I learned headings in third grade. By the time I left the sixth grade, I knew the basics of a bibliography page. By the time I graduated high school, I was pretty adept at most aspects of MLA formatting and citation. So imagine my surprise when I began teaching and students were turning in typed papers with their names written in pencil.
If you take my sophomore advanced English course, you lose two points on a paper for incorrect formatting and five points for a missing works cited page.
I suppose we could have some long discussion about obsolete practices and 21st Century teaching and all of the lovely things you’ll hear among the Connected Educators, and I suppose it would be nice and productive for many, but as I was doing a last-minute “tips” session for my advanced classes the other day, I found myself thinking about headings and formats and the seemingly minute elements of a paper. Because while you can take a look at a proper heading or margins or even a works cited page and say, “Well, that shouldn’t matter,” I beg to differ.
There’s an old famous rock and roll story concerning Van Halen’s concert rider. Whenever they went out on tour in the early 1980s, the band would insist, in writing, that no brown M&Ms would be served backstage. It sounds like one of the most ridiculous things in the world to insist upon and on the surface it kind of is, but the reason for it is way more practical. According to David Lee Roth (and you can find a great rundown of this over on Snopes), the band put the no brown M&Ms rider in the contract not to be vicious jerks but as a practical spot-check measure. If those putting the concert together were paying attention to something as miniscule as the no brown M&Ms clause, then they obviously were paying attention to bigger, more important things; if not, the band would call for a spot check of everything in the concert.
Proper MLA formatting and a complete works cited page are the brown M&Ms of English papers. While the idea is not foolproof, it does suggest that more attention was paid than usual. While there still may be issues with composition, content, and expression that a proper heading won’t fix or completely mask, the paper has a better chance of being cleaner in terms of usage and mechanics. It also reflects a certain amount of effort and pride in one’s work that will extend to, say, revisions and rewrites (i.e., a real revision rather than simply correcting spelling errors).
To those who wonder about the relevance of such things, I say this: prior to becoming a teacher, I worked in marketing and sales support and often had to create proposals and presentation materials that were going to large companies or government agencies. Proper formatting and presentation were both very important and sometimes meant the difference between my work being liked and being sent back to the drawing board; futhermore, it sometimes meant the difference when it came to landing the account or client.
So it starts here. WIth paying attention to the package of one’s work, and the insistence that it is polished, despite effort and substance. Because as much as people would like to tell you “Oh that doesn’t matter,” it matters quite a bit.