Emotions in the Writing Center

Though in the near future I look forward to delving deeper into my question of how consultees can find an audible voice in the world of writing center scholarship, this week I simply want to reflect on some consulting experiences I had this summer that have reminded me of the integral role of emotion in the writing process and have prompted me to question whether consultants should be able to openly bring up the topic of self-care during a writing session.

Undergraduates come to the UT Writing Center quite often with personal statements, application letters, and other job materials, but the past few weeks I have had the great privilege of working with graduating seniors looking for substantial feedback as they prepare to move into the next phase of their academic careers. Several months ago I was moved by Thomas’s post about how “the cooperative energy and goodwill” that can dynamically arise between a consultant and a consultee can have the mental and emotional effect of closing cultural distance. Thanks to my experiences this summer, I am prepared to ask how that goodwill can then be used to address negative emotions in the consultee like frustration, anxiety, stress, and even despair.

My consultant orientation (not so very long ago) was peppered with reminders that the consultee’s personal well-being should always be a priority. I was trained to look for signs of sadness or anger relating to the writing process and to try to help the student work through them. And by “work through them,” I mean not only exorcise them but exercise them: channeling “bad” feelings as a source of inspiration or motivation.

That training has been particularly useful for talking through high-stakes, extremely stressful application processes with many of my consultees lately. Prospective medical, dental, and engineering school students have expressed dismay that their personal essays and application questionnaires are essentially the first pieces of persuasive writing they have had to produce in years. One insightful consultee even questioned the applicability of these essays to her academic performance: “I want to get into this program because I’m great at chemistry. Why do I have to prove I’m a good writer when it has nothing to do with my field?”

When a consultee’s frustration bubbles to the surface like that, it’s relatively easy to address. I asked her what she thought the admissions board was trying to learn about her through her writing sample, and working through her anger about the apparent uselessness of the exercise actually led her to the creation of a unified argument. It’s the consultations that focus exclusively on the nuts and bolts of writing that I wonder about.

As I mentioned earlier, the students I have been working with are highly motivated, with lofty goals and great ambitions. Sometimes they want to zero in on the product in ways that I, as a consultant, find challenging and engaging. “How can I make my evidence relate more directly to the prompt?” “Does this passage read as relevant?” “I have several possible structuring principles and want to work out which one to use.” It was only after one exceptionally rich, thought-provoking consultation that the consultee laughed and told me that she had been working on application essays nonstop for several weeks. Stunned, I immediately felt a sense of guilt. I had made her writing the priority. Not her. She assured me that she was practicing good self-care, but the conversation left me thinking.

As a writing center consultant in an era where students are expected to demonstrate increasingly unattainable amounts of academic excellence, should we focus more on sensing out and addressing the emotional needs of our consultees or allow them the freedom to decide whether they want to bring their self-care habits, in relation to the writing process, to the table? I am personally on the fence and look forward to any thoughts, opinions, or experiences anyone would be willing to share.