On Gratitude, Empathy, and the Work We Do

"Glow" by Kenny Louie, Vancouver, Canada (from Wikimedia Commons)

"Glow" by Kenny Louie, Vancouver, Canada (from Wikimedia Commons)

Every fall semester, the lead-up to Thanksgiving is both a whirlwind and a slog. This tumultuous year has only amplified the feeling. But as we hurtle and creep toward an uncertain future, one thing has become especially clear to me: the work we do in writing centers is more vital than ever.

Mental health professionals often recommend practicing gratitude as a means of developing resilience in difficult times. With Thanksgiving upon us and political change before us, I’d like to reflect gratefully upon what writing center work offers.

As a graduate student administrator, I am grateful for the opportunity to professionalize myself in ways I never imagined when I matriculated at UT-Austin six years ago. I am grateful for the skills I have acquired in the course of my time at the UWC, and I am grateful that I get to apply those skills in the name of fostering student success. With the end of my PhD program looming, I am grateful for the sense of confidence and employability the UWC has fostered in me. And I am especially grateful to be surrounded by compassionate, perceptive coworkers who devote their lives to supporting writers.

More importantly, however, I am grateful for what lies at the heart of writing center work. As consultants, we sit down with writers and meet them where they are. We do so no matter their backgrounds or beliefs. We listen to them and speak with them and nurture them and challenge them. We recognize our inherent difference from them. In inhabiting the space of that difference, we open ourselves to empathy.

Empathy is a popular topic these days—full disclosure: it’s the bedrock of my dissertation—and a frequently misunderstood one. We often hear it discussed in terms of “walking in another’s shoes” or recognizing our “common humanity,” as if doing either of those things were remotely possible. But what I’ve learned from over four years of writing center work is that empathy is about difference, not sameness. It’s not about walking in someone else’s shoes; it’s about recognizing that you never will, and choosing to validate another’s lived experience anyway. When I sit down with writers, I never presume to imagine what they’re thinking or feeling. I ask them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, and I accept those thoughts and feelings as real.

I am grateful, then, that writing centers force us to confront the unbridgeable distance between individual lives. To preserve that distance instead of attempting to collapse it. To regard that distance as a friend, not an enemy. In a world riddled with dehumanizing forces, it’s one of the most humanizing things we can do.

By Courtney Massie