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A prior student of mine is applying for a prestigious certificate in her field. She is asked to list relevant accomplishments. I was asked by the student to sign a this verification form since I am in a position to do just that: verify the accomplishments. Upon reading the accomplishments, I noticed a misspelled word. It's one of those words that is commonly misspelled, and I suspect this will limit her chances of being accepted.

Should I mention this to the student prior to signing my name? I am torn between wanting this student to succeed and having the student be self-reliant.


There was some discussion about the nature of the misspelling. The two words confused were colleague and college.


I suppose the term self-reliant was a poor choice by me in my original question. My question is more accurately stated as Should I point out the typos when the student was not directly asking for such feedback. It is not my intention to teach the student a lesson, as my question came across.

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Everyone produces a typo once in a while. Please don't be that guy... You can even miss typos after double-checking the text, because at some point you start reading what you believe to have written, not what actually is written. –  tschoppi Apr 3 at 16:44
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In terms of self-reliance, she would not learn that she was not accepted due to that misspelling. The only way she would learn from the mistake is if you pointed it out. –  Mike A. Apr 3 at 16:44
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So let me get this straight. You are considering potentially damaging this student's career in other to teach her a lesson about spelling? Of one word? I think this question is two days late. –  badroit Apr 3 at 16:49
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@badroit: If I interprete the question correctly, this is not about teaching the student a lesson but about not meddling with stuff you are unsure whether you should meddle with. –  Wrzlprmft Apr 3 at 18:27
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@BMS: badroit is referring to the date two days ago. Read as, "you must be joking". –  Steve Jessop Apr 3 at 18:31

3 Answers 3

up vote 36 down vote accepted

I would point out the error, especially if you have a reason to believe it will be taken into account in some nontrivial way.

I don't really understand why doing this goes against the student's "self-reliance". I point out errors of this kind in papers that I am refereeing, for instance, and when people read my own papers or course notes or whatever, they sometimes point out my own typos including spelling errors.* I don't think that either I or these other adult academic professionals are failing to show self-reliance.

*: I do all my writing on a version of LaTeX with disabled spell-checking, so I have to spell my words correctly "the old-fashioned way". Mistakes do sometimes creep in. I could be setting things up better, but anyway the New York Times occasionally has spelling mistakes.

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The "self-reliance" could be addressed by expressing disappointment that the student hadn't caught the error, along with a reminder that "You won't always have me to catch your mistakes." –  Ben Voigt Apr 3 at 20:06
    
@Ben: Your suggested quotation sounds possibly a bit obnoxious to me. Yes, the OP will not always personally be around, but in general we do get our work checked by others, especially when it is important. It is true that the OP's student would be well served by increased mastery of spelling, grammar and punctuation. To my mind, pointing out the error implicitly makes this point already, and the sentiment that the student cannot in general count on her mistakes to be corrected by the OP seems to go without saying. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 4 at 0:11
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In this day and age when practically every software that allows editing text comes with a handy spellchecker, it is really a no-brainer to just take 2 minutes to go through the list and check all the words with red squiggles under them. –  Superbest Apr 4 at 0:15
    
@Pete: Well, it depends on the relationship. That would be ok for a close mentor to say, who'd been involved in the student's education for quite some time. Not so much for the professor of one class. Although, I was thinking more in terms of a student about to move on to bigger things, and the question makes it pretty clear this is a former student who has already done so. So perhaps less good in that case. –  Ben Voigt Apr 4 at 0:15
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@Superbest: for example misspelling the verb "affect" as "effect" is common and will not be caught by any automated spelling or grammar checker that I know of, since both are transitive verbs. You could argue that by definition it's not a "misspelling", it's "not knowing the difference between two words", so I readily accept that you don't have to accept it as an example if you don't want to... –  Steve Jessop Apr 4 at 1:36

I think that level of "self-reliance" is a false goal. How far are you going to take it? If you saw her drop her wallet in the street, would you leave it there so that she learns self-reliance? ;-)

If the student handed you something riddled with errors, expecting you to proof-read it before signing, then maybe there would be a problem and maybe you could teach a lesson by saying, "there are 12 spelling errors in this document, but because you should know better than to leave it to me to proof-read, I'm not going to tell you what they are". Assuming you believe that cruelty can be a kindness.

A simple error doesn't say to me, "this person unreasonably battens on others" or even "this person should be left to succeed or fail alone". The rest of the application is OK, right? Self-reliant people still make mistakes. So I don't think there's a question about her self-reliance, it's about her spelling. Having one's occasional mistakes pointed out doesn't harm self-reliance.

Suppose you could teach her a lesson by leaving the error in (perhaps wait until she's rejected and then casually mention to her that in your view it could have been because of the error). Would you really prefer her to be a better speller without a certificate, rather than a worse speller with one? If not you're almost morally obliged to help her. You may draw conclusions about my politics, but I question absolute self-reliance anyway:

Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

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I agree with most of this, but I don't think that the OP is (under any circumstances) "morally obliged" to help the student with her spelling. It would be nice to help, and it seems obnoxious to try to spin the lack of help into some sort of "life lesson", but we are not morally obliged to do nice/helpful things. It sounds good at first, but when you chew on it for a little while this becomes a quite unsustainable position. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 4 at 0:25
    
@PeteL.Clark: fair enough. I said "almost" because I can't set someone else's standard for them. I think most people feel some obligation to try to be nice/helpful within reason, especially toward students, former students and in general anyone who has been in our care. I won't go any further than that towards moral absolutism because ultimately I don't believe in it. I suppose actually I could have said that given my precondition ("if you don't prefer a better speller with no certificate") you're rationally obliged to correct it :-) Not correcting it contradicts that alleged preference. –  Steve Jessop Apr 4 at 1:22
    
And, to be honest, the morality and the Donne quote are intended slightly tongue-in-cheek anyway. I'm not really trying to make the case on the basis that no student is an island, and that everyone has a constant social obligation to everyone else. Besides, missing an opportunity for a certificate is not death. I think the case is made by the nature of the student's error and a reasonable standard of "self-reliance". The rest is just a good rule of thumb that points to the same conclusion. –  Steve Jessop Apr 4 at 1:29

You should point it out to her seeing as she is a former student - on another note I'd like to point out that in your query, you wrote 'I was asked by the student to sign a this verification form ' - errors can happens to anyone :)

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