2 Naming and Negotiating the Emotional Labors of Writing Center Tutoring by Kristi Murray Costello
Keywords: Emotional labor, writing center tutors, writing center administrators, tutor training
FLASHBACK to the end of the spring semester.
The second-year writing center tutors, all , were grading student portfolios, planning graduation parties, and solidifying plans for and navigating anxieties about post-grad school life. The first-year writing center tutors had received their teaching assignments for the following year and were trying to figure out how to make ends meet over the summer. All of them had seminar papers and final projects looming over their heads. Typically, our Writing Center is a bustling, energetic, and comfortable space, but on this particular day in early May, with just one remaining week of classes, the stress was palpable, and the tension was thick in our writing center and, in general, at our midsize, Mid-South state institution. My cheerful hello was met with half-hearted nods and exhausted “heys,” and I overheard a tutor explaining to a desperate that we were booked for the remainder of the semester. As she said, “Listen, I don’t know what else to tell you. I can’t make appointments where there aren’t any,” she suddenly felt her colleagues watching and froze.
* * *
Since the fall pre-semester training several months before, our , the Assistant Director, and I had conducted 5,000 sessions. We had led more than 60 workshops and informational sessions for engaged and some not-so-engaged classes and had compiled resources on myriad writing topics. We had provided tissues to crying writers, shared stress balls with freaked-out students, and some tutors had maybe even shown the door to an antagonistic student or faculty member along the way, without my knowledge. They had shown up for their shifts, clocked in and out, completed their notes, and participated in our weekly seminar meeting. They had done well in their classes, presented their work at conferences, studied for and passed their exams, and became members and officers of our department and university organizations. And this didn’t even include their work and accomplishments as parents, aunts, uncles, partners, dog rescuers, community advocates, and friends. They are an ambitious and impressive bunch, and yet, I found myself surprised and, if I’m being honest, maybe even disappointed that in this moment, they weren’t completing the aspects of the job that I didn’t tangibly realize were requirements until the moment they were lacking—empathy, compassion, and kindness. Writing center tutors provide services to students and faculty members and the success of their work is often predicated on connecting with others. The expectation to not just do the job, but to understand and attend to the needs of others when their own needs are overwhelming, and to respond in kindness when they feel like snapping. The same kind of emotional labors I experience as a writing center administrator (WCA) when a colleague across campus calls to complain that a student came to the writing center and “still has errors in their paper.” Often, I find ways to shift these kinds of initially cold discussions into warm ones (Costello); it’s meaningful but often tricky and exhausting work, and, as a WCA, I know that emotion suppression and faking are just a couple of the that can comprise writing center work.
In simplest terms, writing center tutors provide services to students and faculty members and the success of their work is often predicated on connecting with others. This means reading, anticipating, and adapting in real time to the needs—emotional and otherwise—of their clients, faculty members, and WCAs, which can result in emotional labor. As Steven Maynard-Moody explains in his foreword to Emotional Labor: Putting the Service in Public Service:
all work is emotional labor, but some forms of work demand emotional connections with others… [some employees] must make emotional connections… to get their jobs done…. Other forms of work require holding emotions at bay…. Other jobs involve uncomfortable and unsettling encounters. (xi-xii)
Writing center work often includes navigating all of these factors, and navigating these factors is often complicated by tutors’ concurrent statuses as students and workers/tutors. At this moment, as I looked at my bright, hardworking, and wonderful but utterly exhausted writing center staff, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had adequately prepared them for this aspect of writing center work, and I pledged to do more and better.
This chapter will detail why and how our writing center came to be a community of care that openly discusses and specifically aims to . After defining emotional labor and briefly exploring its emerging but incomplete characterization in the field, I will outline some of the emotional labors rooted within the tutor experience that can make writing center work difficult, exhausting, and frustrating as well as rewarding, inspiring, and enjoyable. I will illustrate how emotional labors are complicated by tutors’ often (as graduate assistants, interns, hourly workers, etc.), which is further compounded by race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, class, and other factors. In other words, tutors who are part of traditionally marginalized experience emotional labors more intensely than individuals who are not in such locations. I will conclude with strategies that support tutors’ emotional needs, encourage their self-care, and recognize and mitigate their emotional labors.
What is Emotional Labor?
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who is credited for originally coining the term emotional labor in 1979, defined it as the “management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” (328). In 2004, Theresa M. Glomb and Michael J. Tews differentiated among three different types of emotional labor: genuine, faked, and suppressed (2-4). Sharon H. Mastracci et al. have since furthered the conversation, illustrating how emotional labor “rang[es] from authentic expression of the worker’s emotional state to requiring workers to don masks and display an emotion that they do not actually feel, such as when they must seem nicer-than-nice or, conversely, tougher-than-tough” and how “successful performance depends on it” (XV). In sum, emotional labor “requires workers to suppress, exaggerate, or otherwise manipulate their own and/or another’s private feelings in order to comply with work-related display rules” (Mastracci et al. 6). Moreover, in this kind of work, they argue, one must build “emotional armor: the ability to gird oneself against one’s own emotional response” (Guy et al. 5).
Though discussions of emotional labor have been a part of sociology, psychology, vocational behavior, public service, education, and other disciplines’ scholarship for nearly forty years, conversations about emotional labor in writing center administration, for writing center tutors, in writing program administration, and in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies scholarship, more broadly, are more recent.
Though discussions of emotional labor have been a part of sociology, psychology, vocational behavior, public service, education, and other disciplines’ scholarship for nearly forty years, conversations about emotional labor in writing center administration (Caswell et al.; Geller and Denny; Grimm; Mackiewicz and Thompson), for writing center tutors (Nicklay), in writing program administration (Adams Wooten, et al.; Davies; Ferdinandt Stolley; Gillam; Hesse; Holt and Rouzie; Micciche; Phillips et al.; Reid), and in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies scholarship, more broadly, (Jacobs and Micciche; White; Worsham) are more recent. We have seen an increase in discussions regarding the emotional labor of writing teachers (Davies; De La Ysla; DeBacher and Harris-Moore; Dunbar and Baker; McLeod; Stephens; Zembylas), graduate students and graduate assistants (Restaino; Saur and Palmeri; Wynne et al.), and even department chairs (Payne). In 2016, Composition Forum published a special issue on emotion, and there have also been special issues of WLN, such as The Affective Dimension of Writing Center Work (Evertz and Fitzgerald 2016) and the WLN Special Issue on Wellness and Self-Care (Giaimo 2020), as well as this Digital Edited Collection (2021), which expands on the themes in the WLN special issue.
Critical Race scholars and others have been illustrating the emotional labors of people of color and more specifically the ways in which people of color are often called upon to perform compassion even as they are not given it themselves. Critical Race scholars and others have been illustrating the emotional labors of people of color and more specifically the ways in which people of color are often called upon to perform compassion even as they are not given it themselves. Recently, Inside Higher Ed and blogs, such as Erstwhile: A History Blog, have discussed the “exhausting emotional labor” of being a person of color in the academy (Randall para. 1). We also see these themes clearly in Aja Martinez’s “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock Story versus Counterstory Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s ‘Fit’ in the Academy” in which she shares about the emotional labor of being a Chican@ graduate student of color and the “pain, anguish, and… survivor’s guilt” of making it in the academy (33). Similar themes are explored in Alexandria Lockett’s “Why I Call it the Academic Ghetto: A Critical Examination of Race, Place, and Writing Centers” in which she explains how she “drew on an ethos of ‘doing it all by [her]self’ through [her] refusal to pursue any learning support resources,” because she was “was triggered by the daily pressure of interacting with peers/colleagues who explicitly doubted the legitimacy of [her] admissions” (para 2; para 1). In “Moving beyond Alright: And the Emotional Toll of This, My Life Matters Too, in the Writing Center Work,” Neisha-Anne Green explores the “honor” and “burden” of being “the first Black person to give the keynote address” for IWCA (15). She describes the things she carried into her presentation that her predecessors had not:
I was carrying the hope and realization of the people in the room who looked like me. I was carrying the weight of the Black man who had walked up to me the night before to tell me he came to the conference because I was giving the keynote. I was carrying the burden of having to, yet again, tell white folk it wasn’t okay to intentionally or unintentionally leave people of color out of the fold. (Green 16)
imagine how many of our tutors—in addition to feeling the pressure of doing their jobs—may also feel pressure to be a role model/mentor/coach/friend/counselor “carrying the hope and realization of the people in the room who [look] like [them]” (Green 16).
To our credit, writing center scholarship and training manuals have not fully neglected the affective dimension of writing center work. Scholars have discussed the impact of tutors working with stressed and anxious writers (Agostinelli; Bisson; Featherstone et al.; Mackiewicz and Thompson; Ryan and Zimmerelli) and navigating emotional sessions (Mills). However, what is too often missing is recognition of the complex emotional labors experienced by tutors on account of, but not limited to, these interactions. That is also not to say that scholars in writing center studies have not addressed components and sources of the emotional labor experienced by tutors, because they have: consultant guilt (Nicklay), censoring oneself during sessions (Sherwood), politeness (Thompson and Mackiewicz), working with difficult clients (Walker), and navigating pressures to perpetuate standard language ideologies (Saleem), to name a few. However, as Noreen Lape and Daniel Lawson point out in their respective articles, the “articles that address emotion most directly focus almost exclusively on either disruptive behaviors associated with emotion or on what may be considered negative affective dimensions (such as anxiety or anger)” (Lawson 20). Driscoll and Wells’ recent article in Praxis, “Tutoring the Whole Person: Supporting Emotional Development in Writers and Tutors,” sees emotions as critical to writerly development. Their research provides a nuanced framework of the affective experiences of people who attend writing centers and found that while “generative” and “disruptive” feelings related to writing are easier for tutors to categorize and work through, some “circumstantial” emotions “appeared ‘negative’ in the short run, but could end up being beneficial for longer-term writing development” (19). Emotions in the writing center, therefore, warrant further exploration and attendant tutor training.
Though she also does not categorize the work as emotional labor, Jennifer Beckwith in her Tutor Column, “My Idea of the Writing Center: Through the Eyes of a Client Turned Consultant,” discusses the ways in which a tutor’s role is not confined to the writing center because they are also expected to serve as an ambassador for the center, writing, and writing centers, in general, outside the center. She further explains the ways in which tutors “educat[e] others,” “creat[e] relationships with peers” and “eliminate, or at least decrease, the misconceptions and fears people have about writing centers in general” (26).
Though they too do not frame it as emotional labor, Anne Ellen Geller et al. discuss tutors’ processes of becoming, which they describe as the process of learning and developing experience (59). In her chapter in The Things We Carry: Strategies for Recognizing and Negotiating Emotional Labor in Writing Program Administration, Kate Navickas furthers these ideas, coining the term emotional labor of becoming to describe the emotional labor that accompanies the negotiations of the intersections of disciplinary narratives, identity, and experience as one transitions into new professional identities. This can be particularly complicated for writing center tutors because, while they are learning and developing their identities as tutors and members of the broader writing center studies community, they are also often negotiating the tenets of the field with their own experiences and the expectations of others. More specifically, tutors often recognize that faculty members across campus frequently expect them to reinforce a particular kind of literacy normativity “in the service of normative hegemony,” and they soon recognize through experience tutoring and learning more about writing center best practices and threshold concepts that if they deliver on these tasks, they are perpetuating discourses that “condemn people for their identities and other ways of being” (Pritchard 28). As Navickas explains, “As the saying goes, you are what you do, and professional identities can cause emotional labor and struggle, especially if the identity conflicts with previous internal narratives, disciplinary narratives, or conceptualizations of one’s sense of self and one’s imagined professional identity” (Navickas 56). Our tutors are also often engaging in what Bruce Bowles referred to as the “immense pressure to ‘close,’ to get students to give the writing center a try,” which can be exhausting as well as overwhelming, especially when the tutors are already negotiating their own overwhelming feelings (10). As Maynard-Moody explains, “all forms of emotional labor require subtlety and skill and take their toll in disengagement and burnout” (xii). In sum, writing center studies has done an admirable job of addressing the affective dimension of our work. However, the bulk of such sources and resources handle individual sources of labor, rather than how different work expectations compound and intersect or how they necessitate the need for self-care.
Why the interest in emotional labor and self-care, and why now?
The recent surge in scholarship regarding emotional labor in the field seems to substantiate Erin Rand’s argument that we are indeed experiencing an “affective turn” (161), which has left some wondering, why the interest in emotional labor and self-care, and why now? As Lynn Worsham describes, the twenty-first century has been “an especially catastrophic age characterized by unprecedented historical trauma” that contributes to an individual and cultural “pervasive and generalized mood corresponding to post-traumatic stress disorder” (170). Another possible answer lies less within writing centers and more in our field’s intersection with economics and politics. Despite WCAs’ often persistent and fierce advocacy, our writing center tutors are often in positions not so unlike those studied by Hochschild—hourly, liminal, and prone to having their job descriptions and expectations shifted with little or no notice at the whims of upper administration. I would also venture that writing center studies, in particular, may be now attending to the affective components of writing center work because there is at present a core foundation of scholarship and best practices for the processes of tutoring, training, and directing that enable us to think and study beyond the typical maintenance and sustainability of our centers.
However, though there is not space to fully address it in this chapter, perhaps a more interesting question is not why now, but, instead, why are universities suddenly joining in discussions about self-care? In her 2016 Composition Forum article, “Why Well-Being, Why Now?: Tracing an Alternate Genealogy of Emotion in Composition,” Jill Belli explains that “Our field’s attention to how emotions can be leveraged to produce better writing, pedagogy, and scholarship is happening in parallel with… efforts to institutionalize well-being in educational contexts” (para. 2), leaving some to wonder if these institutional pushes toward “self-care” are actually attempts by institutions to push the burden of care back onto their employees, .
All in a Day’s Work: The Emotional Labors of Writing Center Tutors
Though I have seen again and again the ways in which writing center tutors thrive and survive despite the emotional labors they perform in service of writers, our communities, and our universities, I also believe that we do them a disservice when we neglect to name and prepare them for the emotional labors of writing center work. As Guy et. al. explain: “To ignore this combination of analysis, affect, judgment, and communication is to ignore the ‘social lube’ that enables rapport, elicits desired responses, and ensures that interpersonal transactions are constructive” (8). In “Order of Discourse,” Michel Foucault discusses his wish that lessons regarding discourse, particularly its inextricability from power, had been shared by his predecessors who assuredly were aware of such rules and realities (76). He shares:
I should have liked there to be a voice behind me which had begun to speak a very long time before, doubling in advance everything I am going to say, a voice which would say: ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any…. ( 51)
To this end, those of us who have worked as tutors have experienced the emotional labors of writing center work even if we have not named them. However, in not naming them and not explicitly discussing them and supporting tutors in their negotiation of these labors, we are withholding as Foucault’s mentors had. Taking this one step further, if we can agree that discourse and language are at the heart of social practices and processes then we can (and should) also agree that the language and discourse we use (or don’t use) with our tutors, particularly in regard to their emotional labor, shape the social practices of the center and their becoming. Navickas defines the emotional labor of becoming as “aris[ing] when we must make decisions based on values that might conflict with our sense of identity” (59). How might this apply when we purposely shift typical narratives about the nature of writing centers and writing center work and what it means to be a tutor, worker, and student? Navickas explains that “The act of becoming is emotional labor precisely because becoming is always a negotiation between who you understand yourself to be (often understood in terms of the values we hold) and the realities we come in contact with (here, a professional position)” (60). So what if we shift the realities of our centers to address and support tutors’ emotional labors?
In this piece when I refer to emotional labors, I am referencing the affective or feelings-based work that is part of successfully navigating tutor positions, specifically those expectations that are seldom included in position descriptions.
There are four considerations that foreground my list of emotional labors experienced and performed by tutors:
- This list is not comprehensive;
- Emotional labors and the experiences that foreground them are situated, contextual, complex, and compounded by cultural locations;
- Emotional labors are not mutually exclusive;
- Emotional labors are not (or do not have to be) all negative (a distinction I’ll expand upon later in this section).
The following list (Table 1) of emotional labors is more expansive, but not exhaustive, because it can’t be. Informed by concepts of ecology and , emotional labors are in a constant state of development, flux, movement, intersection, and evolution. They develop in and are derived from a variety of personal, cultural, political, professional, relational, institutional, and systemic factors that are themselves situated, contextual, complex, and not mutually exclusive. Emotional labors exist separately and concurrently, individually and collectively, and emotions and emotional labors are complicated. As Sara Ahmed explains, “[E]motions are not simply “within” or “without” but … they create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds (“Affective Economies” 117). Thus, emotional labors of writing center work are rooted within the person, the center (and its values/politics), the institution (and its values/politics), and the relationships therein. It is also affected by all other spaces, systems, and subsystems in which individuals are denied access on account of their race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and other considerations. As Guy et al. point out, “emotion work is as individual as cognitive work” (6). This means that some tutors may negotiate emotions and emotional labor more easily than others. As previously discussed, due to a variety of factors, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and dis/ability, some tutors will experience more emotional labors than their peers, just as some WCAs will experience additional emotional labor than others. Additionally, because many of our tutors’ work lives are inextricably intertwined with their personal lives, it is important to recognize that they are likely to perform emotional labors rooted within their center experience outside of the center. Emotional labors are in a constant state of development, flux, movement, intersection, and evolution and develop in and are derived from a variety of personal, cultural, political, professional, relational, institutional, and systemic factors that are themselves situated, contextual, complex, and not mutually exclusive. For example, if a tutor is known as being positive and encouraging in the center, they may feel pressure not only to behave as such while working, but also in their classes and maybe even at social gatherings with colleagues. Therefore, WCAs should not separate the many facets of our tutors’ lives from the work they perform in our writing centers; as WCAs, we should recognize and validate for our tutors that they carry the labors they perform in other spaces with them everywhere they go. It is for this reason that the list of emotional labors below is more capacious than what may commonly be considered emotional labor. Unlike much of the scholarship in emotional labor that predates my own, I do not always precede emotional labor with the verb “perform,” opting occasionally for other verbs, such as experience, fearing that always leading with the verb “perform” may inaccurately and misleadingly insinuate a level of control or agency not felt by the laborer. Finally, it is also important to note that naming emotional labors does not create them, nor are emotional labors self-generated or the byproduct of oversensitivity or other theories rooted in gaslighting or other rhetorics used to minimize the experiences, emotions, and emotional labors of others.
A List of Emotional Labors That Tutors (and Administrators) May Feel in Doing Their Work
Note. This list of emotional labors was co-drafted with my partner, Liam Costello, LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). If combined, “Censoring and Masking” could be considered what Glomb and Tews’ refer to as suppression, though I felt it was important to divide them into separate units (5).
Though it can be easy to focus on the emotional labors that make tutors’ positions difficult or frustrating, there can be upsides to some emotional labors (Figure 1). In fact, the emotional aspects of this work are precisely what make writing center work so rewarding and personally fulfilling– the sense of pride we get from “knocking it out of the park” with a difficult session or helping a student in distress navigate a difficult situation or assignment. The feelings we have when we’re recognized for our work. The sense of community that develops during long days and down time. These many and varied, often invisible and unnamed, emotional labors—the uplifting, deflating, disarming, exhausting, empowering, and mobilizing—combine with the labors outlined in our position descriptions to substantiate the need for writing centers. The positive emotional labor that we engage in helps us make arguments for our viability, helps us build reputations as caring, comfortable spaces that keep students utilizing our services, and keeps us—both tutors and WCAs—returning to work each day. These emotions can also inspire and push us towards more revolutionary, anti-racist, and inclusive approaches to tutoring and advocacy work.
Our Center’s Move Toward Recognizing Emotional Labors
FLASHBACK to the end of the spring semester.
The tutor’s face reddened in embarrassment and possibly shame. “I’m so sorry,” she said to me before turning back to the student to explain the situation again but with more sensitivity.
“It’s okay,” I said to the tutor, “we’re all exhausted.”
She let out a breath of relief.
* * *
This time, I was able to step in and take a session, but I knew that my taking on additional sessions wasn’t going to help with the larger issue—during the times that the writing center is busiest and our clientele is the most stressed out, anxious, and in need, our tutors are also at their busiest, most stressed out, and in need. As I went back to my desk, I wasn’t angry—I was concerned. I knew that I needed to reach out to the tutors. I thought about the first writing center I worked at and how I loved working there most of the time. However, as each semester drew to a close, we could expect a series of signs to be posted around the center reminding us to minimize the amount of time spent on breaks and to check email submissions between face-to-face sessions. We could expect scolding stares from the director or the administrative assistant if we were laughing with our colleagues or talking about anything non-work related with our clients. We would often also receive an email reminding us of the importance of being on time and being kind to our students, but I do not recall being reminded to be kind to our colleagues or, even more importantly, to ourselves. I better understand now how hectic and stressful this time of the semester was for the director and the administrative assistant, but I also remember how tense and toxic the center was for the tutors during the time most of us needed support and community the most.
I drafted an email to the tutors (See Appendix A: Email to Tutors for full email). In it, I acknowledged how busy and stressed everyone was, reminded them of the importance of being a thoughtful colleague, and encouraged them to care for themselves. I wrote, “we all need to take care of ourselves (in as much as that is possible during graduate school) in the ways that work best for us, such as making sure we’re eating, drinking, and sleeping, taking breaks from work where we talk about things other than work, getting outside on nice days (try the LimeBikes!), making time for friends, family, and family-of-choice, and, of course, setting aside time for ourselves” adding “I know from experience that this seems to be the time of the semester when we all need these reminders, encouragement, and self-care the most so I wanted to reach out to you.” Then I extended a challenge:
If every tutor responds to this email before tomorrow (Friday) at 5 p.m. with one tangible thing you are going to do over the course of the weekend or next week to be a better colleague, tutor, or employee and one thing you are going to do to be good or better to yourself, we will close the center, and I will bring in breakfast, lunch, or dinner for everyone.
I also let them know that we would have our first (optional) detoxing/de-stressing narrative meditation for campus tutors (writing tutors and other tutors across campus, including the Math Center and Athletics) before the center opened on Study Day and got to work planning it (Figure 2). I signed off by saying, “If there are other things we can do to help make the hard work you do a little better or easier, don’t hesitate to let us know. Thank you for all you do.”
Within the 24 hours of my email to the tutors, which let them know that I saw, understood, and valued what they were doing and encouraged us all to make space to care for ourselves and each other and cut ourselves some slack, every tutor had responded. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, kind, and inspiring. A tutor vowed to see a movie she’d been wanting to see before it left the theater, one planned to read for fun for 30 minutes over the weekend, another planned to limit the time he spent reading and commenting on his students’ blogs to fifteen minutes each, and yet another pledged to use five minutes of their hourly ten-minute-break to walk the first floor of the library and fill up her water bottle, noticing that she was getting stiff and dehydrated during some of her shifts and long days on campus. A tutor planned to get to work at least 15 minutes before their shift so they could give the student desk workers a short break, another promised to clean their leftovers out of the refrigerator, and several shared their intent to be more thoughtful of their colleagues and the writers who trust us to read their work.
As I mentioned before, this was an insightful, impressive, and empathetic group; to some extent, I expected these responses. What I did not expect, however, was the aftermath of my email. The tutors began sharing their goals with each other and on their social media accounts. They began holding each other accountable and asking questions about each other’s well-being on a more regular basis. They even posted a similar prompt on our writing center Facebook page and encouraged students and faculty to consider how they were going to engage in self-care over finals week. We covered the outside wall of the Writing Center with bright, encouraging Post-it notes for students and passersby to grab that said things like “you are enough” and “you can do this.” Though I cannot be exactly sure what led them to so quickly and firmly latch onto the concept of emotional labor and the practice of self-care, it seemed as though it was because they felt seen, heard, and understood and wanted to pay forward those feelings to others. After this experience, the tutors, the Assistant Director, the Graduate Assistant Director, and I worked to integrate more recognition of and discussions of emotions, emotional labor, and self-care into our daily practices and developed additional training regarding navigating emotional labor and self-care into our pre-semester orientation and the weekly staff course.
Strategies for Recognizing and Supporting Tutors’ Emotional Labor
As WCAs, we need to be prepared to provide both proactive and reactive or adaptive strategies for recognizing, supporting, and mitigating the emotional labors performed by our tutors and staff. WCAs should also recognize and remember that these approaches must not substitute for improved working conditions or addressing inequalities that lead to or exacerbate emotional labors. Our first priorities as WCAs should always be to improve diversity, accessibility, and labor conditions within our centers and universities and address other obstacles that face our centers, tutors, and clientele. And, concurrently, as we strive to make our centers more inclusive, diverse, and equitable, we can work together to transform our centers into communities of care, spaces that validate emotions and lived experiences and prioritize mental health and wellbeing.
The most impactful step we took in our center was engaging in what Donna Strickland refers to in The Managerial Unconsciousness in the History of Composition Studies as “tweaking,” defined as “an operative approach to management” that “leaves nothing on the table” (120-121). Strickland calls on us to “notice and investigate our emotional stances toward our work, our beliefs about what constitutes a successful program” (120-121). Though her work specifically addresses writing programs, not writing centers, her encouragement to interrogate the values that inform what we do and how and what makes a good program can serve as a useful heuristic for WCAs looking to transform our centers (121). Hence, instead of isolating the mission and goals of a writing center to focus only on the work that happens during sessions, writing centers can expand our goals and definition of what constitutes a successful writing center; for us, a successful writing center is not just one that provides valuable services to the campus and supports our clientele, but it is also one that prioritizes care for tutors and fosters emotional health alongside professional and intellectual gains.
We furthered this work through introducing and discussing listed above (Table 1), such as tutor fatigue, consultant guilt, and impostor syndrome, at the pre-service training.
During the first new-staff meeting, I asked the tutors to consider:
- What Are You Nervous About?
- What Are You Excited About?
- What Questions Do You Have?
During the first new-staff meeting, I asked the tutors to reflect on their feelings about tutoring. Then, I asked them to write responses on Post-it notes, and, if they felt comfortable, post them on the whiteboard under the corresponding heading. We worked together to group similar responses (Figure 3). Much of what the new tutors were nervous about—not knowing an answer, looking “silly” or “dumb,” being too helpful or not helpful enough to writers, and balancing their schoolwork, assistantship, and home life—were shared among all of them, which helped to level the playing field and initiate a sense of support and community. It was similarly reassuring for some of them to see they had the same questions. And finally, sharing what they were excited about helped them also focus on the positive parts of the job and provided a nice balance to addressing their emotional labor, concerns, and insecurities.
Finally, once tutors were comfortable discussing their tutoring questions and concerns, they chose a couple topics from each category to discuss in small groups. I encouraged them to not only come up with solutions to their concerns but also to consider how they might work to productively and healthily negotiate them. Over the course of the semester, the tutors and I returned to discussions of emotional labor and self-care, and they wrote three short reflections about their experiences in the center. At the end of the semester, I brought the same Post-its back in and asked the tutors to reflect on the exercise, their semesters, and future training needs. Though I did not specifically ask them to reflect on the inclusion of emotional labor and self-care, their reflections strongly suggest that the trainings were well received and that the tutors looked forward to and paying forward the lessons they had learned to the next cohort of tutors.
Though proactive strategies are important, it is also important to listen and be ready to adapt and provide opportunity, space for discussion, and support of tutors’ emotions and emotional labors, as needed. At times, we have closed the center for an hour to provide a meal and hold a staff meeting when there is something to discuss. We have posted signage that establishes the policies of our center, including the 10-minute per hour break for our tutors. We have scheduled optional meditation or yoga classes at particularly stressful periods in the semester, and we more elaborately celebrate National Tutor Appreciation Week, being sure to encourage tutors by letting them know what they are doing well and by attending to their emotional and relational needs, such as providing space and time to talk and laugh with each other, as opposed to simply providing food (though food is nice too). The Assistant Director and I also work with our center’s Graduate Assistant Director, a year-long position held by an experienced tutor, to listen, understand, and respond to not just the professional needs, but also the personal and emotional needs of our staff through anonymous surveys, monthly check-ins, and open office doors.
As WCAs, the Assistant Director and I also work to respond with education, programming, and initiatives, and we endeavor to listen and amplify the voices of the tutors and lend credence to our shared emotions and emotional labors. For example, when our university considered discontinuing assistantship opportunities in our department during the interim and summer sessions, the Assistant Director and I listened to the tutors and provided space and opportunity for the tutors who wished to do so to write a letter making their case for how the lack of summer funding would impact their lives. We then combined quantifiable justification for why the positions were needed with their letter and pushed back against upper administration. We were successful in preserving summer funding opportunities, but, importantly, we succeeded in a way that showed the tutors that they are heard, supported, and fought for.
WCAs wishing to support this work may find, as I did, that there is vulnerability to engaging in real discussions about tutors’ emotional labor, in part because there will inevitably be things we can do better as well as things that we find difficult to change. Emotional labor work is best followed up with advocacy and activism, which is not always comfortable. In fact, in The Activist WPA: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers, Linda Adler-Kassner expresses the need for “a commitment to changing for the better here and now through consensus-based, systematic, thoughtful processes that take into consideration the material contexts and concerns of all involved and a constant commitment to ongoing, loud, sometimes messy dialogue” (33). Similarly, Susan Miller Cochran pointed out in her 2018 CWPA keynote that compassionate intentional administration is equal parts vulnerability and resistance. Thus, naming and recognizing emotional labor are important parts of the process, but WCAs should have a concurrent focus on supporting and mitigating emotional labors by striving for better diversity, accessibility, and working conditions.
A Call to Name Emotional Labors and Prioritize Self-Care
Bringing emotions, emotional labor, and self-care to the forefront of our training, support, and consciousness directly contributed to improvement in our work lives, our personal lives, and our writing center. More specifically, it led to us challenging ourselves to do and be better, helped us feel understood and appreciated, and ultimately enabled us to create a more open and communicative environment with less conflict, better work-life balance, and a renewed sense of responsibility—not only in our work, but for supporting one another. As Tony Scott argues, “When we articulate, we do; we act upon ourselves and our environments” (30). Thus, as WCAs and writing center staff make plans and set goals for their next semester, I hope they will be educating the writing center tutors about the emotional labors of tutoring writing and providing support for negotiating them.
I want to extend my gratitude to Genie N. Giaimo for her support, time, and efforts. Not only is this chapter better because of her insights, but so am I. I am also grateful for our writing center’s Assistant Directors, Tabatha Simpson-Farrow and Airek Beauchamp, and all of the amazing tutors from Arkansas State University who helped me develop my philosophies and trusted in me, each other, and our work enough to establish our center as a community of care. I miss y’all every day. I also send big thanks and big hugs to my writing partner and dear friend, Kate Navickas, who has continued to help me expand and articulate my knowledge about emotional labor, as well as tutor-alumnae, friend, and colleague Rae Summers-Thompson; without our long talks about emotion and tutoring, trauma narratives and the teaching of writing, and what it means to be a good colleague in academia— especially as women to others who identify as women, I couldn’t have written this. Last, but not least, I acknowledge my partner Liam Costello, LCSW for his guidance and support in imagining and drafting this piece and for his love, always.
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Email to Tutors
Dear Writing Center Colleagues,
It is getting to be that time of the semester when you’re (who are we kidding, WE’RE) exhausted and swamped, so I’m writing to remind all of us that it is even more important during these times that we remember to be a good colleague, which includes taking turns seeing students without making a fuss, taking reasonable breaks between sessions, and answering the phone when there’s no one else available to do so, and a good employee, pushing ourselves to do the less visible, but no less important parts of Writing Center work well, such as taking our time with writers, creating good session notes, clocking in and out, showing up to shifts on time, and helping our colleagues when they need it. And of course, being a good colleague extends beyond the center walls and includes being professional and courteous to our student workers, consistently ensuring that we’re helping to make each other’s work days easier and better– even when, perhaps especially when, they have the awkward task of assigning us a session. Just as important, we all need to take care of ourselves (in as much as that is possible during graduate school) in the ways that work best for us, such as making sure we’re eating, drinking, and sleeping, taking breaks from work where we talk about things other than work, getting outside on nice days (try the LimeBikes!), making time for friends, family, and family-of-choice, and, of course, setting aside time for ourselves.
Maybe you already do all of these things, have continued to do all of these things, and that not one element of your performance has been compromised as this semester gets more hectic and workload heavy, but I know from experience that this seems to be the time of the semester when we all need these reminders, encouragement, and self-care the most so I wanted to reach out to you.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll be glad you did: if every tutor responds to this email before tomorrow (Friday) at 5 p.m. with one tangible thing you are going to do over the course of the weekend or next week to be a better colleague, tutor, or employee and one thing you are going to do to be good or better to yourself, I will bring in breakfast, lunch, or dinner for everyone (whatever the consensus is) on the day that works the best for the most people. We have also partnered with the Red Wolf Center to provide a detoxing/ de-stressing meditation just for campus tutors before the center opens on Study Day. I hope you will join us.
If there are other things we can do to help make the hard work you do a little better or easier, don’t hesitate to let us know.
Thank you for all you do.
In-Text Hyperlinked Notes
MA graduate students: In our program, first-year MA graduate students work in the Writing Center and second-year graduate students teach one class and have four hours in the Writing Center to make space for more experienced graduate students to mentor their peers.
Writer: In this chapter, I refer to those who utilize our services as writers as opposed to clients or tutees.
Staff: Though our staff was mainly composed of graduate students from the English MA program, we also often had 1-2 undergraduate writing studies interns and 2-5 MA students from other disciplines. During this particular semester, our staff was made up of a director (me) with one course release for managing the center, one assistant director with one course release (8-10 hours), eight full-time MA graduate assistant student tutors (18-20 hours), three part-time MA graduate assistant student tutors (4-8 hours), four WAC/WID embedded graduate assistant tutors (18-20 hours), and two undergraduate writing studies interns (5 hours).
Emotional Labors: I refer to the emotional labors—not labor—of writing center work to emphasize their plurality and to avoid the essentializing that can result as a consequence of combining our labors into a singular entity.
Support and prepare our staff for undertaking emotional labors: Though this work was over the span of five years and was expanded and improved upon with each incoming cohort, for the ease of the reader and to emphasize the collective efforts of this work, I do not distinguish among center cohorts.
Liminal institutional statuses: As Harry Denny and Beth Towle explain of writing centers, “We always already are liminal creatures” (para. 6).
Cultural locations: Cultural location is a term used by Krista Ratcliffe and Rebecca Rickly in Performing Feminism and Administration in Rhetoric and Composition Studies to describe the nexus, interplay, and intersections of one’s race, ethnicity, social class, dis/ability, gender, age, and sexual orientation as it relates to one’s identity and subject position.
Though contexts vary: You may also want to check out Dwedor Morais Ford’s “HBCU Writing Centers Claiming an Identity in the Academy” and Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan’s Writing Centers And The New Racism: A Call For Sustainable Dialogue And Change.
Absolving themselves of having to provide adequate resources and support: For additional considerations of this issue and information about how WCAs can advocate for ourselves and our staffs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, check out Genie N. Giaimo’s “Laboring in a Time of Crisis: The Entanglement of Wellness and Work in Writing Centers.”
Ecocomposition: See Bonnie Devet’s “Redefining the Writing Center with Ecocomposition” for more discussion of writing centers and Ecocomposition.
Different types of emotional labors: The list of different types of emotional labor has expanded since the initial writing center training and will likely/hopefully continue to expand and develop.
Expanding the work: Like the tutors and their desire to expand their tutoring practice, I also plan to expand on these findings through coding the WCCs responses to this activity and others like their reflections throughout the semester in a future article.
In our program, first-year MA graduate students work in the Writing Center and second-year graduate students teach one class and have four hours in the Writing Center to make space for more experienced graduate students to mentor their peers
In this article, I refer to those who utilize our services as writers as opposed to clients or tutees.
Though our staff was mainly composed of graduate students from the English MA program, we also often had 1-2 undergraduate writing studies interns and 2-5 MA students from other disciplines. During this particular semester, our staff was made up of a director (me) with one course release for managing the center, one assistant director with one course release (8-10 hours), eight full-time MA graduate assistant student tutors (18-20 hours), three part-time MA graduate assistant student tutors (4-8 hours), four WAC/WID embedded graduate assistant tutors (18-20 hours), and two undergraduate writing studies interns (5 hours).
I refer to the emotional labors—not labor—of writing center work to emphasize their plurality and to avoid the essentializing that can result as a consequence of combining our labors into a singular entity.
Though this work was over the span of five years and was expanded and improved upon with each incoming cohort, for the ease of the reader and to emphasize the collective efforts of this work, I do not distinguish among center cohorts.
As Harry Denny and Beth Towle explain of writing centers, “We always already are liminal creatures” (para. 6).
Cultural location is a term used by Krista Ratcliffe and Rebecca Rickly in Performing Feminism and Administration in Rhetoric and Composition Studies to describe the nexus, interplay, and intersections of one’s race, ethnicity, social class, dis/ability, gender, age, and sexual orientation as it relates to one’s identity and subject position.
You may also want to check out Dwedor Morais Ford’s “HBCU Writing Centers Claiming an Identity in the Academy” and Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan’s Writing Centers And The New Racism: A Call For Sustainable Dialogue And Change.
For additional considerations of this issue and information about how WCAs can advocate for ourselves and our staffs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, check out Genie N. Giaimo’s “Laboring in a Time of Crisis: The Entanglement of Wellness and Work in Writing Centers.”
See Bonnie Devet’s “Redefining the Writing Center with Ecocomposition” for more discussion of writing centers and ecocomposition.
The list of different types of emotional labor has expanded since the initial writing center training and will likely/hopefully continue to expand and develop.
I plan to expand on these findings through coding the WCCs responses to this activity and others like their reflections throughout the semester in a future article.