Why Spelling Counts

Students often complain about professors meticulously marking spelling…and grammar…and usage…and other sentence-level problems in their writing when, in the students’ view, what the professors ought to be focusing on is the ideas the students are proffering.

“Shouldn’t the quality of my ideas be what matters? Why does spelling count?”

Privately, or among themselves, or under the veil of anonymity furnished by course evaluation forms, this irritation is expressed in terms of “picky little details” that professors “obsess over” at the cost of appreciating the student’s latent genius.

If one is still bothering to mark such matters on papers—and many of us, after a few years in the game, have given up doing so, alas—one can reply that articulating one’s ideas so as to clearly convey them to the reader is a crucial element of communication. In truth, the only ideas that “count” in such a situation are the ideas that are, in fact, communicated. So if enough words are misspelled, enough punctuation marks misused, and enough phrases mishandled, the only ideas getting through to the reader are in bad shape indeed.

This argument is a good one and we teachers ought to keep making it. But here’s another one, straight from the putative Real World—by which we mean, of course, the world of employment.

The ugly truth about work in this Real World, despite a generation or more of affirmation of each student’s precious wonderfulness—or, to be sure, in the alternative situation of a ruthless passing-along of barely educated pupils to the next grade level by overworked teachers whose attentions are disproportionately occupied by the variously troubled “problem children” in each excessively large class—is that few jobs, even in the Information Age, require and reward originality, or even creativity to any significant degree.

All jobs, however, require correct and complete following of instructions.

Those jobs—again, that would be all jobs—require, furthermore, such following of instructions regardless of whether one sees and agrees with the value of each instruction.

Failing to comply with the express directives of one’s supervisor is not generally understood as a mark of individual specialness. Nor do supervisors typically strain to “see past” such deviations into some underlying brilliance that more than compensates for this disappointment of expectations. No, not following instructions to the letter is more typically termed “cause for termination.”

If a student thereby wishes the best possible training for his or her success in the competitive world of job-seeking—and what student in these parlous times does not?—then he or she could do no better than to bless his or her instructors precisely for insisting on complete compliance with every parameter of every assignment.

Instead, that is, of whining about teachers requiring, say, double-spacing, or adequate margins, or single-sided printing, or secure stapling, let alone such “higher functions” as correct spelling, proper punctuation, and the like, students should be aggrieved at their (many) teachers who have not required such occupationally crucial conformity to conventions.

I shall deliver this message to my classes this coming week, even as I probably ought not to sit back to await the gushing compliments and extravagant gifts of thanks that should surely come my way.

But I won’t be wrong, will I?

The Cost of Free Speech on Campus

There is much to fear and loathe in the latest example of militant and violent campus intolerance. At Middlebury College in Vermont, dozens of furious students (and, likely, others from off campus) shouted down a campus talk by a visiting professor, crushed the subsequent attempt to livestream the lecture, and then hassled and physically harmed the host of the event, a female Middlebury professor.

It appears that those in charge tried to do their jobs in a careful and effective way, before, during, and after the event. Various Middlebury professors, administrators, and security personnel strove to strike the difficult balance between defending freedom of speech for the event participants and maintaining freedom of speech for protestors.

Alas, however, when people will not be reasoned with and resort instead to violence, persuasion must give way to redemptive coercion. And that’s what, so far, has been lacking at Middlebury, as it has been lacking so many other places as well.

If disgruntled students, professors, and other university citizens act in ways that directly prevent the university from fulfilling its mission, they must be called to account, instructed carefully in case they have misunderstood, and then prevented from subsequently impeding their fellows from pursuing that mission.

[For the rest, please go HERE.]

Knowing or Trusting? Which Would You Prefer?

In the recent Academy Award-winning movie Arrival, one character asks another a compelling question: If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you make different choices?

Being able to see the future, or to go back in time to rearrange the past (which can amount to the same thing), is a staple of science fiction—from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine to the Back to the Future trilogy.

“Time paradoxes”—Can you really change the course of history, or is there only one path, one fate?—show up in movies as diverse as 13 MonkeysSource Code and Deja Vu, and the answers vary from “yes” to “maybe” to “no.”

Not all of us share a taste for such fictional fare, but almost all of us raise the same issue. “If I only knew!” we say when facing a tough decision—about employment, or romance, or parenting. We think—How could we not?—that if we could only see clearly into the future, we would make much better decisions than we can as we actually exist: backing into the future, knowing only the past, and that only sketchily.

For the rest, please see HERE.