Dr. Genie Giaimo
Given our Covid-19 reality and the many ways in which this new reality has upended our personal, social, and professional lives, we invited Dr. Genie Giaimo and Yanar Hashlamon, guest editors of WLN’s January /February 2020 Special Issue on wellness and care-work in writing centers, to share their insights and advice on how we might navigate and think about this new terrain.
We should also note (with enthusiasm!) that Dr. Giaimo is editing WLN’s third Digital Edited Collection on the same theme, which will be published by early 2021.
This is part 1 of the interview. Please find Part 2 here.
WLN: Since our last interview with Genie in April 2018, the world has changed considerably… we have all become a lot more aware of how fragile our status quo really is and how much we all take for granted. We thought we’d jump right in with a question that we feel gets right to the heart of the matter.
In a recent blog post on Teacher-Scholar-Activist, Brett Griffiths borrows the idea of the “unprecedented” put forth by Shoshona Zuboff in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Zubboff defines the unprecedented as “necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented (…) This is how, the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past.”
In her blog post, Griffiths suggests that “the use of “the unprecedented” as a lens for observing our responses in the midst of the unknown and unknowable may be generative for thinking about how we—two-year college instructors, student support specialists, writing centers and tutors—respond to our current crisis (…) This moment invites us to observe the assumptions we made just prior to the unprecedented and to appreciate—and direct—the mutations in structure that follow.”
What are your thoughts about what this “unprecedented” moment is revealing about our ways of thinking, doing and being as writing center professionals?
Genie: I think this moment is revealing that we, as a profession, are profoundly concerned for the well-being of our tutors and our clients. It is also revealing that we are only on the cusp of a nascent field surrounding wellness and care in writing center work. For my part (and, I think, Yanar’s, though I am sure he will speak to this too), wellness advocacy has never been so obviously bound with labor advocacy. This is true in both our national moment–where the crisis of the pandemic is bumping-up against the growing economic crisis–and in our own field where our concern for our community members is bumping-up against our fiscal stability and usage rates. In no less than four different online spaces ranging from social media groups to listservs and webinars, I have heard WCAs’ concerns regarding post-COVID-19 low-usage rates, which often precede budgetary cuts, hiring freezes, and reduction in course releases. Our material realities, then, often dictate how we incorporate wellness into our work. I can only agree with Brett in that I think we are long overdue for a “slowing down,” in our field, in order to do thinking work on our priorities, our support structures, and our advocacy work.
Yanar: I want to emphasize Genie’s point that our material realities dictate the term of wellness. Austerity-driven lay-offs are already happening across institutions. Ohio University just fired two instructional and one tenure-line faculty member and 140 unionized custodial staff (OU-AAUP). We have to think in terms of the material stability of our positions if we want to work towards any notion of equity and justice when we talk about wellness. Labor advocacy work within writing centers and efforts to build coalitions with our staff and faculty-member colleagues all must deal with wellness and material stability as co-constructive priorities. Both must be addressed at the levels of writing center administration, practice, and scholarship.
WLN: From your perspective as writers and scholars interested in wellness and social justice for our students and tutors, what are the familiar frames we are likely applying to our understanding of this new reality and how might we push ourselves to see this moment as it is and to reflect on what “mutations in [writing center] structure” might (should?) follow this unprecedented time?
Genie: I think we are trying to assess and evaluate the work we do during COVID-19 through a pre-COVID-19 lens. And I think that is a dangerous thing to do because these two moments are not continuous. Rather, there was a sudden and profound rupture during this past semester. Yet our reliance on wellness interventions to spur productivity unravels, especially, during a crisis. We cannot assume a growth-oriented programmatic model at the moment and should interrogate our field’s current labor practices.
Even as we acknowledge that there has been a rupture in our work, we need to reflect that rupture in our annual reports, our research studies, our assessment projects, our professional development, our mentorship of tutors etc. And, we ought to develop different models of assessment and reportage that reflect upon this current moment. I keep having to remind myself and others that education is not on the forefront of everyone’s mind at the moment; therefore, we educators can be gentler with ourselves and re-frame our expectations and our demands on our students (and ourselves). The same sentiment holds true for tutors and writing centers.
Still, education also helps to create routine, continuity, and stability in an otherwise chaotic moment. Research has argued for education being the key to economic and national stability. I hope that we can conduct research on this current moment to better understand how writing centers affected students’ transition and experience of learning, during this time. We owe it to our field to respond to this moment through research that explores some of the downstream effects teaching remotely had on the operations, philosophies, and missions of writing centers. And, perhaps, we can put to bed the argument that online tutoring is somehow inferior to in-person tutoring. Studies have argued that online tutoring offers an accessible alternative to a number of different, and under-represented, writing populations. And, without online tutoring, most writing centers would be inoperable at the moment. So, to summate, there’s a lot that we can reflect upon ranging from how we labor in different moments, to how we assess our labor, to how we configure and understand the effects of our labor. All of this reflective work, of course, requires contextualization within our current and ongoing crisis.
WLN: Yanar, there’s a lot in Griffith’s call that reminds us of your 2018 meta-analysis of writing center scholarship in Praxis, “Aligning with the center: How we elicit tutee perspectives in writing center scholarship.” In this piece, you cite Jeanne Simpson who asserts that writing center research “ha[s] been been filtered through our own value systems, fears, lore, and aspirations” (1). You conclude your article with a call for an “exploratory paradigm,” arguing that
this moment presents an opportunity to honor and connect with those we serve on a daily basis. In pursuing this shift, the field must accept the risk of unsettling some of our most foundational practices and beliefs. The question in the end, then, isn’t just which types of research we should do and which types of knowledge we produce, but to which degree we are prepared to open ourselves up to such risk in our tumultuous economic and educational atmosphere.
Do you see this “unprecedented” moment as an opportunity for us to actively invite our tutees to collaborate with us in a paradigmatic shift? If yes, how so? If not, why not?
Yanar: I know very few people who are in a position to conduct research right now, much less tutee-centered work, but I do think our current moment is unsettling many foundational practices and beliefs in writing center practice. We can’t reconcile the perspective that writing centers’ must primarily work in person with the reality that, internationally, writing centers have moved online. This shift can be paradigmatic when it comes time to carve precedence out of our “unprecedented” moment. We can and should support online services across writing centers as an accessible option to better support disabled, immunocompromised, and chronically ill writers. This doesn’t just go for tutoring, but writing groups and other services as well.
To reframe Simpson’s point as a question, we need to ask: What are our aspirations for writing center practice as the pandemic continues and when we transition to in-person work? Is it to return to some notion of a ‘normal’ center? I think doing so would fail to honor our tutees and our staff. Even once universities resume in-person instruction, writers may not come back to in-person writing center services. Some might want to continue using online appointments by necessity or by preference and we may see upticks in online usage across centers as other services. Some tutees might really embrace a return to in-person, while our staff members might, understandably, prefer to work online. All of this is uncertain, but uncertainty doesn’t guarantee we’ll change our practice for the better. Orthodoxy has a habit of centering itself, and if we uncritically fall back on our assumptions, we will return to a ‘normal’ that doesn’t benefit workers or writers. We have to lean into points of uncertainty and tension, or we risk stagnating our practice and ignoring those it affects most directly.
WLN: A recent Washington Post article reminds us that for many of us, or for our colleagues, students, family and friends around the world, or our immigrant students, colleagues, family and friends, being on lockdown might be an all too familiar feeling. For communities who have grown up in or lived through life-threatening or life-depleting situations, self-care practices seem like a luxury. In other words, self-care discourses might not exactly align with these communities’ different cultural and socioeconomic orientations to stress and crisis. In fact, one could argue that self-care has emerged as an industry, which is quite antithetical to the principles of mindfulness that are at the root of self-care and wellness practices. Thoughts?
Genie: I cannot agree more. In the past couple of years, I have actually moved away from characterizing the work I do as encouraging “self-care.” We renamed our recently published WLN special issue on wellness and “self-care” to wellness and “care work.” I call it care work rather than self-care because of exactly the critique you lodge against self-care as industrialized. I have come to realize that framing wellness work as self-care outsources it to the individual rather than requiring institutions to actually invest in broad support that recognizes and accounts for how systemic inequality figures into one’s mental and material state. I have come to realize that framing wellness work as self-care outsources it to the individual rather than requiring institutions to actually invest in broad support that recognizes and accounts for how systemic inequality figures into one’s mental and material state. Of course, mindfulness practices (many of which have been repackaged as those related to self-care) are derived from Zen Buddhism–I talk about the business-serving decontextualization of mindfulness and the corporatization of care work in my monograph, which I hope to complete by the summer.
WLN: How do we help ourselves, our communities, our students and our staff come to terms with, or overcome, this problematic framing of self-care?
Genie: One thing we can do is to honor and recognize the altruistic and political roots of the current iterations of wellness work, such as mindfulness (in Zen Buddhism) and care work (in Black feminist work on care ethics), and take an intersectional and communal approach to care work. Another thing we can do is to recognize how labor politics figures into care work.
Yanar: My own writing about self-care and wellness works to bridge activist histories and principles of collective care into the writing center. We really do need to be clear about the traditions we tap into for wellness research.We really do need to be clear about the traditions we tap into for wellness research. Self-care can evoke the ways that professionals in social work and medicine avoid burn-out, or it can recall the Black Panther Party’s community health initiatives and work towards bodily autonomy. Both traditions can be generative for writing center work, but both have also been appropriated in ways that deepen vulnerability and marginalization. Self-care can locate responsibility in workers to be resilient despite inequality’s systemic character. It can be used to uphold ableist notions of productivity, as we have already discussed. We must start our conversations by reflecting on the different ways self-care is used and what histories can inform its practice. Frameworks of collective care in particular can help writing center professionals think about the boundaries between our jobs and other aspects of our lives where dominant approaches constrain self-care to individual productivity and resilience.
Editors’ Note: Please read Part 2 of this interview!
Genie Giaimo is Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Middlebury College and Director of the Writing Center. Her work has been published in Praxis, Journal of Writing Analytics, Teaching English in the Two Year College, Journal of Writing Research, Research in Online Literacy Education and is forthcoming in Kairos, as well as a number of edited collections (Utah State University Press, Parlor Press). She is the special editor, along with Yanar Hashlamon, of a recent issue (January 2020) of WLN on wellness and self-care in writing center work and an editor of a digital monograph on wellness and self-care (forthcoming fall 2020). Her current research utilizes quantitative and qualitative models to answer a range of questions about behaviors and practices in and around writing centers, such as tutor attitudes towards wellness and care. See https://geniegiaimophd.weebly.com/ for more information.
Yanar Hashlamon is an Assistant Writing Center Coordinator, Graduate Teaching Associate, and PhD student at The Ohio State University. His research interests lie in critical, anti-capitalist pedagogy and assessment practices. He also conducts research in disability studies and writing center studies, examining the past and present labor relations of institutional spaces in and around the university. He is currently a graduate co-editor of The Peer Review and has individually and co-authored work published in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal and Computers and Composition, respectively.