in the last decade. Mack and Hupp detail a set of mindfulness interventions that professional tutors conducted over a series of weeks, such as practicing loving-kindness toward clients, reflecting between tutoring sessions, and setting intentions inside and outside the center. A follow-up survey about the interventions, administered a year later, found that mindfulness training interventions had a positive effect on professional tutors’ practice and tutors’ perception of their work; however, the survey instrument was not shared in the article, so it is difficult to tell what effects were measured. Also, during this period of writing center scholarship (2016), a dissertation was written on “mindful tutors” (Anderson), but, paradoxically, it did not engage with current scholarship on mindfulness in or outside of writing centers but rather on rhetorical listening strategies. Most scholarship on wellness is preoccupied with tutors’ experiences of writing center labor and advocates for expanding wellness training interventions in writing centers.

More recent articles make little to no mention of the origins of mindfulness techniques like meditation in Zen Buddhism. The exception, however, is “The Mindful Tutor: How We Teach Writing Tutors” (Featherstone, et al.), which provides a comprehensive overview of Zen Buddhism—a spiritual teaching across Asia—and how it has been utilized in a set of interventions in American medical, psychological, and educational contexts. Sarah Johnson’s 2018 “Mindful Tutors, Embodied Writers: Positioning Mindfulness Meditation as a Writing Strategy to Optimize Cognitive Load and Potentialize Writing Center Tutors’ Supportive Roles” argues that mindfulness meditation practices can be utilized by both tutors and clients as a stress reduction strategy that helps to facilitate a writing session. The article, however, remains largely untested, insofar as it offers a meditation script and an exigency for implementation, but no data on post-implementation assessment. Claire Kervin and Heather Barrett’s 2018 “Emotional Management Over Time Management: Using Mindfulness to Address Student Procrastination” argues that mindfulness techniques are useful in addressing procrastination in student writers. Their initial intervention, training tutors to work with students who procrastinated, was developed in response to a trend the authors observed after analyzing session notes and appointment data. There was, however, no follow-up assessment or articulation of the effect of the intervention. In 2019, Jared Featherstone et al. discuss a set of multi-year meditation interventions in tutor training courses as well as qualitative results from pedagogical assessment. The study design was longitudinal and included multiple sections of a tutor training course, which allowed for a more robust sampling among potential participants; it also included both open-ended and closed questions regarding the training intervention. The researchers used NVivo software, a program that tracks keyword frequencies and other patterns in linguistic data, to analyze the data. This study was well designed and articulated results clearly in the chapter. Findings include that seventy-four percent of respondents agreed that mindfulness meditation positively affected their tutoring practice.

The first special issue dedicated to wellness and care work in writing centers, published in early 2020 by WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, (co-edited by Giaimo and Hashlamon) contributed to the field with three articles and one tutor’s column. In “Tutoring Begins with Breath,” Nicole Emmelhainz provides guided meditation to students in a tutor training course and then asked them to write reflections on their experiences. Eight out of twelve students found the intervention to be beneficial. In “Cultivating Emotional Wellness and Self-Care through Mindful Mentorship,” Kelly Concannon et al. replicate and extend past mindfulness research from Mack and Hupp and then create an autoethnographic account of writing center administrators’ engagement with mindfulness practices. The article concludes with advice for how to incorporate mindfulness into mentorship of others in writing center work. In “Is Tutoring Stressful?: Measuring Tutors’ Cortisol Levels,” Erik Simmons et al. conduct the first published biometric writing center assessment, collecting saliva samples from tutors to measure how stress levels are impacted by tutoring. Their findings, though preliminary and potentially confounded by such physical variables, such as resting/sitting, indicate that there is a large drop in cortisol, a hormone that regulates stress, levels among tutors between pre- and post-testing, which suggests that tutoring might actually mitigate physiological markers related to stress levels. In the tutor column, “Just Say ‘No’: Setting Emotional Boundaries in the Writing Center is a Practice in Self-Care,” Katelyn Parsons explores the deep interconnectedness of emotionality and tutor work and the need for tutors to set professional boundaries and learn to say “no.” While the articles vary in their kind of methodology from biometric (Simmons et al.), to qualitative (Emmelhainz and Concannon et al.), they all largely focus on interventions that positively influence writing center workers’ confidence and work habits and that explore some work-related issues that tutors experience such as lack of confidence (Emmelhainz), lack of professional support (Concannon et al.), and stress (Simmons et al.). Parsons’s piece, like others I will discuss, combines storying with theory and, in doing so, advocates for tutors to set boundaries in their tutoring work and bring  subjectivity into their reactions and responses to what might seem like workplace expectations. For the most part, these studies offer more specific research methodologies for those working with human subjects, though some (Concannon et al.; Emmelhainz) could include more details in the methods such as the number of study participants. Simmons et al. did not include in their study a few potentially confounding variables, apart from tutoring, that might affect cortisol levels, though they include a study limitations section in their article.

While mindfulness has been picked up by several scholars in the field, research on care (e.g., self-care and systems-level community care), with the exceptions of Parsons and Degner et al., has received far less attention in writing center research. Perhaps this is because mindfulness interventions are frequently used to support tutors in delivering a better “product” to their clients (i.e., more confident and supportive tutors, more engaging and active sessions for clients, more success in client learning outcomes), while care interventions are more directly connected to the welfare of the practitioners themselves and might include empowering tutors to complicate and interrogate their work, as Alison Perry’s “Training for Triggers: Helping Writing Center Consultants Navigate Emotional Sessions“ suggests. Perry shares tutors’ reflections on performing emotional labor in writing center sessions and concludes that setting boundaries in writing sessions is critical to negotiating the emotional labor that tutors, particularly tutors of color and those who have experienced trauma, perform. Up to this point, however, our field has not published much on the Black feminist origins of wellness work (see Hashlamon), or interrogated emotional labor within the context of race, gender, and/or class oppression (Chong).

Perhaps some of the most definitive texts that address emotional labor and burnout—The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson) and “Writing Center Administration and/as Emotional Labor” (Jackson, Grutsch McKinney, and Caswell)—do not ask demographic questions about participants’ race, gender, class, sexuality or other identity markers. The research project for both the book and the article was a longitudinal study that followed nine new writing center directors, and they utilized case study, interview, and survey methodologies to examine participants’ labor experiences, including burnout and attrition, as well as positional precarity. Unsurprisingly, study participants did not frequently or explicitly discuss their identities in the interviews. Ultimately, five of the nine original participants in the study left their jobs as Writing Center Administrators (WCAs).

Neisha-Anne Green’s “Moving Beyond Alright: And the Emotional Toll of This, My Life Matters Too, in the Writing Center Work,” is a further interrogation of emotional labor that connects Critical Race Theory with different narrative forms, such as storying and counterstory, to explore the experience of being one of a few people of color in the field, the vulnerability and danger that tutors and administrators of color experience in doing their work, and how writing centers are complicit in upholding white supremacist university standards for literacy education. Connecting similar phenomena that people of color and activists in the Black Lives Matter movement experience with people of color in higher education, Green calls attention to how folks on the front lines of fighting and experiencing racism develop PTSD, depression, and “emotional turmoil and anguish” (19). Green makes a much-needed connection here between self-care and community care—which she advocates for through framing white allyship as “accomplice” work (29)—by arguing that these are critical elements within activist work both inside and outside of the academy. Self-care and community care ought to be infused into writing center professional development, research, and praxis. The connections between race and wellness/care in writing center work, as Green and other critical race scholars demonstrate, are inexorably connected and, as Hashlamon demonstrates, have roots in Black feminist theory of radical care, which is community-oriented, liberatory, and autonomous. Research on wellness, then, also needs to be deliberately anti-racist and aware of its origins in civil rights and Black feminist theory and praxis.

Though self-care and mindfulness are reliant on each other, little research exists on how we can make broader ideas about care (such as community care) a more explicit ethos of writing center work, though Perry and Green begin to shape these conversations through their articles.  As this review of articles demonstrates, tutor and administrator identity and lived experience within the context of wellness is relatively unexamined; furthermore, race, class, sexuality, gender, linguistic background, dis/ability, and a host of other factors affect who accesses writing centers.

These factors lead us to ask important questions in our research:

  1. Who has access to support in writing centers and under what circumstances?
  2. How are care and mindfulness practices enacted in writing centers?

Writing Center Wellness Research and Its Relationship to Labor

Another relatively under-studied element of wellness in the writing center is the role that stress plays in writing center labor. With the exception of Kervin and Barrett, the research referenced in this review mainly focuses on writing center workers’ experiences of stress, be it tutor stress (Degner et al.; Perry; Mack and Hupp; Johnson; Featherstone et al.; Emmelhainz; Concannon et al.; Simmons et al.) or administrator stress (Caswell et al.; Green; Concannon et al.). There exists little research on objective measures of stress among writing center workers. Many, but not all, of these studies offer mindfulness interventions to mitigate experiences of stress. Yet there exists little research on objective measures of stress among writing center workers. Simmons et al. is one of the first studies to systematically study how tutors experience stress in their work, though the study is exploratory and lacks experimental controls, such as uniform pre-post testing protocols. Of course, there are many ways in which to explore stress in relationship to writing center work apart from biometric research.

Writing Center Wellness Research Methodologies Overview

I offer below (Table 1) a review of the methodological approaches for the studies on wellness and care that include human subjects and that analyze the data they collect. Some of the studies reviewed did not include human subjects research and data, which is indicated with “N/A.” Research in this field is not just RAD-focused. In later sections, I discuss Frankie Condon, Wonderful Faison, and Neisha-Anne Green’s chapter on critical race theory, which illuminates the importance of researching wellness and care in writing center work through varying methodological lenses. I then offer a few possible research questions and models for researchers to replicate and adapt to their own writing centers on these topics.

Table 1

An Analysis of Wellness Research Studies

The Need for Nuanced RAD Approaches to Wellness and Care Studies

Richard Haswell defines RAD research as “a best effort inquiry into the actualities of a situation, inquiry that is explicitly enough systematized in sampling, execution, and analysis to be replicated; exactly enough circumscribed to be extended; and factually enough supported to be verified” (201). RAD research, then, should be replicable, aggregable, and data-supported. While in 2005 Haswell advocated for this model of study design and analysis in the larger field of composition, Driscoll and Perdue found that roughly 33% of articles assessed in Writing Center Journal between 1980 and 2009 had some RAD qualities and only 16% fully fit Haswell’s criteria. Driscoll and Perdue develop and share a scoring rubric to categorize peer reviewed research within a RAD framework. They identify seven specific metrics that characterize a fully articulated RAD research project: background and significance, study design and data collection, selection of participants/texts, method of analysis, presentation of results, discussion and implications, and limitations and future research. Much of these criteria derive from best practices in IMRD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) research models from the sciences and social sciences, which articulate experimental design, data collection, data analysis, and the conclusions resulting from engagement with the scientific method. Publications in writing center studies largely lacked articulation of participant/text selection, study design and data collection, and method of analysis. Because of these key missing details (study design, data analysis, participant recruitment, etc.), most research in writing center studies is not replicable or aggregable. While Driscoll and Perdue’s findings are largely in line with this chapter’s review of research, there is another even more concerning finding that our two projects share: “the number of participants was not provided or could not be inferred from the text in 34.1% of the research articles” (31). As Driscoll and Perdue note, and I reiterate here, the very basic yet critical detail of how many participants engaged in a research study is frequently absent from the scholarship in our field. In this review, five out of eight studies with human subject participants had clearly identified subject participant numbers and three studies, or 37.5%, did not, keeping in line with Driscoll and Perdue’s findings.

The research methodologies of the studies I review here have some commonalities. Namely, very few studies put forth a method that is easily replicable by others. Indeed, none of these studies replicate each other even though some directly cite each other. Also, very few have a robust sampling size. Except for Degner et al. and Featherstone et al., most studies rely on incredibly small sample sizes. While the sample sizes are relatively low for Caswell et al. and Simmons et al. (Table 1), the data collection and analysis processes as well as claim-to-evidence likelihood in these studies are clear, though I would be remiss if I did not note that the former project is a book-length study; book-length projects provide authors opportunity to articulate their methods in more detail. Most of the other studies (Perry; Mack and Hupp; Emmelhainz; Concannon et al.) rely on written reflections from either tutors, administrators, or both. Other pieces rely on personal narrative, as well as pedagogical interventions in tutoring writing (Johnson) or function, in part, as a call for reexamination of the field and its priorities (Green). Kervin and Barrett make some reference to data to demonstrate the need for a mindfulness intervention but do not explicitly include coding rubrics or other instruments in the publication. And while specifications for publications such as WLN, which has strict 3,000-word length requirements, might affect how much space authors can dedicate to explaining methods, the methodology sections of studies in Praxis and Composition Forum, which allow more space for elaboration on methodologies, also include unclear sample sizes, unclear sampling approaches, and even unclear survey instruments (Table 1). Of course, longer word count allowances create more opportunities for authors to specifically focus on study design, sampling, data collection and analysis. The relatively new Digital Edited Collection (DEC) series is one such forum. No matter the venue, however, when other forms of data (beyond personal narratives) are referenced in a study, clear and specific methods for participant recruitment, data collection, and data analysis help the reader to understand what has been done and what conclusions to derive from findings. Specific methods are notably absent from several studies reviewed above.

Guidelines for Human Subjects Research on Wellness and Care

It is critical that researchers begin to grapple with why and how to do research on wellness and care in writing center contexts. Because of the nature of the current research, which is mostly focused on tutors’ and administrators’ experiences, sample sizes might, indeed, be relatively small because the writing center has a limited staff size. Localized studies are just as valid as multi-institutional ones; however, providing context for the research site (i.e., why study this particular phenomenon in this space?) is especially critical if data are gathered from one institution. It is critical that researchers begin to grapple with why and how to do research on wellness and care in writing center contexts. Reviewing guidelines for conducting research within a small population, such as these from the National Academies of Sciences, would be useful to both designing and analyzing single site studies. Another possibility is to make a study longitudinal, which will allow researchers to collect more data, over time, from the population. Currently, except for Degner et al., few cross-institutional research studies exist on wellness and care in writing centers. Perhaps this is because of the unique and localized experiences and needs of individual centers and their staffs, but there are possibilities for more wide-ranging and inclusive studies that may have broader implications for the field.

Advice for Reporting Research Outcomes

  • Be explicit about the sample size and participant recruitment.
  • Include any data collection instruments (surveys, interview questions, reflective writing prompts, etc.) in appendices.
  • Provide details about how data was analyzed in methods section, e.g., share how survey responses were coded and analyzed statistically; if reflective writing from tutors is analyzed, tell us how it was analyzed (was it coded using a rubric? Was coding normed or tested?)
  • Make sure the claims you make can be supported by the data (e.g., if descriptive statistics have been calculated on responses from a small participant cohort and without a control group, these results should not be presented as conclusive findings).

Neal Lerner and Kyle Oddis show that writing center studies do not “uptake” research evenly, insofar as the impact factor of a select number of citations is outsized in comparison to research produced in the field more broadly. Keeping in mind that replication is a best practice in many fields can help to guide researchers in how to develop their experimental design, research methods, and analyses. For example, though Mack and Hupp were referenced in the methodological exigency of other articles (Johnson; Concannon et al.), all three articles do not include sample sizes and research instruments, perhaps because the original study did not include these details. Without a sense of who is responding to surveys, it becomes difficult to assess if Mack and Hupp’s findings (100% of those who participated in the poll reported positive outcomes from practicing mindfulness techniques) are valid. While Johnson and Concannon et al.’s studies are only loosely inspired by Mack and Hupp’s study, a study that actually replicated Mack and Hupp’s might end up with different findings, perhaps because of the local context in which the researchers are intervening with mindfulness tools in a writing center. Again, while design does not necessarily have to be identical between studies (local context can help to inform amendments to a survey instrument, as an example), replicability is critical to creating a larger or broader set of conclusions for the field and helps to push the conversation forward.

Of course, we are in a current moment of exploration regarding research on wellness and care. Many of the articles reviewed here identify a gap in tutor/administrator experience and aim to fill that gap with interventions and training, such as empathetic listening (Perry), mindfulness methods (Mack and Hupp; Concannon et al.), meditation and reflective practice (Featherstone et al.; Emmelhainz), and other mindfulness practices (Johnson). One focuses on mindfulness interventions in student writer procrastination (Kervin and Barrett). Others, such as Degner et al., Caswell et al., and Green, address growing issues of mental health and burnout among tutors and administrators, as well as systemic racial inequity that plagues writing center praxis and scholarship.

As we move forward with research on this topic, it makes sense to ask what purpose or outcomes we intend our research to have.

Outcomes that Might Inform Your Study Design

When conducting research, consider your overall motivation and keep that motivation in mind as you design your study, instrument, and method of analysis. Though the provided list of motivations to conduct research is not comprehensive, it should offer researchers some insight into why one might want to conduct research on wellness and care.

Some possible motivations for conducting writing center research on wellness include:

  • Offering pedagogical interventions in tutor training;
  • Creating new interventions in writing center administration;
  • Calling attention to a systemic injustice or gap in our work;
  • Studying a particular and emergent phenomenon in our tutors/centers/clients/school;
  • Adding to the set of voices that speak on a particular topic (i.e., changing the current conversations).

On Autobiography and Counterstories as a Research Methodology

Identity and personal experience are critical elements in the critique of systemic and local injustices. In “Writing Center Research and Critical Race Theory,” Condon et al. offer a critical race theory approach to writing center studies. Of note here is the recognition of the “lived realities of the contact zone” and how “[. . .] deepening self-awareness, and awareness of the self to the social, is central to anti-racism” (35). Counterstories have featured heavily in many social and political movements—the Civil Rights Movement, Queer Liberation Movement, Feminism, labor movements, and Black Lives Matter. Condon et al. note the importance of telling counterstories in the writing center. In telling stories that are counter to the dominant ones, we challenge lore-based and white supremacist assumptions about access and equity in writing centers. Counterstories interrogate structural inequity and they bring to the center voices otherwise marginalized in academic and other discourse.

Counterstories and storying can provide a necessary corrective to the sometimes-uncomplicated stories we tell in the writing center field about our labor. It is unsurprising to me that many of the articles (Concannon et al., Parsons, Green, Degner et al.) about wellness and care lead-in, rely upon, or otherwise braid personal narratives that run counter to lore-based assumptions about how tutors and administrators engage in their work. Yet many of these stories do not address issues of white supremacy, systemic racism, or other areas ripe for exploration (classism, sexism, ableism, etc.). Condon et al. are right that people of color are profoundly hurt by the deficits in the lore-based stories writing center scholars tell. The voices of people of color are largely left out of these conversations.

The counterstories that are being told in the reviewed research give us a lens into the critical role that labor critique might play in deconstructing writing center orthodoxy and systemic oppression. So many of these studies—particularly Degner et al. and Perry—document and examine tutors’ lack of preparation and training for the emotional labor they regularly perform. These scholars’ findings are often made tangible in the autobiographical moments within these texts, such as when we hear directly from tutors about their personal experiences with mental health concerns and trauma and how these issues relate to and inform writing center work. Yet absent from just about all of this research is an interrogation of how austerity models in higher education, like the growing reliance on part-time labor, have affected and contributed to these wellness issues as they play out within and outside of writing center work. Furthermore, while many of these studies demonstrate that the lived experiences of writing center workers are plagued by mental health concerns, perpetual stress, and burnout, few studies identify or interrogate factors outside of writing centers that contribute to these issues within writing centers. Individual pieces (like Green’s article) offer counterstories that reveal how racism exacerbates wellness issues in our field. Individual pieces (like Green’s article) offer counterstories that reveal how racism exacerbates wellness issues in our field. In reading about the lived experiences of writing center workers, especially those from marginalized populations, I am struck by how critical braided narrative and storying are, then, to the scholarly landscape on wellness in writing center work. Tutors and administrators of color have used different narrative structures, such as storying and braided narrative to unpack systemic issues in writing centers, including issues related to wellness and care. Condon et al. provide a set of heuristics for how critical race theory can be engaged to produce writing center scholarship, which I hope future researchers of wellness and care will utilize to guide their work.

Autobiography is a critical element of meaning-making. Though many of the suggested questions and methods articulated above do not include first-person narrative, one way for tutors and administrators to enter into questions about wellness and care in writing center work is through keeping a journal that tracks experiences, impressions, thoughts, questions, doubts, frustrations, joys, etc. of writing center work and then conducting linguistic and thematic analysis on the journal entries. Another way to do this work, in the vein of Grutsch McKinney et al., is to collect narratives from several writing center workers (particularly those whom we have heard less from in other scholarly spaces, such as undergraduate tutors, graduate tutors, tutors of color, queer and trans tutors, disabled tutors, etc.) and from there develop a more comprehensive and intersectional heuristic regarding writing center work. Autobiography and storying are ways to critically engage in this field of study. We ought to acknowledge the vulnerability of doing this kind of research even as the field works to include previously silenced voices in this kind of recuperative work. This work is also personal and can affect our health, well-being, ambitions, and livelihood. Therefore, we ought to acknowledge the vulnerability of doing this kind of research even as the field works to include previously silenced voices in this kind of recuperative work.

Asking Research Questions, Getting Answers

Up to this point, I have offered an overview of some of the critical research that engages with wellness and care work in writing centers. I now address topics that scholars may explore to continue this important and growing conversation.

As you design your research study, ask yourself:

  • Why do I want to research wellness and care in writing centers?
  • What am I noticing in the writing center that contributes to my interest in this topic?
  • How do I want to contribute to the field?


Potential research questions include:

  • What are the lived experiences that tutors bring to their tutoring work?
  • How does stress—inside and outside of the writing center—impact tutor engagement with their work?
  • Are there gaps in how we train our staff in wellness and care strategies?
  • Do our policies reflect our philosophy and mission regarding worker wellness and care?
  • What does self-care look like among different tutors?
  • Do mindfulness strategies impact session outcomes and, if so, how?


Sample research topics on wellness paired with research methods

  • Use semi-structured interviews to ask tutors about their lived experiences in tutoring work. Include at least a couple of questions about emotional negotiation, microaggressions, explicit bias, and other identity-focused challenges tutors may face in their work.
    • Option 2: Keep a journal of personal experiences in writing center work and develop counterstories that challenge writing center orthodoxies by sharing lived experience.
  • Disseminate a survey that assesses work stressors related to WC work as well as stressors in daily life (student affairs may have a good instrument that they use to assess incoming students); administer throughout a number of semesters to tutors.
  • Review current training offerings, then survey tutors formally or informally to assess gaps in training needs related to wellness and care strategies. Focus groups might be useful for identifying gaps as well. This is the first step in a research program that implements and then assesses new wellness and care training interventions.
  • Conduct a discourse analysis of writing center policies as articulated in tutoring handbooks, job ads, mission/philosophy statements, worker policies, etc. to assess how central wellness and care support are to writing center worker policies.
  • Assess tutors’ level of engagement with self-care/communal care through interviews, surveys, observations, etc. Findings can form the basis for establishing best practices as well as boundaries (Perry) for tutor-client engagement.
  • Assess if mindfulness strategies impact writing center sessions: first, provide training on mindfulness strategies (see review of literature for ideas and examples); next, encourage tutors to implement these strategies in their sessions; then, determine and assess session outcomes. Data can be collected by recording sessions and coding them, surveying tutors and clients, and interviewing tutors and clients.

Sources to Get Started on Research

On Being Kind to Yourself

Being intentional in how we design and carry out research studies on wellness—how we recruit study participants, and how we collect and analyze data—is critical to expanding our field’s work and responding to earlier calls for research more in line with many fields outside of writing center studies. It is also true that many of these research questions arise from personal experiences. Therefore, understanding one’s subjectivity within one’s research project is just as critical. These topics resonate so much with us that they compel us to push ourselves and our analytical tools beyond what might feel comfortable or sustainable. A word of caution here that listening to and analyzing the stories and experiences of others who both succeed and struggle with wellness and care in and outside of writing center contexts can be stressful. Be kind to yourself. As a researcher and as a human being who is invested in learning more about systemic sites of inequity in order to understand, challenge, and change them, it is important to recognize your own positionality in the research process; it is not easily compartmentalized, despite whatever method(s) you may select to conduct your study.


What began as a relatively hopeful methods piece at the beginning of this publication process has over the past eight months or so taken on new urgency and, of course, nuance. A lot has changed in our world during 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the BLM protests that have occurred all over the United States and around the world have caused scholars and activists to examine and re-examine much of what we understand about labor, about equity, and about social justice. Of course, in all this movement, there is even more momentum behind research on wellness and care and doing such work within deliberately anti-racist frameworks.
While this chapter is a way to get hopeful researchers started on their experimental design and methodological development, there is still a lot of work to be done on wellness work as it relates to anti-racism work.

Methods pieces, by their nature, are outdated before they are even published. They often fail to fully capture the wide range of work taking place within a discipline. This is no less true for this piece, though the historical moment makes this outdatedness particularly noticeable. In summer 2020, Praxis published an issue on “Well-Being.” Two pieces (Dana Driscoll & Jennifer Wells and Genie Giaimo) deliberately address issues of wellness regarding student-writer support and emotional labor as well as precarity in writing center work. Previously, in summer 2019, The Peer Review explored the concept of who is “welcome” in writing centers in its own special issue. There, Talisha Haltiwanger Morrison and Talia O. Nanton use counterstory in ways that reference Green’s work but, also, that uniquely engages in a complex dialogic that grapples with racism in the writing center.

This is all to say that wellness and care research is flourishing in writing center studies. Perhaps the growing demand to examine and dismantle exploitative and deliberately “unwell” systems in our discipline has resulted from the many ways in which precarity has seeped into our everyday lives (how we labor, how we socialize, how we move through public spaces, how we live) and as we face so many extractive systems endemic to late stage capitalism. Of course, for BIPOC, Trans people, people with disabilities and people from other marginalized groups, this precarity isn’t new (quite the opposite: it is baked into the legacy of the United States and other Colonial powers). We are in a moment, however, where wellness work clearly intersects—as it has in the past—with social justice movements centered on racial and economic justice. We are hungry for systemic change, which, I hope, deliberate research and assessment work can help us to accomplish.


Works Cited

Anderson, Joshua Tyler. The Mindful Tutor: Rhetorical Listening in Writing Center Work. Diss. Western Carolina University, 2016. https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/wcu/f/AndersonJT2016.pdf

Babcock, Rebecca Day, and Terese Thonus. Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice. Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2018.

Canning, John. Statistics for the Humanities. Creative Commons, 2015. http://statisticsforhumanities.net/book/

Caswell, Nicole, et al. The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors. UP of Colorado, 2016.

Chong, Patricia. “Servitude With a Smile: An Anti-Oppression Analysis of Emotional LaborGlobal Labor University Working Papers, no. 7, 2009. https://www.global-labour-university.org/fileadmin/GLU_Working_Papers/GLU_WP_No.7.pdf

Concannon, Kelly, et al. “Cultivating Emotional Wellness and Self-Care Through Mindful Mentorship in the Writing Center.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 44, no. 5-6, 2020, pp. 10-18. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v44/44.5-6.pdf

Condon, Frankie, et al. “Writing Center Research and Critical Race Theory.” Theories and Methods of Writing Center Studies: A Practical Guide. Routledge, 2019.

Decuir-Gunby, Jessica T., and Dina C. Walker-Devose. “Expanding the Counterstory: The Potential for Critical Race Mixed Methods Studies in Education.” Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. Routledge, 2013, pp. 268-79.

Degner, Hillary, et al. “Opening Closed Doors: A Rationale for Creating a Safe Space for Tutors Struggling With Mental Health Concerns or Illnesses.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, 2015. http://www.praxisuwc.com/degner-et-al-131

Driscoll, Dana Lynn, and Sherry Wynn Perdue. “Theory, Lore, and More: An Analysis of RAD Research in ‘The Writing Center Journal,’ 1980–2009.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 2012, pp. 11-39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43442391?seq=9#metadata_info_tab_contents

Driscoll, Dana Lynn, and Jennifer Wells. “Tutoring the Whole Person: Supporting Emotional Development in Writers and Tutors.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 17, no. 3, 2020. http://www.praxisuwc.com/173-driscoll-wells

Ede, Lisa. “Research on Writing Centers—Some Essential Studies.” WLN: Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders, 2016. http://www.wlnjournal.org/blog/2016/09/research-on-writing-centers-some-essential-studies/

Emmelhainz, Nicole. “Tutoring Begins with Breath: Guided Meditation and its Effects on Writing Consultant Training.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 44, no. 5-6, 2020, pp. 2-10. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v44/44.5-6.pdf

Featherstone, Jared, et al. “The Mindful Tutor.” How We Teach Writing Tutors: A WLN Digital Edited Collection, edited by Karen G. Johnson and Ted Roggenbuck, 2019. https://wlnjournal.org/digitaleditedcollection1/Featherstoneetal.html

Ianetta, Melissa, and Lauren Fitzgerald. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Research. Oxford UP, 2016.

Gamache, Paul. “Zen and the Art of the Writing Tutorial.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 28, no. 2, 2003, pp. 1-4. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v28/28.2.pdf

Giaimo, Genie N. “Laboring in a Time of Crisis: The Entanglement of Wellness and Work in Writing Centers.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 17, no. 3, 2020. http://www.praxisuwc.com/173-giaimo

Green, Neisha-Anne. “Moving Beyond Alright: And the Emotional Toll of This, My Life Matters Too, in the Writing Center Work.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 15-34, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26537361?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Haltiwanger Morrison, Talisha M., and Talia O. Nanton. “Dear Writing Centers: Black Women Speaking Silence into Language and Action.” The Peer Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019. http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/redefining-welcome/dear-writing-centers-black-women-speaking-silence-into-language-and-action/

Hashlamon, Yanar. “Aligning With The Center: How We Elicit Tutee Perspectives in Writing Center Scholarship.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2018. http://www.praxisuwc.com/161-hashlamon

Hall, R. Mark. Around the Texts of Writing Center Work: An Inquiry-Based Approach to Tutor Education. UP of Colorado, 2017.

Haswell, Richard H. “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship.” Written Communication, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 198-223, 2005. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0741088305275367

Jackson, Rebecca, et al. “Writing Center Administration and/as Emotional Labor.” Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1113425.pdf

Johnson, Sarah. “Mindful Tutors, Embodied Writers: Positioning Mindfulness Meditation as a Writing Strategy to Optimize Cognitive Load and Potentialize Writing Center Tutors’ Supportive Roles.Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 15, no. 2, 2018. http://www.praxisuwc.com/johnson-152

Kervin, Claire E., and Heather E. Barrett. “Emotional Management Over Time Management: Using Mindfulness to Address Student Procrastination.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 42, no. 9-10, 2018, pp. 10-18. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v42/42.9-10.pdf

Kinkead, Joyce. Researching Writing: An Introduction to Research Methods. UP of Colorado, 2015.

Lerner, Neal, and Kyle Oddis. “The Social Lives of Citations: How and Why ‘Writing Center Journal’ Authors Cite Sources.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, 2017, pp. 235-62. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44594857?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Liggett, Sarah, et al. “Mapping Knowledge-Making in Writing Center Research: A Taxonomy of Methodologies.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 2011, pp. 50-88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43442367?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Mack, Elizabeth, and Katie Hupp. “Mindfulness in the Writing Center: A Total Encounter.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, 2017. http://www.praxisuwc.com/mack-and-hupp-142

Mackiewicz, Jo. The Aboutness of Writing Center Talk: A Corpus-Driven and Discourse Analysis. Routledge, 2016.

Mackiewicz, Jo, and Isabelle Thompson. Talk About Writing: The Tutoring Strategies of Experienced Writing Center Tutors. Routledge, 2018.

Mackiewicz, Jo, and Rebecca Babcock, eds. Theories and Methods of Writing Center Studies: A Practical Guide. Routledge, 2019.

Martinez, Aja. “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock Story vs. Counterstory Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s ‘Fit’ in the Academy.” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 33-55. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/antiracist/martinez.pdf

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. Strategies for Writing Center Research. Parlor Press, 2015.

Murray, Deborah. “Zen Tutoring: Unlocking the Mind.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 27, no. 10, 2003, pp.12-14. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v27/27.10.pdf

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Analysis Techniques for Small Population Research.” Improving Health Research on Small Populations: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018. https://www.nap.edu/read/25112/chapter/8

Parsons, Katelyn. “Just Say ‘No’: Setting Emotional Boundaries in the Writing Center is a Practice in Self-Care.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 44, no. 5-6, 2020, pp. 26-30. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v44/44.5-6.pdf

Perry, Alison. “Training for Triggers: Helping Writing Center Consultants Navigate Emotional Sessions.” Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016. http://compositionforum.com/issue/34/training-triggers.php

Saldana, Johnny. Fundamentals of Qualitative Research. Oxford UP USA, 2011.

Simmons, Erik, et al. (2020). “Is Tutoring Stressful?: Measuring Tutors’ Cortisol Levels.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 44, no. 5-6, 2020, pp. 18-26. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v44/44.5-6.pdf

Spohrer, Erika. “From Goals to Intentions: Yoga, Zen, and Our Writing Center Work.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 33, no. 10–13, 2008, pp. 10-13. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v33/33.2.pdf


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Wellness and Care in Writing Center Work Copyright © 2021 by Genie Nicole Giaimo; Kristi Murray Costello; Benjamin J. Villarreal; Lauren Brentnell; Elise Dixon; Rachel Robinson; Miranda Mattingly; Claire Helakoski; Christina Lundberg; Kacy Walz; Sarah Brown; and Yanar Hashlamon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book