What’s Love Got to Do With It?: Tutoring as an Act of Empathy

Course Writing Associate, Maya Gillett ’17, discusses the role of love and empathy in the writing center.

Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That’s how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees. That’s what being a lover is: stepping out of yourself, stepping into someone else’s skin. – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Being a Writing Associate (WA) has taught me a lot about the importance of empathy, which I think of as a temporary act of imagining what it would be like to occupy someone else’s existence, with the intention of extending kindness and understanding towards that individual. Empathy is important in WA work because people often come into the Writing Center feeling insecure about a piece they’re working on, or perhaps about their writing skills more generally. We strongly believe the Writing Center is for all people, regardless of their experience with writing. We’re careful to frame the Writing Center as a place where students can come to engage in conversation about writing, and not as a place where people come when they need “help” or remedial work. But we must keep in mind that not all students share our expectations for what a session looks like, and so in each session we do our best to meet students where they’re at, whether they’re planning ahead for a paper due at the end of the semester, or two days past an important deadline. We simply cannot do our job if people feel as though we’re passing judgment on them or their work.

But I’d like to make an argument for understanding the kind of empathy that we practice as WAs as something more than just empathy: I believe that it’s a kind of love. Often when we talk about love, we limit ourselves to thinking about the romantic kind. But I’m interested in changing the way we talk about love, and in being a voice for what one might call the mundanity of love: the way love manifests in our routine or commonplace interactions to create a feeling of being cared for between people who don’t know each other well. If we can incorporate the language of love into the fabric of our work, we’re better able to break to the barriers of distrust and antagonism that can interfere with the goals of a session.

At first glance, it may be difficult to distinguish the difference between empathy and love. Conceptually, both evoke notions of kindness, non-judgment, and openness. But in my view, love is something one step further than empathy: it is the act of seeking to understand coupled with a profound appreciation and admiration for the loved person.

How is love enacted in the Writing Center? Often, it has to do with a WA seeing past a student’s immediate writing or academic concerns, and addressing bigger issues with confidence, anxiety, or even a bad day. I experienced this firsthand one evening in the Writing Center when a student came in to work on a short paper. The moment she came in, I noticed how exhausted she looked, and she sprawled out on one of our couches to wait for a WA to become free. I was finishing up a session with another student, and watched as she closed her eyes and seemed to fall asleep. When I was finally free to work with her, she sat up and sighed. As I usually do when I begin a session, I asked her how she was doing.

“Fine,” she shrugged, and then after a moment, she looked at me more intently. “College is really hard,” she said.

It turned out she was a first-year student still adjusting to her first semester of college, and she was having trouble with her friends, felt behind in her work, and it seemed like stress was just piling up. It was clear to me in that moment that what this person really needed was not guidance on how to restructure a paragraph, but love. To feel cared about and heard in this strange and still-unfamiliar place, to be recognized and admired for sticking through something that was hard, and ultimately to know that someone recognized her as more than just a student. So for a moment I set aside the idea of working on an assignment, and we simply talked about how things were going and created space to acknowledge the stress she was feeling. After a few minutes, we turned to her assignment, which was actually a fairly simple reflection. Sensing that what she needed more than anything was a bit of encouragement, we talked through her ideas and I told her she was clearly off to a good start. On her way out the door, I stopped her to say, “Look, don’t forget to appreciate yourself for all the hard work you’re doing. There are lots of things more important than just classes and work, and you should feel good about yourself just for showing up and putting in work.”

Why does it matter whether we recognize this interaction as a loving exchange? Why can’t we say that it’s important to be empathetic and caring, and leave it at that? I believe it matters because we’ve been taught to distance ourselves from the concept of love in these everyday interactions – to replace the language of love with the language of empathy, kindness, understanding – when it’s precisely these moments that can be transformed from a stiff, even uncomfortable interaction between two people, into a conversation where the person we are talking to feels supported, listened to, and believed-in.  In other words, love is a tool that Writing Associates tap into in order to create an atmosphere in which students feel that they can be their fullest, most vulnerable selves, which in turn leads people to write more honestly and experiment with the full range of their written voice. Asserting one’s self on the page is scary, and often people struggle to feel as though what they have to say is of value. But when they feel loved, they can begin to recognize what it is they have to offer their audience, and to confidently claim their place in whatever academic or creative conversation they wish to join.

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