Writing Centers, Ethics, and Excessive Research

Elizabeth Kleinfeld, Metropolitan State College of Denver


Writing Center and Ethics

Questions about the ethics of writing center work itself abound in the literature. The fact that Clark and Healy could write an article in 2001 entitled “Are Writing Centers Ethical?” substantiates this. Corbett’s 2008 essay, “Tutoring Style, Tutoring Ethics: The Continuing Relevance of the Directive/Nondirective Instructional Debate,”  illustrates that these debates are as vigorous today as they ever have been. To some (Sullivan, 1985), all writing center collaborations with students are unethical. To others (see for example, Boquet, 2000), writing center work itself is not unethical but is fraught with ethical dilemmas and the strain of conflicting responsibilities—to professors, to students, to the university, to students’ future employers, and more.

Many of these concerns are highlighted or at least underlined when writing centers actively intervene in a student’s source selection. For example, Sherwood’s (1999) worries about the tutor’s potential to censor a student or encourage self-censorship in students when the ideas they want to pursue are not, in the tutor’s estimation, appropriate for academia or a particular writing situation are concerns that need to be brought to bear on the issue of whether and how writing centers should work with students on source use. Just as there are times that Sherwood identifies in which it is in the student’s best academic interest to not take a particular stance on a topic, there are times when it might be in a student’s best academic interest to not use a particular source. But the choice about whether or not to use that source rests with the student. The tutor’s responsibility is to help the student understand the choice and consequences of each potential course of action, but the tutor cannot and should not make the decision. We should not make decisions for students, but we should make explicit for them that they have choices and every choice has consequences. Some choices will further them academically, others will further them in other ways.

Writing centers are sites of assimilation (Boquet, 2000; Grimm, 1999), like classrooms and other university spaces where students are exposed to academic conventions and standards that they are encouraged to adopt. While writing centers struggle with how to help students assimilate without censorship or appropriation, I will complicate matters by suggesting that we in writing centers have a twofold responsibility: 1) to help students with writing about their sources, and 2) to help them with writing about those sources in ways that are responsible and appropriate for academic discursive systems, which includes source selection, reading, and comprehension, as well as the more obvious areas of using signal phrases, parenthetical citations, and bibliography entries correctly.

A student typically comes in to the writing center having already “finished” their research and drafted a paper. That student will be resistant to “redoing” the research. In an essay on ethics and writing centers, Pemberton (2006) wryly notes,

In most writing centers, I suspect, tutors typically see students once, not many times, during the course of the semester. They generally see students a few days, not several weeks or months, before their writing is due. They usually see students with first or second drafts already completed, not when they’re primed to explore ideas. The students’ goals are frequently tied to getting a good grade, figuring out convenient ways to get finished with one paper before moving on to the next one, and learning how to frame their arguments in ways their professors will accept, not discovering how their ‘subject positions’ are constructed from the interplay of multiple voices in a social context. (p. 265)

This scenario certainly rings true for the students who come into the Metro State Writing Center with research writing. For the most part, they consider themselves to have completed their research and are now ready to write about it. Like the student who perceives writing as a linear process of discrete steps, the typical student research writer imagines that research is a discrete step that precedes writing. Generally, the student researcher comes to the writing center wanting help with the writing not the research and does not anticipate or welcome discussions of her sources.

Pemberton urges us to acknowledge the student’s goals, recognizing that “time is short in writing center conferences, and our encounters with students are often fleeting.” For Pemberton, this acknowledgment isn’t simply a matter of accepting reality, but an ethical responsibility. He says,

Students, for better or worse, have their own reasons for coming to the writing center, and as naïve or culturally determined or institutionally driven as those reasons might be, I think we have an ethical responsibility to respect them and work with them. That does not mean automatically acquiescing to what students want from us in a writing conference—or what a faculty member or institution wants, for that matter—but it does mean that we cannot discount or ignore the goals that the students value merely because they do not mesh fully with some of our own. (p. 265)

I agree with Pemberton that “we have an ethical responsibility to respect” student’s goals for coming to the writing center. At the same time, I believe we have an ethical responsibility to those students to help them develop information and source literacy. Will these two often-conflicting responsibilities be difficult to balance? Absolutely.  

These are the main arguments I have heard for writing centers to not address students’ research processes:

These statements are all true, at least in the Metro State Writing Center, so I can’t simply dismiss them. However, having reasons for not feeling comfortable doing something does not alleviate one of the responsibility for doing it. Time will always be an issue in writing centers and if we consider research processes part of Higher Order Concerns, which I discuss in Theory, we can prioritize research-related concerns the way we prioritize other HOCs. We may not know much more than our students about how to find appropriate sources, but we can find out through professional development trainings in our writing centers, workshops through the campus library, and online research (ironic, yes?). Students may not come in asking us for help with their research processes, but when they ask us to help them with argument development, I think they are asking us for help with using their sources.