A friend asks: “Would it be bad form to point out the typos in my class materials?” My answer: Probably yes.

After I posted my grades for this term, I made a dumb typo in this celebratory meme, and a friend pointed out the error on social media.

Another friend, who is just starting a new grad program, asked:

Curious, would it be bad form to point out the typos in my class materials?

I’d say that correcting an instructor’s proofreading errors is probably not the best way to start an academic relationship — unless of course the typos are substantial enough to interfere with your understanding of the material.

I don’t mind if a peer corrects me on social media, but the student-instructor relationship is different.

I can remember two different students who raised their hand on the first day of class and pointed out a typo in the syllabus. One seemed amused and helpful; the other seemed abrasive and smug. Both students were talented writers who valued confidence and accuracy, but they differed when it came to the soft skill of tactfulness.

I didn’t grade these students any differently, but I certainly *remember* them differently.

If a student is genuinely confused because the points in a rubric don’t add up, or the sentence that introduces an important assignment is missing a verb, or the URL for a reading assignment doesn’t work, then pointing out an error is part of a request for clarification. But that’s very different than grandly noting that item 2.3.2 in the syllabus section on the snow day policy doesn’t end in a period.

Sometimes I say, “This is a brand new handout, so if you have any suggestions or if you spot any errors please let me know.” Likewise, I am always grateful when a stranger leaves a comment about an error on my blog, even if the comment is snarky — at least they cared.

A couple years ago when I was re-reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, I noticed his strategy of prefacing his opinions and pronouncements with “It seems to me…” or “As I apprehend…”  As I begin my 19th year in my current job, and as more of my senior colleagues retire, I find myself more and more frequently the senior person in a room. That doesn’t mean that I am the most informed, or the best qualified to handle the task at hand, but it sometimes means that I remember a tidbit about the time 15 years ago when a similar problem came up. Yet I don’t want to rob my younger colleagues of the opportunity to solve problems on their own terms.

A good rule in life is to be open-minded and liberal about how you accept messages from others, and be mannerly and conservative in the messages that you send out.

I actually picked up this concept when I was learning about fault tolerance in object-oriented computer programming, and I wish I had adopted the life philosophy earlier.

So, if a student were to correct my error in public, my tendency would be to assume they are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge, or that they are trying to be genuinely helpful, or they are testing me to see how I will respond to something they themselves are nervous about. (I might still be embarrassed, or annoyed, or troubled that the student seems to have a chip on their shoulder.  I have had students who are dyslexic, or visually impaired (and dictating their words), or learning in English as their third language. Students who are on the autism spectrum, who often place a strong value on knowing and following the rules, may observe and process social cues differently than neurotypicals. Part of my job involves teaching students how to give and receive constructive criticism, and I can’t expect students to meet my expectations on the very first day.)

If I have the opportunity to correct someone else’s error, the conservative thing to do is to assume the other party’s good faith, to consider the possibility that I might be the one who’s wrong, and to consider the pros and cons of correcting that person in public, or in private. (In recent years I have found students seem more receptive to my feedback when I award them *points* for meeting the basic goals of this assignment, and then give them constructive criticism that’s “designed to help you level up for the next assignment.” It’s great when I can present negative feedback that way, but sometimes in class I do have to tell a student, “No, your response doesn’t answer my question,” or “No, that’s wrong.”)

Certainly a syllabus or the description of a major assignment is worth proofreading, and certainly if I am preparing a lecture on the value of accuracy, then I had better triple-check my slides.

But if I’m walking to the parking lot at 4:45pm Friday and a panicked email from a student shows up on my phone, there would probably be value in sending something quick right away, as opposed to waiting until Monday when I have time to craft (and proofread) a more thoughtful response.

Informal writing assignments are valuable. I don’t criticize students for saying “um” in discussions, or for using text-messaging abbreviations in brainstorming activities or peer feedback forums. However, if a student invested energy in pointing out typos in my own informal writing, I would worry the student might not see the big picture.

Still, if multiple students reported difficulty understanding my sentences, making sense of my rubrics, reconciling contradictory assignment descriptions, etc., I would take that as a sign I need to put more effort into preparing my class materials.

Sometimes part-time teachers are informed of a job opening weeks or days before the course begins, so it’s possible that the documents your instructor produces for the first week or so might be a bit rough.

So the question is really, are the typos affecting your ability to learn?

Maybe ask clarifying questions wherever the course materials are unclear, and then if your instructor responds helpfully you could say, “Oh, that makes sense. In the handout I didn’t see a verb in the third sentence and I wasn’t sure which plural noun went with the pronoun ‘they’ in the fifth sentence, but the way you phrased it just now clears it all up. Thank you.”

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