Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dana Lynn Driscoll

Second Advisor

Chauna Craig

Third Advisor

Gloria Park


Sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, gun violence, addiction, loss and grief, poverty, discrimination. Students, prompted or not, sometimes choose to write about painful subjects from their personal lives in course assignments. Within the public spaces of academia and in the margins of students’ papers, writing teachers must manage their emotional responses or perform what’s called “emotional labor” (Hochschild, 1983) as they provide feedback. As one survey respondent wrote, “This is part of my job and does not carry the negative connotations of ‘emotional labor.’” Whether or not teachers consider responding to students’ self-disclosures “part of [their] job,” my project does not approach this work as wholly negative or positive. Rather, I use the concept of emotional labor the way you use heat to reveal things written in invisible ink. By naming our emotions and talking about how we mask, contain, or otherwise manage them when students share emotional stories, what might we learn about ourselves, our relationships with students, and our roles as writing teachers?

We’re well aware of the role we’re not supposed to take on: “Don’t try to be a psychologist. You’re a writing teacher, not a trained therapist” (DeGenaro, 2007, p. 390). As a new composition teacher encountering emotional disclosures in students’ writing, I felt anxious and confused about what I could do in light of this commandment. More and more, teachers find themselves positioned not just as educators but as mandated reporters and the first line of defense in an academic context that prizes a calm, composed performance. Within this environment, I wanted to know, How do college writing teachers experience, navigate, and understand the emotional labor of responding to students’ personal writing? I chose a methodology developed by Mears (2009) called the Gateway Approach, which uses in-depth interviewing and poetic display of transcript data to create a doorway into others’ experiences.

Results of this exploratory study are based on survey responses from 142 college writing teachers and interviews with 12 volunteers totaling about 30 hours and 400 pages of transcript data. The findings: College writing teachers experienced emotional labor as a part of their work infused with a range of feelings, from compassion and earnestness to shame and horror. To navigate fraught moments, they used a variety of strategies falling within the broad categories of expressing, deep acting, and surface acting. Teachers understood emotional labor to be part of professionalism, tied to their identities and roles, and frustrating and exhausting but also energizing and meaningful. Implications for individual teachers, their departments, and the wider field include recommendations for addressing the lack of preparation and support for emotional labor, as well as ideas for making this increasingly high-stakes response work more sustainable.