At the Age of Perfection, heu mihi (formerly jb) sighed over the futility of students who try to trick profs into thinking the paper is longer than it is. I suggested word count, but she said she hates receiving email attachments. Some random thoughts:

Teaching research papers last spring, I realized that a real advantage to using word count was that I didn’t care if students inserted illustrations or used excessive footnotes, since I didn’t have to worry about those bulking up a page count.

I actually use word count because I don’t really like Times New Roman, and wanted my students to feel free to change fonts. I learned to type in high school on an actual typewriter, then went to college in the early days of GUI systems (Macs had GUIs, “IBMs” didn’t). Finding all these fonts available was like a wonderland! My procrastination technique while writing was figuring out what font best matched the paper I was writing, and designing a snazzy title page (result—I turned in some bad papers with nice title pages). I hate the way my students totally ignore the “visual rhetoric” of their paper (that should link directly to an old comment from Meg at Xoom, although the whole page is vaguely related).

It is true, that if you are really going to enforce word count as a length, you sort of need the electronic copies to run it yourself (note: MacWord and WinWord can produce slightly different numbers, due to how they treat dashes—shouldn’t be off by more than a few, though). Alternatively, you can also dock points if students don’t put the word count with the name/date—but what if students lie?

I do collect both electronic and paper copies, so they know I can check. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a student try to snow me on word count (though I’ve got relatively good students). In fact, sometimes I think it would be better for students to “forget” to put the word count than to put in black-and-white that they only wrote 800 words for an assigned essay of 1200 to 1500 words (okay, not always such good students). I generally find that I can judge papers are short anyhow—and the really short ones tend to be so bad I don’t always bother giving additional penalties for length.

But I demand electronic copies for a number of other reasons, even though I don’t do paperless grading yet, and don’t really want to. That’s for a later post.