On No. 2 Pencils

A variety of specialty artists' pencilsHistoriann has been hosting a lively discussion of helicopter parenting and its impact on student attitudes and performance at the collegiate level that prompted this apropos reflection on “the larger forces that have shaped our students and their approach to higher education before they darken the doors of our unis.”

As Squadratomagico said in response to last week’s post, “Now I better understand the student who inquired, when I asked if there were any questions about the final exam, “Can I use a blue pen?” They’re paralyzed with indecision and fear of making a mistake on their own, because they’ve never had to decide before!”  I too have anecdotal evidence of increasing student apprehension–but I’m not sure if that’s due to parenting or the No Child Left Behind-style of test-driven education, which has put I think too much pressure on children to perform particular skills and not enough on creative problem-solving.

I have very little to say about helicopter parenting.  I’m not a parent myself, and both my parents run their own businesses and have my three sisters to attend to, so I have a hard time getting them to even call me back.  Actually, I sort of adore them for that.  But being married to a public high school teacher and still being temporally close enough to both college and high school to remember the confusion and anguish brought on by pen colors, I have some strong feelings about the degree to which the enforcement of arbitrary standards have hampered the intellectual and social development of many very bright students and discouraged many struggling students from even trying in the first place.  If I had to make a list in my head of the top questions I field in emails from students, it read something like:

  • How do I cite a corporate-authored website in MLA format?
  • Is it ok if I use loose leaf paper in a binder for my journal instead of a composition book?
  • What should the header on my paper look like?
  • Do our papers need to have a title?
  • Where should the page numbers appear on our paper?

Ok, sometimes students want to run a thesis by me or have a question about comments on a previous draft, but it seems like a great deal of my energy is taken up responding to (and student energy is taken up asking) questions the answers to which go something like:  “I’d have to look it up.”  “Don’t care.”  “Don’t care.”  “Sure, why not.”  “Don’t care.”

I mean sure, I clearly state on each assignment page that papers should come out to so many words, typed and formatted legibly, with MLA documentation, but it seems like in absence of instructions about what astrological sign students ought to write their papers under, some students will still experience panic attacks over what I like to call “No. 2 pencil” issues.  No. 2 pencils, of course, are the required writing implement for all standardized tests that students begin taking soon after they acquire the motor skills to wield one.  And if  use a No. 3 pencil, of course, your test results will be invalid, and something horrible will happen to you.  No. 2 pencils have become the emblem of the bureaucratization (that’s totes a word–my spellchecker says so) of education, of the arbitrary rules that teachers are expected to enforce, rules that have some root in common sense that has been long forgotten.

Why do we use No. 2 pencils?  According to someone who had the time and inclination to do the research, pencil grades have to do with the hardness of the lead, and therefore the darkness of the mark.  No. 2 pencils are the medium grade and the ones usually sold for everyday purposes, like filling out multiple choice bubbles.  They’re dark enough to be read by the scanner and light enough to be effectively erased to avoid scanning errors.  But basically, “No. 2” pencil is just fancy-talk for “garden variety pencil you buy at Wal-Mart.”  It’s not really that complicated or threatening.  I guess everyone sort of knows that intuitively, but it’s rarely articulated in the presence of, say, anxious second graders, who are only beginning to figure out that horrible things might happen to them if they breach rules that don’t always make complete sense, that don’t have any basis in an objective moral code (or even common sense), that aren’t really tied to academic performance but nevertheless seem to have DIRE IMPLICATIONS for their educational future if breached.

But, of course, that’s how things work in our highly bureaucratized world.  I fork over the $200 to have my tax return done at H&R Block purely because I fear that I will be carted off to prison for tax evasion if I don’t fill out my form properly.  We’ve developed an entire service industry around making sure that we are in compliance with laws we wouldn’t know existed if there weren’t experts to tell us.  And while that’s sort of a nuisance, I get that this is how things have to be in a society this enormous.  Life is complex in the twenty-first century, and I suppose there is some value in teaching students to mind the details, to read the directions, to put their name on the top of the test paper.  But, I don’t know, maybe there’s value in giving students a break every once in a while, or at least not dole out academic punishment for non-academic offenses or oversights?

This is, to a certain degree, what I’m talking about in my diatribes on participation grades and draconian late penalties:  some policies designed to police those details, while well-intentioned, are a distraction from the actual process of learning, critical thinking, and discovery.  While ingraining good habits with regard to direction-reading and punctuality is great, I think it’s far more helpful to simply take the time to make those policies transparent, to explain how they help keep things running smoothly.  It helps to, on the one hand, recognize that students have probably never heard an explanation as to why their paper needs to be double-spaced, while on the other hand treating them like reasonable people who are capable of getting the fact that instructors who grade by hand need room in order to legibly mark a paper.

As another example, let’s think about citations.  Citation, whether it’s in MLA, Chicago, or APA format is designed to do a couple of things:  1) Protect the intellectual property of the person who had that idea or said those words in the first place, and 2) Give people who are interested in your topic a way to find your source.  Once you take those two things into consideration, the format for citation starts making some sense.  In APA, the convention of putting a date in addition to a name in a parenthetical citation is there because in scientific writing, knowledge sort of has a shelf-life, so you want to put the date in there so that people know that you are citing the most recent studies, or, conversely, that you are referencing some classic or foundational work.  Dates tend to be less important in the humanities, but people who do literature are concerned about editions and such, so you need that info in your works cited.  I try to give this little speech to each student who comes into the writing center with citation questions, then I remind them that most people don’t have every single bibliographic format memorized.  This goes for professors too, and the conventions change all the time.  I’ve had professors correct things in my Works Cited that were correct according to the current edition of the MLA handbook.  So, marking off a point for using a comma instead of a period or whatever is distracting for the student and preoccupies them with stuff that, in the end, would get corrected by a copywriter (who might herself be wrong, depending on which edition she’s working from) if they were publishing on a professional level.

The students who get shaky when they forget to bring the right color pen to a test make me shake my head, but the most distressing part of this emphasis punishing people for stuff that really doesn’t matter that much (other than maybe a slight annoyance or inconvenience) is the thought that there are probably some kids who don’t even make it into a college classroom for these very reasons.  There are probably kids who, in the second grade, were shut down because Mom and Dad were working 100 hours a week at minimum wage and couldn’t think about making sure that their kid had the right kind of writing implement or properly ruled notebook paper (OH MY GOD when I think about how hysterical some teachers I had in middle school got about “college-ruled” vs. “whatever-I-can’t-even-remember-ruled”).  There are kids who have enough trouble paying attention to the content itself–for any number of factors ranging from undiagnosed disabilities to hunger–to remember the myriad arbitrary details pertaining to how their notebooks are supposed to be organized.

I mean, yes, teach kids how to get themselves organized.   Teach kids to be punctual.  Teach kids to pay attention.  Teach kids to read the directions, but let’s at least make this stuff transparent.  And let’s quit doling out academic punishment–which has distressingly real implications for students’ long-term opportunities–for non-academic crap.


2 thoughts on “On No. 2 Pencils

  1. I really appreciate what you have to say about explaining WHY it is that we require what can look like pretty arbitrary format choices. I think that it’s good for the students – it shows that you think they are reasonable adults who will organize their work so that it is received in the best light possible – and I think it’s good for the teacher. It does matter if it’s stapled or not, if it’s double-spaced or not, if there’s a name on it or not, if it has a title or not… but it matters much less whether the pages are numbered at the top or the bottom (or even at all for 1-3 page papers), whether the font is 12 point or 11, or Palatino or Times Roman, or the margin is 1 inch or .75. I figure part of the job of a good teacher is not only to teach the rules, and why one should follow them, but also when and why breaking or ignoring them is acceptable.

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