A Writing Tutor's Thoughts On Grammarly
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A Writing Tutor's Thoughts On Grammarly

Is it any better than Spell Check? And if it was, why would I tell you that?

A Writing Tutor's Thoughts On Grammarly
Cal U Writing Center

Students at my university have an invaluable resource at their disposal. It's not some campus secret; it's 12 talented tutors in a magical place we call the Writing Center.

Writing Centers are among the most underrated academic help services offered on any campus anywhere. There's a whole arena of writing center research, where tutors and directors meet at big conferences to present posters and speak at panels about their job. Yet you wouldn't assume that by walking into your local WC. At first glance, it's a study room with a few tables and chairs, a couple of public computers, and a big front desk with a friendly face behind it, asking if you've made an appointment. We take walk-ins, but we do suggest you schedule with us ahead of time. We're here to help undergrads and grad students at every step of the writing process. Brainstorming, outlining, drafting, doing research, using MLA and APA style guides, and revision.

I love my job at the Writing Center. We tutors come from all walks of life – majors in English, Psychology, Anthropology, Communication Disorders, Computer Science – but we all share one common trait: we are all skilled and conscious writers. We share a mastery of grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, and rhetoric. Our skills let us read deeper into our clients' papers than Spell Check ever could. I was proud to know that my esoteric talent for correct grammar could be put to use.

Then along came Grammarly. I hadn't heard of it before I got my job at the Writing Center, but when I first listened to a Grammarly advertisement between songs on Spotify, I thought, "Hm. That sounds an awful lot like what I do!" I was intrigued and somewhat worried. Was a computer about to take my job? Surely it couldn't compare to a human pair of eyes on a document, knowing all the rules well enough to bend them when necessary and avoid false-positives.

On the other hand, I was excited by the possibility of being able to delegate all grammatical and mechanical revision to an algorithm, thus freeing up time for the humans to focus on higher-order concerns like style, organization, and thesis. It reminded me of something my old pre-calculus teacher in high school used to say. Roughly, "you should be able to do factoring and limits and derivatives in your head; arithmetic is for calculators." It made sense. The technology is there, and it will work so much faster and more accurately in complex operations than a human. Why waste the time multiplying multi-digit numbers by hand, or whatever the case may be? The same might be said for Grammarly.

I've started using the software, and I must admit, it catches some of the things we spend time in our appointments addressing. If it sees widespread adoption, I think it can only be good for both students and us writing tutors. If the faculty culture allowed for it, we might see relaxed grading focus on grammar and punctuation, thanks to the general increase in mechanical accuracy. And we tutors would be able to devote more time in our limited 50-minute sessions to those higher order concerns. I admit, reviewing students' papers for grammar is easy and fun. There's a pattern to it -- an easy-to-follow kind of routine -- that feels gratifying, like solving a puzzle. But the real value in writing is not so much in how correct it is, but in what it says, and how well it says it. Organization takes a big-picture approach, and an understanding of how every idea in the work relates to every other idea. Style takes attention to figurative language, voice, structure, and cultural references that can be easy to recognize but hard to quantify. Good rhetoric demands the writer consider the purpose of every word and how it will impact the audience, how it represents their ideas, and how it represents themselves. I don't think computers are even close to being able to process that kind of stuff. But if we hand over the parts of our writing they can help us with, and leave the rest to the tutors, I think the world will be all the richer in knowledge and the exchange of ideas as a result.

Stop by the Writing Center some time, or check us out on the web.

Noss Hall, Room 110

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