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Letters to the editor


We need to question, and manage, expectations

The article, “A fine red line: when does editing a student’s work become cheating?” (October issue), raises important questions. If more and more students are resorting to “fixing” their written work with the help of editors, doesn’t that tell us something? Are we dealing with more diverse students whose writing skills probably differ from mainstream expectations, or are our literacy levels not what universities expect? I strongly feel that this problem is growing and, as universities accept more and more diverse students, there should be focused guidance on writing expectations. Whether it comes from individual professors or as a required non-graded course that every student should take, we need to look for ways to address this, rather than passing it off to academic centres to help students out. For some students, scholarly writing may be alien to them and they need to be guided appropriately.

Shahnaaz Alidina
Dr. Alidina recently received her doctorate in education at York University.

Improving through concrete examples

I question this idea that students do not learn if you simply fix up their writing for them (“A fine red line: when does editing a student’s work become cheating?”). As long as the students read over the revised version themselves and understand the rationale behind each change, there can be no harm, learning-wise. Personally, I think my writing improves the fastest when I can see concrete examples in my own writing of how I can improve. Reading generic examples from a textbook will never be as effective as being shown specific examples from your own writing.

The problem is when students become reliant on editors over an extended period of time. When friends ask me for writing help nowadays, I do not hold anything back. Depending on the quality of the writing I receive, I perform minor edits to major structural revamps. In rare instances, I understand that the extent of my help may approach the “rewriting it for them” territory but sometimes that’s what a person needs. Writing centres, by refusing to do edits, are denying some students much-needed help. For my part, I assume that my friends want to improve in good faith when they seek my editing help. I can testify, from reading their subsequent writings, that they improve very quickly.

Tony Zhuang
Mr. Zhuang is a second-year master’s student in transportation at the University of Toronto.

An interactive process

there should always be some accommodation for international students whose first language is not English to help them polish up their prose and make it more idiomatic, and we need to distinguish this from the plagiarizing of ideas and results (“A fine red line: when does editing a student’s work become cheating?”). However, such accommodation should not be merely a matter of allowing the submission of a text to an editor for correction and subsequently handing in the editor’s corrected version. The process must be head-to-head, where the editor asks questions of the sort, “Did you perhaps mean this rather than that?” and makes the student aware of the nuances, vagueness and ambiguities of English so that he or she will learn from the process. In other words, the editing should be interactive and not a one-sided process.

Karl Pfeifer
Dr. Pfeifer is an adjunct senior research fellow in philosophy in the school of philosophical, historical and international studies at Monash University in Australia, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan.

From spell-checkers to Grammarly

The article, “A fine red line: when does editing a student’s work become cheating?”, fails to note that students have for a long time used software that suggests specific edits – from spell-checkers and those green Microsoft Word squiggles to services like Grammarly. How is getting help from software different from getting help from a human who knows basic spelling and grammar? Our university even pays for Grammarly’s premium service for all of our students. Are we abetting plagiarism?
Melissa Belvadi
Ms. Belvadi is a librarian at the Robertson Library, University of Prince Edward Island.

Let’s continue the conversation

As an adviser who meets with many students in crisis, I highly identify with many points in the article, “Our role is to support students when they are ready to be students” (online at, Aug. 25). I firmly believe more students would take breaks to focus on their personal well-being if they were guaranteed a spot to return to their studies once they were well. While I understand the reasons why universities have policies around time limits and repeating classes, these polices do not encourage students to take the time needed to deal with personal struggles.

One of the saddest things I witness is students throwing away their hard-earned cash (and easily earned loans) for one class after another while they attempt to maintain minimum enrolment standards and deal with a crisis simultaneously. It often ends in academic penalties and a university record they cannot overcome. In future years, once their personal situation has stabilized, they are often locked out of their desired area of studies.

Continuing conversations around this topic must be on the agendas not only for universities but in wider society as well. All of us have times of personal difficulty where time away from school and work is necessary. We need to create an environment where this is not seen as weak, but as an expected and valued way of maintaining a healthy society.

Sarah Hunter
Ms. Hunter is an academic adviser with the faculty of nursing at the University of Regina.

Under pressure

Re. “our role is to support students when they are ready to be students.” It is refreshing to hear this perspective. I’m surprised I don’t hear more about the societal pressures underlying students’ mental health struggles (especially anxiety).

I’ve heard countless stories from students about the pressure to choose a career path in high school, or about parental/social pressure to succeed, and the resulting stubborn belief that every choice, every grade, every failure or achievement is going to make or break the rest of their lives. Not to mention that they are juggling jobs, school
and social media. The suffering is not insignificant. We need to address these broader issues, not just focus on accommodations. I heartily agree that some students should not stay in university when they are struggling with severe circumstances. I suspect they are too afraid to leave – led to believe their lives will be ruined if they do.

Diane Enns
Dr. Enns is a professor of philosophy at McMaster University.

The ‘summit’ of senior administration

From time to time, University Affairs publishes articles highlighting the hurdles that female academics experience in career advancement. Emphasis is often placed on the dearth of women occupying senior administrative posts. One of the recent articles on this aspect appeared online on May 11 (“Four women leaders in higher-ed discuss their paths to the presidency”). The article states:

“Women now comprise more than half of all undergraduate students and assistant professors. But when it comes to leadership, parity is a distant dream: for two decades now, women have made up just 20 percent of university presidents (and 30 percent of college presidents).”

With respect, it puzzles me why, at a university in particular, should the gauge for career advancement be the attainment of a senior administrative position. I certainly understand that, in most industries, attaining a senior management position would be an obvious measure of advancement. But I feel that this generally may not be so in university culture. Here, the administrative track (chair, dean, etc.) is rather distinct from the conventional academic track (assistant, associate, full professor). By that, I mean simply that an administrative appointment does not represent a natural advancement over an academic one, even though the former requires the latter. In terms of career advancement, full professor is often regarded as the natural summit.

For example, I know of numerous colleagues who were encouraged to compete for a vacant senior administrative post, but who would not even consider applying because the sacrifice would have been essentially giving up a good deal of the academic activities that attracted them to academia in the first place. So if there is any validity to my perspective here, why should we be assessing career progress from the relative proportion of administration posts held by women? Of course, I’m not pretending that female academics don’t face challenges in career advancement that men don’t. I just wonder whether there are better means of assessing those challenges than by the proportion of senior administration posts held by women.

Reuben Kaufman
Dr. Kaufman is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Alberta. He can be reached at