Students and Writing Tutors

I was asked recently, as I often am, to recommend the services of a professional writing coach to any of my students wanting to improve the drafts of their term papers, theses, or dissertations. I replied that I certainly would not. Here’s why.

Just to be clear (!), I’m all for good academic writing. Some have even said that I practice what I preach. The problem lies in giving academic credit to students for the quality of their work when, in fact, their work amounts to pieces co-written by someone else.

We professors do not, after all, evaluate student assignments only on the basis of some supposed quality of the “ideas” they contain, but on the whole package: clarity, cogency, and elegance as well. So a grade given to an assignment in such a situation is an evaluation of the co-operative project, and fails to tell the student what he or she most needs to know: This is how well you can perform on this kind of assignment by yourself. This is how much you have learned.

What about foreign students, however, who have brilliant ideas in their own language? Why not hire a tutor to make them intelligible, or even eloquent?

Let me illustrate my concern by a simple case: An Asian student with very limited English comes to Canada and wants to return home with a degree from a Canadian university. He works with an editor on every assignment—his English is truly terrible—and with that help manages to graduate. He gains a degree and returns to Seoul or Osaka or Beijing with a BA from the University of Toronto. So what is a prospective employer (or anyone else) supposed to conclude from his earning a degree in Canada? Among other things, one should be able to assume with confidence that he is able to write English at the level of, yes, a Canadian university graduate.

The exact same conclusion would be in mind if someone from, say, Winnipeg earned a degree from Berlin or Shanghai. The holder of such a degree should be presumed to have a high level of facility in German or Chinese. Right?

So of course I’m all in favour of excellent writing. I am delighted when students work with tutors to improve their skills, and I recommend such help all the time. But I don’t recommend it before their work gets evaluated. Otherwise, the grades do not tell the truth about what the student on his or her own can do—and “on his or her own” is what grades, honours, and degrees are supposed to certify.

One more thing: What about professional authors? Don’t we get help from editors all the time? Yes, we do. But everyone knows that, so there’s no deception involved. A reader might well think an author writes somewhat better than he or she does, but there’s generally no illicit gain to be made thereby, and we readers would always prefer an improved text to read.

Don’t some authors, however, get a huge amount of help—amounting to uncredited co-writing? Yes, some do. Don’t some celebrities hire ghost writers? Alas, they do. And that’s wrong: writers deserve credit, and non-writers don’t. Pretty basic ethics.

If any sector of society is going to insist on scrupulosity when it comes to authorship, then, it ought to be the educational system. So I advise schools not to offer tutorial programs to help students improve their writing on assignments that are then handed in to receive get better grades than the students could earn on their own. I likewise advise students themselves not to engage in such practices, even if they are officially sanctioned. Grades are important information from professors that you are refusing to receive—and you are then perpetrating fraud on others who take those grades seriously as indicative of what you yourself can do.

By all means, however, students should take their graded assignments to those who can help them write better next time. Such writing programs add beauty, clarity, and power to the world. And we’re all for that.


3 Responses to “Students and Writing Tutors”

  1. Erp

    I checked my local university’s writing center’s policy. Their policy includes “Because our goal is to help you improve and develop as a writer, we focus on giving you tools and strategies you can use to edit and proofread your own writing; this is also why we will not edit or proofread your work for you.” Would this in your opinion be legitimate?

    • John

      It sounds right to me. Too few PSE schools do offer skill training–which is the opposite problem to the one I discuss here. By all means show students how to improve their skills and then grade the assignments they write on their own to measure progress.

  2. Tyler Harper

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    Thank you for writing this. As a graduate student formerly involved in student governance at a university that has an extremely high level of students for whom English is a second language, and a struggle.

    Thank you for your eloquent reflection


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