They Scoff at Your Piddly Rules

Brian Taylor

March 26, 2010

Question (from "Peeved Prof"): Why won't my students follow directions?

Answer: Ms. Mentor can imagine them stepping up to the Justification Microphone, one at a time, and telling you what's on their hearts.


  • "I have a different learning style from ordinary students, and you need to appreciate my special creativity. I am not like the others who just fill space in your classes."
  • "Your directions are confusing."
  • "It takes too long to read the directions."
  • "The directions are in a huge block of text. Huge blocks of text without bullets or pictures are off-putting."
  • "All life is suffering."

Maybe the trouble started in that first great classroom, the Garden of Eden, with its single peculiar rule: Don't eat the fruit from that tree. Adam went about naming the animals, but Eve was absent the day the directions were given. Once they ate the fruit, it was Adam who got a scolding for not following directions, and Adam who put up mankind's first justification: "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat" (Genesis 3:12).

The woman made him do it.

Since then, in our fallen world, teachers struggle daily to grade papers, lab reports, and exams in which students give two or six examples instead of the required three; answer every question except the all-important last one; or ignore the long-winded essay questions on the second page. Page and word limits? Those must be for someone else.

"If they would just read the syllabus," many a professor fumes. That is a problem so egregious that Facebook worthies have a page called "Read the freakin' syllabus, people." More than 4,700 fans have found some solace there.

Beleaguered teachers deduct points, use pop quizzes, try shame and bribery ("we'll have a class party if we can go the whole semester without anyone asking things that are answered on the syllabus"). At some campuses, students aren't allowed into their labs until they copy the lab instructions, word for word, into their notebooks and have them initialed by a supervisor. Grades may be docked if students fail to number their pages or forget their source lists. Students who do get everything right—who, in short, do exactly what they're supposed to do—sometimes get extra points. Ms. Mentor moans.

Disgruntled students also have ways of blaming others for their failings: "I checked the instructions, and it's so totally unfair that you decided to take points off for misspellings. I want the grade changed." Or they astonish their professors with truly strange excuses like this one reprinted on AlterNet and entitled, "The Greatest Snowflake Student E-Mail Ever Sent": Ms. Mentor quotes verbatim: "Proffessor, what you fail to realize is that my story explains the topic in so much detail, that being specific is not in my nature as a writer, or a mathotical student. ... That paper is written to perfection whether you understand it or not besides an in depth detailed visual summary of a World War 2 event, that created an anaoly of the two philosopys that needed no explanation."

Ms. Mentor agrees with that last statement.

If unchecked, the directionally challenged do move on. Some become nurses who make chemical-transcription errors ("Oh, I read it as cyanide, not chloride"). Some deliver packages to the crematorium instead of the creamery. Some decorate their writings with random apostrophes, which Ms. Mentor has been told are actually announcements: "Hark! Here comes an S! Good time's will be had by all!"

Still, human history has been full of bad times for direction-scofflaws, and Ms. Mentor believes that caring professors should warn their students. The mother of Achilles, for instance, wanted her boy to live forever, but when she dipped him in the waters of immortality, she forgot to immerse his heel. Lot's wife forgot that she wasn't supposed to look back, and became a pillar of salt. As early as the Book of Leviticus (10:1-2), Moses's nephews made up their own directions for their censers, producing "strange fire"—which got them blasted to death by fire from heaven. That may be humankind's first fatal lab accident.

An attention slip may also have lost the Battle of Antietam. The papers describing General Robert E. Lee's battle plans were kept top secret, he thought—until they were found wrapped around three cigars.

Nowadays, there are different penalties. "Not following directions ruins any hope of an award" for graduate support, note April Vahle Hamel, Mary Morris Heiberger, and Julia Miller Vick in The Graduate School Funding Handbook. Failure to follow directions is the No. 1 reason that grant applications are not approved. A very famous chemist, "Dr. Schadenfreude," enjoys grant panels in which applicants are immediately rejected if they add the wrong figures, fail to sign their materials, or neglect to describe clearly what they plan to do. "I wish I had a stamp for them," he says. "It would say 'Smite.'"

In much of academic life, though, failure to follow directions goes unpunished. In group work, the good students do the job, while others get away with lounging or texting. Some teachers will extend deadlines if you have a good excuse (my dead grandmother's dog ate my homework again; nasty Fido). Assistants will write up course descriptions for professors who don't, because staffers are the ones in trouble if the copy for the course catalog isn't submitted on time. Somebody will cobble together that belated committee report. Or if no one does it, others will be too polite to mention it or relieved that it's not on their own to-do lists.

Sometimes, if you do follow directions, you can make a killing. A Canadian scientist was recently charged with spending government grant money, all properly won, on lavish home-entertainment equipment, aluminum wheels, and chrome exhaust pipes for a car. "Someone with a fifth-grade education" should have caught it, said one Canadian ethicist. But five years later, the scientist had changed jobs, and no one seemed the wiser.

Still, Ms. Mentor urges Peeved Prof not to abandon hope. Recently the physician-author Atul Gawande, troubled by avoidable medical errors, began insisting on to-do lists. His The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right shows how to do it, so that no scissors will be left inside a patient. No one will cut off the wrong foot.

Yet even Gawande had trouble persuading some of his colleagues—who seemed to think that to err was human. Ms. Mentor, in her perfect wisdom, begs to differ. She would prefer things to be divine.

Question: Of the hundreds of students who wrote midterm essays, at least a dozen didn't put their names on their booklets. I could be a deeply caring, nurturing person and spend hours going through all the exams to match the names and handwritings, making the students feel cherished. Or I could lock away the anonymous exams and set up an arcane and labyrinthine procedure that students must follow to retrieve their work, and risk being called a "meanie." What would the pedagogically sound Ms. Mentor choose?

Answer: Meanie.

Sage Readers: Ms. Mentor welcomes the usual gossip, rants, and queries, as well as directions for the conduct of a righteous, rewarding life despite the gaudy temptations of academe. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never immediately. Identifying details are always masked, and confidentiality is guaranteed. No one will know that you're the one who clipped when you should have stapled.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is