From the Archive: Honoring the Student’s Voice (Spring 2008)

By Rachel Bowers, Writing Studio Staff
Originally posted: Spring 2008

The Vanderbilt Honor Code demands that students’ written work represent their own “original thoughts.” The Writing Studio, according to its stated mission, “fosters collaborative intellectual inquiry by encouraging conversation and critical reflection.” As a consultant in the Writing Studio and a member of the Vanderbilt academic community, I have felt the apparent and real tension between these two statements. How can we ensure that students submit work that represents their original ideas alone if we also promote collaborative inquiry?

In spite of the apparent conflict of interests, I have discovered a strong academic ethic that unites the purpose of the Honor Code with the mission of the Writing Studio: a commitment to promote the integrity and development of each individual student’s intellectual voice.

Consultants in the Writing Studio, as members of the academic community ourselves, take our adherence to the Honor Code seriously not only in our own academic work as students, but also in our work with those who come to us for help. That doesn’t mean that we don’t face challenges in interpreting the Honor Code.

These challenges can come in the form of three “types” of student:

  • the silent student who claims only to want an editor,
  • the confused student who wants to succeed but is truly lost, and
  • the intensely engaged student who is eager to talk about ideas and work on writing.

While all three scenarios require writing consultants to hold in tension the responsibility to help students with the ethical obligations of the Honor Code, I find that silent students present the most difficult challenge. When a student arrives for a session, tosses a paper in front of me, and says, “I just need someone to look this over and tell me what to do with it,” the boundaries of academic integrity are easy enough to locate but more difficult to operate within. Clearly, I will not be “telling” the student what to do, nor will I function as an editor—and I take it as my responsibility to say so. What’s not so clear is how to convince the student to take ownership of his or her paper. Usually, when I explain these boundaries and ask the student to state more specifically what kind of trouble she might be having with her writing, she becomes a more active participant and learns quickly that I am there to challenge and help—not necessarily to make her work easier.

Some of my colleagues respond to this type of scenario with a more extreme “minimalist” approach by avoiding looking at the draft altogether. Instead, they encourage students to talk through their ideas, which allows the consultant to question and probe for claims, evidence, and detail. Along similar lines, I find that by sitting back and refusing to pick up a pen myself, I can elicit more active participation from the student. Students may view these strategies as cold or mean, but many of my most productive sessions grow from an initial moment of refusal on my part to coddle or make things easy for them. When I invest in the student’s learning (rather than in the draft itself), I see the student’s attention shift from getting a paper “fixed” to owning and defending his or her ideas. Through this type of collaboration, the student has no choice but to raise his or her own intellectual voice.

This outcome, it seems to me, is the core goal of the Honor Code. The Honor Code does not exist simply as a measuring stick to support punitive academic action, but rather as a statement of profound respect for each individual’s thought and learning. If a student represents another’s work as his or her own, disciplinary action should certainly be taken, but what is truly lost is an opportunity for that student to experiment with ideas, take intellectual risks, and learn from honest feedback. The collaborative inquiry taking place in the Writing Studio extends and supports students’ intellectual risk-taking. We question, we challenge, and we help clarify students’ ideas in ways that help them experience the value of thinking for themselves. In so doing, we hope to empower students and increase their confidence along with their capacity to formulate and to voice those independent thoughts in conversation and, of course, through their writing.