Tutoring Sessions as Safe Spaces: Affective Writing and the personal Personal Statement

Uncategorized / Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

By Julia Meuse

Julia Meuse has been a tutor at the Writing Center since fall of 2012. She is also a PhD candidate in English literary studies writing a dissertation about office spaces and white-collar labor in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature.

Julia Meuse
Julia Meuse

The term “safe space” has entered the popular American lexicon in recent years, nowhere more prominently than in institutes of higher education. College campuses around the country have taken laudable steps towards creating spaces where LGBTQ students, women, students of color, and members of other marginalized communities can feel comfortable freely expressing themselves in a tolerant and welcoming environment. Writing centers are in some ways safe spaces by necessity; the very nature of our work demands it. Successful tutoring sessions are more likely to occur when the student feels at ease discussing their work. The Writing Center here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison takes seriously its commitment to ensuring all student-writers feel comfortable expressing themselves and we’re continually working to enhance our tutorial practices in a way that cultivates student empowerment.

In my time at UW-Madison, I’ve worked with hundreds of student-writers in my capacity as a Teaching Assistant (T.A.) for large lectures, as an instructor for seminar-sized composition courses, and as a tutor for the Writing Center. Each of these roles has given me the opportunity to closely engage with and facilitate student writing and, in the process, come to know these students as complex and fascinating individuals. Whatever the genre—term papers, dissertation chapters, cover letters, or personal statements—the stories students tell are not just indicative of their participation within particular discourse communities, they are also articulations of the self. In this way, all writing is personal and the act of sharing it with others can be an anxiety-inducing, emotional experience. But for some students-writers, the work they bring to the Writing Center may reveal much more intimate, personal, or distressing information and even experienced instructors like myself may second-guess our managing of the session.

University of Wisconsin Arboretum
University of Wisconsin Arboretum

This post explores the tutor’s role in Writing Center sessions that involve student writing that is deeply personal. Though rare, most tutors will at some point in their career work with a student whose writing reveals information not usually shared between strangers (unless one of those strangers is a trained psychologist). Such encounters can be disarming; the training and experience a tutor brings to other sessions may seem insufficient or inapplicable. I’d like to think through the idea of the Writing Center tutoring session as a “safe space” that makes room for the stories of witnesses to/victims of trauma but that doesn’t lose sight of our professional and pedagogical mission.


I began thinking about this topic after I met with “Lena” (name changed) for a brief one-hour session. Lena was a mature student working towards a medical professional degree and was putting together short personal essays for her application to the program. She had previously worked with another tutor who, according to the student, suggested she incorporate stories and life experiences that would set her apart from the many other hundreds of applicants. The application’s first prompt asked that she reflect on what made her decide to choose a career in the medical field and like any other session, I asked Lena to begin to read her response aloud so that I could follow along. As she began to read, I quickly realized the inappropriateness of this standard practice for this particular situation. Her response to the first prompt, along with her other essays, detailed multiple traumatic, harrowing events from her childhood—things no human should ever have to endure. I was admittedly unprepared for these revelations but I quickly regained my professional bearings, adjusted my approach, and told her I would read the subsequent essays silently.

Our following discussion was in many ways typical of a Writing Center tutoring conference. I responded to her cues for the tone of our session and since she did not appear emotionally agitated, we got to work. From the outset, I made sure that Lena would set the agenda for our conference. I asked questions that might help to clarify some gaps and I attempted to elicit connections between her experiences and the skills required of her prospective profession. We brainstormed ways to make her writing more concise so that her responses did not exceed the 200-word limit and more clear in order to help her convincingly convey her suitability for the program. In our short time together we were able to shape her responses into something that would more effectively meet the expectations of the professional medical program, and she left feeling more confident about her application.

Lake Monona, Madison, WI
Lake Monona

For several days after my conference with Lena, I found myself thinking about our session and questioning the choices I made as a tutor. I wondered whether bluntly disclosing such personal information was strategically the right move for her to make. Would these stories be too shocking or sensational for the admittance committee of the professional medical program? It was clear that the student had overcome significant hardship and was continuing her quest toward self-improvement, but would the committee see her stories as evidence for her being worthy of admittance? Was it even my place to ask if she had other, less personal information she could share that would demonstrate her readiness, after having revisited her traumatic past through writing of these essays?

Her story stayed with me. I compared it to similar (though less exceptional) sessions I’ve held over the years, almost always with students writing personal statements, and began to synthesize my experience. I realized the degree to which this session was atypical, but it helped put into sharp relief the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of our roles as writing tutors.

Tutoring Sessions and Affective Writing

While there is considerable overlap in pedagogy, instructional material, and instructor-student rapport between teaching a writing course and tutoring, the immediacy and ephemerality of writing center work is unique. Where else in our lives do we learn so many personal details about a person’s life in a short 30-60 minute time span, only to never to see them again? Moreover, a Writing Center session can be markedly intimate, especially when working with personal statements and related genres. How do we as instructors navigate the complicated emotional and psychological boundaries in a session in which the ordinary boundaries between strangers have already been breached?

Historical Society at UW-Madison
Historical Society at UW-Madison

In every session tutors must assume multiple roles simultaneously, striking a difficult balance between expert adviser, empathetic listener, and the imagined intended audience. Working with students whose writing reveals stories of suffering or abuse may test our professional capacities. In order to remain impartial and critical, should we disregard the open wound on the page? Since writing tutors are not the target audience we may feel like interlopers and thus uncomfortable addressing such personal content. And most tutors understand our limits—we know we do not have the time nor the intensive psychological training required for a therapy session—so we may not want to risk broaching content related concerns lest the conference get sidetracked.

But what is lost if we refuse acknowledgment? Among our chief goals as tutors are maximizing the student’s sense of ownership over their writing and encouraging productive writing habits that lead to feelings of success. Writing down these difficult personal anecdotes is in itself an empowering act, a way to gain control over their stories and their lives. Refusing to acknowledge student writing of this nature may risk sapping them of their potency. As tutors, ignoring the vulnerability so conspicuously on display may make us seem disapproving, aloof, or inhumane, and possibly compound the student’s feelings of guilt or shame. For most of us, it would cut against our instincts to be sympathetic and supportive—important conditions for any successful tutoring session.

The Personal Personal Statement

With all this in mind, still, there are times when revelations of personal tragedy may not be appropriate for a given genre. Here at UW-Madison, Writing Center tutors meet annually with representatives from competitive professional programs regarding student personal statements and the admissions process. These representatives provide us with much the same information and advice they do for undergrads, while also offering a behind the scenes look at the type of reasoning admissions committees perform during the selection process. Armed with this knowledge, most tutors have a fairly strong grasp of the rhetorical situation and audience expectations when we begin collaborating with a student on their personal statement.

Memorial Union Terrace
Memorial Union Terrace

What we aren’t taught in these informative sessions is the emotional toll the application process exacts on students. Composing a personal statement can feel punishing for writers because the stakes are so incredibly high. Moreover, students are given contradictory advice. They’re urged to make their statements stand out and to tell what’s unique about their biographical story; at the same time, students are cautioned against “oversharing.” Excessive self-disclosure, they’re told, might alienate or unsettle their readers. Stories of personal trauma, in particular, may come across as an appeal to sympathy or as indicative of emotional instability. Such mixed and convoluted messaging can mystify untrained writers, which is why our work as tutors is so critical.

Most of the time, the questions students bring about their work—even when the writing is highly intimate—are manageable. In a fairly representative tutoring session, I once helped a student decide between two short essays she had written for the “optional” portion of her personal statement, where students are given additional space to include information not mentioned elsewhere in their application. The first essay described a sibling’s struggles with anorexia and suicide, while the second recounted an anecdote from volunteer work in her community. Both essays related the stories to her professional goals, but she wasn’t sure which version would be more appropriate and effective. The student was visibly uncomfortable discussing the first essay, and after some strategic questioning on my part, she decided to go with the second. This decision allowed her to avoid the risks of “oversharing” highly personal anecdotes and any continued awkwardness, while also keeping the personal statement personalized. My questions and encouragement helped her to see the ways in which her volunteer work was both unique and germane to her field, and we ended our session on an optimistic, positive note.

Final Thoughts

For tutors in a writing center, a conflict persists between the short-term and instrumental demands of the personal statement and our long-term, holistic goals of developing confident writers. The dismissal of emotional student writing by admissions committees can come across as facile and tone deaf, though they are very likely simply acting out of self-interest. Our stake as writing tutors is in the whole writer—one that can adapt to various genres, but also demonstrate awareness and knowledge of their own process and self-efficacy in rhetorical situations. If writing through one’s personal trauma in response to an external motivator like a personal statement is a step toward achieving that objective, how can we discourage it?

Writing centers on college campuses provide students the opportunity to test drive their writing in a safe space. Tutors understand a wide range of competing needs and concerns students may bring to a conference and we’re deft at adapting our practices accordingly. But we should take extra care to make our sessions safe spaces for students considering making their most private stories public. As facilitators, we can encourage them to do so in a way that shields their interests and doesn’t interfere with their professional goals. Or, we can arm them with rhetorical knowledge needed to make informed and strategic decisions. Whatever our approach, it is imperative that the writers guide our triaging of the session and that they are comfortable revealing their work. After students leave the writing conference and submit their work to the competitive and unpredictable environment of the admissions process, they can at the very least feel assured as the authors of their own stories.

Lake Mendota
Lake Mendota
*All photos © Julia Meuse

3 Replies to “Tutoring Sessions as Safe Spaces: Affective Writing and the personal Personal Statement”

  1. Hello Julia,

    First I want to say I really appreciate the topic you chose: I think it’s a very current concern. I agree that students get mixed signals from the application essay prompts. Having known minority students like myself who applied to top universities, some (not all, not most) chose to write about the hardships they or their families overcame. I mention this because it seems to me that minority and low income students are particularly encouraged to underscore their difference when they apply, and that many feel the Personal Statement is where they are expected to prove they will make the university more diverse. This New York Times article discusses how some universities use the Personal Statement to decide who among minority applicants is diverse enough: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/14/us/14admissions.html?_r=0. Given that students in general are encouraged to underscore their uniqueness, that minority and low-income students seem to be encouraged to underscore their difference and/or diversity, and that in general writing about overcoming obstacles also seems to be a recommended theme to thread through these essays, isn’t it difficult, as a tutor, to judge when a student is oversharing? I remember reading a friend’s Personal Statement for a school she got accepted into where she described coming to the US with her parent on a boat, but she didn’t come across as “a victim.” It seems to me that some prompts literally call for writing about overcoming an obstacle, and thus potentially invite “oversharing.” Yet some students are able to write about difficult experiences without oversharing, without making themselves sound like helpless victims, but rather as mature individuals who learned valuable lessons and persevered in their studies, work, etc. So like you say, should we discourage writing about hardship? Or should we simply teach students how to frame the retelling of hardships in the Personal Statement? More importantly, how can we do either one of those things in an empathetic way where we remain the student’s ally?

  2. Thanks, Julia, for such a thoughtful post. I really resonate with what you say about the conflicting advice to stand out but not overstate. I find that writers I work with have similar anxieties about writing job application materials, although there I think the impulse is more to hide those negative ways we are unique. In general, it’s so hard not to take the writing (and potential rejection) personally. I like the way you’re thinking through the tutor’s role in these scenarios because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I don’t have a full answer to the question about our role as something like a counselor, but I do think writers need people to listen and be supportive while they think through the various risks of writing about themselves.

  3. You’ve given me so much to think about in this post–particularly how the genre of the personal statement asks for people to write particular narratives and balance sharing personal details and not “oversharing.” Thanks for writing this.

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