Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sometimes You Can Will It Into Being. A Breakthrough for Dr. Bug Eye.

My wife calls me Bug Eye, at least when she's in the mood for that sort of joshing.

And so my students might think of me that way as well, given the extraordinarily large and thick glasses I wear. It's because of an eye condition that is slowly (quite slowly, actually, I'm lucky) robbing me of my vision.

Because of that I require students print their projects and essays in larger than normal fonts, with larger than normal margins. I ask for this formally each time I make an assignment. But, invariably (and are any of you surprised), more than half fail to do it. So I take the tiny print back to my office, and it makes my grading harder than it has to be.

I don't know why I've just shrugged about this. But I have, and it's bugged me.

So this semester I uttered this line at the initial discussion of the first paper. "Your paper has to be formatted exactly as I've assigned, or I won't grade it."

One student said, "What do you mean, you won't grade it? Like until we fix it?"

"No," I said. "No grade at all. Zero. F."

There was a grumbling, some harumphing, and so on. And I was nervous. What would I do when tested? Would I soldier on? Maybe I'd get fewer unreadable texts, and that would be an improvement.

And then the question came again the day before.

"You really won't grade our essays if they don't have 16 font? And those margins? And nothing but sans serif fonts? Really?"

"Yes, I said. Zeroes for all of that. Do you know how to make 16 font? Can you make margins that big? I can show you."

And then the first set came in. I could read every one of them. They were ALL done properly. They ALL matched a format I'd been requiring for years, but never getting.

You can get what you want, sometimes; this is my lesson for today.

- Dr. Bug Eye


  1. Frankly, sir, I am astonished. More power to you! My own experience is that anytime you ask students to do ANYTHING slightly different from what they expect (e.g. hand in two copies of an assignment, or run it through and hand in a print-out of a report with the assignment), half of them are lost. It's difficult enough to get them to follow directions to do something they do expect (e.g. turn in a paper in class during the first five minutes of class, or else it gets a zero).

  2. After one semester of teaching I got the idea of having students submit their essays electronically with a certain format for the file name. I already knew, however, that it wouldn't work, so I never even tried.

    But it would appear that we have peopled our classrooms with Calibans, "whom stripes may move, not kindness."

  3. My own view - take it for what it's worth - is that this just shows that even lazy students draw a distinction between formatting requirements that appear to them as more or less arbitrary, and those which are driven by practical necessity. They have difficulty grasping the idea that it might be worthwhile for the instructor to prescribe a particular format for the sheer sake of coordination - that uniformity might have some value in itself, and that the instructor has the authority to decide how the lines should be drawn. But if they can see for themselves that there is a good reason for prescribing a font no smaller than 16-point (e.g., because the instructor will have difficulty reading anything smaller than that) than they will not perceive the prescription as arbitrary, and they will be more likely to comply. In other words, I suspect that it is not the authority of the instructor in the latter scenario that is doing the work here; it is the students' own sense of fairness. Just a thought.

    1. Except that, as AdjunctSlave points out above, what finally got them to follow the directions Dr B had been giving for semesters was the threat that they'd flunk otherwise, not any appeal to kindness or practicality.

      I'm told some of our Business proffies flunk papers with more than 6 technical errors, on the grounds that anything with that many errors would seriously undermine any business transaction of which it was a part. Apparently they get mostly error-free papers; I (who allot 10% of the points on my rubrics to technical matters) don't. But when I'm publishing, or applying for a fellowship (and no doubt when I apply for jobs again, if/when I go back on the market), I spend hours and hours making sure that I've followed directions, prescribed formats, conformed to work/character count limitations, etc., etc. Flunking students for technical matters alone just doesn't fit my philosophy, but I wonder whether I'm failing to prepare them for the real world. I certainly cheer Dr B for doing what it takes to get the students to cooperate in one small accommodation that allows him to teach them more effectively.

    2. Oh I quite agree that mine is just an interpretation. I am proceeding on the basis that the threat alone would not have brought such a high percentage of the students into line. (Froderick's amazement at its success speaks volumes.) To get the kind of results that Dr B is describing requires more than a threat: it requires some sort of social norm/pressure among the students themselves that it is appropriate to conform to the formatting guidelines laid down by the instructor. And my point was that this social pressure is not generated by the authority of the instructor, but by pre-existing norms among students about when it is reasonable to comply and when it is not.

      But anyway...

      I don't think we should worry so much about 'the real world'. We should simply try to inculcate academic values as best we can. I tend to agree with you that *formatting* errors do not go to the heart of the academic endeavour such that they warrant massive grade deductions.

    3. Except no where in this post does Dr. Bug-Eye tell us that he tells his students why he has this requirement. Unless he posts an addendum, I am going to have to think that your interpretation is wrong then, Dead Prof Walking. An appeal to kindness and logic has nothing to do with this change; it's purely reliant on the threat of failure that got students to comply with Bug-Eye's instructions.

      Why do I think this? I taught a class for which the text had a lengthy explanation about why certain fonts and formats were important, including a discussion of APA vs. MLA and eye strain and historical explanations of the advancement of typeface -- it was wonderful! And it did NOTHING to change the number of people who handed in stuff that was single-spaced with 2-inch margins and 8-point font. Some students just do not care, even after getting multiple zeroes. Instead, it's all the instructor's fault because we didn't just accept their garbage as-is.

      So, well done, Bug-Eye, for sticking to your guns, issuing a real threat, and somehow managing to get them all to pay attention enough to follow this very simple directive! Well done, indeed.

      I have but one caveat -- how many of the little brats are going to start handing in stuff for other classes in your special format and arguing, "Well, Dr. Bug-Eye told us to do it this way!"?

    4. Students generally regard any and all rules related to formatting (and in this I include citation formats) as arbitrary. When asked directly "what's the reason for rule x?" Their most common reply is "there is no reason" or "it varies from prof to prof". They even do this on stuff that is department policy (so no variation) and stuff that has just been explained ("here's why we do x" and then "now, why do we do x?").

  4. Good for you.

    Hold them accountable, because their employers or clients will. It's best they learn that before getting out into the real world.

  5. Hooray for you, Bug Eye! It's nice to read a heart-warming story on here once in a while.

    I require students to submit files electronically using a particular file naming standard, and I warn them that if the naming standard is not used, the work will not be graded. (I have scripts set up to look for these names, and the scripts won't work if the students treat the file name as a creative writing assignment.) After the first batch of zeros go out, the requirement is usually met for the rest of the term.

    Again, "Bravo!" to you, and stick to your guns.

  6. I don't think we should worry so much about 'the real world'.

    I must respectfully disagree. I only use the term 'real world' to distinguish it from the world of academia, but eventually the snowflakes will graduate from, be kicked out of, or just give up and leave that world and enter the real world. That world is less forgiving of errors, and leniency can't be negotiated or wheedled.

    Inculcating values, academic and otherwise, is a noble effort and should be attempted. We strive to do what is right because it is right, but we generally obey traffic laws because we don't want expensive fines and increased insurance rates. We don't steal because we don't want to go to jail. And some people are alive only because it's illegal to shoot them.

    1. "and leniency can't be negotiated or wheedled"

      When faced with the physical laws of the universe, yes. But when it comes to human affairs, I must respectfully disagree. If what you say were true, then we would live in a far more just and equitable world than the one I see around me. From the fast talker who 'charms' their way out of a ticket, to the business leaders (those bastions of bottom line pragmatism) who screwed the economy, took the bailouts and skated, I see leniency being wheedled right, left and centre.

      Screw that! Nay, fuck that (since we seem to be bringing back the F-bomb)! I say we stick to the (alleged) values of academia where you cite your sources, reason logically, and provide justification for your claims.

      "some people are alive only because it's illegal to shoot them". OK, gotta admit you have a point there.

  7. Students who know you're serious actually do comply (interesting how they can suddenly do what's required when the stakes are high enough). I do this with deadlines. Students know I don't accept late work. Period. And surprisingly, those who have taken classes from me before comply. Those who haven't, invariably turn something in late the first time, but don't repeat it (except the ones who simply do not care and are going to need to withdraw from the class).

    I'm so glad you stuck to your guns and finally got the results you wanted.

  8. I had two proffies who were legally blind during my studies. One was like you, Dr. Bug Eye, in that he had the enormously thick glasses and would have to stand so close to the chalk board to do math problems that he'd often step back and have chalk on his face. The worksheets/tests he gave us had huge fonts on them, and it was just understood that we were to write equally as large when we handed them in. The second was of the dark glasses and white-tipped cane variety of impairment, so we had to write all our papers, read them into tape recorders, and hand them in on cassette. Our feedback came to us at the end of each returned tape in the form of comments and then a grade. I don't remember anyone complaining in either instance. Of course, that was almost 30 years ago, when complaining about stupid things got students sent to Student Affairs for counseling.

  9. The reason formatting is important is because it's important to follow instructions. If, say, you are applying for a home loan and you can't be bothered to check box X or enclose X copies of Y document, well, then, tough. If your financial aid form isn't in on time, too bad. If your boss demands that your PowerPoint slides have 24-point Times New Roman font and you decide that comic sans serif is kicky and fun, hello pink slip. The thing that boggles my mind is that they should not have to be taught to follow instructions at the college level. They should already be doing it. But now that Mommy is filling out the applications, I guess not.

  10. Or you could stop being a layzeee motherf-er and just buy a full page magnifying glass instead of making me fiddle with my MS Word template formatting?

  11. It's funny, but as someone between careers right now - and hence teaching both grad and undergrad while I take undergrad courses in a different field - I see this from both ends.

    Here I sit as a published scholar writing a term paper that will only be read by the prof. The whole student mindset kicks in. I feel an almost irresistible temptation to:

    - ...attach a note to the paper explaining things. I hate and ignore such notes when I read term papers, so I won't do this. But I feel the urge. My empathy with my students grows.

    - ...change the required MLA format. I HATE MLA. It is alien to my native field and an inefficient citation system, especially when the in-text, parenthetical method is used. I think I am going to try to weasel this one a bit and not post the entire bibliographical information at the first citation. I am most certainly not going to use parenthetical citations. I think this'll fly, though. I don't want to ask, because that might be too snow-flaky. This is still the snowflake student mindset, however. I think I know better and am just going to submit what I think is right. And I am "gaming the system" a bit because doing this formally right would put me slightly over the page limit (because the footnotes would be a few lines longer and I refuse to do endnotes, another thing I hate, unless forced to do so at gun point). I have a more informed view on these things than some jerk who just doesn't want to use 12-point font because he doesn't feel like it. But it is still a bit flaky.

    On the other hand, my scholarly instincts are present to a greater degree than I felt with even some of my published work. In terms of content, I am investing more time and thought into the actual writing than I have for some of my journal submissions. I find I am enjoying the writing. From what I gather from my classmates, I am alone in this.

    Meanwhile, however, I also prepare another submission for a publisher. I follow the formatting requirements religiously. Because I absolutely have to. There is no grade. No game. It just is.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.