Volume 7, Issue 1: 2014

Dynamic Patterns: Emotional Episodes within Teachers’ Response Practices

by Nicole I. Caswell

Responding to student writing is one activity where teachers’ emotions become relevant, but there are limited scholarly conversations directly discussing emotion as a component of teachers’ responses to student writing. This article brings together scholarship on emotion, survey results, and narrative description of two specific teachers to suggest the relationship between emotion and response: a dynamic, recursive episode pattern of values, triggers, emotions, and actions. The results of 146 surveys of writing teachers reporting on emotions in their response practices provide a contextual grounding for a closer examination of the interrelated emotional episode of one teacher, Brittney. An awareness of the emotional episode of response promotes reflection and acts as a catalyst for teachers to think about their teacherly identity.

“Grading is so emotionally exhausting. At the end of the day you feel like ‘what happened today’ … It’s very funny, because all that you’ve been doing is sitting in front of your laptop reading a bunch of papers. There’s no reason you should feel such a physical sense of exhaustion at the end of the day.” (Stephen)

Stephen was teaching a second semester college writing course when he participated in a study on teachers’ emotional responses to student writing. He made the statement above during a retrospective interview about a think-aloud protocol where he responded to his students’ peer-review documents. While reflecting on how grading is emotionally draining for him, he explained that his connection to students and his desire to be a good teacher weighs on his mind as he reads, responds, and grades students’ work. He referred to response as a “manic depressive roller-coaster” ride during which he sometimes feels like a good teacher and sometimes like a poor teacher. What seemed to be the case for teachers in this study’s research sample, and in particular for Stephen, is that when students demonstrate what they have learned in their writing, teachers feel happy. But, as Stephen mentioned, “there are these others that don’t learn anything, and maybe I’m not that good of a teacher as I think.” The emotions Stephen and other writing teachers experience when reading and responding to student writing prompt them to view themselves as successful or unsuccessful educators.

Responding to student writing is one activity where teachers’ emotions become relevant, but there are limited scholarly conversations directly discussing emotion as a component of teachers’ response practices. As Huot (2002) asserted, “we read student writing to teach student writers: ‘In fact, pedagogical purpose saturates the whole phenomenon of response’” (p. 113; Phelps qtd. in Huot, 2000, p.101). Responding to student writing is an important activity. Teachers’ comments communicate to student writers where they can further develop their writing, and teachers and students construct relationships in the classroom and on the page through responses to student writing.

Responding to student writing is not an emotionally neutral act (Edgington, 2005; Kynard, 2006; Sperling,1994; Tobin, 1991). Emotions are a component of the social, pedagogical context where teaching, writing, and response occur. Emotions are implicitly expressed within Carini’s (1994), Kynard’s (2006), and Straub’s (1997) research on response; Sperling (1994) considered emotion as a component of teachers’ response frameworks, and Edgington (2005) noticed teachers’ emotional responses to student writing. This study on teachers’ emotions expands current understandings of response practices by examining what actually happens with teachers’ emotions when they respond to student writing.

The range of emotions and the emotional triggers experienced by teachers in this study reveal the complex and influential role emotions play in the labor of teaching, specifically as it plays out in the ubiquitous and high stakes moment of responding to student writing. This article reviews the current status of scholarship on emotion in Rhetoric and Composition and offers a data-driven understanding of teacher response and emotion. The results of 146 surveys of writing teachers reporting on emotions in their response practices provide a contextual grounding for a closer examination of the interrelated emotional episode of one teacher, Brittney. Data reveals that when responding to student writing, teachers experience what Damasio (1994) refers to as emotional episodes, which is the process of moving from an emotional trigger to an emotion to a response/action. This study brings together scholarship on emotion, survey results, and narrative description of a specific teacher to demonstrate the relationship between values, triggers, emotions, and actions (emotional episodes) results in a dynamic, recursive episode pattern. Awareness of the emotional episode promotes reflection and acts as a catalyst for teachers to think about their teacherly identity, as Stephen alluded to.

Theoretical Groundings

Emotions within Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies Scholarship

Emotions have been considered as a component of the writing process or writing classroom through three broad models within Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies: emotions as persuasive, rhetorical tools, emotions as personal experiences, and emotions as socially constructed. Moving beyond emotion as a rhetorical tool (Aristotle), Brand’s (1987) early emotion and writing research blended the persuasive, rhetorical tool model with the personal to argue teachers and students should be viewed as rational, emotional beings who have conscious awareness of the persuasive role of emotions within their lives. Richmond (2002) expanded Brand’s ideas by pulling in the perspective of emotions as socially constructed to argue teachers should pay attention to how emotions shape relationships, since relationships are so crucial to the writing classroom.

After noticing an increase of cliches in students’ reflective writing, Chandler (2007) focused on emotions as personal through her analysis of student writing. Chandler concluded that when students write about events that evoke stressful emotions, they struggle to write within an academic discourse. Just as students can experience emotions influencing their writing, Robillard (2007) considered the emotion-as-personal model from the teacher perspective in her study of plagiarism. She found that teachers experienced anger when they found plagiarism in student writing, and anger challenges teachers’ authority in the writing classroom.

While the charged nature of plagiarism brings out more emotional responses from teachers, Micciche (2002) considered emotions within writing program administrators and argued emotions are socially constructed; they express the values of a community and are “a central component in social relations” (p. 452). Micciche (2007) continued to build on the emotions-as-social model by arguing emotions are not experienced by individuals as isolated episodes, but rather, they help individuals construct or enact behaviors based on their situation.

More recently, Cooper (2011) considered how emotions are persuasive and personal and presented a complex argument for individual agency as it relates to rhetoric. Cooper acknowledged the influence of emotions as an element that helps individuals prepare for actions, as “intentions to act a certain way” (p. 430). Cooper concluded that conscious awareness of emotion is an asset for individuals, and emotions can motivate individuals’ decisions to compose texts in certain ways.

This study on teachers’ emotional responses to student writing blends the three models of emotions within rhetoric and composition scholarship by first considering the persuasive, rhetorical nature of emotions to act or respond a certain way (Brand, 1987; Cooper, 2011). Emotions are also social in that they help shape and build relationships between teachers and students within the writing classroom (Richmond, 2002; Micciche, 2007). Finally, emotions are personal in that they are individually experienced through neurological, psychological responses (Rollibard, 2007; Damasio, 1994). While scholars in Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies have begun to consider the complicated ways emotions function within writing processes and writing classrooms, the role of emotions within response practices has not yet been fully considered.

Response research and (non)emotion. Within teacher response research, emotions are either implicitly referenced or not mentioned. Response studies have explored audio comments (Scrocco, 2012; Sommers, 2012), teachers’ written responses (Connors & Lundsford, 1993; Smith, 1997; Straub, 1996, 1997), descriptive accounts of how teachers respond to student writing, and models/frameworks for response practices (Phelps, 1989; Mathison-Fife & ONeill, 2001; Sperling, 1994). Response research gained momentum in the 1980’s when Sommers (1982) argued that the purpose of responding to student writing is to “demonstrate the presence of a reader [and] to help our students to become that questioning reader themselves” (p. 148). Sommers (2006) later referenced emotions from the writer’s perspective in her articulation of why response research should continue: “we feel a weighty responsibility when we respond to our students’ words, knowing that we, too, have received comments that have given us hope--and sometimes made us despair--in our abilities as writers” (p. 248). Both Sommers (2006) and Murphy (2000) considered response as a partnership between students and teachers, “a transaction in which teachers engage with their students by treating them as apprentice scholars, offering honest critique paired with instruction” (Sommers, 2006, p. 250). Murphy (2000) also considered response as “an ongoing exchange with the student writer, and both teacher and student have roles in the interactive process of knowledge construction” (p. 81).

Though Sommers (2006) referenced the possible emotionality of responses, few response studies (Edgington, 2005; Sperling, 1994; Tobin, 1991) consider emotions as a possible component of teachers’ reading and responding practices. Through his research on how students feel about directive and facilitative commentary, Straub (1996) tangentially constructed response as a site where emotions can occur, but the emphasis is on the student and not teachers. Phelps (1998) suggested teachers may experience the emotion of surprise when they read student texts, and Huot (1993) and Huot and Pula (1993) coded for laughter in their studies of how expert and novice teachers use a holistic rubric to score student texts but did not include laughter as an emotional response. Carini (1994) and Kynard (2006) personally expressed emotions in their research on response, but did not consider emotions as an element of their analysis. Sperling (1994) moved closer to a study of emotion by considering how the cognitive/emotion dimension (one of five dimensions teachers use) may influence how teachers respond to student writing.

Edgington’s (2005) research also comes close to a response study on emotion by considering emotions as part of the interpretative act of reading that can influence how a reader understands a text. Edgington (2005) asked eight teachers to read and respond to student papers from classes they were currently teaching and found teachers “were often emotionally moved by the events discussed in the texts, student language use, and student progress” (p. 141). Although Edgington did not code for emotion, he was the first to use verbal protocols to discuss teachers’ emotions. His research allows scholars to understand that emotions occur when teachers read student writing; however, little is known about how emotional responses influence teachers’ reading, what emotions teachers experience, and why emotions are influential when teachers read student writing. While response research may give a nod to emotion, any substantial study of the influence of emotions when teachers respond to student writing has yet to be conducted. This study builds on Edgington’s research by answering the how, what and why of emotions while teachers respond to writing.


Three research questions guided this study: (1) What emotions do teachers express while responding to student writing?; (2) What triggers teachers’ emotions?; and (3) What, if any, actions do teachers make in response to the emotions that emerge when they are reading and responding to student writing? Survey and think-aloud protocol data provided two ways of knowing the role emotions within teachers’ response practices. Survey data yielded trends in self-reported behaviors, or in what teachers say they do. Think-aloud protocol data provided in situ behaviors, or what teachers actually do when they respond to student writing.


The emotion and response survey directly paralleled the research questions by asking teachers to self-report if they experience emotions, what prompts their emotions, and how they respond to those emotions. The survey served as the first phase of this research to see how teachers thought about their own emotions while responding and the role teachers thought those emotions played. 146 teachers responded to the 20-question, IRB-approved survey distributed via the WPA-listserv in Spring 2011. The survey was divided into three sections: background information, instructor response practices, and emotion and response practices.

Think-Aloud Protocols

In the second phase of this research project, seven teachers consented to participate in video and audio recorded think-aloud protocols while responding to their own students’ writing. The think-aloud protocol participants (a separate sample population than survey respondents) were individually recruited from a regional area based on how they fit into the sampling matrix (Appendix A). The diverse, stratified think-aloud protocol sample included seven criteria to contextualize responding to student writing: years of teaching, course currently teaching, home institution, gender, ethnicity, education/professional development, and student assignment. Since no study on teachers’ emotions while responding to student writing has been conducted, it was crucial to not assume any one criterion would have a teacher experiencing more or less emotions than another criterion. The sampling matrix considered as many possible situations for emotional responses as feasible. This sample does not account for every situation in which writing occurs within the classroom, but it does provide a large snapshot of where writing is occurring within different writing programs. Additionally, five think-aloud protocol transcripts were obtained from Edgington’s (2004) study that also focused on teacher response to provide additional demographic, teacher experience, and assignment types for the subject population. An Institutional Review Board approved this study to analyze the verbalized thoughts of twelve teachers from varying educational backgrounds, teaching institutions, and assignment types.

The study followed the think-aloud data gathering procedures of Huot (1993) and Edgington (2004). At the beginning of each 45-minute think-aloud protocol, participants were normed for protocol activity through initial interviews and practice think-aloud questions. Following protocol sessions, 15-25 minute retrospective interviews were conducted with each participant asked to reflect on the emotions they recall experiencing during the protocol. The think-aloud protocol captured teachers’ emotional thoughts, expressions, and cognitive processes, and the retrospective interviews captured teachers’ critical reflections on the thoughts that went through their minds (Smagorinsky, 1994).


The survey and think-aloud protocol transcripts followed similar coding schemes. Contextual cues within the transcripts provided indications of where an emotional utterance (single words, sentences, and phrases) started and ended, and the audio and video transcripts provided pauses, verbal indications (intonation), and body language of an emotional utterance’s beginning or ending. The first round of coding included self-stated, explicit emotional utterances while the second round of coding focused on non-explicit emotional utterances derived from contextual cues and emotion-based research. The statements teachers spoke implied the emotions they were experiencing, and this research considered the spoken utterances as “vivid illustration of thought processes” (Smagorinsky, 1994, p. 12) that provided a “lived experience” (Denzin, 1984) of emotions. Emotional utterances were then coded into the emotion categories of joy, sadness, trust, disgust, surprise, anticipation, anger, disappointment, confusion, and concern (Plutchik, 1991). Another writing researcher coded 10% of the emotional utterances using the emotion coding scheme (Appendix B) with an 82% agreement rate establishing interrater reliability. Following the coding of emotional utterances, Damasio’s (1994) emotional episode worked as a starting point for developing an inventory of emotional episodes for teachers. The emotional episode is the process from encountering a trigger to recognizing the emotion and reacting to it.


Survey Data: Teachers’ Self-Report of Their Emotions

Nearly every teacher surveyed (97%) was able to specifically identify that they experienced emotions during response sessions and could recall their experiences in two open-ended prompts: (1) Please describe a positive emotional experience with responding to student writing, and (2) Please describe a negative emotional experience with responding to student writing. Of the 107 teachers who responded to the first prompt, 78 respondents specifically named emotions in their answers, including joy (70%), anticipation (14%), surprise (6%), trust (5%), and identity-confirming emotions (3%) (Table 1). Of the 107 answers to the negative emotional experience (Table 2), 76 teachers named the negative emotions they experienced, including anger (60%), followed by disappointment (20%), identity (non)-confirming emotions (13%), surprise (2%) and sadness (2%).

Table 1: Positive emotions self-reported through survey data

Emotion Code

Percentage reported (of 78 responses)

Example from survey data



“YES!!! I do a mental *happy dance*”



“I looked forward to going back to class to continue discussing his project”



“Papers that surprise me”



“I am always satisfied to see students put into practice concepts that they struggled with when they first encountered them.”

Identity Confirming


“Sometimes [emotions are] self-reflexive (such as looking at student writing makes me realize I did not teach something I wish I had).”

Table 2: Negative emotions self-reported through survey data

Emotion Code

Percentage reported (of 76 responses)

Examples from survey data



“I feel frustration when a student either completely misunderstands the assignment or I can tell the project has been half-assed.”



“I feel very disappointed because I’d rather a student ask for help than take the easy way out.”

Identity (non)-confirming


“Sometimes it is hard not to feel defeated when I learn that a student has had very negative experiences with writing instruction.”



“I once has a student describe in a paper when he lost his virginity. I was shocked.”



“I once read an essay where a student wrote about the murder of her family. I was so upset after reading this detailed account that all I wanted to do was hug my own family.”

Teachers were also asked what triggered their emotions when reading and responding to student writing; 48% of teachers reported content and ideas triggered their emotions. Teachers also reported triggers such as students’ improvement (16%) and students’ perceived effort (16%). Teachers reported positive emotions from higher order writing concerns such as students developing their ideas (16%) or overall improvement in the writing (17%). Teachers reported that their negative emotions were triggered by students not following directions (16%).

Think-aloud protocol data: Teachers’ specific emotions when responding. Joy (32.92%) was the most frequently expressed emotion by teachers reading and responding to their students’ assignments, followed by anger (18.38%) and trust (12.45%) (Table 3). Surprise (10.03%) was the fourth most expressed emotion with the following emotions being expressed in less than 10% of the sample: confusion (8.22%), disgust (7.37%), anticipation (6.17%), concern (4.84%), disappointment (1.81%), and sadness (.84%).

Table 3: Teachers’ expressed emotions while responding

Emotion Code

Percentage expressed (of 820)

Examples from think-aloud data



“I like it when a paper gets better at the end.”



“It looks like a big fat fucking paragraph that I would love to read; however, because my head hurts we are going to give it a 25 out of 50.”



“alright, well, that’s good.”



“You spelled angst correctly!”



“I don’t know that is really confusing.”



“You did not pick out the thesis statement at all…you picked the wrong one.”



“I’m looking forward to this.”



“I feel so sympathetic because she’s told me some of the crazy things going on in her life.”



“I gave this assignment like 6 weeks ago so that’s a little bit disheartening.”



“I feel kinda bad about that.”

One think-aloud participant, Brittney, reported emotions that aligned with the top two expressed emotions in the sample aggregate: joy (31%) and anger (22%). Her third most expressed emotion was anticipation (15%) with disappointment (10%) and concern (8%) as her fourth and fifth. Brittney did not express trust or sadness during her protocol session.

Emotional triggers were slightly more specific in the think-aloud protocol sample since teachers were engaged in the act of responding to student writing; however, not all 820 emotional utterances had a clearly coded trigger. Of the 805 aggregate triggers, 51.55% were related to the content/topic of the paper and 16.89% of triggers were from a paper’s appearance (essay length, format, missing assignment components). Classroom influences, such as a teacher’s relationship with the student or the student’s classroom behavior, accounted for 10.68% of the triggers, while 9.81% of teachers’ emotions were triggered by punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Additional triggers included organization (4.59%), style (word choice, diction) (3.10%), multi-modal components (2.23%), and assignment grades (1.86%). None of the triggers correlated with specific emotions, and the triggers did not trigger specific emotions consistently. Teachers would experience the same emotions, but based on the course, assignment, experience, or other outside factors, the triggers would vary. Additionally, all teachers had similar triggers, but the emotions teachers expressed varied depending on the individual. For example, content (the most frequent trigger for teachers) would trigger any of the ten possible emotion codes.

Discussion: Emotional Episodes of Response

The emotions teachers experience while responding to student writing follow an interrelated episode pattern: values, triggers, emotions, and actions (Figure 1). This dynamic, recursive emotional episode captures the process teachers experience when they encounter an emotional trigger in student writing to how teachers respond to the emotion and provides a model for answering the three research questions of this study. This emotional episode also offers a way to discuss how emotions play into the response act.

Figure 1

One of the reasons why emotions and the emotional episode are influential when teachers respond to student writing is because the emotional episode has the potential to lead to identity forming moments for teachers. Survey and think-aloud protocol data illustrates that responding to student writing is an emotional activity for teachers and that emotions are significant because they can influence how teachers feel about themselves. In fact, 11% of teachers responding to the survey directly linked emotions to how they feel about themselves: “When students really understand and demonstrate whatever student learning outcomes the assignment/course focuses on, I feel really effective as a teacher.” Or, “I wish I could have been a better teacher to him.” To capture the dynamic, identity-building influence of the emotional episode, the following sections discuss the three research questions that align with the components of the emotional episode: values and triggers, emotions, and actions (specifically, identity moments). The final section provides a holistic view of the emotional episode through one think-aloud participant’s case: Brittney.

What Triggers Teachers’ Emotions?

Within the field of education, emotions are important to teaching because they help reveal the object or action that triggers an emotion. When individuals know what triggers their emotions, they can become better equipped to respond to the emotions. Emotions, then, serve “distinct functions in the way [they] organize perception, cognition, and actions (behaviors) for coping” (Izard & Ackerman, 2004, p. 253). The first two components of the emotional episode, values and triggers, are uniquely connected. The triggers of teachers’ emotions represent their values of writing or what teachers were reading for when responding to student writing.

Faigley (1989) pointed to teachers commenting, grading or responding based on what they see as valuable in student writing. Huot (2002) asserted: “Culture and privilege continue to evolve and be marked in different ways, and teachers’ reading of student writing is continuously influenced by their cultured sense of value” (p. 118). Within the data sets, teachers’ emotions are triggered, knowingly or not, by what they value as features of good writing. The relationship between values and responding to student writing is furthered by Pula and Huot’s (1993) research that suggested the ways teachers read and holistically assess student writing comes from teachers’ experiences and values. While teachers may not be immediately aware of the relationship between their responses and values, the emotions teachers experience help to elucidate the relationship and deliver a new way to look at writing values.

When survey participants offered examples of their emotional experiences, they demonstrated the interrelatedness of triggers and values. One teacher, below, referenced anger when his or her expectation for audience awareness and integration of research does not appear within students’ writing. Triggers are indicated by italics and emotions are bolded.

This weekend, I was extremely angry with a set of upper division technical writing students who turned in formal reports that did not address audience effectively or incorporate reliable primary and secondary research, two elements we had spent a very long time discussing and practicing using in class.

This participant valued audience awareness and the integration of research as features of good writing for this particular assignment and read his/her students’ writing for those two values. The emotion, anger, emerged when those values were violated.

One think-aloud participant, Cole, considered revision as a value of good writing and made a specific pedagogical choice to incorporate more time for revision in his course. The connection between triggers and values prompted him to change his classroom practices and shaped his emotional episode when responding to his first year composition students’ final portfolios. He attributes his happiness with his students’ work to his pedagogical choice to add in more revision workshops throughout the semester. His emotion, joy (43% of his emotional utterances),is a result of the trigger revision and his students’ portfolios. Revision and portfolios are rooted in his pedagogical values in the classroom. During his retrospective interview, Cole stated

It is typical that I get happy when I see that they’ve been revising all semester. Definitely. I think this particular class has done more revising then many other of my classes have…and I think that’s partly because I allowed them more time at the end to do revising


He reflected on his successful classroom practice of adding more in-class revision time this semester. Cole found that providing students more time to revise at the end allowed him to be happy with the extent of student revisions.

As Cole’s example suggested, emotional triggers do more than just indicate the values of writing. Emotional triggers can also extend into valued classroom practices and prompt teachers to rethink the work they do in the classroom. In the survey, one writing teacher associates his/her feeling of guilt with his/her approach in the classroom:

Just this semester I was hit hard with guilt after grading 17 Social Science Writing [xxx] papers that should’ve been a review of relevant literature, but all of them lacked any synthesis. After reading 17 summaries, I felt like I should curve everyone's grades because this was clearly my fault. Even though we had practiced synthesis in class individually and together, filled out synthesis charts and visited the library with a dandy little worksheet, nothing seemed to work! I still don't know how I'm going to resolve this for future iterations of this course.

Emotions are catalysts for helping teachers understand their values of writing because those values become emotional triggers. In terms of classroom practices, two outside influences of the emotional episode seem to be if teachers have “figured out” what practices work in the classroom and what practices they have “not figured out.” The above example of the social science papers highlights the relationships between values and triggers and the influence of classroom practices. Even though this teacher thought he or she had the practices figured out in the classroom (worksheets, synthesis chart, library visit), those practices did not lend themselves to helping students compose literature reviews that synthesized information--a value of this writing teacher that triggered an emotion of guilt. Even though the teacher’s guilt was triggered by a lack of synthesis, the trigger itself is symptomatic of a larger personal value: grading student writing based on what was taught within the classroom. This teacher is left with an unresolved, though productive, emotion of guilt. The unresolved emotion prompts the teacher to continue to try out new strategies in the classroom until the desired result appears within student writing.

What Emotions Do Teachers Experience?: Positive Emotions in the Emotional Episode

The third component of the emotional episode is the emotions themselves. Belanoff (1991) and Haswell (2006) offered narratives of responding to student writing as stressful, negative experiences: “it’s dirty thing we have to do in the dark of our own offices” (Belanoff, 1991, p. 61) and “long hours marking papers is the mark of the composition teacher -- the profession’s mark of Cain, some would say” (Haswell, 2006, para. 25). While the coding scheme accounts for neutral emotions, teachers in the survey framed their responses within positive and negative categories of emotions, and this analysis follows the ways teachers were reporting their emotions. This study suggests writing teachers not only express positive emotions (70% of survey results), but express them more than negative emotions (58% of survey results). Triangulating the survey with the think-aloud protocol data (Table 4), joy emerged as the most frequently expressed positive emotion and anger was the most frequently expressed negative emotion (and second most frequently expressed emotion overall). Some teachers could simply be considered happy, optimistic individuals who seek the good in students’ writing, yet all 12 think-aloud participants expressed joy during their think-aloud protocols. Nine of the participants had joy as their most expressed emotion, and joy was the most expressed emotion when considering the think-aloud data in aggregate. Additionally, teachers reported in the survey that 73.5% of them experience joy always or usually when responding to student writing. Both forms of data point toward joy as the main emotion teachers express while responding to student writing, suggesting that there are many positive moments to discuss in relation to teacher response. Responding to student writing can be an enjoyable activity that challenges Belanoff and Haswell’s negative narratives.

Table 4: Emotions within both data samples

Emotion Code

Percentage expressed in think-aloud protocols (820 utterances)

Percentage reported in survey

(2 questions: positive emotions and negative emotions*, 78 responses)















Not reported



Not reported






Not reported






2.5% *

What Actions Do Teachers Take?: Identity Development Moments as a Specific Action

Though response is viewed by some as a private activity done behind closed doors, it is also a socially-constructed activity in which teachers and students make meaning through text (Murphy, 2000; Mathison-Fife and O’Neill, 2001) and in which emotional responses indicate teachers’ values. The last element of the emotional episode is actions. Within the data samples, teachers wrote comments on student papers after experiencing an emotion, talked about how the emotions were making them feel, or paused and took a deep breath before continuing to respond to the document. Survey participants reported taking breaks from responding, sharing emotions with colleagues or family, and reflecting on why they were experiencing emotions. The action of reflecting and thinking about the emotions that they were experiencing led teachers to further reflect on their identity as a teacher.

Emerging as an extended action from the emotional episode, responding to writing has the ability to provide teachers with insight to their sense of “self-identity and self-worth” (Morgan et al., 2010, p. 193). According to Sachs (2005), teacher identity is at the core of teaching, and “provides a framework for teachers to construct their own ideas of ‘how to be,’ ‘how to act’ and ‘how to understand’ their work and their place in society” (15). Beauchamp and Thomas (2009) argued identity is not static and not forced upon individuals; instead, teachers negotiate identity through experience and external and internal factors (such as emotion). Referencing Turner and Stets’ (2005) sociological research on emotion, Morgan, Ludlow, Kitching, O’Leary, and Clarke (2010) posited that when interactions in affective episodes result “in verification of the self, positive emotions like satisfaction and pride will follow, while, in contrast, episodes that disconfirm that self result in any of the several negative emotions including anger, guilt, shame, anxiety or distress” (p. 193). The emotional episode illuminates issues of identity development for teachers as a potential extended action. Specifically, as teachers are engaged in the dynamic and recursive emotional episode when responding to student writing, they are either feeling like good, successful teachers who have taught writing to students or poor, unsuccessful teachers who are not connecting with their students.

Brittney’s Case: Emotional Episodes in Action

Brittney was a graduate student teaching first-year composition for the second time when she agreed to participate in a think-aloud protocol. Brittney’s case offers a detailed, holistic analysis on how emotional episodes prompted her to think about her identity as a teacher. Brittney was responding to her students’ final research papers at the end of the semester.

Part of Brittney’s identity development was her transition from thinking of herself as a tutor to thinking about herself as a teacher. During her retrospective interview, she discussed the tutor/teacher struggle she had responding to student writing. She stated,

I hate to really be a hard ass or you know? That’s really hard for me…I’m constantly having to coach myself into ‘no no no.’ That for me has been really difficult, because before when I was a writing tutor… you could just help students…You never have to judge them or critique them…But now that I’m a teacher, I can’t just do that part. I have to evaluate, critique, and give a grade.

Brittney is explaining the struggles she had with placing a grade on a student paper. During her protocol session, Brittney encountered a paper that did not meet the minimum requirements of the assignment. She identified with the student, acknowledging the difficulties the student had throughout the semester, but separated herself to identify as a teacher by stating, “I have to evaluate, critique, and give a grade.” While Brittney was already navigating her identity as a teacher versus her previous identity as a writing tutor, she was also navigating her emotional state with her professional work. Brittney was sympathetic toward the student and the student’s circumstances, but she also knew that she needed to give the student’s paper a grade.

When asked if and how her emotions influence her responding practices, Brittney continued to reflect on her teacherly identity development. Without an awareness of emotion, Brittney would just grade based on her emotional response; however, Brittney was aware and stopped herself. The actions in her emotional episode included pausing, reflecting, and thinking about her role as the teacher.

I had to stop myself from responding because my first instinct is to grade from the emotional response. So I have to not grade. I have to consciously take a step back and say, “ok what if I didn’t know this person? What if I didn’t know their circumstances? What if I didn’t have this relationship with this student?” … how would I judge this? Or those times when I’m blaming myself for “oh did I not do something,” as a teacher well, you can’t penalize them for something I did.

Brittney related her emotional responses to the triggers as part of her identity as a teacher. She did not want to penalize students for what she did or did not do in the classroom. During Brittney’s pre-interview, she shared her goals for response and the class in general as “helping students develop the research and writing skills that they are going to need throughout their college careers and beyond. And to get them comfortable using APA and MLA and understating what the written expectations are going to be for them.” The emotional triggers Brittney experienced during her think-aloud protocol session corresponded with her goals and values for the assignment and prompted her to reflect on her identity as a teacher (Table 5). The emotion code was triggered when Brittney saw or did not see students fulfilling her goals.

Table 5: Brittney’s triggers, emotions, and goals

Trigger Code

Emotion Code

Connection to Brittney’s goals and values in Pre-interview


Joy and Anger

“To get them comfortable using APA and MLA format”

Following Directions


To help them “understand what the written expectations are going to be for them”

Relationship with Student


“I have to consciously take a step back and say ok what if I didn’t know this person”

Whole Paper


“Hopefully they have used the different research and writing skills that they’ve been honing throughout the semester to have create this paper”

Applications of the Emotional Episode

While these results apply to a small, localized sample of teachers, they allow for a deeper understanding of the role of emotions while responding to student writing that can be applied and extended to other samples. The emotional episode provides a framework for understanding the relationship between values, triggers, emotions, and actions. While individual moments are possible to discern, it is the relationship between the emotional episode that allows teachers to reflect on their writing values and pedagogical choices. Patterns in teachers’ emotions suggest teachers have more positive experiences when students respond to their own learning and more negative emotions toward technical textual writing features, such as grammar, language usage, and structure. Emotions complicate how teachers respond to the content of writing, which may lead to possible pedagogical trouble as they are prompted to consider how they are reacting to ideas or views different than their own. The emotional episode can allow for deeper understanding of the ways emotions effect and shape, and are shaped by, teacher responses to student writing. Two applications emerge from the emotional episode: reflective practice and teacher identity.

An awareness of emotion in response promotes reflective practice,which allows teachers to recognize their emotions and consider the persuasive power emotions have to move teachers to act in certain ways. This awareness can also prompt teachers to rethink how and why they often respond to the textual, technical features of writing versus the content and which features trigger positive and negative emotions. The goals and expectations teachers have for their students’ writing emerge in the emotional responses they have while responding to student writing. Recognizing these emotional responses can help teachers reflect on what they value in writing, and can push teachers to rethink their pedagogical choices in the classroom.

An emotional understanding of response also illuminates issues of teacher identitysince positive emotions construct teachers as successful educators whereas negative emotions push teachers to think of their work as unsuccessful. The response practices of teachers is an ideal space to investigate the affective domain because it is a space where teachers’ backgrounds, identities, experiences, and emotional investment intersect and shape their response practices. Stephen, whose story started this article, became aware of the complex relationship between identity and emotion in his retrospective interview. Throughout his protocol session, he saw how his pedagogical choices in the classroom played out in his students’ writing, and how those choices (and emotions) shaped his identity as either a successful or unsuccessful teacher. Stephen mentions the difficulties of teaching and identifying as a teacher: “it’s very difficult to kind of fine tune your pedagogy to meet everyone’s needs. So it’s very gratifying to see [when] I’ve succeeded in teaching them something.” By asking Stephen to discuss the emotions he was experiencing while responding to student writing, he began to reflect on his identity as a teacher.

Conclusion and Implications

This study offered two different emotion-based views on the large, understudied issue of emotions in response practices. While the surveys relied on individuals’ self-reported understanding of what they think they do, think-aloud protocols provided a window into individuals’ actual thinking and decision-making process. These two data-driven emotion perspectives align with current emotion scholarship. Emotions are considered a social, cultural, and biological occurrence. Social models of emotions argue that emotions “arise and operate within social situations” (Milton, 2007, p. 199), whereas cultural models define emotion as emerging out of social discourse with variable cultural constructs (Milton, 2007). Biological models of emotions explore the physical feelings and changes within the body and present emotions as innate features of humans (Milton, 2007), and neurological models trace the chemical pathways from the brain, hoping to unlock the physical, cognitive features of emotion (Damasio, 1994). The emotional episode of response emerged from emotion scholarship (Damasio, 1994) and collected data. This study approached emotion as a blend of the four models and research on emotional episode, acknowledging that all teachers have biological reactions to emotion, and that teachers also follow socially accepted patterns for how to manage and display emotions.

The emotional episode of response offers a starting point for the development of an emotional theory of response. It frames emotions as dynamic, recursive moments that suggest how teachers move from triggers to actions and accounts for where triggers emerge from while teachers respond to student writing. The emotional episode of response also delivers a new lens for understanding teacher identity development. Data suggests that when aspects of student writing demonstrate teachers’ goals or fulfill their expectations, responding to student writing is an enjoyable act; however, if students deviate from teachers’ expectations, responding to student writing triggers negative emotions. If teachers’ emotions are triggered by what they value in the students’ writing, then emotions need to be openly acknowledged as subjects of future research. By paying more attention to the emotions they experience, teachers will be able to reflect more on their pedagogical choices within the classroom and how those choices are working. When teachers are aware of what is making them happy when they are reading and responding to student writing, they can share those triggers with the class. In this way, class discussions and practices can be structured around helping students learn how to meet the teachers’ values in writing. Whether students agree or disagree with what the teacher teaches, they can be more aware of their teachers’ values and can shape their writing to meet those expectations. For students who choose not to shape their writing to their teachers’ expectations, they may gain more explicit awareness of why their writing earns low marks. The emotional episode can serve as a research tool for future emotion-based response studies as well as a reflective tool for teachers to revise their pedagogical practices.

Another of the many applications of this research is to use emotions to help teachers navigate their identities in the writing classroom and in their response practices. Research has not considered how responding to student writing is an identity-shaping activity for teachers. In the case of Brittney, her teacher identity journey was grounded in her limited teaching experiences and her work as a writing tutor. The emotional episode of response could be used as a teacher-training tool. Novice teachers could use the emotional episode as a reflective tool to chart out their triggers, emotions, and actions. Once they have completed the trigger, emotion, and action columns of the chart, teachers could reflect on their writing values (as evidenced in the trigger column). This would offer teachers a clearer picture of what was occurring and why. Then, teachers might be asked to consider what triggered negative emotions for them (such as students not submitting work or students not revising). This way, teachers could see more specifically what practices are helping them feel like successful teachers in the classroom and what practices are cultivating a negative teacher identity. Novice teachers could also use an understanding of their emotions to determine what pedagogical practices are effective. They could begin by recognizing their emotions in the classroom and then move toward identifying triggers and values. To take the conversation a step further, novice teachers could also think through where they developed their understanding of what it means to be a teacher. How did they learn what boundaries or roles teachers can/should establish in the classroom? The answers to these questions may emerge when teachers start to think through what values their emotions relate to, but if not, these questions would promote reflection on how and why teachers’ identities are forming in a particular way.

In education research, teachers report working to regulate and suppress their emotions (Sutton, Mudrey-Camion, & Knight, 2009) due to fear of how they will be perceived if they display emotions. Denying that emotions exist in the classroom does not eliminate emotions from the educational context; instead, denying emotions sets teachers up to think about their emotions within a framework that discounts them. Teachers can reflect on their emotions through a culturally, socially-situated framework if emotions become an accepted part of the teaching experience. For Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies, emotions provide teachers and researchers a deeper picture of the literate practice of reading and responding to student writing. More research is needed to systematically account for the emotional component of response practices. Within the survey, 8% of teachers reported experiencing emotions, but also reported, “I still grade objectively,” “I focus on the writing itself,” or “I use my rubric.” This study’s data did not suggest that the emotional experiences of teachers placed them in positions to not grade objectively, but the data does suggest that responding to student writing is more than using a rubric. Teachers may desire to respond objectively, but that desire needs to be mediated with the emotional episode. By becoming more aware of the role of emotions and the emotional episode of response, teachers and researchers will have valuable information to challenge the objective/subjective dichotomy of responding to (and grading) student writing.

Nicole I. Caswell is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of University Writing Centers at East Carolina University. Her research focuses on writing assessment, teachers' response practices, emotions, and writing centers. She’s currently working on a book-length study, Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors with Jackie Grutsch McKinney and Rebecca Jackson.


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Appendix A: Participant Sampling Matrix

ParticipantExperienceCourse TeachingInstitutionEducationAssignmentGenderEthnicity
Jessica None/First-semester Composition I 4-year 1st year PhD rhetoric and composition student Diagnostic narrative Female White
Brittney Second semester Composition I 4-year 1st year MA in literature student Final research paper Female African American
Stephen 2.5 years Composition II 4-year PhD candidate in literature Peer-reviews Male Indian
Robert (obtained transcript) 3 years First-Year Composition 4-year PhD student Rhetorical analysis Male Asian
Cole 5 years Composition I 4-year PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition End-portfolios Male White
Tim (obtained transcript) 6years Business Writing 4-year MA professional writing Recommendation letters Male White
Susan 10 years Introduction to Literature For-Profit EdS Final essay exam Female White
Kim 10 years Basic Writing Community College MA Teaching 7-12 grades Language Arts Narrative Essays Female White
Dan (obtained transcript) 14 years Introduction to Writing Community College PhD rhetoric and composition Mid-semester portfolios Male African American
Donna (obtained transcript) 15+ years Graduate level teaching course 4-year PhD ESL Literacy autobiographies Female White
Betty (obtained transcript) 30+ years First-Year Composition 4-year MA Humanities Argument essay Female White
Angela 30+ years Online upper division 4-year MA English Multi-modal Female White

Appendix B: Emotion Coding

Joy (serenity, ecstasy, happiness, delight, cheerfulness, elation, pleased) The teacher expresses a positive feeling such as a liking or love for something within or in relation to the text. For example, “I like it when a paper gets better at the end.”
Trust (acceptance, tolerance, admiration) The teacher expresses satisfaction or gratification with something in or in relation to the text. For example, “alright, well, that’s good.”
Surprise (distraction, amazement, uncertainty, astonishment) The teacher expresses that something unexpected has affected her while reading student texts. For example, “You spelled angst correctly!”
Sadness (pensiveness, grief, sorrow, dejection, gloominess) The teacher expresses that something within or in relation to the text is making her unhappy. For example, “I feel kinda bad about that.”
Disgust (dislike, boredom, loathing aversion, revulsion) The teacher expresses disapproval or aversion toward something within or around the text. For example, “You did not pick out the thesis statement at all…you picked the wrong one.”
Anger (annoyance, hostility, rage, furry) The teacher expresses that a certain point or word in relation to the text has upset her and her inability to achieve something is upsetting her. For example, “It looks like a big fat fucking paragraph that I would love to read; however, because my head hurts we are going to give it a 25 out of 50.”
Anticipation (interest, vigilance, curiosity, expectancy, attentativness) The teacher expresses emotion such as hope or looking toward something good happening within or in relation to the text. For example, “I’m looking forward to this.”
Disappointment The teacher expresses a negative reaction or let down due to something within or in relation to the text. For example: “ I gave this assignment like 6 weeks ago so that’s a little bit disheartening.”
Confusion The teacher expresses uncertainty toward something within or in relation to the text. For example, “I don’t know that is really confusing.”
Concern(sympathy) The teacher expresses that uncertainty about the future of the student and/or text is negativity affecting them. For example: “I feel so sympathetic because she’s told me some of the crazy things going on in her life.”