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  • Writer's pictureTheInkblotJournal

The Elephants in The Room: Emotions at The Writing Center

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

By Alaa Itani

At the Writing Center, it is commonplace to spend the first few minutes of each session making small talk, asking the tutees how their day has been or what their paper is about. During these few minutes of small talk, it often occurs that the tutee expresses negative emotions toward an assignment, a professor, or their lives. Whilst previous research has mostly worked to curb these negative emotions by framing such emotions as disruptive, it is important to attend to affective dimensions and integrate them into the tutoring process by reconceptualizing these emotions as being helpful indicators of the students’ concerns rather than unproductive hindrances that need to be overcome and avoided. Due to the different aspects of emotional labor tutors experience in writing centers, it is important to consider how and why burnout arises, and how tutors and writing center directors can work to mitigate it.

When the student expresses negative emotions during a session, tutors should first identify the expressed emotion (Mills, 2011). The annual report from The Center for Collegiate Mental Health (2016) listed anxiety as the most reported emotion by students. After identifying the expressed emotions, Mills (2011) recommends that tutors assess the tutee’s distress by looking at the strength of the emotion. Asking questions that explore whether the tutee’s emotion appears to be temporarily specific to the assignment tends to effectively distinguish between short-term and long-term problems (Mills, 2011). For example, the tutor can ask why the tutee feels frustrated, or how long they have experiencing stress. If the tutee responds to such questions by mentioning an approaching deadline or an upcoming assessment, tutors should ideally spend a few minutes employing empathy and actively listening to the tutee before they begin working on the selected assignment. It is worth noting that the time invested exploring the tutee’s emotions is not time wasted. On the contrary, it is beneficial for signaling interest, communicating support, and discovering the tutee’s concerns (Driscoll & Wells, 2020).

On the other hand, if the tutee appears to be in distress over a greater long-term problem, responding to the tutor’s questions by saying that they feel like they cannot cope or that they do not speak about a particular issue with others, tutors should recognize that the tutee’s distress extends beyond their capacity to help, and professional sources should be encouraged and recommended (Mills, 2011). Tutors can make tutees aware of the counseling services available on campus (if any) and make these services more accessible by sharing relevant information, including contact information if needed. If the tutor feels that the tutor is in too much distress to move forward with the session, the tutor can suggest rescheduling to a later time when the tutee feels calmer and more collected. It is important to note that the employment of different types of empathy in tutoring sessions does not equip peer tutors with the skills needed to counsel tutees with deep psychological problems. Instead, it seeks to integrate tutee emotions into the session, acknowledging, accepting, and encouraging emotions regardless of their valence (Driscoll & Wells, 2020).

Emotional Labor

Handling occasional emotional outbreaks of tutees is only one aspect of the emotional labor managed by tutors in writing centers. Hardt (1999) defines affective labor as the “production and manipulation of affects” embedded in “(virtual or actual) human contact and proximity” (pp. 97-98). Other aspects of affective labor in writing centers result from handling emotionally charged papers, making small talk, dealing with disengaged tutees, establishing a connection, acting friendly, maintaining a positive atmosphere, and experiencing consultant guilt. Nicklay (2012) defined “consultant guilt” as the negative emotionality resulting from feelings of responsibility, self-consciousness, and shame stemming from the employment of directive methods during sessions. In “There May Have Been Other Stuff Going On: Affective Labor and the Writing Center as a Safe House,” Nielson (2018) describes the writing center as a “safe house” that can serve as a space where consultants perform affective labor through both academically challenging and emotionally supporting students.


Looking at the emotional demands of being a peer tutor at a writing center, it is unsurprising to hear multiple tutors expressing feelings of burnout. Defined as a “progressive loss of idealism, energy, and purpose experienced by people in the helping professions as a result of the conditions of their work,” burnout is considered a response to chronic emotional stress (Kearney et al., 2009; Perlman & Hartman, 1982; Sanchez-Reilly et al., 2013, p. 75). Emotional exhaustion, reduced personal accomplishment, and depersonalization – these are the three validated components characterizing burnout (Maslach & Jackson, 1981). Developing the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to measure burnout, Maslach & Jackson (1981) described emotional exhaustion as a lack of energy accompanied with negative affect. They also conceptualized personal accomplishment as “the tendency to evaluate oneself negatively, particularly with regard to one’s work with clients” and characterized depersonalization as the “negative, cynical attitudes and feelings about one’s clients” (Maslach & Jackson (1981, described, p. 99). Although Maslach & Jackson (1981) identified these components distinctly, later research supported a developmental relationship between the three, with the rise of depersonalization as a coping mechanism in response to emotional exhaustion. Consequently, the developed depersonalization would lead to reduced personal accomplishment (Leiter & Maslach, 1988; Taris et. al, 2005).

Conceptualizing burnout, previous literature has identified both dispositional and situational factors contributing to its development among service workers, including educators. Looking at dispositional factors, Alarcon et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis evaluating the relationship between burnout and different dimensions of personality. In their meta-analysis, Alarcon et al. (2009) found that extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, optimism, hardiness, proactive personality and positive affectivity were all negatively associated with burnout whilst negative affectivity was positively associated with burnout. They also found that CSE traits of self-esteem, self-efficacy, emotional stability, and internal locus of control were negatively associated with burnout (Alarcon et al., 2009). Looking at the effect of these dispositional factors on burnout, it is important the individual as well as their environment when considering ways to mitigate burnout.

Even though dispositional factors play a role in the development of burnout, research has shown that situational factors are more important predictors of burnout. In their meta-analysis, Lee & Ashforth (1996) found that the increase of job demands and the decrease of job resources predicted burnout, with the demands of a job being more significant predictors. Defined as aspects of a job that require sustained physical, emotional, or cognitive effort, job demands include role conflict, role ambiguity, and workload (Demerouti et al., 2001; Alarcon, 2011). Whilst an increase in job demands is predictive of burnout, the presence of job resources can attenuate the relationship between the two, buffering the development of cynicism. Most notably, Bakker et al. (2005) found that social support, a high-quality relationship with a supervisor, autonomy, and performance feedback were amongst the job resources that reduced job demands, promoted growth and development, and facilitated the achievement of work goals (Demerouti et al., 2001).

Considering the predictors of burnout, it is important to look at how these factors interact in writing centers, especially during the shift to online tutoring methods during the COVID-19 pandemic. With regards to virtual writing center work during COVID-19, it is useful to consider physical demands, emotional demands, work overload, and work-home interference as stressors for burnout. Conceptualized as the hindering conditions in the physical environment, physical demands in virtual writing centers can be exemplified by a poor internet connection, lagging devices, eye strain, working in a seated position for long consecutive hours, and other technical complications. Emotional demands in the context of writing centers have been discussed above as the different aspects of emotional labor, but professional isolation and handling emotional tutees seem to be prominent when online tutoring during the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of work overload, sustained cognitive demand throughout consecutive sessions, tutees asking for help outside working hours, time pressure, and the interaction between writing center work and academic demands could be problematic. Related to fatigue and sleep complaints, work-home interference has been exacerbated during COVID-19, with most tutors working from home (Van Hooff et al., 2007).

Mitigating Burnout Feelings

Relevant to virtual writing center work during COVID-19, Bakker et al. (2005) found that autonomy, social support from co-workers, high quality relationships with supervisors, and performance feedback buffered the development of burnout by reducing the impact of physical demands, emotional demands, work overload, and work-home interference. Although independently running a session can provide tutors with a sense of autonomy, tutor’s perceived control can be enhanced through their involvement in decisions regarding the center, especially with regards to their working days, working hours, and writing center announcements. With respect to social support from their co-workers and supervisors, having an effective, engaging network for communication can allow tutors to share their daily experiences, both positive and negative, at the writing center. Using these networks can also be effective for turning to colleagues for help in tricky sessions and requesting cover shifts during times of stress or need. Independent from these writing center networks, Sanchez-Reilly et al. (2013) recommended maintaining a social network outside the work environment by keeping in touch with family, friends, and peers. Informing and raising awareness of tutors to the availability of counselling services, if available, can also promote self-care, alleviate burnout, and facilitate healthier working habits.

Other healthy habits tutors should adopt to mitigate burnout feelings include maintaining a healthy sleep cycle, balanced their diet, exercising on a regular basis, and taking regular breaks, particularly between tutoring sessions (Sanchez-Reilly et al., 2013). After tutoring sessions, self-awareness activities that are applicable to writing centers can be employed, such as reflective writing and mindfulness meditation. It is also important to maintain work-life after sessions. Jamal et al. (2021) found that schedule flexibility and sufficient technology can enhance performance, well-being, and job satisfaction. Another common phenomenon upsetting the balance between tutors’ work-life seems to be persistent tutees asking for help outside working hours and tutors incapable of saying no. Not only does the practice of saying no help set tutor-writer boundaries, but it is also a practice of self-care in the way it sets emotional boundaries (Parsons, 2020). By the same token, Bregman (2013) warns that constantly saying yes can lead to burnout and fatigue.


In conclusion, work at the writing center is multifaceted, but the role of emotional labor in writing centers is often dismissed. There are different aspects of emotional labor at the Writing Center, and these emotional aspects, as well as dispositional and situational variables, can make tutors more susceptible to burnout. With COVID-19 and the blend of face-to-face and online tutoring, writing centers should be encouraged to address and discuss the emotional challenges they face and explore ways to mitigate burnout, both individually as tutors and collectively as writing center faculty.


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