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My students just handed in their first major paper, an argument essay (required by all students taking ENG 100 at our institution) that includes research. We’ve been working through coming up with a topic, doing research, formulating an argument, doing drafts then revisions, etc. It’s been a process that has taken over six weeks, but one feature of the essay that always confounds my students is formatting the document, specifically according to MLA guidelines (again, another program requirement). We’re in the computer lab, so I spent an entire class showing them (and asking that they do it along with me) how to properly format their documents and their Works Cited page.

All this work, and most of the papers came back improperly formatted.

On the one hand, the MLA format is entirely arbitrary and they students will probably never use the format outside of an English class again. I leave these issues of formatting purposefully to the end so that my students focus on content and organization, rather than what the paper “looks” like. Plus, to me, the formatting is the easiest thing to do, given the advances in word processing.

How wrong I was.

One of the students in my class, while I was showing them how to do things like turn off the extra space that Word now insists on putting between paragraphs, asked what the point of this was when “Word has an MLA setting and will just do this all for me.” Well, therein lies the problem, I said. How do you know if Word is actually formatting your document correctly? The same issue came up with automatic citation generators: how do you know that what it gives you is actually correct?

And the problem is that they don’t. They are so used to having the machine do it for them, they don’t know how to do it themselves, or even recognize if there is a mistake. One particular automatically generated citation from the internet looked exactly like this:

n.p. n.d. Web.

The student had pasted it into their list of Works Cited. I saw it and said, you can’t include that. Why, the student asked, it’s what the citation generator gave me. But, I said, look at it. Really look at it. Is it at all useful for anyone who wants to look up that reference? The student realized their mistake and did their own entry for it. But I can’t believe on one hand how much they trust the machines to do it right but also their lack of interest in figuring out how to do it themselves.

Scratch that. I know exactly why they don’t want to do it themselves: they don’t see the point, especially when they’ve been repeatedly told to just let the machine do it for them. This is particularly frustrating for me because we spend time talking about “ethos;” if you want people to take you seriously, I told them, you need to prove to them that you deserve to be. Following directions is one of the easiest ways that you show that you have taken the work seriously, while the opposite is also true. And it hits them twice as hard on this particular assignment because this was something that I took time in class to explain and help them with. When it isn’t done properly, even after that, tells me that they aren’t taking their work seriously.

That speaks a lot to a person’s character. I’m going to sound like an cranky old person (where is my cane?) but one of the lessons I was taught was that you took the work seriously whether it was something you wanted to do or not. If you made a commitment (like signing up for a class), you saw that commitment through, and you did your best. I get that no one wants to do Freshman Writing (although according to one Silicon Valley exec, it’s the most important class they’ll ever take), but just because you don’t want to do something isn’t an excuse for doing it poorly. I don’t mind if you use technology to automate the more...tedious elements of research and writing, but you are still responsible for any output that carries your name at the top of the page.

I get that students learn better when they are doing something that they chose and are engaged in; I’m the one who does peer-driven learning! But life, unfortunately, isn’t about always getting to do exactly what you want to do. And to me, the louder message is not how you do when you are doing what you want, but how you do when you’re doing something that you don’t. That, to me, shows character.

Letting a machine do whatever it is that you don’t and then blindly trusting it to do it properly, well, doesn’t.

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