Vanessa Flora-Nakoski is the Writing Center Director & a Lecturer in English at McDaniel College.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t know what to tell them. Do I say that I’m a professor? A tutor? An administrator? A writer? A scholar? Yes, but everyone in our profession knows that each of these labels is insufficient. These days, I typically answer that I’m the Director of the Writing Center.
Secretly, I remind myself, “I am an entrepreneur.”
Of the possible labels, it is the only one broad enough to connect all the aspects of my professional life, although not one that anyone in any of my graduate programs understood. I learned quickly enough that to reveal to the various fund managers in my Strategic Management classes that I was a tutor—or even at one time, a soapmaker—was to inspire incredulous looks. I learned equally quickly how dangerous it might be to seem too business-minded among my faculty colleagues.
This made me wonder why so few people outside our field readily accept the label of entrepreneur as a descriptor for writing center work. It occurs to me that it may be because so many of us, through institutional mandate or personal preference, who draw a firm line between the work we do as writing center professionals within institutions and the work we may do privately as professional tutors.
Certainly, many colleges and universities have strict policies regarding work performed in the field but outside the institution. Even when these policies are absent, it can still be awkward to discuss private tutoring among professional colleagues. When I was first approached about the possibility of writing about this issue, I had a moment of panic where I thought, “Am I writing this as a member of the college or am I writing this as sole proprietor of my company?”
I am always both, and to recognize that there are boundaries between the practical work of both positions does not negate the fact that the knowledge and experience I gain in one impacts the other. Nor do these boundaries provide much comfort when I am forced to reconcile the fact that gains in one area may directly lead to losses in another.
Take, for instance, the issue of clients. I never accept clients from the pool of students who attend my current college, yet all of the students with whom I work do have access to some version of tutoring at their schools. If they hire me as a private tutor, they are unlikely to use those services. Moreover, while some of my students find me through my website or other marketing, many of them are either former students or referred to me by former colleagues. I also have clients who sought me out because they remembered me from each of my previous institutions, institutions where those students may still have been enrolled. Each time, I ask myself, “did I cross that line yet?”
When I take college students on as private clients, I do so knowing that they are now paying twice for the same service, once through their college tuition and once to my company. I offer discounts, and résumé services are even offered on a sliding scale, but I am not a non-profit or a charity. I take their money in terms of salary from the college as well, but it somehow feels quite different to swipe their credit card myself or deposit their check.
I started doing this work because I believe in empowering people to use writing for their own benefit and, hopefully, to level the playing field a bit. Yet I would be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge that all of the students I serve are privileged in one way or another, either by being admitted to college and having the funds to pay for tuition or by having the funds to pay for my services directly.
Funding, in the end, is at the heart of it. Entrepreneurship is about many things: innovation, independence, the desire to create something new in the world and see it thrive. It is also about money. It feels taboo to write that, and even as I write this I feel guilty or worried that I will come across as greedy. Still, I also know that so much of the work that we do as Writing Center professionals is being strategic in how we gather and use our resources.
Nothing in my scholarly training prepared me to run a small business, but what is a Writing Center if not a small business? Running my handmade soap company taught me the basics of how to run a business. When I closed that business, I had the luxury of time to recognize all the things I had learned and still needed to learn. I took classes, talked to experts, and practiced everything from finances, to marketing, to assessment. Now, running my private tutoring company teaches me how to do it well and, perhaps more importantly, offers a place for me to fail without major professional repercussions.
Being an entrepreneur makes it possible for me to be an effective Writing Center Director. Upon first meeting me, several of my peer tutors were nervous that I was going to make everything “too corporate and soulless.” What they have, I hope, come to realize is that learning the lessons of entrepreneurship and business don’t make us less authentic or genuine. This semester, I’ve challenged them to imagine our Writing Center as a small business, to figure out our brand identity, perform a SWOT analysis, and draft some mission and vision statements. Those business tools are a mirror, and I know that what they see in that reflection will be anything but corporate.
I will end on this final thought. Many of us tutor privately because, financially, we must. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that our profession is the better for it. We are only now starting to explicitly train the next generation to be writing center administrators, but let’s take a moment to honor the strength, wisdom, and experience that our moonlighting brings to the field. Here’s to the moonlight, the side-hustle, and the gig!