Abuse of Power?

Hello, Eric here from the 303 tutoring class at Boise State. We have read many essays in the 303 class about methods and practices in tutoring writing. Although they all provide useful insight, I also find they can be inhibiting. Allow me to explain:

I have just begun to conduct my own consultations, and I sometimes find myself getting lost in the vague web of whatever "dos" and "don'ts" I might be reminded of from the essays as I sit down to consult with a writer. For example, I may reach for my pencil and a voice speaks up inside: "You're not going to write on his paper are you? You're not an editor, you're a collaborator!" I find myself second-guessing myself a lot in consultations, wondering if I am violating the rules that have been set forth in the Murphy and Sherwood text. This kind of hesitation can be stifling for a number of reasons. First of all, there is not a lot of time for hesitation in a half-hour session. And further, the writer is here seeking my assistance, so it's not likely to put him or her at ease to see any uncertainty in the writing tutor.

Some situations feel like they are testing my unspoken 'code of conduct' as a writing tutor. What if somebody comes in only wanting assistance with grammar and punctuation? Is it wrong to tell her that a colon would work better here, or that the use of a certain word is confusing and another one would work better? I wonder about trying to find a way to lead students to this information on their own, but it's not always easy in situations like this. Does anyone else feel uncertain about how far to go in assisting a student, especially when there is an expressed concern to revise grammar, punctuation and spelling? I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Rock on


  1. Your concern is a valid one, and quite common among writing tutors of any level of experience, Eric. Ultimately we always have to consider this, I think: is what we are doing as a respondent to another person's writing compromising what their learning? Are we "doing it for them" or are we showing them how to do something? I think there is a clear distinction between the two, and that when we work to help a person understand, say, why a colon might be the better choice in a situation, we're not doing it for them, but helping the person to learn about colon usage.

  2. I have given this dilemma allot of thought, and I can honestly say that I don't know. Sometimes I feel that I am compromising the philosophical ideal of the writing center if I try to suggest too much. I have talked to others about this, and I think it is good to start out in the center with the focus on the philosophy. I also think that in time, with more experience, we newbie’s will develop a sense of what is really going too far. The bonus of having so much ethics and philosophy crammed into our brains in the beginning is to have something to guide us, so that we don't use our powers for evil....I think that in time, the pendulum of self regulation will find it’s down swing from the heights of the absolute, and into the arc of understanding. The real challenge, as I see it, is to keep that philosophical and ethical guidance in the fore front, in case the pendulum swings up to the side of manipulation and overconfidence. I think the heightened sense of morality you have is commendable. Try to hang onto it as long as possible! I know I am.

  3. Anonymous10:32 AM

    We've been having a lot of debate recently in our WC about punctuation and grammatical concerns (wow - don't we sound like an exciting bunch!). It feels like a lot of our profs are putting an increased focus on these areas, especially when grading. If we know a student can fail a paper because of comma splices, where then does that put our responsibility?

    So I've been talking more grammar this semester than usual. But when I do, I never simply tell the writer what to change. Instead, we look at example sentences and then I explain the rules as best I can. I let the writer decide what is appropriate. There are a lot of rules and most of them have a lot of variations based on style.

  4. I understand where you're coming from, Eric. I have some of the same questions since starting my own consultations. I, too, found myself hesitating, especially when one ELL student challenged me on a certain word that was incorrectly used in her paper. I knew it was wrong; she believed it wasn't and didn't hesitate to tell me so, stating that her instructor told her it was OK. So there I was, kind of at a loss as to what to do. I fell a little uncertain of myself at that point. It certainly was nerve-wracking, though. What do other consultants do when the writer challenges them in this manner? Do you say to them, "Well, it is your paper," but at the same time telling them what you would do different? Or, do you just let it go in hopes that the instructor will correct them on it so they will know that the consultant was right to begin with? I don't want to be, like, "I told you so," or anything, but I would hope that the student would learn from the mistake.

  5. Eric,
    This is a very good question. I think Clint is right.
    If you notice something like a colon usage, then teach them how to use one. Let them walk away with a new piece of information.
    I don't think it over steps anything... we're here to help them with their writing.
    I think it's all in how you word it.



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