pick, pick, pick

I should declare in advance that this post is likely to seem rather pedantic and whiny to the majority of normal humans. But bear with me and, with luck, I’ll look less of a goody-two-shoes, girly swat wanker at the end than the beginning. I do hope some of you manage to make it through anyway.

As I’ve mentioned, I am an Open Universities Australia student. OUA provides a convenient if slightly schizophrenic method of gaining a degree – students select from a smorgasbord of units offered by some 16 different tertiary institutions. Thus, although my degree will ultimately be awarded by Griffith University, so far I’ve taken units not only from that institution but also Macquarie, Murdoch and Monash universities and RMIT.

And that won’t be the end of it. I have a couple of subjects on my wishlist that are provided by Swinburne University – which means [whinge warning] another student number to remember, and one more badly-designed Blackboard interface to navigate. My OUA friend, December, who is studying at her fourth university so far describes us as ‘uni whores’ – like tarts on a Friday night we dash about town devising aliases and collecting numbers. It’s rather exhausting and we’re not certain we won’t contract a nasty burning rash before we’re done.

Anyway, the point of all that is to say that I’ve already had the opportunity to compare institutional standards to some degree which has left me with a peculiar dilemma: how to decide which of those unis has the worst record on proofreading its tutorial materials; which is the most inept with grammar, spelling and punctuation? Frankly, there’s not much in it.

Many of my uni friends have complained that if tutors are going to rabbit on in such a snippy and self-righteous tone about their high expectations for students’ writing, it seems a bit rude that they don’t hold themselves to at least a similar standard. Fair call, in my view, for a number of reasons. But lecturers and course writers with sloppy writing standards seem to be the rule rather than the exception in my university experience so far.

Take for example these excerpts from a document provided to me and my fellow students this week. It was produced by one of the universities listed above, but I could have selected similar samplings from the materials of any of the universities I’ve studied with so far. These snippets are from the Glossary of Art Terms provided to students. It was written, I think, by my course convenor or lecturer.

I’ve been trying to temper my pedantic tendencies lately so was able to find it in my heart to forgive the writer for explaining the concept of metamorphosis by pointing to ‘cattapillars’ which, evidently, are creatures that transform into butterflies. Hey, a simple spelling mistake or typographical error – we all make them.

Then, ever broadminded, I was willing to overlook his explanation that the term ‘hue’ describes a colour in its purest form, without the ‘edition’ of either black or white (although I admit tooth grinding featured in the absolution process). But I am also not a great poofreader of my own work (heh, heh) so I sympathise.

But, tolerant as I am, I cannot exhonerate that man for asserting that ‘Montages tend to compose the differing source material into more seemless, unified compositions’. Seemless? Unforgiveable!

Irritatingly, the document was supplied in an HTML format thus denying me the catharsis of taking to it with a red pen. (I realise I could have printed it out but, even for me, that seemed a little pathological.)

If the fact that those errors got through the writing and proofreading stages and all the way to publication without so much as an ‘Oh, my God! Are you an idiot?’ doesn’t make your blood boil, I imagine you are thinking about now that I should perhaps get a boyfriend and shut the hell up. I mean, does it really matter that one university has just outed itself as less of a paragon of educational prowess and, perhaps, more of nest of lazy, illiterate public servants unable to gain respectable employment in the commercial world? Well, yes. Actually, it does. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

The late, Richard Mitchell, also known as The Underground Grammarian, thought so too. In his book, Less than Words Can Say*, Mitchell relates the story of a fourth grade teacher who dashed off a letter to the editor of her local paper, incensed at errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation she had detected in a published article. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, her letter went to print full of similar mistakes including mismanaged capitalisation, punctuation and syntax. She even wrote ‘aloud’ in place of ‘allowed’ when referring to the ‘artical’ in question. Being a concerned parent, a grammar philosopher and not just a pinch-cheeked pedant, Mitchell reasonably asks,

So what the hell is going on here? Who hires these people? Where do they come from?


What could be more satisfying than a legitimate and documented complaint against those people in the schools who tell us so haughtily that they know what they’re doing?

He continues:

The questions are good ones. Who does hire teachers who can’t spell? Where do they come from? The questions grow more ominous the more we think about them. Just as we suspect that this teacher’s ineptitude in spelling is not limited to those two words, so we must suspect that she has other ineptitudes as well. We see already that her education has been less than perfect. Is her knowledge of arithmetic, for instance, also less than perfect? How well informed is she about history and science? Those very misspellings–don’t they seem characteristic of a person who simply hasn’t done much reading? That is, after all, the way most of us learn to spell correctly. When you’ve seen “allowed” and “aloud” thousands of times on the page, you just know which is which. And if this teacher hasn’t done much reading, how likely is she to be well informed about history and science, or any of those things in which we expect her to instruct our children?

Well, who did hire her? Some principal, presumably, or some committee, or somebody. Let’s imagine that it was a committee. What did they look for in her credentials? In her letter of application, were there errors? Would the members of the committee have been able to detect them? Would some of them say, even now, that a silly misspelled word here and there is too trivial to worry about?

And where did she come from? Some school graduated her, and some board granted her a certificate to teach. Did she just slip through the cracks in the system? Is she the only member of her class, the only graduate of her college, whose spelling is shaky? Of all of those teachers and incipient teachers, is she the only one who doesn’t seem to have done much reading? The professors who wrote her references–did they mention that she had some problems with spelling? Did they know that she had some problems with spelling? Had they read any of her writing? Did she do any writing? As much writing as she did reading, perhaps? If your physician’s elementary training in anatomy were as uncertain as this teacher’s spelling, would you think it too trivial to worry about?

The implications of the poor standards revealed in these university tutorial materials are not insignificant. If the fundamental mechanics of English don’t matter to my university lecturers, what else do they not care about? Or are they so ill-educated that they simply don’t know about homophones such as ‘seemless’ and ‘seamless’? And if that’s the case, what else don’t they know?

Which leads me to ask: Can I trust this university to provide me with what I thought was implied in our contract – the arrangement where I give them some $20,000 in exchange for what I had hoped would be the beginnings of an excellent education? How might I know in advance? What might the indicators be? Perhaps the institutions’ written communications? Or am I just a nitpicking fusspot who should shut the f*ck up and smile as I hand over another $6000 next year? After all, whatever the standard of the course content, I’ll get a nice, frameable piece of paper at the end, right?


(Oh, and should it turn out that this post went to publication full of undetected typos, I’ll be claiming Jane’s Law was at work 🙂

* A free, online copy of Richard Mitchell’s Less than Words Can Say is available here. His other definitely-worth-a-read title The Graves of Academe is also available to read free at the same site.


6 thoughts on “pick, pick, pick

  1. Linda says:

    A) I totally agree with you. Spelling mistakes in high places make my blood boil, too.
    B) I think you should get a boyfriend.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Hear Hear … or is that Here Here!!! Grin … well written Jane … Jen x

  3. jane douglas says:

    Ah HA! You would have been the two among my friends I’d have thought might bother to read to the end of that post 🙂 Love you both!

    But it’s a ‘No’ to the boyfriend, L.

  4. Melinda says:

    What a brillian post Jane!
    Very well written and definitely true. The amount of study guides I have come across with spelling and grammar mistakes are remarkable.
    Yes we are all human and yes we all make mistakes (I consider my grammar and spelling quite shocking) but university teachers, tutors and lecturers should well and truly have a grasp on spelling and basic grammar!

  5. Jenny says:

    Cracker of a post! I know I’m over a year behind, but have just arrived at your blog via a friend’s post on Facebook, linking to your post on Qanda and Catherine Deveney.

    I stopped seeing a dietician to whom I’d been referred, because I could not bear to read her printed materials. I later discovered a friend stopped seeing her for the same reason.
    Proofreading was a process unknown to her, such were the many and various errors. I’m a professional and I object to paying my hard-earned (or is that hard earned?) to someone who doesn’t respect me enough to produce error-free material. On reflection, perhaps I should have offered to edit her materials in exchange for consultations. But if she couldn’t spell, punctuate or otherwise write properly, how good was her advice going to be – a point made in your post.
    Thanks for the links to Mitchell. I look forward to reading more of your work. Your writing is , if I may say so, very good. If this comment contains errors, it’s because WordPress is shrinking the comment box and won’t let me edit!

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