Book Review: Unwell Writing Centers: Searching for Wellness in Neoliberal Educational Institutions and Beyond

Reviewed by Samantha Turner
University of Texas – Austin

Giaimo, Genie Nicole. (2023). Unwell Writing Centers: Searching for Wellness in Neoliberal Educational Institutions and Beyond. Utah State University Press.

Dr. Genie Giaimo’s Unwell Writing Centers: Searching for Wellness in Neoliberal Educational Institutions and Beyond is a timely, refreshing, and profoundly self-aware dive into how institutional and bespoke wellness initiatives interact with day-to-day writing center functions, tutor training uptake, and how one can be a responsive, ethical, pro-labor and anti-racist writing center director (WCD) or writing program administrator (WPA). Giaimo powerfully highlights the field’s need for specific engagement with what a “well” workplace in higher education really looks and feels like. Giaimo is especially convincing in arguing for a deeper look at how peer tutors experience issues of and training in wellness in the writing center.

Unwell Writing Centers is organized into three parts–Searching for Wellness, Finding Wellness Interventions that Work, and Looking to the Future of Wellness Work–with several chapters in each. The first, “Searching for Wellness,” addresses the history of workplace wellness programs as they broadly intersect with labor studies before centering on the unique challenges and workplace stress that peer tutors face and wellness research and assessment in writing centers specifically. The chapter makes clear the insufficiency of wellness interventions that are “corporatized and enact bootstrap rhetoric” (p. 69), offering instead suggestions for top-down action informed by the author’s findings: “the enactment of policies that recognize and reward labor, offer flexible work policies and fair wages, and that are safety-focused, inclusive, and anti-racist,” p. 69. Part two covers how to incorporate mindfulness into intentional tutoring practices, as well as emergency preparedness and risk assessment in WC contexts, and, importantly, how to approach the processing and healing work necessary post-crisis. Part three turns to where conversations and praxis around wellness are especially efficacious: anti-racist and activist spaces. This movement towards an intersectional understanding and application of wellness is refreshing, as Giaimo illuminates what we can all learn about wellness in our institutional contexts from Black liberation and social movements. The connections here are clear; wellness is not always elusive, and has, in fact, been a central tenet in approaches to community-based care, mutual aid strategies, and grassroots initiatives across political and historical contexts, though these successes are underrepresented in higher education spaces.

Each section of Unwell Writing Centers offers thoughtful and deeply reflective reminders of the anxieties and realities WPAs face in preparing their staff for the job. By grounding each chapter in a series of personal narratives and vignettes from Giaimo’s own history with workplace emergencies and local, national, and global crises, the author reveals the vital insight that experiential and embodied knowledges can add to research-based approaches to ethical, mindful, and anti-racist workplace wellness interventions. This framing of the organic and emergent dimensions of Giaimo’s project is one I find compelling, but, importantly, the author then turns the spotlight to an understudied population in the landscape of writing center research: peer tutors. The book contributes to understanding “tutors’ affective material, physical, and psychological experiences” (p. 11). It successfully offers plans, advice, and resources for uptake across writing centers and programs across institutions, which I detail in the context of each chapter below.

Noting the pressing need for deep engagement with wellness across academia, the introduction situates workplaces within higher education–and writing centers specifically–as part of “a complex network of wellness issues that result from neoliberal policies or from precarities that are created by neoliberalist values” (p. 11). Giaimo offers a deep analysis of specific occupational issues facing writing center staff while remaining open to how these issues permeate academia across programs, fields, and institutional contexts. This makes the book’s recommendations, research plans, and resources relevant to WPAs, educators, and mentors everywhere. Remembering that educators and administrators must be “preventative in our thinking, policies, and research but also realize that we simply cannot anticipate every crisis coming down the pike,” Giaimo provides detailed and applicable “assessment-driven and activist-informed heuristics” (p. 8) for building workplace wellness and resilience in the face of local and global upheaval. In the fallout of disaster capitalism and the increasingly neoliberal institutions we find ourselves working within, Unwell Writing Centers takes on additional relevance following the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, it contributes to conversations happening across fields, including education, labor studies, critical race and gender studies, and psychology.

Opening the section “Searching for Wellness,” chapter one traces the history of workplace wellness programs alongside Giaimo’s own early inquiries and interventions into wellness at Bristol Community College (BCC) and the Ohio State University writing centers. This conversation intersects with positive psychology, which forms the basis for many institutionally-sanctioned and university wellness programs that Giaimo turned to in their early explorations of wellness training. The chapter–and the results of Giaimo’s findings from an assessment of tutors’ attitudes towards and usage of wellness training–convincingly argues that institutionally-situated wellness programs are built on value systems unrelatable to and even exploitative of the peer tutor (“they are simply not enough–not specific enough, not relevant enough, not interactive enough–to support us in writing center work and other educational spaces,” p. 34). Statements like this reveal Giaimo’s commitment to truly uncovering what it means to be well at work and frame the following chapters in the context of deeply hearing what tutors feel, say, and need of their workplaces and administrators.

Chapter two situates national research on workplace stress and the specificities of occupational stress in the writing center alongside Giaimo’s autobiographical account of an active aggressor situation near the OSU Writing Center in 2016. Noting that WCDs are often “not trained to respond to these kind of punctuated and highly stressful events” (p. 39), Giaimo provides not only a localized, reflective account of how they handled the situation as a WCD mere blocks away from the violence, but also an understanding of how everyday stress deeply affects those tutors, educators, and administrators who have yet to experience such a traumatic and defining emergency moment. Furthering their exploration of various types of stress that impact the workplace, Giaimo shares some results from a longitudinal assessment of center-wide training that speaks to tutors’ attitudes on coping with stress.

Chapter three builds from here by digging into the ethics and methods of assessing wellness in writing centers. Noting the dearth of research on student workers in higher education–and especially of peer tutors’ experiences of their jobs–in this chapter, Giaimo offers generous how-to’s on experimental design, survey, methodological development, and data analysis to jumpstart others’ paths into wellness work in their own writing centers or programs. Chapter three then offers pragmatic models of how the administrator’s questions can turn into profound interventions and research-informed policies, demonstrated by Giaimo’s iterative research process, from inquiry to interpreting findings to resulting action items and more inquiry. The results of Giaimo’s assessments, while compelling and meaningful on their own merits, are perhaps most useful to audiences in their potential for replicability and adaptation.

This ability to connect the significance of personal experience to broader, systemic trends of national and global unwellness makes Giaimo’s writing fresh and meaningful in a landscape of frustratingly decontextualized and out-of-touch pro-capitalist responses to an increasingly unwell society. In response, Unwell Writing Centers frequently turns to pragmatic, applicable advice on study design and research-based solutions that are mindful of both these locally- and globally-informed understandings of what it means to enact wellness in the workplace.

Part 2, “Finding Wellness Interventions that Work,” kicks off with chapter four, which addresses the fact that mindfulness has been increasingly referenced in writing tutor training but has yet to be “fully examined in many fields that utilize mindfulness practices” (p. 77). Weaving in their experience of implementing and assessing mindfulness training in the OSU Writing Center, Giaimo shares the affordances of deep engagement with mindfulness in approaches to workplace wellness, but also reveals the insidiousness of how mindfulness practices may obscure “how the rhetoric of wellness is coopted unconsciously… to produce better workplace outcomes rather than produce better workplaces” (p. 79). Giaimo’s critique of unthoughtful, unethical conceptions of “wellness” that are “shored up with labor policies” (p. 74) makes clear the book’s contribution to not only writing and writing center studies but anywhere that corporatized wellness has a hold.

In chapter five, Giaimo reminds readers that emergency preparedness and crisis management are not issues of if but rather issues of when and demonstrates how research on emergency planning has not yet addressed the “ethical dimensions of this work” (p. 86), such as how plans that rely on calling law enforcement disproportionately affect people of color. In moving towards anti-racist, inclusive, and culturally responsive approaches to workplace wellness, Giaimo shares emergency planning resources, conversation prompts, suggestions for post-crisis well-being, and their own experiential knowledge to guide WCAs/WPAs who likely haven’t received formal training on handling crises.

This acknowledgement of the importance of subjectivity in responding to crises of wellness links up nicely with the third section of the book, “Looking to the Future of Wellness Work,” which locates further guides for workplace wellness in intersectional praxis and Black liberation social movements. In chapter six, Giaimo traces how emotional labor intersects with writing center work and provides insight into dealing with burnout from their personal and research-based inquiries. As with other chapters, Giaimo is generous with giving accessible and pragmatic resources for approaching emotional labor in the WC through inclusive, reflective, and tutor-focused activity and research design. Their call to action is one I agree with: we need to increase the field’s knowledge of how “tutors from different and marginalized backgrounds experience emotional labor and burnout” (p. 116) to truly engage with what it means to support the wellness of our tutors and ourselves.

In the final chapter, Giaimo’s argument is most clearly synthesized and oriented towards correctives. They write: “In short, a lot of modern-day wellness scholarship–inside and outside writing center studies–draws upon a white habitus that denies or simply fails to locate its political, anti-materialist, altruistic, and activist origins” (p. 117). Through reviewing the respective relationships between race and writing centers and well-being and Black liberation, Giaimo argues for the incredible relevance of Black feminist conceptions of radical care in developing wellness in the workplace beyond “politically hollow and individualistic” interventions (p. 119-20). Here, too, Giaimo offers resources and recommendations for WCDs and WPAs to engage in anti-racist wellness work in the WC while remaining self-aware and appreciative of the time and hard work required to dismantle white supremacy in a racist institutional context. The conclusion likewise situates the book’s project as one that asks (and provides guideposts) for action against unwellness and its many occupational manifestations in writing center spaces.

Across this text, I appreciate Giaimo’s reflexivity and vulnerability as both a writer and a writing center director. They’re right that this type of work is challenging and that wellness is complex, but getting closer to our own subjectivities and relationships to what it means to be well is an essential step in hearing others when they speak of (un)wellness. I was thoroughly impressed with what Giaimo is willing to share with audiences in this book, from highly personal anecdotes and narratives to meticulously constructed resources, how-to’s, prompts, and guides that have the potential to address significant gaps in educator and administrator training. I am especially grateful to Giaimo for taking up the call to write the book they “wish had been handed to [them]” as a new WCD or tutor. As an emerging educator and graduate student myself, I appreciate their generosity and commitment to scholarship that genuinely responds to a field’s urgent, on-the-ground need while also speaking directly and intimately to the situations of overworked educators and administrators across the institution.