A couple of years ago, back when I was still in university, I had a bizarre mentoring role that the department referred to as a ‘proctor’. As is my habit, I quickly Wiki’d that to see if there was some explanation for just why the university decided to call it that, but it’s a fairly tenuous connection at best. Anyway, my job was to sit in on groups of first year undergraduate philosophy students as they discussed the topics found in their courses – things like an introduction to ethics and morality, questions about properties and colour theory, all the stuff that gets thrown at you as a freshman philosophy student. The idea was not that I’d be teaching these people anything – that was forbidden! – but that I’d be there to keep the discussions on track and away from philosophical dead ends, what happened last night on Eastenders, or comparisons of how drunk they had been/still were.
This in mind, my role could be a fairly dull one. Typically, I’d only get involved when it was time to move on to a new topic or to get them to shut up about something irrelevant or to try and get someone in the back to speak up if they hadn’t already. My group was, generally, fairly good – except that one tosser who stole my copy of Descartes’ Meditations and promptly vanished – but nevertheless a few interesting moments emerged from the general confusion. You see, the main point of these discussion groups was meant to be that since most people never study any philosophy before university and/or don’t study it in the discussion- or argument-heavy environment the university prefers, it would be necessary to gently introduce students to “how we do things”. That meant things like reminding people that there isn’t necessarily one right answer (but also, that there may well be some right answers, and just spouting irrelevancies for forty minutes because your friend says his friend says that’s all you do in philosophy classes isn’t going to get you anywhere), or getting them used to the idea that they’re meant to provide evidence and arguments for why they’ve chosen that answer, instead of merely providing references.
This sometimes leads to really bizarre moments, like when you find out half the group doesn’t know how the perception of colour works, or times when they really get the wrong end of the stick about properties or moral arguments. As mentioned, though, I wasn’t allowed to actually correct any of this, lest I accidentally teach them something incorrect or – just as bad – suggest that my point of view was the only correct one. A sort of ethical grey area, however, was when it came to essays and exams. Questions like ‘What should I be revising?’ or ‘Is this essay okay?’ cropped up frequently, and the rules were much less clear on how to deal with them. It was the eve of one such essay deadline that the following situation occurred.
A girl, who shall remain forever nameless, not least because I’ve long since forgotten her name, hung around at the end of the session with her essay, looking really quite worried. Again, the essay was due in the following day, or later that afternoon, or something, so it was no surprise she was looking a bit harassed. I said sure, I’ll take a look at it. She was bright enough in the discussions, and seemed to ‘get’ the course, so I wasn’t too concerned. I figured I could have a quick glance, check she had referenced things properly, maybe suggest she check one of the other texts associated with the course.
I was wrong.
I honestly can’t speak for the content of her essay. She may later have gone on to become a PhD candidate, marking out revolutions in modern philosophy in her extensive and well-researched thesis. What I was looking at, though, was a multi-coloured atrocity. Inexplicably, her essay was written in several different fonts, and several different colours, with random bits of indentation where an obviously quoted bit of text had run on into the main body of her essay. There was no title, spacing leapt between single and double, and the whole thing looked like it should have been on an early GeoCities page, all blinking text and revolving paths of glitter. I seem to remember letting out a strangled noise, sitting down on the nearest desk, and strongly suggesting that she go see her actual supervisor immediately because I (genuinely) had to run to another proctorial and dealing with that essay would take more than the ten minute window between lecture slots.
To this day, the formatting of that essay haunts me.
The reason I bring this up is because I am, at present, attempting to edit a short story with an eye to publication. This morning I was poring over William Shunn’s guide to properly formatting a manuscript, as linked from Asimov’s Science Fiction’s submission guidelines, and it contains this line:
'No one knows for certain how many good short stories are passed over because the manuscripts containing them are formatted poorly, but it is certain that a properly formatted manuscript will be more eagerly read by an editor than a poorly formatted one.'
That was when the memory of the world’s sparkliest essay popped into my mind, reminding me that no matter what you may have actually written, if it’s utterly illegible then it isn’t going to get you anywhere.
I always wonder how she fared come the deadline.