Neither Brave nor Safe: Interventions in Empathy for Tutor Training

Lana Oweidat
Lydia McDermott

        The Peer Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, Fall 2017

In a regular rotation of tutor observations, the writing center director at a small liberal arts college observed a usually very competent tutor completely misread the needs of a student in the center. Tutor training and regular staff meetings had consistently emphasized a flexible approach to tutoring that enables tutors to develop their own tutoring philosophies. This Caucasian female tutor generally tried to be nondirective in her tutoring when she had previously been observed. In this tutoring situation, a senior male student of Chinese heritage was seeking help on a paper. The raced and gendered identity markers in this scenario are worth mentioning because they played into an awkward and uneven power distribution in the session that the tutor seemed immediately aware of. She became nervous in the setting, began reading the paper without asking what the student needed (the director’s presence must be taken into account as escalating the nervousness), and then promptly began telling him about grammar and mechanical errors he had made, including using statements such as “in academic writing we don’t really do this.” The student-author was an unusually self-reflective writer, who responded defensively after a bit that he did not want help with grammar because he would fix that part later; he wanted to know if his ideas were making sense. In this scenario, the tutee took on the role a tutor might normally take on, redirecting the session from an emphasis on local issues to an emphasis on global issues. The tutor should have known that. This was basic training. So, what had happened to throw her off?

In trainings, the tutors had spent a good amount of time reflecting on when to use directive practices, to what extent, and when local issues might be important. In the readings that argued for this flexible approach, the emphasis was on English Language Learners (Shamoon & Burns, 1995), and in one article specifically on Chinese international students (Nan, 2012). Additionally, in staff meetings and surveys of tutors on what training they would most like, they regularly expressed anxiety about working with English Language Learners (ELL) and about their own lack of knowledge of grammar. Given this context, it is possible that the student tutor misread her tutee as an ELL based solely on appearance. Had she been primed to do so through this emphasis in training? This student writer was NOT an ELL, and was extremely proficient at writing and quite confident. The gender dynamic of power in the session must also be taken into account. The tutee was a seemingly self-assured male who became quite forthright in expressing his needs. In fact, he ended up directing the session. Luckily, he felt able to do this, despite the tutor’s misstep, and hopefully he left having gotten some of the feedback he needed. This incident makes us question how the tutor’s training may have contributed to her immediate misreading of this student’s needs, and how even basic training about the priority of global issues could fly out the window when faced with visible markers of difference.

We began this research in reaction to such classroom and writing center experiences with racism, ableism, and sexism from our tutors-in-training: from one student articulating the goal of the writing center space to eventually become obsolete so that we are “no longer a crutch” for students, to another articulating the elitist frustration that some students could get to college “not knowing how to write.” We began asking ourselves what was missing in our training that could make it difficult for these students to empathize across differences. We have found that student tutors have conflicting ideas (even within themselves) about what the writing center space should be and how to enact that ideal. We ask here how we can help our tutors-in-training to bridge the gaps between their often eloquently articulated tutoring philosophies and their less than empathetic reactions to difference in the writing center.

Ideal Spaces: Literature Review

Inside and outside writing centers, both safe spaces and brave spaces are mythical ideals and cannot function as two dichotomous extremes. Any space is fluid, constantly being redefined by those who enter and exit, responding to the kairotic moment. Empathy is equally kairotic, as Jeremy Rifkin (2009) explains, empathy as a skill should “emphasize a non-judgmental orientation and tolerance of other perspectives” and push people to “live within the context of ambiguous realities where there are no simple formulas or answers, but only a constant search for shared meanings and common understandings” (as cited in Wilson & Fitzgerald, 2012, p. 13).  Empathy as a skill or attribute is difficult to pin down, though some composition scholars have begun to place tentative tacks on the concept. Lisa Blankenship, in an article examining the rhetorical use of empathy in a play, suggests a form of rhetorical empathy that functions much like strategic essentialism, in which two parties find a shared point of identification, leading to an ability to empathize (Blankenship, 2013). But this empathy still depends upon a point of identification, which may not exist in every tutoring situation, and which ignores the possibility of radical difference. By far the most comprehensive review of definitions of empathy in the context of composition is Eric Leake’s 2016 article in Composition Forum, though his focus is on the composition classroom rather than the writing center. Leake reviews approaches to empathy from philosophers and psychologists in order to better understand its rhetorical affect. Ultimately, Leake finds the same problems of subsuming the Other in many approaches to empathy that rely on knowability, and thus he suggests a dual pronged approach of critical empathy, which “starts with a recognition of unknowability” (Leake, 2016, para. 20). He suggests empathy can be both a form of rhetoric and a general “disposition.” We will further examine this approach when we offer applications in the writing center.

Writing centers may be particularly fluid, but the institutional space they occupy as “support” centers masks their fluidity, indicating that there are those entering the space in need of support, and those within the space willing to offer it. This hierarchical framing stigmatizes the need for support rather than normalizing interdependence, and places tutors in a precarious position of power which they can never (and should never) fully inhabit. Writing center scholarship has consistently engaged with the askew power dynamic of the writing center as an institutional space, discussing “safe” spaces, “brave” spaces (Arao & Clemens, 2013), “contact zones” (Rihn, 2007), and “social justice” (Denny, 2010; Grutsch McKinney, 2014; Rasha Diab et al., 2012), but mostly avoiding the language of empathy.

Empathy feels like a natural connection to writing center work because of its emphasis on support and to rhetorical studies because of its emphasis on pathos and identification. As Eric Leake (2016) notes, empathy was once the core of rhetorical studies, but:

Empathy fell out of favor due to its liabilities, such as the conflation of self with other and the tendency for empathy to serve the interests of the more powerful. Empathy can elide differences and take the place of more meaningful action, such as when “I feel your pain” works as a responsibility dodge. (para. 11)

Empathy is dangerous because of the colonizing potential to subsume the other in the self, and therefore it must be taught critically.

As writing center administrators, we need to attend to the professional and epistemological development of tutors (Rinaldi, 2015; DeFeo & Caparas, 2014) by teaching them to be intentionally empathetic and critically aware. We argue that though “one of [the tutor’s] roles in the writing center is to comfort the afflicted, [and] another is to afflict the comfortable” (Rihn, 2007, para. 2), these are not stable, nor isolated positionalities. No one person occupies the position of “afflicted” or of “comfortable” consistently. Our tutors and our tutees may occupy these positions at various times even within one tutorial. We suggest that this variable positionality needs to be taught and fostered in the tutor-training classroom in order to expose student tutors to “those tacit theories about language, literacy, and learning” that Nancy Grimm (2011) suggests “need to be made explicit and open to revision” (p. 78). A framework of empathy attends to epistemology and kairos, thus disrupting the binary of “brave” and “safe,” because it requires positions of bravery and safety (vulnerability and protection) from both the tutee and the tutor.

Methods and Institutional Contexts

To begin answering our question about how empathy is facilitated in tutor-training, we conducted an anonymous survey in two small liberal arts colleges, one on the east coast and the other on the west. Both institutions are predominantly white. The college in the Northeast has a student population of about 1,500 students with around 25% who are Pell Grant recipients. The writing center is located in the library and we hire an average of 20 tutors each semester. The process of recruiting peer tutors at the writing center includes: asking for faculty nominations, requesting students to submit application materials, and interviewing with the director. Fifteen students are then selected to take the 4-credit tutor-training course. The course introduces students to the current theories of writing and composing both in print and digital environments, as well as to a variety of methods and strategies for teaching and tutoring. As for the practical component of the course, students shadow current writing center tutors and do supervised tutoring toward the end of the course. Upon successfully completing the course, students are hired at the writing center. Although the tutors complete a 4-credit course, they engage in continuous professional development and training throughout their work at the writing center.

The other college of about 1,500 is rurally located in the Pacific Northwest. The large majority of the students are white and about 10% are Pell Grant recipients. The writing center is small and located in an academic building on campus. We hire approximately 13-15 student-tutors, and one recent graduate as an assistant. We offer a 2-credit tutor training course, open to any student after their first semester of the first-year course, which is meant to be a prerequisite for applying to be a tutor. After the course, students can apply to become tutors, including statements of tutoring experience and interest, and references from three professors. In practice, about half of the current tutors have not taken the course because the course has only existed for three years, and the demand for tutors has exceeded the number of trained students applying. We have bi-weekly training meetings on a range of topics to help fill this training gap, to provide continuing training for those who took the class, and to provide a better sense of community.

For this pilot study, we contacted current writing center tutors and those who have previously enrolled in the tutor-training class at both institutions and asked them to participate in an anonymous survey. The survey was sent out to all 24 writing center tutors at the East Coast college and to 15 tutors at the other. We had a total of 21 responses from both institutions. The survey consisted of nine open-ended questions revolving around tutor training, empathy, feelings of safety and bravery, and perceptions of broad purposes of the center, including social change. Both surveys opened with the following brief description, “We are researching the role of empathy in writing centers and how tutor training helps to develop this skill,” followed by informed consent. We felt it was important to identify “empathy” as an explicit skill, since in part we wanted to know if students had felt prepared explicitly to empathize. We analyzed the survey responses looking for patterns in the subjects’ answers. We organized the data we received thematically and coded the responses.

Results: Themes

Looking through the survey answers, we can identify some recurring themes. Students generally stress caring for the whole tutee in the session and an emphasis on building better writers over better writing, though not unanimously. Despite this theme and an agreement that they are well prepared to tutor, they voiced concerns about tutoring certain populations, primarily multilingual students or ELLs and students with learning disabilities. Aside from these overarching themes, we clustered tutor responses around particular questions that synthesize varied responses. We looked at how tutors understood “empathy” as a skill, in what ways they perceived the writing center as a “brave” or a “safe” space, and if they thought the writing center could be a space for social change. As researchers, and directors, we see these clusters of questions as interrelated and co-constitutive, which we will explore further in the discussion section, but we do not think that tutors made this connective leap and we did not make the questions explicitly related to one another.

How Do Tutors Understand Empathy?

Tutors define empathy along two sometimes opposing axes: as the ability to relate to another and feel what they feel; and as the ability to recognize that one cannot know the inner workings and experiences of another. On the surface, these seem like opposite responses, but several answers intertwined both conceptions of empathy, suggesting a conceptual relation between the two.

Several tutors quite simply felt that empathy was relating to another and taking on their emotions. This is illustrated in quotes such as the following: “I define empathy as making an attempt to connect your own experiences to the experiences of others in order to understand them better.” And: “I let them know that I know exactly how they feel and try to raise their spirits.” Empathy here is an absorption of identity, an absence of difference, and the goal is better understanding and alleviation of negative emotion.

Other tutors seemed to define empathy as recognizing irreconcilable differences:

“I remind myself that I don’t know what’s going on inside the tutee’s head or what kind of day they’ve had.” And: “I define empathy as understanding that everyone faces different challenges and successes.” In these responses, empathy is a kind of “giving the benefit of the doubt.” The goal is not to relate to the particular experiences and emotions of the student, but to believe they are valid.

Still other respondents acknowledged both understandings of empathy within one definition, such as this tutor, who writes: “By trying to feel the way the student feels or at least recognize it.” In this response, the goal seems to be an absorbing kind of empathy that mirrors the emotions of the other, but the tutor recognizes that this will not always be possible, and at least they can pay attention to the tutee’s emotions. Another respondent responds similarly, acknowledging that whatever emotional/personal concern a student has, it is important: “Whether students are stressed because of their workload, the weather, a convoluted assignment, or more personal concerns, I let them know that I either relate to their struggles or can at least understand the weight of them.” Yet another respondent focused on the specificity of the writing situation as a potential bridge of understanding:

I think empathy in writing tutoring is understanding that for most people, writing is really hard and what you write is always personal…Respecting that personal aspect of writing, and understanding that everyone has different circumstances surrounding their work is empathy.

Even in the responses that accept a level of difference, the particular differences are not named. They are imagined personal differences or quite specific local academic or writing differences. Identity markers do not come up in this cluster of questions.

What Constitutes Brave and Safe Spaces?

Tutors also had overlapping answers when we asked if they perceived the writing center to be a safe space and what it might mean for it to be a brave space. Like us, a few of the respondents acknowledged that they did not think any space could be entirely safe for all identities at all times: “I think the answer to this question is really subjective and depends on the responder’s technical definiton [sic] of a ‘safe space.’ Therefore, I think it can depend whether the writing center is a safe space for certain students or not.” Another responds, “It’s probably not a safe space for all students because completely safe spaces don’t exist, but I can’t think of anything that makes it un-safe.” This same student, however, continues with a critique, “The writing center doesn’t seem to make an effort to be a safe space in regards to identities.” Yet, this respondent then offers an alternate definition of safe as related to comfort, labeling this a “basic sense” defined as, “warm, calm, good atmosphere.”

Others also associate safety unproblematically with comfort and a welcoming atmosphere: “I would say so! It seems to be a welcoming environment for me with the colors, comfy chairs, and tea/snacks!” Another acknowledges the training as the avenue through which tutors begin to emphasize comfort: “Yes. We talk about ways to make different students feel comfortable in training. I think our tutors represent different types of students, which helps make people feel welcome.” This tutor ends with an important recognition that the staff needs to represent the same diversity of students coming into the writing center.

Others associate feeling safe with a lack of judgment. Still others acknowledge that for some identities there are no safe spaces, such as this respondent: “I think that there are many students who don’t feel safe anywhere because of their identity.” Another even suggested that the writing center could be the opposite of a safe space for some people, “Depending on the material we’re working with at any moment, it feels like the writing center could occasionally be a threatening space rather than a safe one.”

In regard to bravery, some respondents thought the writing center is inherently a brave space because “sharing your writing is brave.” Sharing writing at all here is figured as vulnerable and therefore brave, but also potentially uncomfortable, which might equal unsafe according to the perceptions of “safe” that were dominant. “[Being a brave space] would mean that the writing center is a space where students feel confident in taking risks and getting out of their comfort zone, both with writing and seeking help.” Still others suggested that the bravery and vulnerability should extend to conflicting ideas or opinions: “A place for active and diverse discussions about any and everything, where students and tutors can express and defend and potentially change their opinions.” This sometimes extended to challenging dominant discourse practices, as in the following two responses: “A place where tutees are encouraged to write against the grain instead of with it” and “to not focus solely on American Edited English, to help normalize the singular ‘they.’” There is no consistent pattern of definition across our small sample size, but the plurality of definitions of brave and safe spaces suggests an alignment with our feelings as directors that no writing center can consistently be either safe or brave.

Is the Writing Center a Place of Social Change?

The tutors seem divided on this issue; some perceived the writing center as a place for social change and others found its academic status a hindrance to its perception as such. And a third group saw the potential of writing centers to be sites for social change, but did not see this potential fully realized.

Those who believed writing centers function as places for social change tended to emphasize “collaboration,” “conversation,” and “process” as key aspects of this view. One response indicated that their perception of the writing center as a place for social change stemmed from “helping close the gap between traditionally privileged students and non-privileged students academically,” and another highlighted how “social change comes from giving voices to those who have none. Writing is a way to give people the chance to speak.” In these responses, social change is linked directly to the academic work of the writing center. Another response emphasized the impact that collaborative learning has on the tutees and attributed their perception of the writing center as a place for social change to “promoting innovative thought!” and to “Confidence and expression and thinking building.”

Among those who did not see the writing center as a site for social change, one tutor found it difficult to perceive academic sites as “political,” suggesting social change happens only in political sites. On the other hand, another saw writing centers as sites of change within their academic capacity because writing centers “serve populations who are not often expected to write a lot or to be good writers,” and “because tutors can tell tutees that it’s acceptable to write their own ideas and in their own form, which will help change academic writing from being so dominated by western norms.” Another response acknowledged that “it pushes academic boundaries in regards to how we view the writing process,” but then they continued “not so much social ones.” This group draws a clear demarcation between academic change and opportunity and social or political change.

A third group saw the link to social change as implicit. According to these tutors, the writing center was described as “quietly” “indirectly” and “not actively” supporting social change. One response commented on the particularities of the center and how they play a big role in such a classification: “I think it can be but isn’t necessarily–it’s a free resource that helps with advancement so it is in that sense, but it can also be kind of exclusive or elitist depending on the center.” Another undercurrent in some of these responses is expressed very well by one respondent:

Eh. I feel like mostly it’s just a place where we work. It’s about the day to day…  BUT: I think that writing centers have the potential to be sites of social change, esp. when they serve populations who are not often expected to write a lot or to be good writers.

This tutor seems to have been caught up in the daily grind of tutoring and to have lost sight of the center as a site for social change, though they acknowledge that writing centers have that potential. This response is revealing because it highlights the disconnect we had sought to study. How can tutors-in-training articulate so well the potential for social change when they are learning about the theories of writing center work, but then seem to forget that goal when in the daily practice of tutoring, falling back on desires for grammar instruction and rote responses to tutees in need?


We began this pilot study wanting to know if students thought empathy was part of their jobs and how they perceived the writing center space in regards to bravery, safety, and social change. What we found was that they definitely thought that empathy was part of their jobs and their training. Some awareness of that appears in their responses about the goals of the writing center in their emphases on guidance, “breaking through barriers of fear, embarrassment, and self-doubt,” and creating a non-judgmental space for collaboration. They see themselves as empathetic, but often in a simplistic way.

What we noticed in the majority of the tutors’ responses about empathy is that their understanding of empathy is basic and sometimes has to do with absorbing difference and other times with alleviating discomfort. We suggest tutors may be unable to recognize their own feelings of discomfort when faced with tutees with whom they cannot relate. In reaction, it seems they sometimes retreat to an emphasis on local writing problems and a need for training in grammar and for very specific populations, such as those with learning disabilities, those writing in different academic disciplines, those coming from radically different cultural backgrounds, those presenting unconventional genders, and, in our pilot study, especially those for whom English is not a first language.

For example, our data suggests that our tutors especially desire more training for working with ELL students and that they perceive this training as grammar and mechanics-focused. However, in both of our classrooms and staff training meetings, ELL issues are regularly discussed. Furthermore, anecdotally, when our tutors bring ELL issues to our staff meetings, in order to identify and therefore “empathize,” they immediately resort to their experiences learning a foreign language. Though this is a step toward understanding the complexity of language acquisition, it does not take into account the power dynamics of dominant and nondominant languages, which also inform our multilingual students’ experiences. When tutors attempt to approximate the ELL experience through the lens of their own language acquisition, they miss the broader cultural negotiations of meaning making for multilingual students who are navigating the privileged discourse and dominant culture on campus, as well as the stigma associated with seeking help. Furthermore, learning needs to go both ways, and when tutors focus exclusively on relating to issues of language acquisition, they miss the opportunity to learn from their tutees.

These attempts by tutors to approximate ELL experiences facilitates perceiving empathy as a discrete skill rather than as a critical framework that requires constant interrogation of one’s own privilege and biases. Therefore, we believe that training for empathy should be intentional, strategic, and structural. Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald (2012) provide a relevant corrective, although the context is different. They suggest a first step in any empathy training for tutors is recognition not of the need for empathy, but of one’s own biases: “In order to help tutors develop the emotional intelligence known as empathy and achieve critical consciousness, they must first recognize their own bias” (p. 12). Recognizing individual biases is a necessary part of developing a critical framework of empathy and it reinforces the rhetorical awareness of situation. Leake (2016) found, in his pilot study, that his students were more likely to develop “relational empathy” after engaging in perspective-taking exercises taken from psychologist Martin Hoffman. We suggest such exercises will be most fruitful in transfer to the writing center if student-tutors first engage in exercises to recognize their privileges and biases.

We suggest that empathy be taught within a context of multiple differences in such a way that facilitates reflection and therefore transfer of skills learned in the tutor-training course to the writing center. Tutors must practice being both brave and safe (uncomfortable and comfortable) in the tutor-training classroom, in continuing training, and in one-to-one interactions with student writers. They must be encouraged to consistently revisit their own epistemologies in every kairotic situation. We call again on Jeremy Rifkin’s (2009) definition of empathy as engaging multiple perspectives and challenging tutors to “live within the context of ambiguous realities where there are no simple formulas or answers, but only a constant search for shared meanings and common understandings” (as cited in Wilson & Fitzgerald, 2012, p. 13). We acknowledge that such an understanding of a critical framework of empathy is demanding and complex.

For instance, although the tutors in our courses read scholarly pieces that suggest the role of the writing center as a place for social change and they embrace this idea during the class, their perception changes as they enter the writing center to tutor, according to their responses. Tutors seem to be having trouble transferring the perception of the center as a place of social change and of themselves as social change agents out of the theoretical discussions in class. This correlates with research on transfer that suggests that “any social context provides affordances and constraints that impact use of prior knowledge, skills, strategies, and dispositions” (Anson & Moore, 2017, p. 8). Any new social context, such as moving into the writing center from the classroom, can potentially disrupt transfer. Successful transfer requires a tutor to transform rhetorical knowledge and situational awareness into performance in the center (Anson & Moore, 2017, p. 8). This transfer is a complex process, just like empathy, “yet understanding and exploring that complexity is central to investigating transfer” (Anson & Moore, 2017, p. 8). In our tutor-training courses and in our staff meetings we need to acknowledge the complexity of shifting social contexts and investigate with our tutors how they can navigate them. In addition to using reflection, as indicated by transfer research, we need to make serious attempts to complicate and problematize empathetic actions. We need to help tutors recognize their fluctuating positionalities and push them beyond their need to identify in order to empathize with the tutee.

Limitations and Recommendations

Although this study has reached its goal of providing us with valuable information about tutors’ engagement with empathy, the study has limitations. Despite the substantial rate of responses we received from our tutors, like most other pilot studies, our sample size is small; therefore, larger studies are necessary for a more thorough examination of this issue. Furthermore, since we both come from small liberal arts colleges, our data reflects our institutional homogeneity. However, the results we received present clear avenues for future research. We recommend future studies with a broader scope that investigate the following factors: how tutors define empathy in their tutoring, how well their perceptions of writing center goals transfer to their practice, and how likely tutors are to imagine the possibility of social change taking place in the writing center. Finally, more research needs to be conducted on the biases of monolingual tutors toward multilingual tutees, and how these biases interfere with successful transfer of best tutoring practices. Research on the effects of hiring multilingual tutors in the writing center should complement the research on monolingual tutors. Additionally, although we suggest making several pedagogical interventions into the tutor-training course, we have not yet had the opportunity to teach a new iteration of the course. This will, however, happen in the fall of 2017, and we already feel invigorated to change our own practices. Not only do we intend to integrate a critical understanding of empathy in all our future trainings, but we also call on other practitioners to consider directly investigating the complexity of empathy in their tutor-training.

Following Leake (2016), we suggest that we engage our tutors in critical perspective-taking tasks, followed by reflective writing and discussion to facilitate transfer to the sessions in the writing center. Here are some of the techniques we currently try and which we wish to expand upon to build a consistent framework for the course:

  • It is a common exercise to ask composition students to write a metaphor for writing, beginning “Writing is…” In the tutoring classroom, we can ask students to do this exercise and then share their one sentence metaphors on the board. Then ask students to pick a metaphor to which they relate the least and write a paragraph from that perspective. This should be followed by plenty of reflective discussion and writing.
  • As we note in our discussion, the first step toward critical empathy should be a recognition of one’s own privileges and biases. To empathize with tutees, it is important for tutors to examine their own positionalites, and understand how their identity facets have shaped the way they view the world. To this end, we use an exercise called, “My Multicultural Self,”[1] in which students are asked to write their names at the center of a sheet and draw bubbles naming aspects of the what they consider to be their most prominent identity facets. They then reflect on and write about how these identity facets shape the way they view the world. In pairs, students are asked to share stories: one in which they felt proud to be associated with one of their identity markers and another in which this identification felt painful. Students then share a stereotype associated with one of their identity markers that does not accurately describe them by completing this sentence: “I am (a/an)________ but I am NOT (a/an)_________.” This activity not only allows students to navigate their own identity facets, but also provides other students with the opportunity to listen attentively to stories and experiences that might make them uncomfortable, which is a common occurrence in tutoring sessions. We suggest explicitly linking such activities to their relevance to empathy in the writing center in order to better facilitate transfer.
  • Engaging student-tutors in the perspective of writing in a second language can be useful, if we also address the cultural dynamics of dominant and nondominant languages. One such exercise is to give the tutors-in-training a writing prompt with a time limit, and then ask them to respond in whatever language they consider to be their “second” language. This can be followed with discussions and reflective writing on the practical and emotional difficulties of such a task and how this may relate to some tutees experiences. Note that ideally some tutors will be multilingual, and others will not, so the level of struggle will vary widely. Do not assume that the tutors-in-training all consider Academic English to be their “first” language.[2]
  • Another perspective-taking exercise that can be part of a larger program for identification with ELL tutees, but that also encourages a recognition of cultural biases, is a listening task. Students listen to a recorded conversation in a language they have very limited proficiency in and which sounds quite different than English, and are asked how they felt throughout this experience. The activity helps tutors experience first-hand what it feels like to be a linguistic Other, while also delving into their reactions to the varying sounds of languages as already a cultural bias. Therefore, the discussion can be problematized, pushing tutors to empathize beyond the need to identify and subsume the tutee’s experiences. Many tutors will not understand any of the recording, while others might understand some, if they have limited proficiency. It is necessary to thoroughly discuss and write about the reactions tutors experience in order to resist a generalization and subsuming of multilingual student experience. It would be useful to do this with a few distinct languages.

These are just a few suggestions for integrating an intentional framework of critical empathy into tutor-training. Certainly there is room for more development, and for revisiting the same exercises at different points of training and tutoring. The on-going professionalization training meetings should be sites for such activities as well as the tutor-training classroom, if we expect tutors to continue to develop and to apply what they have learned in the classroom to their work experiences.

Epilogue—Immediate Praxis

In the process of conducting this research and writing this essay, we have, of course, been continually meeting with our current tutors and training them. In a recent tutor-training meeting, we focused on dealing with “socially awkward” tutoring situations. This was prompted by some recurring instances of seemingly rude behavior from a regular tutee, who also happens to be of a minority group on campus. In this training, the director took the opportunity to directly discuss the role of empathy in such scenarios.

After role-playing a scenario where the tutee is easily interpreted as being rude or even hostile, the director asked the tutors first which of the tutee’s behaviors seemed particularly difficult for the tutor to overcome. After tutors shared several responses, the director then asked which behaviors from the tutor could have frustrated the tutee and led the session to be unproductive. This shift in perspective was a harder task for them because they more immediately empathized with the tutor in the scenario. Many tutors began to voice similar responses to those we have collected in this survey, saying they would have tried to relate in some way to the tutee or tried to imagine what might be going on for the tutee to make them act that way. The director then challenged them all to consider what the limits to that sort of empathy—an empathy that insists on relating, or identification—are? One tutor shared a situation from a recent tutorial. The tutee interrupted the tutor’s nondirective process and told him frankly that it was not working and he’d like to make more progress in the session. The tutor realized that the tutoring approach that would have worked for him was not working for this tutee. They were two different people. Rather than trying to relate, he moved forward allowing the tutee to direct the session. Though this is a seemingly simple revelation, it highlights the recognition of difference and bias that we believe is integral to a critical empathy. The director used this example to suggest to the tutees that they redefine empathy as a respect of the validity of any response, even ones they cannot relate to. Already, several tutors have privately told the director that this was one of the most useful training sessions they had had.

About the Authors

Lana Oweidat is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the Writing Center at Goucher College. She teaches writing and rhetoric courses with an emphasis on social justice concerns, and her research tackles issues pertaining to tutor training, transnational feminist rhetorics, and multilingual composition.

Lydia McDermott, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of the Center for Writing and Speaking (COWS) at Whitman College. She and her partner, 3 sons, 4 cats, and 1 dog live in beautiful Walla Walla, Washington.


Anson, C., & Moore, J. (Eds.). (2017). Critical transfer: Writing and the question of transfer. Fort Collins, CO.: The University Press of Colorado.

Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Blankenship, L. (2013). Rhetorical empathy in Dustin Lance Black’s 8: A play on (marriage) words. Present Tense, 3(1), 1-8.

DeFeo, D. J., & Caparas, F. (2014). Tutoring as transformative work: A phenomenological case study of tutors’ experiences. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 44(2), 141-163.

Denny, H. (2010). Facing the center: Toward an identity politics of one-to-one mentoring. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Grimm, N. M., (2011). Retheorizing writing center work to transform a system of advantage based on race. In Greenfield, L., & Rowan, K. (Eds.), Writing centers and the new racism: A call for sustainable dialogue and change (75-100). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Grutsch McKinney, K. (2013). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Leake, E. (2016). Writing pedagogies of empathy: As rhetoric and disposition. Composition Forum, 34 (Summer).

Nan, F. (2012). Bridging the gap: Essential issues to address in recurring writing center appointments with Chinese ELL students. Writing Center Journal, 32(1), 50-63.

Rasha, D., Godbee, B, Ferrel, T., & Simpkins, N. (2012). A multi-dimensional pedagogy for racial justice in writing centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 10(1).

Rihn, A. (2007). Not playing it safe: Tutoring an ethic of diversity within a non-diverse environment. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 5(1).

Rinaldi, K. (2015). Disability in the writing center: A new approach (that’s not so new). Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).   

Shamoon, L. K., & Burns, D. H. (1995). A critique of pure tutoring. Writing Center Journal 15(2), 134-51.  

Wilson, N. E., & Fitzgerald, K. (2012). Empathic tutoring in the third space. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 37(3-4), 11-13.

  1. This is an adaptation of an exercise found at, titled “Circles of My Multicultural Self,” and a common exercise in diversity trainings.
  2. This exercise is borrowed from Gail Shuck, Boise State University, who suggested it at the CWPA Institute on Language Diversity (2014), as a faculty development exercise. One of us has used it in this context, but not yet in a tutor-training context.