by Jennifer Mahoney, Interim Director, University Writing Center
“I just need someone to proofread this and fix my grammar for me.”
“I have to have an A in this class. Do you think this paper will get an A?”
“What do you mean, ‘No appointments are available today?’ My paper’s due in an hour!”
Every day, students come into the Writing Center with expectations. Some expect consultants to be grammarians who will fix their dangling modifiers and passive voice constructions. Some students expect immediate assistance because they have immediate needs. Other students expect to walk out of the Writing Center with a “perfect” paper, guaranteed to receive an A.
Many of these students are initially disappointed.
As veteran consultants, most of us have given the spiel hundreds of times: “We’re not really an editing service, but we can help you look for ways to improve your overall writing process. Why don’t we look at what you have so far, and we’ll see what we can do.” Most students are satisfied with that. We read through their draft, and they begin to see that, although they might have some minor grammar errors, the lack of a solid thesis statement or the choppiness of the paragraphs or the apparent plagiarism in certain sections are far more important issues that should be addressed first.
Still, we occasionally have students who press us to make a call on their probable grade. “So if I fix this, will I get an A?” Again, we must decline, and most of us know the drill: “I am not your instructor; I’m not in your class. I cannot presume to give you a grade.” And again, most students understand that we cannot guarantee their instructor will agree with our judgment; writing is subjective, and no two people have exactly the same opinions. (Even successful, adored writers such as Stephen King and Salman Rushdie have critics who hate their work!)
Because the Writing Center has an obligation, not only to student writers, but also to university faculty, we have policies in place to make sure faculty are seeing the students’ writing, not the consultants’ writing. We cannot “fix” papers for students because then the instructors have no way to know where the student is in their process. The paper may look good, but it does not represent the student’s thinking or learning.
These policies keep us from undermining the authority of instructors; it is their job, not ours, to evaluate their students’ work. Giving projections of a student’s potential grade is not only unhelpful to the student; it is unethical and violates our university colleagues’ trust.
Finally, our policies allow us to help as many students as possible. Our staff of just a couple dozen consultants serves thousands of students on campus. To provide as many opportunities for assistance to as many students as we can reach, we must set limits on the number of sessions each student can have: 1 per day, 3 per week. Even with these limits in place, we are often booked several days in advance. Learning to plan ahead for an upcoming deadline may be frustrating for students, but it is an important lesson as they become mature, independent members of the university community.
Although some students are initially disappointed when their Writing Center session does not reflect their expectations, most come to appreciate our service for what it is: an opportunity to work one-on-one with an experienced reader, a practice audience who can help them improve their writing, not just one paper.