I Know What I Know

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Anyone who’s taught a class where students turn in any kind of writing done on a computer pretty quickly finds him/herself wondering about why some students format documents the way they do. This was especially common when, a few years ago, MicroSoft decided to make the default New Document template in Word add a few points of spacing after each paragraph. It looked like the students had finished a paragraph and then added an extra line to fill up a little space. And the poor students, finding themselves accused of trying to do this, didn’t know what to say beyond “It does that automatically!!!” to their certainly incredulous professors.

I’m constantly amazed at how little my students know about computers or word processors or the internet or any of a range of tools that I sort of take for granted. Sure, they’re ridiculously good at Facebook and Youtube and their cell phones, but every time I take a few moments in one of my classes to explain how to do something in Word or how to find something online, they exclaim that this is all brand new and that they didn’t learn these useful skills in their mandatory computer classes here. I don’t expect them to know Word’s sort command or how to quickly do a hanging indent, but I was gobsmacked when my freshmen last term didn’t know that anyone could edit a Wikipedia article.

Their papers are another thing entirely. I thought I had seen most of the weird things they can do using a word processor—until I spent today copy-editing entries for an anthology of freshman writing, looking closely at the “invisibles” in each document. Here is a list of revelations:

    They do not use the automatic page numbering function.
    They do not use the header section of any word processing document.
    Many of them will hit return at the end of each line they type, as if they were using a typewriter.
    When they need to put something at the top of a page, they will insert a section break at the bottom of the previous page and type whatever header information they need there.
    They do not use the “center” button. They either hit tab several times or use the space bar.
    One student, when entering the identification information at the top, left corner of the first page, changed the margins of just those lines so that they were only about two inches wide.
    One student did use the automatic page numbers, and also placed them in the header, but placed them within a one-cell table within the header.

I don’t write this to poke fun at them (although some of this was face-palmingly bizarre). I write this because many of us academics assume that all of our students, who these days have never known a world without the internet or portable computers (who were eight when the original iMac was released and who were 11 when the iPod was) are as fluent as many of us are with the basic technologies required for them to function in academia. This is not, it seems to me, an assumption that we can make without some hesitation. Sure, students can get us some kind of document on the due date (hopefully), but after today, I’m left wondering just what kind of bizarre rituals and magical thinking allowed them to type it up, save it to a place they can find again, and print it out.


Written by srogers

June 10, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. As miserably unpleasant as Word can be to work with when formatting, I’m not surprised. I can’t count the number of wars I’ve fought with it.

    I admit that not knowing about word wrap surprises me.


    June 10, 2010 at 11:43 pm

  2. Shocking observations, but I still had to giggle.


    June 11, 2010 at 5:45 am

  3. My fav from my freshman comp classes was what would happen when students would print their finished document (I know -gasp) and walk to the printer, only to find that the document hadn’t printed. They’d go back and hit the “print” icon again. And again. And again, and so on. Only after awhile of this activity would they alert me to the problem, at which point I’d walk calmly to the computer, reload the paper tray, then watch incredulously as 20 copies of each student’s paper would emerge from the printer.

    Nothing to do with you Word discussion, but that reminded me of this. Oh, for Google Docs back then.


    June 11, 2010 at 7:58 am

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