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Checking In: Emotions at The Writing Center

By Mariyam Ahmed


This research paper tackles emotions at the writing center. Both tutee and tutor emotions can affect the outcome of the session. Tutors have the responsibility of effectively managing student emotions. Thus, this paper suggests how training for emotion management during tutorials can be included in tutor education. It also discusses the impact of such management, namely, emotional labor. The effects of emotional labor on tutors are discussed, and recommendations to address them at the writing center are made. A survey was also administered to writing tutors at AUS to study the effects of emotions and how tutors manage them presently. This research can help improve the management of emotions at the writing Center.

Checking In: Emotions at The Writing Center

Emotions at the writing center are two-fold. First, students visiting the center bring with them a flurry of emotions: anxiety about their grade, fear of being evaluated, anger at their allegedly unfair professors. Traditionally, these emotions have been seen as a disruptive influence on the work taking place during a session. Emotions are described as being secondary to the intellectual work taking place, only to be engaged with if they are interfering with that intellectual work (Lape, 2008). However, now in the light of the global COVID-19 pandemic more than ever, the understanding that emotions form a large part of the learning process that occurs in the session is becoming apparent. In fact, emotions can have direct impacts on writing outcomes. Driscoll and Wells (2020) have categorized emotions based on the effects they have on writerly development. They describe emotions as generative or disruptive based on whether they lead to writing success or not. The main factor that determines whether an emotion will be generative or disruptive to the writing process is how a student manages these emotions. If the writing center served as a place where all aspects of writerly development were addressed, including emotion management, then it would be more successful at producing better writers. However, to facilitate this emotion-driven learning process, tutors need to be explicitly trained to handle emotions. Sixty-five percent of AUS peer tutors agree that they want additional training to better handle student emotions (Appendix A). This highlights the need for a more comprehensive training model for emotion management.

The second aspect of emotions at the writing center involves the staff. More specifically, writing tutors managing student emotions take on a burden that is not often explicitly discussed in the job description. To be able to understand and respond to the emotions of others, while understanding and modulating one’s own is a type of labor called emotional labor. Emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and burnout if not managed in a healthy way. Thus, the emotional needs of the tutors and tutees need to be considered. Thus, training for emotional management should become a larger part of tutor education for both students’ and tutors' emotions. This paper suggests specific strategies that can be incorporated into such training wherever possible.

Student Emotions at The Writing Center

A useful framework to discuss emotions in the context of education is the concept of achievement emotions. Achievement emotions are described by Pekrun (2006) as “emotions tied directly to achievement activities or achievement outcomes” (p. 317). These emotions are experienced with respect to pursuits that will result in varying degrees of success or failure. Pekrun (2006) divides achievement emotions into two types: activity emotions, elicited by the tasks relating to the achievement, and outcome emotions, caused by the expected or actual result of the achievement pursuit. A further division of achievement emotions can be made based on the valence and the effect produced on the student. Pekrun and Linnenbrink-Garcia (2012) classify achievement emotions as positive or negative and activating or deactivating. For instance, pride is a positive, activating emotion as it can motivate a student to perform. Certain achievement emotions occur more frequently than others at the Writing Center. Follett (2016) found that the most common emotions tutors noticed in the writing center were anxiety and frustration, whereas the least common emotions were anger and hopelessness. A survey administered to AUS peer tutors, 21 of which responded, produced similar findings. Anxiety was the most common emotion reported by tutors. Boredom, frustration, and hopelessness had very mixed responses, with a near equal number of tutors reporting it as rare and very frequent. Fear and anger were the least common emotions reported (Appendix A). These findings help identify the specific emotions that occur most frequently at the writing center, allowing for the development of effective strategies to manage them.

The emotions discussed above mainly originate from the assignment itself, but the nature of services provided by the Writing Center may also be contributing. The facilitative and non-directive nature of instruction at the writing center could be a factor in increased negative achievement emotions during sessions. Jacob et al. (2019) demonstrated that students had lower levels of anxiety and shame in directive, teacher-centered college language classrooms as opposed to collaborative, student-oriented ones. The authors postulated that this result was caused by the fact that novice learners may be more comfortable in teacher-centered dynamics from high school and being made in charge of their own learning is stressful. Since the majority of the AUS writing center clientele is first-year undergraduate students, some of the facilitative strategies peer tutors use with their tutees may be contributing to negative emotions during sessions. Furthermore, Mills (2011) suggests that the daunting prospect of being judged by writing tutors can also add to students’ anxiety. Taken together, the writing center itself may be contributing to the emotions that tutors observe in their students. These contributors to student emotions must be kept in mind to effectively handle the emotions during a session.

How Can We Handle Student Emotions?

Tutor training and education programs can include generalized training in emotional intelligence to increase competency in emotion management. Lape (2008) proposed a set of training techniques to improve emotional intelligence in tutors. Her methods are motivated by the main components of emotional intelligence: being able to identify emotions and manage them. Lape (2008) suggests role playing as a means of understanding the emotions of the tutee and the responses of tutors. Once the emotions have been identified, merely validating the writer’s feelings can help them move towards a solution together. Further, being aware of one’s behavioral response, such as bodily position, eye contact, and tone of voice, and specifically manipulating this response can achieve the goal of helping the tutee manage their emotions (Lape, 2008, p. 5). Emotional intelligence training can also be adapted from the training commonly provided to related caring professions. Driscoll and Wells (2020) suggest including the emotional intelligence training techniques taught to teachers in tutor education. Both Lape (2008) and Driscoll and Wells (2020) also suggest encouraging tutors to reflect on real-life tutoring scenarios where emotions played a role to develop emotional intelligence. Tutors can use specific strategies to improve the overall emotional state and writing outcomes of the student. One strategy is to use negative emotions to motivate a student to critically analyze writing choices. Haen (2018) discusses the disadvantages of affiliating with the student when they engage in negative talk. Negative talk can comprise complaining or self-deprecating comments. Instead of indulging this talk by relating to the student, Haen (2018) contends that student emotions can be validated without being affiliative. Instead of responding with “I’m sure you’re not that bad” to a student complaining about their poor grammar skills, a tutor can instead use it as an opportunity to engage a student’s critical thinking. An example of this would be to respond with “have you tried reading aloud?”. Thus, negative affective stances can be transformed into a teaching moment. However, identifying how and when to do this requires the emotional intelligence skills discussed previously. Another strategy to manage student emotions is by controlling feedback patterns. Research demonstrates that the type of feedback that writers receive can affect the achievement emotions they experience. Among positive, negative, and constructive, the most frequent type of feedback given in the writing center is constructive. According to Fong et al. (2018), constructive feedback is that which provides ways to improve. This feedback can elicit negative emotions due to the critical aspect and positive emotions due to the

constructive aspect of the constructive criticism. To maximize the positive emotions and minimize negative ones, Fong et al. (2018) provide a few guidelines for constructive feedback. Most of these are already part of writing center pedagogy, such as providing praise, treating the work and writer with respect, and providing clear steps toward improvement. However, the authors also suggest that feedback that increases the perceived value of the task by providing a rationale or motivation for improvement can improve achievement emotions. Thus, tutors can help alleviate negative emotions in a student and increase positive ones by explaining the implications of improving writing skills, thereby motivating the student.

Emotional Labor

A large part of tutoring involves understanding and managing emotions, whether this happens intentionally or subconsciously for tutors. This aspect of writing center work demands a willingness on the part of the tutor to entangle their emotions, a personal experience that is “integral to [one’s] individuality” (Hochschild, 2012, p. 7), with their job. The strategies outlined in the section above demand this willingness even more. This concept of emotional entanglement, required by many service jobs, has been termed emotional labor. First defined by Hochschild (2012), emotional labor involves producing or subduing emotions to produce work-appropriate responses that achieve the goals of the employer. Rowell (2015) expands the definition to include the labor involved in managing the emotions of others in addition to one’s own. Research shows that AUS tutors engage in emotional labor. When surveyed, 52% of AUS peer tutors strongly agree that they suppress negative emotions to make a session successful. Almost 24% of tutors somewhat agreed with the previous statement. Similarly, 85.7% of tutors agree that they feel pressured to show positive emotions in a session (Appendix A). These findings indicate that emotional labor is a large part of peer tutoring at AUS, making it important to address.

Two strategies to manage emotions and perform emotional labor have been identified: surface acting and deep acting. Hochschild (2012) describes surface acting as displaying, through body language and facial expressions, emotions that are not really being felt. On the other hand, deep acting is changing your emotional state to match the emotions you need to display (Hochschild, 2012). In the survey administered to AUS peer tutors (Appendix A), four items were adapted from the Hospitality Emotional Labor Scale (Chu & Murrmann, 2006) to measure the level of deep acting and surface acting used by the tutors. When asked if they “fake a good mood” and “show emotions they don’t feel” during a session to measure surface acting, respectively 38% and 52% of tutors reported doing so occasionally, and 33% and 29% of tutors reported doing so regularly. When deep acting was measured using similar survey items, it was found that it was used more than surface acting (Appendix A). Thus, both surface acting and deep acting are used by writing tutors regularly. The numbers reported in the preceding paragraph are significant as deep acting and surface acting have different effects on the mental well-being of tutors. These two emotional labor strategies have different effects on the emotions of tutors. Surface acting has been linked to higher rates of anxiety and frustration in English language teachers and deep acting to higher enjoyment and pride and lower anxiety (Lee & van Vlack, 2018). Thus, surface acting may lead to more negative emotions in tutors than deep acting. Further, surface acting has also been linked to higher rates of burnout. Brotheridge and Grandey (2002) describe burnout as an emotional detachment and exhaustion related to work activities, which can lead to low self-efficacy and worse job performance. Brotheridge and Grandey (2002) showed that surface acting was linked to a higher likelihood of depersonalization and emotional exhaustion, both being predictors of burnout, whereas deep acting correlated with higher levels of accomplishment. This suggests that surface acting has more long-term harmful effects than just leading to negative emotions in tutors. Therefore, bringing attention to

emotional labor at the writing center is important as allowing them to be informed and make conscious decisions about the kinds of emotional labor strategies they employ in their sessions can improve their mental health.

Strategies to Manage Emotional Labor at The Writing Center

Writing centers can begin to address emotional labor by creating safe spaces and starting a dialogue about it. Driscoll and Wells (2020) suggest deliberately creating a safe and supportive atmosphere for tutors where emotions can be discussed freely. They also stress the importance of prioritizing self-care and ensuring that each tutor creates a self-care plan at the beginning of the semester to avoid burnout. Adding to this, Nelson et al. (2020) recommend starting by acknowledging and highlighting emotional labor in staff meetings, training, and writing center assessments. Beginning the discussion and giving importance to emotional labor in the writing center is the first step, but more data-driven research is needed to tackle the issue effectively.


Student and tutor emotions form an important aspect of peer tutoring which is not explicitly discussed in tutor training. More in-depth instruction regarding these emotions incorporated into tutor education can improve the efficacy of tutorials. Student emotions are present in every tutorial and must be managed effectively to improve student outcomes.

Improving the emotional intelligence of tutors and teaching them specific strategies can improve the management of student emotions. The emotional labor performed by tutors must also be addressed. Tutors are at risk of burnout due to the emotional labor they perform, negatively affecting their mental health and job performance. Thus, emotional labor should be acknowledged and tactics to help tutors manage it should be developed. Future research in this area can involve observations of tutoring sessions to determine how tutors handle tutee emotions and how effective the strategies they use are. The relationship between surface acting, deep acting, and the symptoms of burnout can be studied to determine whether the trend discussed in literature continues in this context. The results of the survey conducted as a part of this research paper have the following limitations: generalizability of results to other Middle Eastern writing centers is unclear since only one was surveyed, student emotions were reported by tutors and are thus subject to biases in perception, the tutors may not be fully aware of the emotional work they perform, leading to underreporting of emotional labor. However, it is clear that emotions are a significant contributor to the success of writing center work and should therefore be given more attention.


  • Brotheridge, C. M., & Grandey, A. A. (2002). Emotional Labor and Burnout: Comparing Two Perspectives of “People Work.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 60(1), 17–39.

  • Chu, K. H.-L., & Murrmann, S. K. (2006). Development and validation of the hospitality emotional labor scale. Tourism Management, 27(6), 1181–1191.

  • Driscoll, D. L., Wells, J. (2020). Tutoring the whole person: Supporting emotional development in writers and tutors. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 17(3), 16-28.

  • Follet, J. (2016). "How do you feel about this paper?" A mixed-methods study of how writing center tutors address emotion (10243051) [Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

  • Haen, M. (2018). The Affective Dimension of Writing Center Talk: Insights from Conversation Analysis. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 42(9-10), 2-9.

  • Hochschild, A. (2012). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. University of California Press.

  • Jacob, B., Hofmann, F., Stephan, M., Fuchs, K., Markus, S., & Gläser-Zikuda, M. (2019). Students’ achievement emotions in university courses – does the teaching approach matter? Studies in Higher Education, 44(10), 1768-1780.

  • Lee, M., & van Vlack, S. (2017). Teachers’ emotional labour, discrete emotions, and classroom management self-efficacy. Educational Psychology, 38(5), 669–686.

  • Mills, G. (2011). Preparing for Emotional Sessions. Writing Lab Newsletter, 35(5), 1-5 Fong, C. J., Williams, K. M., Williamson, Z. H., Lin, S., Kim, Y. W., & Schallert, D. L. (2017). “Inside out”: Appraisals for achievement emotions from constructive, positive, and negative feedback on writing. Motivation and Emotion, 42(2), 236–257.

  • Nelson, M. T., Deges, S. & Weaver, K. F. (2020). Making visible the emotional labor of writing center work. In C. A. Wooten, J. Babb, K. M. Costello, & K. Navickas (Eds.), The things we carry (pp. 161-176). University Press of Colorado, Utah State University Press.

  • Noreen, L. (2008). Training tutors in emotional intelligence: Toward a pedagogy of empathy. Writing Lab Newsletter, 33(2), 1-6.

  • Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 315–341.

  • Pekrun, R., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2012). Academic Emotions and Student Engagement. Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, 259–282. center tutors address emotion (10243051) [Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

  • Rowell, C. (2015). Let’s talk emotions: Re-envisioning the writing center through consultant emotional labor (1590154) [Master’s thesis, East Carolina University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Appendix A Two surveys were administered to the AUS peer tutoring staff. The surveys were creating through The Writing Center Administrator was requested to send the surveys to the tutors. 21 tutors responded to the survey over a period of 12 days. Survey 1 Q1 - How often do you notice this emotion in students: anxiety Q2 - How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "I know how to handle student anxiety in a session"?

Q3 - How often do you notice this emotion in students: boredom? Q4 - How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "I know how to handle student boredom in a session"?

Q6 - How often do you notice this emotion in students: frustration? Q7 - How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "I know how to handle student frustration in a session"?

Q8 - How often do you notice this emotion in students: hopelessness? Q9- How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "I know how to handle student hopelessness in a session"?

Q10 - How often do you notice this emotion in students: anger? Q11 - How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "I know how to handle student anger in a session"?

Q12 - How often do you notice this emotion in students: fear? Q13 - How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: "I know how to handle student fear in a session"?

Survey 2 Q1 - How often do you feel emotionally drained after a tutoring session? Q2 - To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: "I feel pressure to suppress my negative emotions to ensure a session is successful"?

Q3 - To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: "I feel pressure to display positive emotions to ensure a session is successful Q4 - How often do you do the following: "I display emotions in front of my tutees that I don’t really feel to do my job well"

21 Q5 - How often do you do the following: "I fake a good mood when interacting with tutees"? Q6 - How much do you agree with this statement: "I believe that I display very genuine hospitality when dealing with tutees" Q7 - How often do you do the following: "I make an effort to actually feel the emotions that I need to display to my tutees"

Q8 - Indicate the extent to which you agree with the following: "I feel I was adequately prepared to handle the emotions I experience while tutoring" Q9 - Indicate the extent to which you agree with the following: "I feel like the emotional work I perform during sessions takes a toll on me".

Q10 - Indicate the extent to which you agree with the following: "I would like more training/ help to manage the toll that emotional work takes on me". Q11 - Indicate the extent to which you agree with the following: "I would like more training to better handle student emotions during sessions".

Q18 - Do you have any comments or additions to your responses for both surveys? Please leave them below. To an extent i feel that no matter what i feel in a day my sessions revive and energize me. I genuinely love to tutor so I am always excited to do so despute the days where i may not feeling my best. I like this study! Good luck Q12 - Would you be open to a 30 minute interview to expand on any of your responses during the coming break? If yes, please enter your AUS ID and indicate your availability

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