Have You Turned Yourself into a Writing Tutor?

My university is currently hiring writing tutors. Let me know if you are interested in applying.

What? You didn’t spend all those years of work getting a PhD in business, physics, or history to become a writing tutor? Then ask yourself one simple question: Have you turned yourself into one?

The number one mistake I see faculty members make in their feedback on student work is to turn themselves into writing tutors. They go down a student assignment, checking off grammar and spelling errors, all the while mentally subtracting from the grade and leaving brief comments such as “vague” and “grammar” in the margins.

These instructors are grading; they are not teaching. The margin comments are just meant to justify the grade, and there is no attempt to engage the students on the content issues that are the intended focus of the course.

Why do faculty members do this? The school does not want them to become writing tutors. The school has put a lot of money into paying writing tutors in the Writing Center. The school wants faculty members to teach their subjects—business, history, and so on. If both faculty and the Writing Center are tutoring writing, then nobody is teaching content.

Students do not want their faculty to fixate on writing problems over content issues. As one student put it, “Most of my writing issues are a result of muddled thinking. Once my thinking is clarified, my writing will follow” (Turnitin 2013). When was the last time a student thanked you for marking up a paper with writing issues?

Faculty members themselves do not want to become writing tutors. If given their druthers, they would put their feet up and talk shop with fellow practitioners in their field, as they do at conferences. Tutoring writing is boring and makes grading a drudgery.

If neither the school, nor the students, nor the faculty members themselves want faculty to become writing tutors, then why are faculty members doing it? Some faculty members claim they need to focus on student writing because student writing is so bad. But just because a student has a problem does not automatically make it the faculty member’s job to fix it. If the student’s academic problems were caused by alcoholism, faculty members would not take it upon themselves to counsel the student. They would send the student to the drug and alcohol treatment center.

In reality, we faculty members turn ourselves into writing tutors because writing errors get under our skin. We receive a letter that begins with “Dear John, I found someone else and I’m leeving you,” and we think to ourselves she misspelled leaving.

Students are better served by their instructors’ engaging them on the content issues in their courses. Put down the red pen and read each assignment first with an eye toward discerning the student’s level of understanding of the concepts, not the writing. President Garfield once said, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other.” Note how he was distilling education to its essence of a meeting of the minds by altogether eliminating the distracting intermediary of the assignment. When students put their thoughts to paper, we easily get sidetracked from those thoughts by their writing. But don’t let yourself be distracted. Read the work as a portal into students’ thinking first by asking what it shows about what they know and how you can improve their understanding.

That does not mean that faculty cannot grade down for writing problems, but grading is not feedback. A grade is just a symbolic summary of a past performance. Feedback is information that teaches the student something. The goal is to improve the student’s understanding by filling in some gap in the student’s knowledge base.

A good technique is to read a student’s work with a mind toward finding one or two concepts with which that student is struggling and provide the information needed to clarify those concepts. Your commentary should be in the form of: “Here you say this, but that is not right for this reason.  Let me explain the idea to you….” This will reorient your mind from grading to teaching your subject through feedback to the student.

Ask yourself right now whether you have turned yourself into a writing tutor and whether that is what you intended when you first went into teaching. If you have done this, then stop right now and start reading each assignment as an opportunity to engage students on the content issues that define expertise in your field. Make that your first job reviewing student work, and you will return to the very thing that drew you into teaching in the first place.


Turnitin (2013). Office hours: Students share successful feedback tips. Webinar. January 22, 2013.


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