The Ethicist on Giving Students Help on Writing…

By October 24, 2010New Media

In today’s (October 24, 2010) New York Times Magazine, Randy Cohen fields a question from a librarian (scroll down to the second entry) at a community college about the ethics of pointing out students grammar or spelling errors when she/he (the writer’s name is withheld) is fielding more technical questions about how to use computer workstations. The exact question reads:

“As a librarian at a community college, I am responsible for offering technical computer help to students using our workstations. I sometimes notice that students have made grammar or spelling errors in a paper, and I am tempted to point this out, but would I give them an unfair edge over other students? Our students seldom compete with one another, but some scholarships are based on scholarly achievement. Should I simply tell them where to click in Word and refer them to the writing lab?”

Cohen, to his credit, responds that helping some students out with their writing–when others don’t seek or receive help–is perfectly ethical, given that the goal of college is “to educate students, not to conduct a competition for grades.” Even more impressively, Cohen makes the case for the NAME WITHHELD, New Jersey to reframe her or his question. Why, he asks, focus only on fixing or correcting grammatical errors? Instead, Cohen suggests that N.W., N.J. resist the role of editor in favor of “help[ing students] recognize and repair such errors themselves.” Lastly, Cohen rightly suggests that the “writing lab” (what this particular community college evidently calls its writing center) “can suggest techniques” to help the librarian in her or his efforts to help by teaching principles of grammar, rather than merely editing particular sentences. Overall, an encouraging and reassuring construction of the issues of writing and error and the role of writing centers in helping students learn more about these issues.

The only other push back that I’d like to see from Cohen would be to make the case that fixing spelling or grammar errors doesn’t necessarily lead to better written work. Grammatically perfect writing that fails to respond to an assignment or contains unsupported conclusions or interpretations, stolen prose, or errors or fact is still problematic. I don’t take issue with the helpful librarian’s question per se, but the specific context she or he sees these grammar or spelling errors–leaning over a students shoulder as she or he offers help with Word–reminds me how surface errors are really all one can see when one takes a cursory look at a piece of writing.