(I realize I probably shouldn't be posting this on a public site, but . . . fuck it.)
I am persnickety. I believe that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing not just well, but also correctly. I follow the rules. I dot my "i"s and cross my "t"s. I fold my socks. (Once said socks are in my overcrowded sock drawer, however, I have no control over them and they tend to go a little wild.)
I am who I am, although I certainly was not born this way. I've always had persnickety tendencies. But I've had people in my life---teachers, particularly---who nurtured those tendencies, who pushed me to go past "good enough" and attempt to reach, if not perfection, at least "outstanding." To find ways to color within the lines, but in unique, insightful, intelligent, and creative ways.
And I've found that being persnickety has its rewards. Indeed, it is perhaps the only surefire way to ensure job security (well, other than having compromising pictures of your boss) and a great way to advance quickly in whatever your chosen field. People may not like the persnickety---I know that I can sometimes be . . . difficult . . . in social situations (although, really, mixing wines in your glass? Were you raised in a barn?)---but they respect it and trust it.
I have 33 years of experience that tells me that being attentive to detail, being precise in your work, finding ways to be unique and creative and smart while staying inside the lines---being persnickety---are important.
Unfortunately, I can't seem to convey any of this to my students. I do warn them at the beginning of the term that I'm persnickety. I lay out the rules in excruciating detail: fonts and font size, page and word limits, heading information, deadlines, and so forth. I remind them ad nauseaam of the rules. I also am entirely transparent about the consequences of not following the rules. And I warn them that I used to be an editor and a student and therefore not only am highly attentive to details in their work but also know all the tricks they use to get around the rules.
I know that I'm probably a lot more picky than most teaching assistants, and likely more picky than most professors, although I think many of the professors are just beat down from argumentative students and have given up. But in any case, I have rules about assignments and attendance and performance. And I think, at least, that I make these rules very clear.
My students, however, do not seem to hold much value in being persnickety. I had two students this week get rather angry because they suffered the consequences of not following the rules for an assignment. (One student, in his defense, did later apologize for being rude.) One of those students told me that I was "stifling his creativity." The other just accused me of being unreasonable. During the past few weeks, I've had other students seem shocked that I had marked them late for class (even though I've told them since the beginning that I mark latecomers and I consider any time after the start of class to be late) and that I was enforcing the rules for assignments (they didn't bother to argue that they had followed the rules or that they didn't understand the rules---just that I shouldn't actually enforce the rules).
Am I unreasonable? I really don't know. Has being persnickety lost its value?
I realize, of course, that civilization will not come to an end because a student goes two lines over the page limit for an assignment. But then where do we draw the line? Because I've also learned from experience that some students will always try to push the line. I don't know if they think that the rules don't apply to them, if they just aren't paying attention, or if they've just gotten so used to teachers who don't enforce the rules---or cave in when the students complain. Probably a combination of all of the above.
I'm not sure what my point in all this was, other than to vent a bit and wonder if I'm an unreasonable relic of a time past.
Perhaps I'm struggling with a bigger issue: the role of higher education. I like to think that we are, first, preparing the students to be adults in the world, and second, preparing them for their desired professions. And, for me, that preparation is less about the content of the courses and more about the skills they take from the process of learning the content: the ability to think critically, to express themselves articulately, and to act responsibly. Most of these student will never need to know the capitals of Africa or the stages of postcolonial transition. But they do need the skills they gain through the act of learning those details.
Do I have it all wrong? What is the role of higher education? Does it even have a role anymore, or is it an outdated means of forcing students through a socially determined liminal state? Is content more important than skills?
I am persnickety. I will never stop wanting the world to be orderly. But should I stop trying to make my students persnickety too?