I can admit that standard grammar is an exceedingly important part of writing, particularly in the academic context that The Writing Center exists in. If only to avoid being distracting to readers, grammar is important. If we also want to convey a sense of professionalism or mastery of coursework, it becomes indispensable.
I will also admit, however, that I absolutely hate focusing on it in sessions. To explain my distain, I will point to my title as a “Writing Consultant.” There is a distinct ideological difference between tutoring writing and tutoring English, as a language. As mentioned in the introduction to this series, The Writing Center does not require consultants to be “grammar experts,” though we all have a general knowledge that is sufficient for most situations.
Though grammar is integral to clear writing, there is a great deal more to the expression of our thoughts, ideas, and feelings through the written word than grammar alone. A typical academic writing assignment, for example, requires that a student be able to read and understand often lengthy prompts, have formulated original, insightful thoughts on the topic, articulate and structure their ideas logically and in adherence with American academic conventions, and all the while keeping in mind course materials and themes. Juggling all of these various, competing conditions requires a number of skills that take time to develop. Our goal at The Writing Center is to not simply to make better papers, but better writers. To do so necessitates that we focus on helping clients develop these skills to do well now, and throughout their college career.
For those students who really do need extra help with their use of the English language in order to make their writing clearer there is the English Language Center Lab, which specifically serves international students in need of more help with the English language itself. Understanding clearly the needs of our clients as well as the various resources available to them is key in helping students to be as successful as possible.
My final misgiving about making grammar the focus of Writing Center sessions is that I think despite identifying grammar as their primary concern, many students, both native English speakers and not, turn out to be really interested in talking about how to refine their thesis or develop more interesting analysis once a session gets started. I think many students frequently say they want to talk about grammar just because they’re not sure what else to say they want to work on. To best help students to be successful in their classes, and to get the most out of their sessions at The Writing Center, we encourage a broader understanding of what constitutes “writing” and what a liberal arts education is trying to cultivate. Creative, analytical thought, fueled by thoughtful reflection and collaboration is the goal of university level writing assignments, to which ends grammar is merely a tool.