Conversation Shaper: Emotional Intelligence as a Teachable Skill: How Empathy-Based Training Can Shape the Writing Center into an Activist Space

Rachel Peterson, Middle Tennessee State University


The incorporation of emotional intelligence skillsets in tutor training helps build empathy and communication skills that better prepare tutors to work with a diverse range of students. These skills are important for holding space for the voices of diverse authors and encouraging authenticity. In addition, writing centers must examine the racism inherent in Standardized English and encourage tutors to look closer at their internalized biases. Previous research by writing center scholars shows that training based in emotional intelligence and training based explicitly in activist rhetoric have similar outcomes: tutors become empathetic toward historically underrepresented voices and are often motivated to take an active role in social justice. This paper pieces together these different approaches to illustrate their efficacy and the opportunity writing center training has to push back against the systemic racism rooted in writing pedagogy. However, it is important that this education is based in challenging the internalized biases of privileged writers to avoid using historically underrepresented voices as a tool for our own enlightenment.

Keywords: empathy, tutor training, social justice, emotional intelligence, diversity, systemic racism, Standardized English, approximating experiences

The Necessity of Emotional Intelligence in Writing Center Praxis

Using words to spark change is a time-honored tradition. We saw this demonstrated in the speeches, letters, and articles written by such celebrated authors as Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, and we see it today in works by activists like Ibram X. Kendi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Greta Thunberg. The internet has turned every digital magazine, newspaper, blog post, and social media website into a platform for those hoping to create change and have their voices heard, and this activist writing is now more wide-reaching than ever. This surge in activism emphasizes that how we teach writers the act of writing—how we help them find their voices—holds a key to change.

The writing center may seem like a small piece of the pedagogical hierarchy, but it is meant to be the place where students can go to explore their own voices and identities without risking their grades and to learn what helps them write in their most authentic way. Language has power—not just in its meaning but in the way we teach it and the words we use when we teach it. No student should leave a writing center with the message that an academic standard of writing is more important than their own identity or their own language. Thus, this practice requires writing center directors and tutors to be equipped with an emotionally intelligent toolkit that will best support the students they tutor. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology, emotional intelligence is defined as:

a type of intelligence that involves the ability to process emotional information and use it in reasoning and other cognitive activities…[I]t comprises four abilities: to perceive and appraise emotions accurately; to access and evoke emotions when they facilitate cognition; to comprehend emotional language and make use of emotional information; and to regulate one’s own and others’ emotions to promote growth and well-being. (“Emotional Intelligence,” n.d.)

Emotional intelligence is often overlooked as a skill that can be learned and cultivated, but incorporating it alongside the standard training in a writing center can make strides in enhancing the efficacy of their work. This skill is crucial to writing center pedagogy because it adds a layer of sensitivity and cultural awareness to tutoring practices, which creates an honest and authentic environment that will help students feel safer exploring their voices and identities as well as be more receptive to feedback. This paper synthesizes writing center scholarship that demonstrates the efficacy of tutor training based on emotional intelligence and shaped by an explicitly activist rhetoric. I also argue that incorporating these elements in tutor training will create writing centers that can help validate and hold space for student identities as well as present the opportunity to push back against oppression and inequality in writing pedagogy—naturally shaping the center into an activist space.

Empathy as the Foundation of Emotional Intelligence

One key skill under the umbrella of emotional intelligence is empathy. Referring once more to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, empathy is defined as:

understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. Empathy does not, of itself, entail motivation to be of assistance, although it may turn into sympathy or personal distress, which may result in action. (“Empathy,” n.d.)

Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, or else think them interchangeable, but sympathy is a much more simplistic feeling “of concern or compassion” when someone is aware of someone else’s suffering (“Sympathy,” n.d.). This distinction is crucial because empathy requires greater emotional intelligence and creates a deeper connection between individuals, whereas sympathy requires less emotional intelligence to experience and does not necessarily connect someone to the person with whom they sympathize. I separate empathy from the other skills of emotional intelligence because it provides a basis for all the rest; empathy is about making connections with other people and finding a way to make space for experiences we have never had ourselves. This skill is imperative in understanding the students who come into the center and providing the guidance best suited to their individual needs.

After recognizing a need for greater empathy in their tutors, Lana Oweidat and Lydia McDermott (2017) set out to understand how they could “bridge the gaps between…tutoring philosophies and [tutors’] less than empathetic reactions to difference in the writing center.” Their study included an anonymous survey of “current writing center tutors and those who have previously enrolled in the tutor-training class” at two small liberal arts colleges, and they received a total of 21 responses from the 39 students contacted (2017). Oweidat and McDermott found that those surveyed had “sometimes opposing” definitions of empathy and concluded that all tutors must seek to redefine empathy “as a respect of the validity of any response, even ones they cannot relate to” (Oweidat & McDermott, 2017).

Furthermore, Oweidat and McDermott expand on Andrew Rihn’s idea that a tutor must “comfort the afflicted” and “afflict the comfortable” (Rihn, 2007) by pointing out that neither of these conditions are isolated or stable: “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” (2017). Thus, it is necessary for tutors to be prepared to handle such shifting dynamics—both in themselves and in their students. This preparedness is especially important because a sudden change in atmosphere can be difficult to pinpoint, stressful to contend with, and may lead to a dissatisfactory ending to the session. Such a shift could be triggered by content the tutor and tutee had not addressed yet, a distraction, an interruption, or something as simple as a misunderstanding. Better awareness of when these shifts occur, as well as having the language to address them, will help tutors support both their student’s needs and their own, especially when there are key differences in their identities that could be contributing to a barrier.

Evaluating a Writing Center’s Empathy as it Relates to Social Justice

Many people struggle to understand the feelings of those they cannot relate to and experiences they have never had. In a world with a multiplicity of intersectional identities, tutors cannot be expected to relate to or understand every student, but strengthening their emotional intelligence skillset allows them to validate and hold space for anyone that comes to them for help. Frankie Condon’s (2007) concept of approximating experiences—forms of empathy white people use to understand the racist experiences of people of color—is relevant in framing tutoring practices. In particular, Condon discusses the motivations of white people engaging in anti-racist activism, though these experiences could be applied to a broader range of identity dynamics. Understanding the different types of approximations can be a useful tool in evaluating where a center and its tutors stand as an ally to its students and can inform where change in practice should begin.

The first type, borrowed approximations, generates empathy when one bears witness to racism and its “destructive power…and/or” (Condon, 2007) is ostracized by other white people. If a center is based in borrowed approximations, white tutors may still be hesitant to engage in activist behavior for fear of being completely turned away by their own community. It might be useful to briefly unpack the ostracization of white anti-racist allies and to reframe the situation—is it better to maintain the status quo for the sake of being accepted into a prejudiced community or is it better to stand up for those being discriminated against and instead join a more accepting community? This consideration is key in defining the goals of an activist writing center; we must choose—honestly and explicitly—who it is we strive to serve. Furthermore, borrowed approximations raise the question of why someone must witness the “destructive power” of racism firsthand in order to experience empathy for those impacted by it and to be motivated towards change. Lastly, empathy is applied here in two directions: first, in recognizing and validating the difficulty of being rejected by your own community, and then in understanding that marginalized people face this same (and much worse) rejection every day. It becomes a question of who has the means and the privilege to step up and speak out for social justice.

The second type, overlapping approximations, is derived from our own experiences with oppression, which allows us to form an empathetic connection with the “struggles of people of color under and against racism” (Condon, 2007). These are the people who have experienced oppression or prejudice for their own identities but not necessarily for their race. This is important, but it does not apply to those whose identities perfectly align with the privileged majority.

The final type, global approximations, is experienced by those who feel racism violates their own deep sense of “democracy, justice, and fairness. They…are motivated” by these violations of their ideals and the “realities and effects of racism” (Condon, 2007). This is the only approximation that puts people of color at the absolute forefront. The goal every writing center strives for should be to put social justice at the center of their practice and to fight for and uplift their students, regardless of their background or whether their tutors can relate to them. We should not strive to be the white allies who promote social justice only when we can relate to the struggles of those being marginalized, and we certainly should not be the people who choose comfort over equity. Our duty to our students is to show them that every voice and every body is not just welcome in our centers but protected and advocated for as well.

Emotional Intelligence Improves Tutor Communication

Emotional intelligence is important because better emotional processing and regulation make for a healthier mindset as well as better interpersonal and communication skills to help support students in the writing center. However, the emotions-based language this practice is framed in can scare off academic professionals who resist implementing this approach and prompt them to fabricate an immutable line in the sand between writing center and counseling center, boxing tutors into prescriptivist approaches that overlook the relevance of these communication skills.

Those who hesitate at the idea of implementing this feelings-based approach often worry that tutors will become therapists (Lape, 2008). However, emotional intelligence training is intended to help tutors interpret the words and actions of the students they work with as well as how to communicate in sensitive ways that facilitate learning. It is not designed to teach tutors to therapize their students. In American society, there is an “implication that [emotion] sabotages analysis and undermines professionalism” (Lape, 2008), and the same idea is applied to the work done in writing centers—a space that is still fighting against its impersonal history as a “grammar fix-it shop” (Bouquet, 1999). Yet, emotion can never be wholly removed from writing, just as writing itself cannot be separated from the feelings, views, or background of the writer. Tutors must be able to incorporate their client’s emotional state into the tutoring process.

Colleges that employ peer tutors at their writing centers have an advantage in this work because those tutors are enduring the college experience alongside their clients. This empathetic connection is a meaningful aspect of the emotional dynamic between a tutee and their tutor because they know that their stress, struggles, and exhaustion will be understood. Students who know that their tutors will be supportive and empathetic are more likely to feel safe in the writing center and be more open or responsive to their tutor’s efforts (Lape, 2008).

Tutors come into contact with a diverse body of students, and they should be prepared to handle as much. Beyond basic communication, these interactions require critical thinking and a culturally-informed vocabulary that may be new to them, but both will help them interact with and understand identities different from their own. Oweidat and McDermott (2017) present a story about a white, female tutor in a session with a male upperclassman of Chinese descent. Seemingly without thinking, the tutor immediately began to focus on the local errors in his paper, going so far as to tell him, “’in academic writing we don’t really do this’” (Oweidat & McDermott, 2017). The student clarified that he needed help with organization and ideas, not the grammar, and they were able to redirect their focus from there. Many factors could have combined to make this tutor more nervous than usual: her director was sitting in on the session, her tutee was an upperclassman, and the gendered power dynamic may have set her on edge—but ultimately, this story led the authors to conclude that the tutors at this center generally felt anxious and underprepared to tutor English Language Learners (ELLs) (Oweidat & McDermott, 2017). Rather than relying on an “intellectual understanding of linguistic fact” (Greenfield, 2011), how we respond in scenarios like the one described above stems from the subconscious, institutionalized racism deeply rooted in writing pedagogy and how American society views languages. Thus, when faced with “visible markers of difference” (Oweidat & McDermott, 2017), the tutor in the story tapped into her own subconscious biases, automatically assuming her tutee was an ELL and therefore needed help with “proper” English. There are several practices tutors can be trained in that could help prevent or diffuse these types of situations, but it starts with emotionally intelligent communication, such as being curious and asking questions rather than making assumptions. Recognizing that it is impossible to draw conclusions about a student based on the visible markers of their identity and shedding these internalized stereotypes are two ways that emotional intelligence informed by activist rhetoric could inform the tutoring process.

The Need for Social Justice Training in Writing Centers

The tutor in this story may have been more successful if her training had emphasized the necessary communication skills, prompting her not only to ask the student questions about his goals for the session, but to actively listen to his concerns. In addition to such skills, incorporating training that focuses on social justice can not only help tutors better connect with their tutees, but it opens the door for greater emotional intelligence and future activism as well. Bridget Draxler has demonstrated the effectiveness of this training within her own writing center.

One exercise Draxler (2017) applied to her writing center prompted the staff to examine their “own privileges and…experiences of oppression” and where they are sensitive to or unaware of systemic oppression. This helped them gain a deeper understanding of the diversity of their staff and to address their own “fallibilities” (Draxler, 2017), including their implicit biases. Draxler also spends a portion of her essay addressing avoidance of such self-examination and the uncomfortable confrontations it can result in. Her own avoidance was borne from the fear of “saying the wrong thing or using the wrong word” and feeling like she has “no place to lead conversations like this one” as a white woman; and her students’ came from the “well-intentioned effort not to offend,” causing them to “avoid saying anything controversial” (Draxler, 2017). In her eyes, avoidance was her “only chance of giving students a safe space” (Draxler, 2017). Overcoming this avoidance to confront internalized biases is one integral way in which writing centers can be a space to create change. Furthermore, writing center professionals are often so afraid to stir the pot, especially in professional settings, that we may let slide any number of problematic jokes, derogatory comments, or phrases that have become outdated and offensive.

Training tutors to confront the problematic language they encounter during sessions is both a crucial and empowering step towards shaping the writing center into a braver activist space. While some clam up at what sounds to them like restricting the free speech of students, the real intention is to help all writers and those situated as instructors to understand problematic language and to speak more sensitively. Draxler (2017) uses an example in which one of her own tutors was working with a student who “praised a female character who discovered that she ‘didn’t have to be “just” a stay at home mom.’” The student who used the phrase “stay at home mom” had probably not thought about how this sentence might sound to stay-at-home moms or their children and thought they were emphasizing the mother’s transition into something greater than she was before. While the student meant for this to be empowering, the tutor felt belittled because their own mother had been a stay-at-home mom. Instead of avoiding confrontation by suggesting the student remove the word “just” as an “unnecessary modifier,” the tutor explained why the story had upset them (Draxler, 2017). Rather than lecturing the student, the tutor shared their own experience to help them see how it could be hurtful to their readers. The tutor felt empowered to confront problematic language, and they used that opportunity to help the student understand the impact of their words.

Giving tutors the language and tools to confront this behavior is essential because many of us do not even know how to address it among a circle of friends, let alone with a tutee. Furthermore, while it is necessary to teach tutors that not all situations like this are intentional, it is also important to remember that some people use their words maliciously. It is not always safe or practical for tutors to confront such behavior, and they should have access to an administrator who can take over or end a session for them.

Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces, and Cultivating Their Hybrid

As writing centers shift their focus towards emotional intelligence and the importance of an inclusive environment, there is a drive for writing centers to be able to label themselves as “safe” spaces “where anyone can go to fully express themselves, without fear of being made uncomfortable or unsafe because their sex, gender, cultural background, or other minority statuses that face discrimination” (Herrmann, 2017). However, the phrase “safe space” has become so overused that it has, in essence, lost all meaning. There is no assessment to certify a space as safe, and, realistically, there may not even be a way to create a space that is truly safe (Herrmann, 2017). For example, a director can train their tutors to be empathetic and inclusive, but they cannot control the students who come in for appointments or what interactions occur between these students or between the students and their tutors. Thus, while the writing center is intended to be a safe space, no one can guarantee its safety.

As an alternative to “safe space,” scholars are promoting the phrase “brave space.” In essence, a brave space puts the power in the hands of the group, which gives individuals “the opportunity to shape the group norms and expectations” and allows for the acknowledgement of “painful or difficult experiences” (Herrmann, 2017) rather than avoiding them. However, this alternative space comes with its own fatal flaw: the responsibility for “social justice education” (Herrmann, 2017) is shifted onto historically underrepresented tutors, requiring that their stories and experiences be turned into a teaching moment for their privileged counterparts.

Rather than focusing on either a safe or brave space, writing centers must strive to be both. The hybrid space bridges the safety of historically oppressed students with the drive to actively work towards making all spaces safer for them (Herrmann, 2017). In the words of Neisha-Ann Green (2018), “Allies must be willing to be warriors.” It is not enough to provide an arbitrary “safe space” where students are told they can freely discuss sensitive topics pertaining to their identities, and it still is not enough to simply incorporate critical theories into tutor training. Writing centers must work to actively expose the exclusionary roots of writing pedagogy, which creates the opportunity for their tutors to think critically about the institution and to pass this knowledge onto their tutees when appropriate. This is an important consideration when establishing the public face of a writing center, but it is also relevant in tutor training because the change starts with the employees who populate the space. By teaching tutors how they can actively play a role in creating this hybrid safe-brave space and giving them the tools to do so, we create a center that is more than a passive ally to our historically underrepresented students.

Implementing Emotional Intelligence Training Based in Activist Rhetoric

There is no definitive guidebook on establishing writing center practices that will shape tutors into emotionally intelligent and socially driven individuals, and each writing center will face its own challenges based on its demographics and higher administration. However, these steps I have synthesized from scholars in the field should be viewed as basic starting points:

    • Create an open forum between tutors and administrators (Herrmann, 2017).
    • Ensure diversity among writing center staff (Herrmann, 2017).
    • Provide tutors with the tools to correctly identify and respond to emotions (Lape, 2008).
    • Introduce and strengthen a vocabulary focused on writing pedagogy and relevant social issues (Draxler, 2017).
    • Create info-sheets detailing the racist roots of writing pedagogy and the complex issues surrounding its history.

Present an Open Forum Between Tutors and Administrators

An open forum between tutors and administrators helps to shape an empathetic writing center with space carved out for activism. At the University of Kansas’ writing center, they have small groups of tutors who learn about “social justice issues within the context of writing center pedagogy” (Herrmann, 2017) and use this information to evaluate their own center at bi-weekly meetings. By creating a space specifically directed towards elevating the center’s social justice activities, they have made room for “critical dialogues about social justice” and “writing center theory” (Herrmann, 2017) as well as provided a space for tutors to share concerns based on their own experiences. Other options include anonymous surveys or a suggestion box to give tutees the opportunity to share what could make their experience better as well as less formal surveys among tutors to assess where the center’s commitment to social issues and representation could be strengthened.

Ensure Diversity Among Writing Center Staff

Perhaps simultaneously, administrators should ensure the diversity of the writing center staff to help students feel better represented and safer within the space—but it is important to include identities that go beyond those with visual markers. While recruiting students with invisible identities could be tricky, Jacob Herrmann (2017) encourages writing centers to connect with their institution’s equivalent of the University of Kansas’ Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department and The Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity. Additionally, reaching out to student clubs that have ties with activist work, such as Pride; For Latinas, By Latinas; and To Write Love On Her Arms, is another great option to reach students directly and to show an open commitment to creating a more inclusive space. Herrmann (2017) notes that this “active recruitment of minority students…has positively influenced the feeling of inclusivity and sensitivity among” their tutors. Alongside this recruitment, a very simple and easy step to take within the center to bolster these feelings is to provide the option for tutees to indicate their preferred pronouns and to have the option for tutors to display their pronouns alongside their names.

Provide Tutors the Tools to Identify and Respond to Emotions

Another step to incorporate emotional intelligence into a writing center’s practice is training tutors to correctly identify emotions and respond appropriately to better their communication and connection with their students. Noreen Lape (2008) recommends the use of “scripted scenarios, improvisational role-playing…and reflective journaling” to help “instill a pedagogy of empathy” that is applicable to every writer who comes to the center. One of the tutors in Lape’s (2008) center confessed that, had she understood the feelings of a student she had struggled with, “’I could have dictated my behavior by what I wanted to have happen, rather than what I was feeling.’” By understanding both how to identify emotions in someone else and the difference between reaction and response, tutors will gain more control over their sessions, keeping them productive and accessible.

Develop a Critical Vocabulary Around Writing Pedagogy and Social Activism

Throughout emotional intelligence training and its related discussions, tutors will also develop a critical vocabulary. First, in discussing the realities of writing pedagogy—primarily in the identification of practices and values that are rooted in oppressing marginalized languages and upholding English as the superior language. Second, in identifying emotionally charged language for what it is, whether it is belittling, misogynistic, or “racist cultural appropriation” (Draxler, 2017). And third, in articulating not only the issues with the language a student may be using but in communicating what they have learned to invite other writers to think critically about their practices.

Create Info Sheets and Handouts for Students, Administrators, and Tutors

Writing center tutors need to be aware that their tutees from marginalized backgrounds are facing racist pedagogical rhetoric long before they even enter college, and it is important for these students to continue their academic careers armed with the knowledge that they deserve to take up space and have their own authentic voices heard and celebrated. Creating a handout that gives an overview of the racist roots in writing pedagogy is one way to recognize this obstacle without expecting tutors to be able to summarize such a deeply rooted issue on the spot. The University of Washington Tacoma’s positional statement on anti-racism in their center presents a good model in recognizing that “academic institutions, writing centers included, have traditionally upheld racist structures” and to further emphasize that “writing consultants…often have to prioritize students’ grades over their linguistic justice” (“Anti-Racism in the Writing Center: Why it Matters,” n.d.).

The goal of these handouts is to validate the language of students who come from backgrounds of vernacular English that are often vilified as “incorrect” or “uneducated” ways of speaking, such as African American Vernacular English and Appalachian English. These vernaculars are valid and should be respected as important pieces of a cultural identity, and no student should be made to feel lesser for the ways in which they communicate. As Hannah Gerdes (2020) puts it, “the rigid rules of academic writing are, at best, excluding qualified writer’s [sic] through a process of thinly veiled tone-policing and, at worst, propagating systematic racism.” However, Gerdes also acknowledges that writing centers could run into trouble from higher administration if they promote non-standardized writing too heavily. 

These handouts acknowledge the issue, demonstrate that the center recognizes the real and present issue of racism in Standardized English, and show tutees that we will not allow it to be explained away or minimized. The writing center’s duty is to not only help tutees improve their writing but to feel confident in their work as well. In the conclusion of her 2020 essay, “I Speak English: Reflections on Linguistic Inclusivity of Consultant Bodies,” Aiysha Williams says that she and the tutee discussed “would have felt more inclined to accept critique and be comfortable with our writing if we were not placed in a linguistic bubble defined by racist implications.” This is one of many essays that discuss the racist and deeply harmful criticism students of color hear from their instructors. The quote from Williams’ 9th grade humanities teacher is one that has stuck with me since my reading: “You speak eloquently for a black girl, writing essays in college certainly won’t be a challenge for you” (2020). 

The idea behind these info sheets is to show students that they are not imagining a roadblock that is targeted towards their identity, to show the center’s commitment to being an active ally in anti-racism, and to situate the center as both a safe and brave space. Simply acknowledging the problem is not enough to make a change but, with limited time in writing center sessions, we can give students of all backgrounds the tools to educate themselves. Providing a list of recommended readings—such as Laura Greenfield’s “The Standard English Fairy Tale” and Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “Should Writers Use They Own English”—as well as thought-provoking quotes from such works to inspire further reading is one way to make this minimalistic info sheet a tool for change.

Showing students that the center is dedicated to engaging with activist behavior can help to make the space feel safer and more understanding, and it empowers them by outlining how the problem rests in our pedagogical institutions, not in who they are or how they speak. While this is not a direct exercise in emotional intelligence, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work at play that helps to shape the public face of the center. Tutors need the skills to broach this topic sensitively and appropriately with their students, and the info sheet itself represents the inclusivity of the center and its commitment to social justice. Hopefully, this effort will make students feel accepted in the center and more comfortable during their sessions, thereby making them more receptive to feedback and helping them engage with their tutors. Knowing that their voice is not the source of the problem could improve their confidence in their writing and motivate them to keep pursuing their own styles and practices outside the classroom. With a commitment to celebrating and uplifting diverse voices, the writing center could be the cornerstone for transforming academia into a more inclusive space.

Guidelines for Administrators and Moving Forward

Draxler (2017) offers guidelines on building a better writing center by outlining her process, strategies, and practices, as well as tutor responses to them. She even links to worksheets for her discussions on the language of oppression and the politics of listening so that other directors have a starting point from which to build (Draxler, 2017). Her efforts have led her students to present “research at a regional writing center conference” (Draxler, 2017) on various topics pertaining to social justice, and one of her tutors even developed a model that informed the hiring process at their center. In assessing the efficacy of her activist-driven approaches, Draxler found that her tutors felt their work “contributed to their own empathy and understanding for others, renewing or deepening their commitment to social justice” (2017). She quotes one tutor who said, “’I think I’ve had a shift in priorities…which has led to a shift in practice” (Draxler, 2017). Her tutors were even motivated to coordinate a strike for International Women’s Day, grappling with how they could make a statement while still providing “writing support for the writers, especially women, who were relying on us that day” (Draxler, 2017).

While moving forward with activist-driven methods in future writing center work, it is vital for administrators to critically evaluate what exercises they incorporate. The “Privilege Walk” is an activity that has students stand in a line while an instructor reads “statements regarding issues of diversity and privilege. Participants then take a step forward or backward based on their own lived experience” (Herrmann, 2017). An activity like this is effective in exposing disparities and creating a tangible representation of privilege among the body of students participating, but it is another exercise that relies on minorities reliving experiences or exposing vulnerable pieces of their identity for the sake of educating the majority (Herrmann, 2017). Some students may want to share their experiences with oppression and may volunteer to do so, but administrators should ensure that other students are not forced to do the same and that they are not singled out for this decision.

We are in a time where emotional burdens are higher than they have been in decades, and the writing center is not exempt from their impacts. In a webinar sponsored by the International Writing Centers Association and hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s writing center director Dana Driscoll, “over thirty directors and tutors shared their experiences relating to the challenges faced as part of the pandemic: lack of focus, increased anxiety, decreased productivity, and increased emotional labor demands” (Driscoll and Wells, 2020). The mental health struggles students already face are compounded by worsening public health and institutions that do not account for the cognitive toll of COVID-19 infections. This burden is even greater for disabled students who face inadequate accommodations and the resulting heavier workloads on top of their preexisting struggles and the daily horrors of eugenicist policies playing out globally.

In summary: tutors do not always know who they are tutoring, and they certainly cannot know by assumption alone. This is relevant when working with students with visible markers of identities that are historically rejected or challenged by pedagogical practices, but it is imperative that we keep in mind the many invisible identities that we are only aware of if our students feel safe enough to disclose them. By training tutors in emotional intelligence rooted in social justice, we help them lift the veil to see beyond the body sitting in front of them and understand how the complexities of the person underneath impacts their writing and how they learn. We should not be patient with only our students who disclose their learning disabilities, just as we should not automatically focus on grammar with only our ELL students. Emotional intelligence is about “tutoring the whole person,” as Dana Driscoll and Jennifer Wells (2020) put it, not just the words on the page in front of us. In an era rife with worsening mental burdens, our students need the support of emotionally intelligent tutors now more than ever before.


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