Tales from the Writing Center: “There are Four Errors” OR That Goddamn Bird Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

It was the final week of the semester, and the writing center was packed to the gills, bleary-eyed students crowding the waiting area whilst world-weary front desk admins intoned–over and over again–”
no, you can’t just drop your paper off here for editing.” End-of-term is simultaneously that time when triage is most necessary–due to the difficulty of getting a walk-in appointment–and that time when the filter system falls apart, due to the mayhem. In other words, that’s when the really weird shit turns up.

The student in question was an unassuming young man bearing a heavy burden. As we walked to the computer terminals, he informed me that he was working on his final project for biology class, an ornithology class to be specific, in which he was supposed to record his identifications of over 200 local bird species observed throughout the semester. What a nightmare, I thought to myself, though I had no idea how bad it was going to get. At the computer terminal, he pulled up a gargantuan Excel file. Each entry described a bird, where it was sighted, the characteristics used to classify it, and the Latin name.

Perplexed about what he expected to get from this consultation, I asked why for he had come. “Well, you see, my professor takes a point off for each typo, spelling, or grammatical error.” I looked around the room and recalled with anguish that the entire writing center is windowless, thus, there was nothing to jump out of. I politely reminded the student that we were not a copy-editing service and that while I could show him how to correct certain usage problems, it would be up to him to edit the project himself. “No problem,” he said. “In fact, the professor already looked at a rough draft.” I had no idea that this was the precursor to something even more horrible. “He gave it back to me with one note: ‘There are four errors.’ I need help figuring out what the errors are.”

In a small but very loud corner of my brain, a high pitched voice was shrieking obscenities. So, this was a freaking “Where’s Waldo” exercise with words and punctuation, needles in a goddamn haystack. What’s worse, the student had no clue what the errors might be. They could be the aforementioned punctuation or spelling errors. They could also be formatting errors. They could be misspellings of the Latin bird names, or mis-identifications of the birds themselves. In other words, about twenty minutes in, I realized that what we were dealing with was not really part of my job description. I am not sure which damn fool recommended he bring his unidentified four errors to the writing center, but I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for that person.

While I have issues with the “one point off for every error” policy, I get the pedagogical point behind making students correct stuff if they want to get an A, and even getting them to figure out what’s wrong in the first place. But depending on the writing center (which at my university means people with MA’s in their field and full appointment books at the end of term) to help them correct this stuff is, quite simply, a waste of people’s time. I have no idea if this was a result of student laziness or instructor obliviousness, but WOW. Just wow.

I don’t think this is what Anne Lamott was talking about when she wrote Bird by Bird.

1 thought on “Tales from the Writing Center: “There are Four Errors” OR That Goddamn Bird Project

  1. Reading this sent a cold, lovecraftian shudder up my spine.

    Reminds me of a copyediting project I had when I worked at a U press where I had to check for correct spacing BETWEEN WORDS AND ALSO MAKE SURE THAT THE HYPHENS WEREN’T EN-DASHES in a Mayan archeology monograph’s index. After eight hours worth of of “Yucatan-qu-h’otls” and agonizing over semicolon placement, I went home and killed a six-pack and wanted to crawl back into the womb.

    At least I (sort of) got paid for that. That Writing Centers have to deal with the “fix this for me or I can’t rush” students on a regular basis makes me cringe.

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