A Note from your Editors: This is the second part of our interview with Dr. Genie Giaimo and Yanar Hashlamon, guest editors of WLN’s January/February 2020 Special Issue on wellness and carework in writing centers. To read Part 1, click here. We conducted this interview to help our community think about how to cope with the socio-emotional challenges and stress of the pandemic in light of Genie and Yanar’s research and work on wellness in writing center spaces.
But before we share with you the resources and insights mentioned in the interview, we want to note that this interview took place before the nationwide protests and outrage at the country’s systemic and institutionalized racism. There is a great deal of reckoning that we all need to do as a community of writers, writing tutors, writing teachers and writing administrators to dismantle the institutionalized racist paradigm we are all entrenched in. We are committed to playing our part in this advocacy and activist work and to thinking about the paramount role that language plays in–subtly or explicitly–reinforcing racist practices.
May the memories of our brothers and sisters, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and George Floyd, and the countless others victimized by police brutality, be our guide to a more just future.
WLN: In an interview published in OSU’s English Communications blog interview in 2018, Genie, you acknowledged that “(…)writing support isn’t just about people’s ideas. It’s about people’s bodies, their material circumstances. It’s about their lives. And it’s on the side of supporting writers as well as supporting those who support writers.” What would you say to someone who is struggling to maintain a ‘wellness-mindset’ given our current destabilizing situation?
Genie: I’d say that this is to be expected and is no one’s fault. During a crisis, people respond differently. As the CDC suggests, they might feel:
- Fear, anxiety, dread
- Hopelessness, helplessness
- Panic (though, as the CDC notes, this is often not as widespread)
The issue with a protracted crisis, such as the one we are facing, is that the situation is constantly evolving. We might find our experiences of the crisis shifting week-to-week or even day-to-day. In turn, our needs during the crisis may shift or evolve, as well. The NIH has a great resource on seeking out mental health support for a variety of circumstances. We are all living and laboring in an ongoing crisis, and, at the moment, half of the American population is struggling with mental health concerns; therefore, if you are struggling to maintain wellness at the moment, you are not alone. But I urge you to seek out help immediately if you feel you are a harm to yourself or to others.
For those who are still feeling a wide range of emotions, (many of which may not be positive), but who are also not in acute crisis at the moment, I suggest the following guidelines, mostly adapted from the CDC:
- Try to maintain a routine.
- Make time to connect with others.
- Make time to unwind. Avoid overworking, if possible!
- Take care of your body:
- Try to get enough sleep.
- If you can, try to get outside at least once a day.
- If you cannot get outside, try to do some light exercises indoors.
- If you can, try to eat balanced meals.
- Take breaks from the newscycle (I give myself news limits–30 to 45 minutes in the morning and again in the late afternoon/early evening. While this is down from 3 to 4 hours of news consumption at the start of the crisis, it is still a lot of information. I also only read the news, rather than listening to it on the radio or TV, in order to filter out the pundits and talking heads).
The CDC also recommends that crisis management officials engage the community, empower decision making, and evaluate their response. I suggest that we do the same. While a wellness-mindset might be difficult to maintain, engaging in positive and active behaviors might be a way to meaning-make in an otherwise lonely and isolating situation. Engaging in empathy, respectful interaction, charity, and community building are some ways to feel connected to something outside oneself; this also helps us to feel empowered during a time when many of us are feeling demoralized and helpless. Here are a few resources for becoming involved in volunteering and charity work:
Yanar: Like Genie lists out, there are many resources for people struggling to practice wellness. I think it’s important to note that there are different sources asking us to maintain “wellness-mindsets” amidst global pandemic. Workers can be pushed into further exploitation when we tie up productivity with wellness. I’m thinking here of a recent op-ed that’s been circulating with advice for graduate students. The author ends the piece with: “Be well, stay safe, and grab your extraordinary privilege by its horns to get solid data, publish, and produce the best possible dissertation you can because this is literally your job right now” (Hoang). Many graduate students don’t have summer funding, are unable to continue their work remotely, and most of us won’t receive extended funding towards our degrees for the time lost this year. All of this is before we even think about those of us who are getting sick, or have family who have become ill since stay-at-home orders were issued. Asking for wellness to be productive has been a pretty common refrain in the past few months, and I think we need to be really critical of any narratives that seek to eke out uncompensated labor from those of us in insecure positions.
WLN: Do you think adapting this mindset might look different for tutors as most are now working in a virtual space? How could they adapt it in this context?
Genie: As part of my service to the profession (through which I am trying to meaning-make during this really stressful and uncertain moment), I offered a webinar on wellness in writing center work a few weeks ago via SLAC WPA and IWCA. Many of the participants were administrators who were worried for the wellbeing, safety, and mental health of their tutors/staff. I think it is critical that we offer tutors a chance to process their experiences and reflect upon them if they want. At the same time, Writing Center Administrators (WCAs) ought to be sensitive to the fact that we are in a crisis and “business as usual” is simply an unrealistic goal at the moment. It is critical that we do not push our tutors or other staff members to “adapt,” become “agile,” or otherwise engage in neoliberal practices that co-opt wellness work in order to optimize labor. In the best of times, wellness work ought to be tethered to labor advocacy and support; in our current challenging moment, we need to be even more acutely aware of how we engage with and support tutors in order to ensure we are not exploitative.
WLN: How about WC administrators – what advice would you give them so that they can encourage this mindset as they support their tutors and staff?
Genie: See response above where I also address WCAs.
Yanar: I think WC administrators need to work from the idea that for some staff members, the writing center is their source of community and a place where they locate many meaningful interactions with their coworkers and the writers they work with. For others, the writing center, understandably, cannot be their biggest priority during global pandemic. Providing options for tutors and other staff members to maintain their sense of community, or not, are crucial during this time. We don’t all experience pandemic equally. Writing center workers are experiencing multiple forms of marginalization across race, gender, disability, and class-based forms of discrimination that can be heightened as our work moves online.
In particular, wellness and the material security of employment must be thought of in tandem. Administrators must respect staff members’ preferences for wellness support and they must prioritize securing funding for positions that many of us are reliant on, especially as our other, non-academic supplementary incomes are disappearing during the pandemic.
WLN: Yanar, it sounds like you’re saying that the way WCs view community, especially during these times, needs to be more nuanced: some might want to lean in while others might want to step back. In other words, assuming that everyone is eager to stay involved in their WC community might inadvertently pressure some WC practitioners who feel like they need/have/want to step back for a while. How do WC administrators resist the urge or feeling that they need to keep their WC community active and their tutors engaged? And if tutors are feeling the pressure to ‘stay actively involved in the community,’ what can they do to relieve themselves from that pressure or expectation?
Yanar: I think writing center administrators need to keep the contractual obligations of their staff in mind. The time that tutors commit to their tutoring and any professional development might not leave availability for additional work – including community building. It’s important to always be mindful of power dynamics and the fact that tutors may feel pressured into overwork, even by well-intentioned efforts to stay connected. The writing center is just one of many communities that tutors are a part of. The last thing writing center administrators need to do is insist that their community take precedent if that’s not what tutors themselves seek out. We also need to broaden what is included under ‘community building.’ Administrators need to ask themselves if their efforts are just upholding expectations of productivity when instead community can mean advocating with and alongside the most marginalized workers in our centers.
I think in this and other situations where expectations need to be negotiated, tutors should build and engage in group advocacy. The unfortunate reality is that self-advocacy can be inaccessible for many workers. The risks involved disproportionately impact marginalized people, even in seemingly low-stakes conversations. Group advocacy can be a more accessible way for workers to understand each other’s perspectives and facilitate more equitable communication with their administrators if they do feel pressured by expectations for productivity or community building.
Genie: Writing center administrators need to think about what roles and actions they are taking both to create community during this time but, also, what they are doing to allow workers the space to make the choice of whether to engage or not. In other words, I think each WCA is going to have their own take on how much community and activity is needed during this time. The trick is for WCAs to recognize that what they want or need at this moment might not seamlessly line up with the needs of all workers. Honestly, for me, I have had to pull back on my work expectations for others even though I tend to overwork, generally and the crisis has caused me to want to work even more. I have come to recognize, over time, that we all handle stress and uncertainty in different ways. I am trying not to impose my coping mechanisms onto others.
WLN: In what ways do you think the scholarship on wellness and writing centers has expanded since our conversation in 2018? Certainly, the WLN special issue has come out and raised awareness around the intersection of writing center work, (emotional) labor, wellness and self-care practices, but what other research projects or pieces have you been inspired/engaged by since then? Perhaps even some projects you’re hoping to include in the forthcoming Digital Edited Collection on this topic?
Genie: This is a great question. I am still deeply impacted by Degner et al.’s piece on mental health concerns, which was pivotal in starting me down this line of inquiry half a decade ago. Also, Featherstone et al.’s “The Mindful Tutor” in the first Digital Edited Collection has a great set of resources on mindfulness meditation and also discusses how mindfulness is connected to Zen Buddhism. Finally, Neisha-Anne Green’s fantastic IWCA address, published in WCJ, “Moving Beyond Alright: And the Emotional Toll of This, My Life Matters Too, in the Writing Center Work” is a powerful piece on being a person of color in writing center work and identifies the emotional ramifications that result from navigating predominately white spaces. Of course, labor rights and activism are an important key to diversifying our field and empowering under-represented groups who currently labor in writing centers. In the forthcoming Digital Edited Collection on wellness and care work, which I am editing, I am excited by all the submissions but feel like a couple are particularly relevant to the current moment, including: Miranda Mattingly, Claire Helakoski, Christina Lundberg, and Kacy Walz’s chapter “Cultivating an Emotionally Intelligent Writing Center Culture Online” and Benjamin Villarreal’s piece on imposter syndrome in writing center administrative work.
WLN: Any final thoughts you’d like to share ? Questions you’re grappling with these days?
Genie: Lately, I have been thinking about alternative ways to understand and shape narratives about the work writing centers perform, including grappling with alternatives to current assessment practices in our field. I am also excited by research on writing center labor practices and hope to contribute to the field more specifically in this area (and to advocate for fair labor practices in our field!) I have helped to reestablish an AAUP chapter at my College. The American Association of University Professors is committed to advancing academic freedom and shared governance; it has chapters at over 500 colleges and universities across the country.
Yanar: I’m still new to the administrative side of writing center work, but it has really reinforced how important labor advocacy and coalition-building is when it comes to writing center studies and practice. Every topic in this interview is something I’m personally invested in – not just as topics for scholarship, but as real issues when it comes to whether or not I’ll have a writing center job this summer or next year. I think the same is true for most, if not all writing center student/workers, so I’m grateful for the space to reflect in this interview.
Dr. Genie Giaimo
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.