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  • katymulvaney

Don't Give Me a Reason to Stop Reading

I'm Sorry, But Yes, All Those Fiddly Little Details DO Matter

Years ago, when I was applying to graduate school, the most common piece of advice I received (from those in the know) was:

In undergraduate admissions, they are looking for a reason to say yes.

In graduate admissions, they are looking for a reason to say no.

The reasoning was very practical. Universities and even small colleges have a dedicated department full of people for undergraduate admissions. Not only that, but it is likely the last place where even the most misguided administration would cut back funding and personnel! Every college has a network of people who's full-time job is finding and then judging applicants to fill up the next year's class.

And while there is usually a clearing house that processes the applications and paperwork for graduate student admissions, the sorting through candidates, final decisions, and even the recruitment efforts tend to fall on professors in the department. In other words, a bunch of overworked, underpaid faculty who just want to get back to teaching and research as quickly as possible.

Again, this makes sense. Graduate students work much more directly with the faculty, there is more specialization to match research interests, and professors theoretically want to choose their future TAs, Research Assistants, and mentees.

The problem is that professors have a lot of incentive to cut corners in this unpaid, tedious, and often thankless part of their jobs. Years later, I understand why the professors in my first graduate program decided it was too much work to have a selection process for a prestigious internship and just offered it as a fait accompli to a student they all liked (despite the fact that my area of research fit the requirements much better). Going through the motions of applications and committee discussions was time they didn't feel they have. I understand that perspective. I don't share it or forgive it, but I get it.

In admissions, that means that professors are looking for little, fiddly, unimportant mistakes in applications. Because if someone didn't answer the prompt properly or forgot certain paperwork...well, that's one less long and involved application that they have to read. Before they get back to the work they love -- which tends to involve a lot of reading and attention to fiddly details.

Maybe you're thinking: sucks to be applying to grad school then! Though, to be fair, if you've ever considered applying to grad already knew that.

But honestly? Every reader -- in every genre -- tends to be looking for a reason to say no, stop reading, and write the author off.

Sound like an overstatement? Hear me out.

Outside of a school environment where a teacher (or a hired grader for some lucky college professors) is forced to read whatever the students submit, no one would stick with a poorly written bit of prose they didn't enjoy. I don't mean to say they need constant entertainment or to like the author. They might enjoy hating or refuting the author, they might enjoy learning something unexpected, they might enjoy mining a text for details to "reveal the real truth" or find a quote to take wildly out of context.

So if you aspire to write things people actually want to read -- not just work emails and mandatory manuals or corporate-speak workshops or how to instructions or resumes for applicants -- then you do need to care about getting all the fiddly little details right for your genre.

And if you want to convince someone who disagrees with you -- or even just feels neutral about something you care about? Well, you can't give them any reason to write you off as an ignorant, sloppy crank. Sometimes, they're really looking for any reason to stop taking you seriously. Don't give them an easy excuse.

Know the Rules of Your Medium and Genre

I guarantee you've been on both sides of this at some point in your life: the moment when someone completely botches a jargon or slang term. I experience a small version of this all the time when people double-take at my use of "y'all" and then ask if I am faking my lack of accent -- or I suppose suppressing my southern accent. (Not consciously, but when I get tired and/or sick, I do sound more Texan. Also when I've just called home.)

The classic example is a parent trying to use the "hip new language" they've heard their teens use but have no idea how to recreate. In the last few years, there have been a lot of pieces both formal and informal about how different generations use text communication -- I am not sure I felt truly old until I realized that I had been offending people by ending my texts with periods. Thanks, LifeofCharissae!

So you understand the problem with not code switching properly. At best, you're the embarrassing dad who makes their kids grown. At worst, you look like a complete poser and your point (valid or not) is dismissed -- all your arguments feel as out of touch as you are.

Yes, Academia's Codes Are Classist (And Sexist and Racist And And And)

It's the worst, really. Did you know that some of the rules of English grammar were literally designed to reveal who was educated enough to know how to read Latin? That's absurd. And for the record, you can split all the infinitives you want.

But frankly, if you are a student in a class, you really do need to mind your p's and q's, metaphorically speaking. (Incidentally, that expression comes from the old printing presses and a problem of apprentices mixing up the p's and q's when they returned them to the sorting boxes.)

Not because teachers are evil grammarians who delight in pointing out all of your errors. I'm sure there are a few out there, and some people definitely care about various rules more than others. (Myself, I hate capitalization mistakes more than even run-on sentences or going completely rogue with commas. But I love split infinitives and kind of love sentence fragments even when not used poetically.)

And teachers don't have the excuse of not-reading your term paper because there's a typo the way those professors choosing graduate students do. Or the way that someone who disagreed with you could just stop because that mistake clearly proves that you are stupid, right?

So what is happening with teachers? In short, we've seen it all 100 times before...that very same day

Many years ago, I spent a very long day in the Houston Unified Auditions. This is actually a two day event where almost every professional company combines their season auditions into one massive cattle call (actual term for this type of audition -- open (theoretically) to everyone, no specific show in mind, and no back and forth or follow up until later if the company wants you).

I wasn't there to cast, just to serve as a second pair of eyes for my friends who run a world-renown escape room and immersive theatre company called Strange Bird Immersive. Also because, as a theatre teacher, I wanted to be able to give my students up to date information on the standards and trends in professional auditions.

The only other thing you need to know about the auditions is that there was a small obstruction on the path between the door the auditioning actors used and the clearly labeled mark on the stage they were meant to hit (for some of the musical theatre directors, this seemed to be a crucial part of the audition).

The obstruction wasn't something simple that we, the casting directors (and me), could have fixed like a loose wire or actual tripping hazard. There were so many stage managers in this room that nothing like that would have stayed long. It was an odd architectural feature where the stage met the aisle. At no point were any actors in danger.

Not that you'd know that from some of their reactions. No one threw a hissy fit, of course, but just about everyone had a bit of laughed, played it as a joke, and drew attention to the awkwardness. At first, that seemed like the obvious, charming choice. Who hasn't almost-tripped? Or hesitated at a strange step to make sure?

But then the day wore on.

It was an interesting feeling, as I noticed my sympathy for the actors dwindling down to nothing as the hours wore on and every 2 1/2 minutes we had the same awkward "Oh ah ha! What a weird step! Can I just...oh step here, yes, thank you, life in the theatre! What would it be without a bit of chaos?"

By mid-afternoon I felt myself on the verge of screaming:


Which was clearly uncalled for. After all, the actors hadn't just seen 50 people almost "trip" at the same spot or going into the same charm routine. This was a brand new experience for them. And it's not like it messed with anything important in their audition right?

No one wanted to be mad at the actors or dock them for it. Probably no one consciously did. But I heard increasingly grumblings about the actors not being able to walk throughout the day, so I wasn't alone in feeling it.

That's how teachers feel about mistakes, most of the time. I will start a grading session full of grace for the writers. We all make mistakes! It's so easy to miss a few!

And then I get one that reads like the student didn't even bother, and I notice them making all the same mistakes and the next time a paper starts off with a major error I can't help thinking, "Oh here we go again. Another barely tossed off mess to read..." Obviously, if the paper is good, I shake myself and grade it accordingly.

But every teacher I know has a whole routine or limits on how many they grade a day or magical rituals to keep the grading frustration from affecting the marks they give out. And seeing the same mistake over and over again...maybe it should make us doubt we taught as well as we thought. Maybe it should make us wonder if that rule is oh so important. Maybe it should make us feel more sympathy and grace is needed.

But sometimes...sometimes it just makes me want to shout:

MLA headings aren't that hard!!!! We went over this three times!!!!

And I have to fight not to punish the 50th person to get it wrong more harshly than the first person.

Teachers grade nicer when they don't have to fight their internal frustration with the small, fiddly details and grammarian messes. I don't usually get too frustrated unless it makes it look like you put in no effort or it actually impedes my understanding of your point. But the little bits of frustration can really build over time.

There's no way to avoid it. Not with class sizes the way they are (and getting worse).

The good news?

One good paper can totally turn the tide. And sometimes get a much better grade because it didn't make all the little mistakes everyone else did and therefore shines in this small, objectively silly way.

It's worth a little extra effort for that potential reward, right?

I hope so, because I have a lot of grading coming up soon.


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