Why Some Of My Student Work Smells Like A Litter Box

It’s finals time at my university. Go time.

Premise, Evidence, Argument, and Conclusion are the building blocks of a winning paper.

You set up the situation or issue. You show some proof that what you’re saying adds credibility to your position. You make your case. You state your bottom line.

This is the DNA strand of a thesis or a dissertation. When someone completes one of these written works, the student is asked to defend their conclusions by sitting in a room with several very judgmental people, responding to questions designed to poke holes in the work.

For we who have earned a masters or a PhD, we remember the daunting challenge we faced. The distance between “Accepted” and “Unacceptable” can be extremely close.

You need to bring it.

Words matter.

Some of the word crimes I have witnessed:

  • typos
  • words that aren’t words
  • font and formatting
  • sentences that aren’t sentences
  • neglecting to run a simple spell-check
  • plagiarism
  • punctuation

There are more.

As a teacher, I set up rubrics for students. They are my expectations on what everything from average to exceptional work looks like. Despite what students believe, grades are not organic. While the subject could be hypothetical or even predictive, I set standards and expectations for the work I want them to create.

This is probably the last time they’ll ever have to create a paper like the one I’m asking them for this week.

I harp at the students, “Run spell-check, people. I gave you examples of great papers. Bring it!”

Many heed my advice. Some continue to generate garbage.

In my class we look at, among other things, the evolution of words –  from Gutenberg bibles to tweets. We spend much time analyzing 140 character essays authored by literary giants, sports fans and political oafs. Typos and shorthand are the norm now – our culture has decided that WTF and SMH are the way we communicate.

I use those (or similar) words sometimes when I text. No judgments; I’m not an enemy of the truncated casual update. But when I am applying for a job or crafting a presentation for a client, I want and need to be a master of precision English – even if the reader is not.

We all do.

We missed a promotion once because of our words.

We lost a shot at a job because of our words.

We earned someone’s deep respect thanks to the words we chose.

We hurt someone because of the words we picked.

We made someone fall in love with us once, as a result of our word choices.

Our global lexicon is devolving, thanks to the tools we now use to broadcast our words. But when it comes to our reputation, our image and our careers, paranoia over correct word use is well-placed.

Say whatever you like on Facebook and Instagram, but rustle up your best words for school and work (including emails).

It will get your thesis accepted. It will get you promoted faster. There’s no downside.

Picture of John ScottJohn Scott is an instructor and the career services manager at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University San Francisco. He’s the author of two books on jobs and careers. @johnscottsf


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