You’d think they’d know better

First things first, some background. I’m a writing tutor. I work with graduate students at Montana State University in Bozeman. Usually, this means I read a lot of theses and dissertations from departments like Chemistry, Computer Science, Earth Science, Counseling, and Architecture. Usually this means I don’t read a lot of theses and dissertations from departments like English, Philosophy, and History.

The reasons for this are pretty obvious. Those last-mentioned groups already know how to write, presumably; so they don’t make appointments with me and I’m left to slog through 120 pages on Wilkinson power circuits or semantic text clustering or expected progeny differences in livestock. It’s not that I don’t like those topics… Well, actually I don’t. That’s why I majored in Literature and got a master’s in English. Yet I read them because I must and because I feel some duty to help other people improve their writing. It’s my calling in life, it seems. And they’re not all that bad.

But this week, a gem landed in my e-mail inbox. One of the English grad students wanted an appointment to go over a paper she’ll submit to a conference. Great! Wonderful! About damned time I got someone from the humanities into my office. Not only would this one be a breeze read, but it would deal with subjects I like. The pot only sweetened after I opened her attachment. It was an 11-page paper on problems of collaborative authorship in memoirs, autobiographies, and diaries — the very subject that formed the heart of my thesis two years ago. Joy!

But as I sat down to read it, I started tasting a familiar, metallic flavor. It was the flavor of her prose, which despite its grade-level, was trying just as hard to emulate the “official style” as any of the freshmen I taught back in composition class. One example: what should have been just an “uneven balance of power” turned into an “incongruous power ratio.”

I realized then and there that no matter who you are, you might need writing help, especially if you’re part of a department where you are expected to know how to write clearly. It’s not like I expected her paper to be spotless — I have read some of these English grad papers in class, after all. I know they can be just as weak as a freshman nursing student or engineer in certain ways. But I expected her to at least have her own voice and not feel like she had to emulate the current style-of-choice.

The experience reaffirmed for me that my job is valuable, that I can help people improve their writing. Now, all I have to do is make them see that they need help… That will be the hard part. More to come…

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