Teaching to the Style Guide

One of my most vivid memories from my middle school days involve my keyboarding class (or whatever it was called). Somewhere along the way, and probably in at least some small part in that class, I did learn how to touch-type, but I clashed with the teacher on a number of points. For one, we had to type from a script, but that sheet had to be kept so that we could not look at the monitor. Even now, at a time when I sometimes type with my eyes closed or while staring off into space, I prefer to be able to see the screen. For another, this teacher demanded that we had to include two spaces after periods.

This might have made sense with the specific program we used in the class, which may have not had proportional fonts, but she justified the demand by insisting that every business manual would require double spaces after periods. This is of course nonsense. Most manuals regard the convention as a relic of the typewriter-era, which is something my father, a printing and graphic design teacher, pointed out, before offering me the sage advice of doing what she asked for the class grade and then ignore it going forward.

Admittedly, this teacher was close to retirement and I could not have been an easy student since I’ve always had a hard time bending when the instructions ask me to do something that I know is wrong — this difficulty reared its head again in another context when I was a senior and the two principals called me into their office to question me about some award essay where I had asserted that Bill Clinton had been impeached (he was; I didn’t get the award). However, I thought about this keyboarding teacher again when I saw a teacher on Twitter give his policy about spaces after periods.

Tweet that reads: "If my students don't use two spaces after a period, then they lose a letter grade on their essays for MLA formatting. It's my policy."

Setting aside that his assertion doesn’t even hold up according to MLA standards, I can’t imagine having a policy that is this punitive over something so small. I can understand why some professors want to be demanding when it comes to grammar and syntax since those are elements that can (sometimes) have a direct impact on the clarity of a student’s argument. By contrast, this is a severe penalty for a formatting error.

Since I am starting to get prepare for this fall semester, though, his (bad) policy has me thinking again about my own policies when it comes to written work. I have always followed two guiding principles:

  1. I care about students developing as thinkers. Writing, as John Warner explains, is thinking. This means helping students develop as writers.
  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about grades because I think that they often warp incentives, but it is my obligation as an educator to give students the tools and opportunities to earn the grade that they want.

Toward these ends, the details of my assessments have evolved to reflect what I want students to take away from the class. Since writing is fundamentally iterative, for instance, I added optional revisions that allowed students to earn higher grades on their written work. The most recent versions of these assignments include a small portion of the grade dedicated to “Grammar, Syntax, and Style” in order to provide a measure of accountability, but an equal portion of the grade is wrapped up in a metacognitive reflection paper about the process of completing the assignment. The single biggest component of the grade comes from the argument, and every assignment guide for prompt-driven papers comes with this advice:

You are not expected to answer every part of the prompt since these are questions that you could write an entire book about. The best papers take ownership of the prompt in order to make an argument based on information that includes, but goes beyond, the material assigned for the class. Since there is no “right” answer, I will be looking to see how you approach the question and how you use the sources to defend your argument.

Although I have gradually added guidelines and suggestions on the assignment sheet, my assignments are, if anything, still too open ended. When it comes to citations, for instance, I have traditionally told students:

There is no assigned citation style guide, but you must cite all relevant information, following a citation style of your choice (I prefer Harvard or Chicago, personally, but you can follow MLA or APA). Please include a works cited page for all citations.

While I should be clearer about what information is relevant, this particular policy reflects my own ambivalence about citation styles (my personal house style is a slightly modified Harvard system) and a conviction that policing the format of a citation distracts students from content. And yet, my laissez faire attitude toward style might be equally problematic, both creating unintentional anxiety created by a lack of guidance and leading some students to not follow a style at all.

By contrast, I am reminded of a policy of one of my college professors: your citations must be in Chicago citation style and failure to do so will result in a penalty. I found this assignment frustrating at the time, but I see some wisdom in it now. The penalty sounds severe, but she laid out the expectations from the start, explaining that it wasn’t that Chicago was the best style but that Chicago was a style and part of the assignment was to turn in work that followed that style.

I am not sure that I want to go quite this far in my courses, if only because doing so would make grading papers even more like copy-editing than it already is and I’m not sure that that is in anyone’s interest. However, I am strongly considering choosing a “house” style guide (with a handout) that I can point students to as a default option. My thought here is that having a house style might provide some guardrails that remove the pressure of choosing “the right” style, thereby allowing students to focus again on the content.

At the same time, my inclination is to still allow students to follow other style guides if they so desire but ask that those who do reflect on the choice in the metacognitive portion of the assignment. The trick will be crafting a policy that provides flexibility and student agency while also putting in place limits that guide students to spend their energies on the parts of the assignment that matter most.

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