Extending Our Boundaries by Empowering Our Community

Allie Johnston, Austin Peay State University
Katarina Hughes Roush, Austin Peay State University
Etenia Mullins, Austin Peay State University


Whenever students enter our Writing Center, they are overwhelmed by more than the writing process. Our student population includes individuals who experience a myriad of life circumstances, such as poverty, poor mental health, and transience, that impact their ability to perform within and without the classroom. Writing Center staff are considered campus liaisons because they provide support and connect students to resources in other departments. Throughout a writing tutor’s career, they may walk with clients across campus to the Military Student Center, The Office of Disability Services, Full Spectrum Learning Center, and Counseling Services. These clients often recognize problems, yet fear receiving assistance because of stigmas. By demonstrating that students are not alone and taking time to journey with them, tutors reinforce a collaborative mindset that reaches beyond the Writing Center’s walls. Our tutors are particularly adept at addressing students’ needs because we have experienced similar circumstances and can ultimately relate to our clients.

Keywords: emotional labor; culture of care; collaboration; narrative inquiry


One of our core values inscribed by our university is community. It is inspired by our diverse population of first-generation, military-affiliated, non-traditional, English language learning, and neurodiverse students. This population reflects the demographics of our city, which is located less than an hour from Nashville. An hour makes a difference when driving through the mountains from a mid-size town to Music City. An hour can transform a person’s perspective, opening them to better opportunities and resources. Our Writing Center uses every hour’s tutoring session to empower the community through supporting our students. We transform perspective to improve lives. When we see our student’s diversity, we acknowledge that they face tremendous oppression as a direct result of their life circumstances. Our student body experiences increased mental health challenges, emotional dysregulation, poverty, housing and food insecurity, and other difficulties that impact their education. Our students often require more than a tutoring session on writing. They require instructions on life development. Our Writing Center may not be equipped to teach about life, but we use our time to collaborate. We offer support and guidance to fundamental opportunities and resources.

Our Writing Center tutors can empathize with the student body because we have shared experiences. Often, tutors have used the same resources that they promote to other students. They inform what the Writing Center can offer. They become the liaisons between the departments or programs and their peers. When students express a need that impedes their ability to write, our tutors direct them to a resource on campus or within the larger community. A junior cannot afford food for the week. We guide him to the SOS Food Pantry. A young mother is diagnosed with postpartum depression and is failing her classes. We introduce her to the Office of Disability Services. An autistic student feels isolated on campus, struggling to socialize with other students. Our university is one of the two institutions in our state with a program dedicated to helping students with an autism spectrum disorder. Our Writing Center has dedicated hours to improving social skills and meeting with other neurodiverse students. An international student expresses that she understands grammar, but she is lost in classroom conversations. Tutors practice conversational cues while reviewing other writing skills. They also guide her to the English Language Learners Institute. Our Writing Center now partners with several departments and programs on campus. Yet, we are more than partners in our sessions. We are collaborators to meet the needs of our students.

Using our method of narrative inquiry, readers will see depictions of how tutoring affects students across their academic careers. Our director’s and two graduate tutors’ individual experiences and backgrounds led to their current roles within our Writing Center. Our director is a young woman who accepted her job directly after graduate school and faces challenges with this identity. Graduate tutor 1 identifies as autistic and is the first in her family to graduate college. Graduate tutor 2 utilized her past experiences, such as a lack of access to technology and tutoring resources, to better connect with students. These experiences help us recognize the tensions and collaborations our positionalities provide.

This piece focuses on expanding the boundaries of the work of writing centers beyond strict writing support. Our staff challenges the commonplace that writing centers are places of writing support only. As Joe Essid and Brian McTague (2020) note, given reduced humanities departments and writing-intensive classes, writing centers are not as secure as they once were in the ever-changing scope of higher education. This provides even more exigence for our claim that writing centers can and should extend beyond only writing support. Our space is contingent upon student use. Our proposition is that we continue to re(investigate) the reach of writing centers and our purpose in connecting and supporting students as more than just writers.

Why The Writing Center Matters

Our tutors have returned to provide the assistance they received during their undergraduate years, and they are trying to foster environments that echo across the college experience. The commonplace understanding of the relationship between tutor and client in the Writing Center is that tutors support clients in their writing work. A tutee may expect assistance with aspects of their writing process and finding answers to their questions. Many times, our clients expect the tutor to silently mark up all their paper’s errors, holding the perception that tutors are editors (North, 1984). This is a commonplace of writing centers generally, and one that our Center continues to explore and (re)investigate. Our Writing Center pushes against that expectation and instead highlights the importance of collaboration in a tutoring session (Lunsford, 1991) and beyond. We strive to reject the notion many on our campus believe that writing is a solitary and isolated act, and instead show that writing is a social process (Ede, 1998). Our philosophy is grounded in getting to know students individually as people first and writers second. This is exemplified by opening a tutoring session by first asking their name and about their interests with pointed questions. When students walk in wearing jewelry or certain characters on their shirts, we prioritize asking more about those items and how they connect to the student. In turn, we respond to students’ questions about ourselves as people, framing the session as a conversation from the beginning. Our tutors are able to meet the students where they are, by relating to the students they are working with, showing empathy, and connecting on a human level. We show vulnerability by reminding students that no one holds all the answers, but that together, we can look to find them. We see our role as demystifying the writing process, and more broadly, the academic context; we are transparent with students and give them access to resources, in our Center and beyond in the larger campus setting.

We carry this sense of collaboration beyond the boundaries of our Writing Center’s walls and throughout our campus. In Readings for Racial Justice, Beth Godbee and Bobbi Olson (2014) write, “By virtue of their centrality within many institutions, writing centers are also key spaces to communicate with all members of a campus community: through one-with-one consultations with individual writers, through tutor education, through conversations with faculty across the disciplines, and so on” (p. 5). Our tutors have access to information on all campus resources, from the Military Student Center, The Office of Disability Services, Full Spectrum Learning Center, and Counseling Services. When prioritizing the student as a person and not only a writer, we can be more receptive to listening to what needs they have and direct them to such support.

In the Writing Center, we’re teaching process and connection at the same time. Our role as tutors is to demystify the writing process as well as the larger academic context. This is crucial for our student population and community, many of whom identify as non-traditional students or first-generation students. We can do so by not only supporting students in their writing process, but by connecting them with the campus community and granting them access to resources. In our Writing Center, we strive to break the commonplace practices of writing center expectations by allowing for our tutors, students, and director’s humanity. Below we’ll turn to the number of things our writing center does currently to (re)investigate our commonplace, as well as the obstacles we face.

Anti-Oppression Begins with Us

Our own identities and positionalities carry tension as we seek to confront the oppression our students face. Our ethics of care begins with the idea that tutoring sessions are about relationships and require a sense of connection (Ethics of Care, 2011). We want to share our previous experiences that allow us to connect with students from all backgrounds, and ultimately, to empower them.

Sharing our own narratives in order to challenge the troublesome commonplaces associated with writing centers (Faison & Condon, 2022), we believe that narrative is critical for our approach as our individual stories contribute to the overall atmosphere of our Writing Center, and ultimately, how we approach all student writers. We then reflect on how our individual positionalities shape our Writing Center’s environment.  We recognize that our own backgrounds, as well as race, gender, class, and learning differences, transform the way we approach tutoring sessions and challenge the commonplace of writing centers (Denny et al., 2019). Below you’ll read about our perspectives in our own roles in the Writing Center, as Director and graduate student tutors.

Writing Center Director

When I walked into Writing Center training in August of 2021, I was full of nervous energy. I was excited to begin my long-awaited dream job just three months after graduating from my Ph.D. program. To be honest, I still felt like a tutor myself. I knew this feeling would be a strength and a challenge. I could advocate for these tutors, connect with them, and do my best to create a collaborative environment. I also recognized that my identity as a young woman fresh out of graduate school could provide further challenges in others accepting my authority. I was the first faculty-based Director at this Writing Center. I would be starting during a time when the Writing Center had been entirely virtual due to COVID-19. I quickly learned my first goal was to grow our staff as we started with eight tutors. My second goal was to raise awareness of the Writing Center’s existence to our students. I couldn’t help but consider how this lack of awareness and visibility affected our first-generation students who were already without resources. Over the last academic year, I am most proud of our growth from eight to 23 tutors, all from varying backgrounds and disciplines. Growth requires new training approaches.

In aligning our center with challenging the commonplaces of writing centers, we focus on anti-oppression from the training tutors to resources created and shared and to the tutoring experiences overall. First, as director, I strive to hire tutors from all backgrounds—neurodivergent levels, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, different disciplines, and skill levels. As a Center, we base our approaches on emotional and human connection rather than meeting a certain GPA or other more traditionally expected qualifications. To me, a tutor learning about a citation style or writing process is a learned skill; but practicing empathy, creating connections, showing patience and listening are the most important qualifications I seek in tutors.

Our employee handbook is structured with the goal of inviting tutors to pause and reflect on their own writing processes and approaches, replicating the collaborative model we hope to build in tutoring sessions. The opening page features our collaborative philosophy. When I inherited the Center, I noticed many of the existing policies centered on capitalism—consequences for missing work, a strict policy on noise level, and a dress code. As Herman et al. (2020) note, “We argue for an open and inclusive Dress policy as a way to challenge power structures that inhibit collaborative and cooperative knowledge sharing and meaning-making” (p. 1). I rejected the notion of policing tutors and sought to focus on policy that improves working conditions and labor boundaries.

Graduate Tutor 1

I initially despised tutoring. When I was the tutee, tutors became easily frustrated because I could not follow their instructions. They would show me how to complete a math problem or how to memorize declensions or conjugations for Latin. They would rush, showing me quick tips instead of an actual process. They refused to repeat information. Instead, they would ask me, “How does this not make sense?” I felt degraded. I thought I was stupid. None of their lessons stayed with me when I left their facilities. Yet, I knew I could perform at the top of my class. However, it is finding the right tutor and then becoming that right tutor yourself that truly sends a person to the heights of their education.  

During my undergraduate sophomore year, I received average grades on my writing assignments and noticed a common theme: I lacked focus, which left me struggling to connect with an audience. My professor recommended that students visit the Writing Center. She offered extra credit. It was the only reason I even considered taking my paper there. I paced for several nights. I scheduled an appointment the day the paper was due. I had less than half a page completed when I arrived. Once there, I met a woman in a long spaghetti strapped dress. She wore a t-shirt underneath it, as well as socks and skating shoes. She was in her late 40s, which was odd because all the other tutors were in their 20s. She also had an unusual speech inflection, raising her pitch towards the end of every word. I considered leaving not because of her. Rather, I was anxious about being devalued for my writing. Surprisingly, I found value instead.

Ms. T. asked me directly why I procrastinated, which was exactly what I needed in order to perform better. I confided about my previous experiences with tutoring, my lack of focus, and my feeling overwhelmed. She first read a paragraph aloud. She underlined sentences that impressed her. She circled comma splices and other misused punctuation marks. She explained a thesis statement more than once. She even googled the definition, so I could see it for myself. Our first session lasted an hour. I had a second session the same day. I was able to take a completed draft to my class because she willingly showed me a process that allowed my own ideas and understanding of writing to develop. Her support even extended beyond the page.

 I often visited with Ms. T. because she related to me in a way that was uncharacteristic of the student body. She was a diagnosed autistic woman with a nontraditional background. Ms. T. was the first person who could see my autistic traits and adjust her tutoring style during our sessions. From the way I spoke to how I understood my assignments, she saw that my needs went beyond the classroom. She noticed that I struggled with social interactions, which was a challenge during our sessions. She would ask, “What do you see wrong in this sentence?” My eyes would dart from the blank computer screen to the words on the printed paper. After a few silent moments, I would respond with, “A comma is missing in the second sentence of the third paragraph.” She noted that I was correct, yet unfocused. She did not ridicule me when I clenched my fists repeatedly. She would pick up a pen, saying, “What do you see wrong in this sentence?” She would then tap the exact sentence located in the first paragraph. To a non-autistic person, they may have known to stay in the same section as the tutor. To me, the question was vague with several possible answers. She saw that I absorbed the information. I just needed help communicating my knowledge and required much encouragement. She used her life story to do both.

Having been diagnosed in the 1950s, Ms. T. should have been institutionalized. Her mother refused. Instead, Ms. T. was placed in special education and told that she would never make it to college, so she became a soldier. After her service, she worked as a sanitation worker at the university. The previous Writing Center director recommended she apply as a student. He then selected her for a tutoring position. She was working on her master’s degree when we met. Ms. T. shared her story when I expressed how improbable graduation was for me. Several members of my immediate family had gone to college, but no one had ever made it beyond their sophomore year. Poverty, poor mental health, unplanned pregnancy, and more always seemed to prevent graduation. More so, I struggled with self-confidence after numerous negative encounters throughout my education. Ms. T. pointed at my writing and believed it would be my way out.

I won scholarships because Ms. T. tutored me several times a week. Unlike previous tutors and my professors, she patiently provided step-by-step explanations rather than instructions. She gave handouts. She reviewed multiple textbooks. She allowed me to take up space, showing that students had access to the Writing Center computers. I could remain there as long as the doors were open. I often chose to stay. I learned that I could trust her and myself. Her guidance refined my writing process as much as my style. She then recommended me for a position.

During my senior year, I stopped visiting the Writing Center and began working as a tutor. Ms. T. and several staff members mentored me on professionalism and life skills. My approach is to care about each student’s integrity rather than simply focusing on academics. When I returned for graduate school four years later, Ms. T, the previous director, and staff had left. However, the sessions with Ms. T framed how I continue to tutor students. I can now readily assist all students because I identify and use practices that lead to student success.

When a peer confides that they suspect they are autistic, I reveal my diagnosis. I ask questions about their discovery, traits, and research. I ask them what would be most effective for our session. I give space and time as much as possible for their answer. I use highly animated body language with verbal cues throughout sessions. Instead of saying a story’s tone is dark or gloomy, I demonstrate the effect the story should have on a reader. Instead of providing grammar rules, I offer explanations for the most common exceptions and allow the student to provide feedback and practice these situations. When my peer begins self-soothing because they feel overwhelmed, I allow multiple breaks. I also show my stimming (i.e., repetitive or unusual movement to cope with overwhelming situations). I make our expressions safe, accepted, and normal because in our session, that is exactly what autism is.

After the student body returned to campus following COVID-19, our professors and faculty educated us on the importance of mental health. This education helped me to guide students to other resources. During one tutoring session, a student confided in me that she was struggling. She had received failing grades in the majority of her classes. Over the summer, she encountered multiple traumatic situations because of her job and family life. She had expected that her poor concentration would affect her, but she was unaware that poor mental health could cause a previous A student to consider dropping out of college. My role as a tutor means I do not diagnose other people. However, I do help students find resources, especially when they are in crisis. I provided information about our campus counseling services. I then contacted my director who could monitor the situation. Providing a response, even a listening ear, can be exactly what a student needs during a session.

Graduate Student 2

I became a part of the Writing Center during my second year of graduate school. I remember, at the time, just how lost I felt when I did so. I was partially inspired to join the Writing Center because of my own past experiences being tutored there.  I remembered really enjoying the relaxed atmosphere there, and honestly felt like I would thrive as a tutor because of that. It was also driven by my own passion for writing. I had small experiences tutoring students online, which combined with my writing skills, encouraged me to do this. I was not used to a Writing Center since my previous small, private college did not have one at all. Being on the tutor’s side of the table, I was amazed at all the resources the Writing Center had. I was also glad to see that I was right about one thing: just how welcoming the Writing Center is to all types of students.

Almost immediately when I started working there, I was placed with autistic students. These students are part of the university’s Full Spectrum Learning (FSL) program, which assists with academic and social development. At first, I really struggled with this emotionally because I have an autistic brother. When one student, in particular, started getting frustrated, due to factors like sensory issues, it hit close to home because I was reminded of my own brother struggling with his school work. I remembered how he ended up dropping out of college because he lacked the proper support. Even though experiences like that were a bit depressing for me, that experience was balanced by the amount of positive experiences I had tutoring FSL students. Growing up with an autistic sibling comes with its own set of challenges, so I also like to think that the experiences helped me understand autistic people a lot better. Having exposure to autistic tutors also helped open up my eyes to how autistic students experience college life, outside of media stereotypes and my own level of exposure.

Beyond FSL students, I have also worked with English Language Learner (ELL) students and nontraditional students. With the ELL students, I gained a bigger picture of factors that may be affecting them beyond the classroom. In one case, I had an ELL student who was troubled because he had to give a speech on a politically charged topic. I could tell that he was feeling a lot of anxiety out of fear of judgment from classmates. He told me he was self-conscious because he was afraid they would pay more attention to things like his accent rather than what he had to say. When I looked over the assignment, it seemed from the syllabus that too much research was required. However, we spent a lot of time in our sessions looking up the most academic, “scholarly” sources possible; I think this was important to him because of that fear of judgment. The way he described his classroom environment also made me a little nervous, so I think that is why I went along with it.

With the nontraditional students, I had many of them who had struggles with classes not just for academic reasons, but personal reasons as well. In some cases, they lacked access to important materials they needed for class. Some of them were not able to use their laptops due to connection issues, so we had to rely on computers in the Writing Center lab. In some cases, there were issues with navigating Microsoft Office applications. This was something I had to keep in mind when working with this population. Their frustration with technology that many of them experienced reminded me of my own struggles throughout undergrad and my early years in graduate school. My own family lacked access to technology when I was younger, so I had a lot of “catching up” to do once I was in college. On the brighter side, I like to think that my own past struggles gave me more empathy and patience for these students. I knew that lack of immediate understanding had nothing to do with a person’s intelligence, but rather their past exposure.

Lack of financial resources also tends to affect access to mental healthcare. As tutors, we are often given the duty of referring students to sources that can help them. While our university does have free counseling services, these services are often limited due to issues like limited staffing, too many students on a waiting list, and limited numbers of free sessions. This is not even touching upon the issue of mental health stigma that occurs in many communities. Students may not have the best views of counselors, especially if they have had negative past experiences. This can also occur if their friends and families have never experienced good counseling. Word gets around, and soon enough none of them want it. For this reason, I think a lot of us tutors try to psychoeducate students.

Overall, one of the main takeaways from my experiences working with these students is that I need to change how I approach tough topics. I need to meet that balance between keeping boundaries and also asking the right questions. For example, I had less experience working with dyslexic students. Because of this, I felt a bit lost at first when tutoring a dyslexic student. However, the experience taught me that disabilities can take all forms. When she mentioned having dyslexia, I had a lot of questions about how it was affecting her writing process. I was afraid to ask questions for fear of crossing boundaries. Next time I see a student who mentions having any sort of learning or neurodevelopmental difference, I will ask them what support they are getting from their instructors and peers. There is only so much I can do as a tutor which is vital to remember. However, if a student is experiencing difficulties with their schoolwork due to external factors I will try my best to advocate for them without extending my boundaries. For example, I had one FSL student mention he was struggling in a class with a specific professor. Because of that, I felt prompted to ask him if he felt like his professor was helpful to him. In my opinion, this is a good way to broach a conversation about a student’s needs without directly asking them about disability accommodations.

Extending the Writing Support


Our Writing Center staff experience training throughout their time as a tutor, from pre-semester training to recurring weekly sessions throughout the semester. Our Director offers options for attending training that promote flexibility and a culture of consideration for others’ needs, including options such as attending training in-person or on Zoom. During training sessions, representatives from across campus are invited to discuss resources across campus, including Human Resources, Full Spectrum Learning (a program dedicated to students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder), English Language Institute, faculty from disciplines across campus, and more. The goal of this training is to showcase there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tutoring. “Consultant preparation, instead, could start by creating a framework of difference that defines difference as norm” (Arterburn & Liebman, 2017, p. 2). Tutors begin to understand that being an effective tutor is not about memorizing citation styles or grammatical rules; tutoring sessions are about adapting to the student in front of you.

In addition to the pre-semester training day, we also hold weekly recurring training activities. These are primarily offered asynchronously in order to work within tutors’ schedules. In these recurring training, we prioritize any topics tutors have requested. One of the student populations we’ve served is our multilingual students. We realized that there is a gap in existing resources for these students. We invited a multilingual scholar to conduct a continued series over 4 weeks, held on Zoom with recordings.

Student advocacy is a major part of our mission at the Writing Center. Identifying resources for the students discussed above is a key part of fulfilling that mission. For example, we have discussed including a list of free resources that non-traditional students can reference. We gained inspiration from the text Linguistic Justice on Campus: Pedagogy and Advocacy for Multilingual Students (Schreiber et al., 2021) when considering ways our writing center can specifically advocate for this growing student population. This book discusses one of the core issues for multilingual students, which is a lack of accessibility. We want to develop translations for bilingual students. For now, we have a few resources available, including a list of false cognates in English and Spanish, handouts on citation styles and academic formats, and translations.

In addition, the Director and tutors developed clear expectations for all members of the Writing Center staff through creation of a handbook, The handbook describes policies that allow staff members to know expectations, learn about campus resources that we can point students towards, and to set healthy boundaries for working with students. The handbook also compiles best practices used inter-departmentally.

The handbook serves as a reference guide for tutors to see connections between departments on campus and to begin and allow their own philosophies to emerge. The handbook is also set up purposefully to be interactive for tutors to complete as they learn, reflect, and form connections. Our hope is that this experience replicates a tutoring experience as well as their own role in participating. Training also discusses the expectation that tutoring will extend beyond a discussion of the student’s writing and can be a place where students confront and share their own challenges–from lack of confidence, support, lack of available resources such as food and shelter, or larger concerns.


Our tutoring sessions with students challenge the commonplace that our service is only focused on writing. While collaboration is at the center of writing center work, location can also alter how much collaboration is utilized. For example, our Center is located within our main library. While students may view libraries as quiet spaces where they work individually, we want to introduce to students that our space is full of conversation and learning from others (Herb & Sabatino, 2020). Our ethics of care is centered on meeting the students’ needs and connecting with available resources. This extends beyond the boundary of writing assistance and can take the form of working together to point students towards the best campus resources.

In order for tutors to offer students help with their writing and beyond, our Writing Center had to first prioritize creating a culture of care through everyday experiences. The heart of our Writing Center’s mission is collaboration. Tutors are reminded they are not responsible (nor is it possible) for knowing all the answers to any students’ requests. However, by assisting students in demystifying the writing and academic process and by showing compassion, we are allowing students to feel seen and heard.

Conclusion and Final Considerations

As tutors, we are in a place where we can connect students to the concepts, ideas, people, and resources based on our shared knowledge as tutoring staff. We have learned that many students first visit the Writing Center when they are unsure of where to turn for help. Their process reveals deeper issues around their own self-confidence and uncertainty around the writing and research process, and ultimately a feeling of isolation. As a Writing Center tutor, we guide students to campus resources such as mental health resources, housing, and food resources. We further believe the heart of a healthy Writing Center comes from an environment welcoming collaboration with students, departments, and programs. This collaboration stems from not only the tutoring staff, as tutors feel comfortable relying on each other for assistance and can be open with their director about areas they are unsure of, but also a collaborative environment across campus, where students are encouraged to visit other helpful resources to fulfill even more of their needs.

Through collaboration, we are better able to understand our roles and positionalities on campus. We are peers yet must maintain a boundary. As noted by Dana Driscoll and Jennifer Wells (2020), “Emotional development is never separate from intellectual and academic development” (p. 16). Our work as tutors cannot be confined to only writing or academic work; our work involves emotions. We want to be welcoming but not overstep that line by being overly casual or friendly with students in a way that is deemed inappropriate for a workplace. We also balance a line of authority. We are not the professor carrying the final approval of the grade for the student’s work. Just as argued in Clements et al.’s (2021) article, writing centers must push beyond the commonplace that a center focuses primarily on the student writer’s needs and instead focus on committing time, resources, and conversation surrounding the tutors’ emotional needs as well.


As Director, my emotional labor stems from best supporting my tutors and students who come to visit the Writing Center. I am always aware that I serve as an example to my tutoring staff when it comes to balancing my workload and emotional labor. I also want to be transparent and honest with my staff that the Writing Center is a deeply emotional space. We listen to students’ stories, many of them heartbreaking. We learn of students who haven’t had a meal in weeks, who are recovering from trauma, and who are working multiple jobs while attending school in order to give themselves and their families a better future. I always question if I’ve adequately prepared my tutors for the emotional work of tutoring (Costello, 2021). I strive to develop training, our handbook, policies, and a physical space that allow for support while illustrating the heart of our work: the opportunity to connect with students and show compassion, concern, and when possible, guidance, to best support not only their writing but their whole selves.

Graduate Tutor 1

Although the majority of my academic career has centered on self-discovery, I am now aware that my positionality allows for safe spaces. It encourages others to develop their writing skills and humanity whenever they enter the Writing Center. When students seek understanding, my disclosure provides opportunities for dialogues. Yet, I must use caution whenever possible, so I do not create more emotional labor. Each tutor performs this balancing act for our peers’ development. Acceptance and vulnerability then become great humanizers, which extend outside the Writing Center as well as the classroom.

Graduate Tutor 2

I know for me, being a counseling major, it was really tempting to step into a counseling role with my students. Part of me is concerned that I may have been driven by some selfishness, considering that at the time I was really anxious to start a counseling internship and was not able to do so at the time. Overall, writing about these topics has made me realize how important boundaries are as a tutor—and just how important it is to keep them, both for my well-being and students’ well-being. I feel like my motives would be relatable for most people, even those who are not counseling majors. I wanted to feel like I was helping the students–I wanted to make myself useful to them. But if that emotional need starts taking over tutoring sessions, that is something I need to keep in check. The positive experiences where we help the students make up for the demoralizing moments. In our Center, we strive for a sense of collaboration by relying on each other for help when it’s needed. We, as tutoring staff, try to give each other the same welcoming environment that we give to students.

Closing Questions

We conclude by posing lingering questions that we hope you will consider about your own Writing Centers as we (re)investigate the commonplace that writing centers focus primarily on writing: How can we connect with students as people first? Are the services we’re providing by extending out to other departments (mental/disability/military services), in the most effective way? How do we as tutors protect our own emotional capacity? How do we as directors set healthy expectations for the emotional work our tutors provide? As we look to the future, we reflect on what we want our new experience in the Writing Center to be. We see Writing Centers as places that can actively combat oppression by envisioning the student writer as a person first, writer second, and replicating this belief through the creation of tutor training materials, Writing Center policies, and connection to campus resources. We strive to extend our boundaries as a campus resource to empower students and remind them they are not alone.

Author Biographies

Allie Johnston is an Assistant Professor in Languages and Literature and Writing Center Director at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. She first discovered writing centers as a college freshman, needing assurance that she could adapt to new writing contexts. She tutored for eight years in multiple institutional settings before her current role as Director. Her research areas include writing center studies, first-year writing, and multimodality.

Katarina Hughes Roush is a second year graduate counseling student at Austin Peay State University. She has been working at Austin Peay State University’s writing center as a tutor since January 2022. Her favorite student populations to work with include Full Spectrum Learning students, multilingual students, and nontraditional students. Some of her research interests include psychology, biology, neurobiology, education (including special education), and writing center studies. She enjoys reading and gaming for fun.

Etenia Mullins is a neurodivergent graduate student at Austin Peay State University. She transitioned from being a tutor to a technical content specialist. She now creates content to educate her peers and community about financial policies and events. When she isn’t writing or studying, she makes Sunday dinners for her family.


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Costello, K.M. (2020). Naming and negotiating the emotional labors of writing center tutoring. In G. N. Giaimo (Ed.), Wellness and Care in Writing Center Work. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. https://ship.pressbooks.pub/writingcentersandwellness/chapter/title-here/ 

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