Defending use of style (MLA, APA, etc.) among stubborn students

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Surely I'm not the only one who points out to students MLA formatting requirements, things like margins that are 1.25" instead of 1", last names and page numbers on top right corner (but not first page!), etc.  Historically, I have pointed them out but not docked any points unless the problem is really egregious (triple spacing, 14 point font for filler, etc.).

This semester, though, I have a class with a couple of people who balk very vocally at having to conform to what they view as arbitrary nitpicking.  I have not let them know that I personally have no problem with reading a paper that has slightly different margins, that it's the content, the language use, and proper attribution of ideas that matter to me.  I mark the errors I find, I remind them of MLA requirements, and I move on.  My explanation to the balkers is that we must produce work according to a particular set of standards, and that for our field MLA is that standard. 

It hasn't convinced anyone.  The balkers are winning a couple of formerly compliant students, too.

How do I help them see the importance of following what they view as arbitrary rules?  It's particularly difficult when I would like to tell them:  "Just give me a good paper, one that's well written and well cited, and I don't care about the rest."  Really.  I don't care if the ink is blue because their black ink ran out.  I'm not talking about citations here, but the formatting issues.  I hold them to that standard (and will continue to do so) but I would like for them to see why I'm doing it, aside from just "it must be done."

I can't help you as I find APA (our standard) rules nitpicking too. Sorry.

This is tough. It sounds like you are doing the right thing by acknowledging the arbitrariness of it. I also make sure the students know I'm on their side, by saying things like, "Yes, this stuff is a pain in the ass" and making jokes like "Don't you know that MLA hates you?!"

My students don't always do the formatting correctly, but they don't complain to me about it.

This won't help with margins, but last semester I had a few students who fussed about having to pay attention to italics and quotation marks in bibliographies. This semester I added an exercise to the syllabus in which students had to read a journal article I had selected and find one of the sources or quotations that the article's author had used. About half the students struggled to find any of the sources (most of which were essays in printed books available in the library, hence my careful selection of the journal article). We spent a lot of time talking about how careful formatting helps readers identify and find sources easily--I haven't collected a works cited page since that assignment, but they at least now seem to get why (some of) it matters . . .

I also require MLA formatting (as well as documentation style). I tell them that following these kinds of requirements is just part of life--they'll have to do it in their jobs, so they might as well start practicing now.

Format matters in other ways, even before people get to content: some employers won't even read poorly formatted c.v.'s; agents won't read scripts that don't follow industry standard format; legal briefs must be formatted a certain way. Deal with it.

It's also a way of demonstrating that they know how to use their word processing programs. If you can't figure out how to change the margins, line spacing, and paragraph formats...can I trust you with my [health/finances/children's education]?


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