One of the things one can hardly avoid when dealing with college students (undergraduates and, I’m discovering again, graduates alike) is the old saw that college is somehow different from “the real world,” and that what one must do there doesn’t apply once real-world rules come into play. “Sure, plagiarism is a problem when you’re in college, but out in the real world, people copy and paste on internal company documents all the time,” I hear (and I know that this does happen, in fact — even university folks do it, and don’t think twice about it). “Nobody cares about all of those silly formatting details in the real world,” I hear, “so why should we care so much about spacing and margins and stuff like that?”
I can see why people think this — culturally, school is in some ways a sacred space, where mistakes only result in lower grades rather than losing a job and much-needed income. It is not hard to see the ways in which the college experience can be read as a low-consequence or no-consequence zone when compared to working life, a bubble protected from harsh “realities.” This is especially so when grade inflation across the board has rendered the use of grades (already a rather poor incentive system) more or less useless as real indicators of work quality. It is also easy to see why some of the priorities of great importance to scholars simply don’t matter outside of the realm of scholarship — the scholarly fine points have little practical effect on how business is done in some contexts, after all. Further, it does happen that what one learns in the classroom as a student is radically altered or contradicted by one’s experience outside of that classroom; I recently spoke to some elementary and high school teachers who asserted (with some annoyance) that they really didn’t learn much about teaching until they were actually on the job, and that their own student experience had not prepared them for the work they were actually doing. It could not have done so.
That said, I still resist this “college isn’t the real world” formulation, with its Vegas implications.* The fact that one can sail through the university experience while treating it that way does mean that it is that way, or that it ought to be that way. I suspect that we scholarly sorts, however, have not done an especially good job of making clear in what ways the world of one’s educational experience and the world of one’s work experience are actually related. Most of the time, the locus of the relationship is supposed to link subject matter to job training (which is its own kind of mistake). In addition to the job training angle, the scholars who run the show also often try to sell the value-added proposition that we teach job-relevant skills over and above those specifically associated with job-related subject fields. The problem, of course, is that we do this very poorly (or so I’ve come to believe).
We try to sell “critical thinking” and “effective communication,” which people obviously need in any world, but I think that most of the time, we’re not actually explaining well enough exactly how we do this to the people who most need to understand it. We do not even understand it particularly well ourselves, I suspect. We certainly do not always seem to acknowledge the difference between assigning tasks that ought to require and demonstrate these things and actually teaching them. Part of this, of course, is because of a very “real world” concern — the broader culture has identified “critical thinking” and “effective communication” as selling points while persistently denigrating the disciplines that have always aimed to produce them, which makes the continual sales pitch a requirement for disciplinary survival rather than a central pedagogical aim.
Why does it matter how you format your documents? Because the people you deal with in business contexts may not know APA style or MLA style or Chicago style when they see it, but the best of them sure as heck know and reject sloppy work when it crosses their path. You will be judged by your attention to detail. You will be judged by your care, by your thoroughness, by your ability to follow through on your commitments. Without these things, you will be conned by people who are better at this than you are, because you won’t be able to see how they’re conning you. You will get fired or audited or (heaven forbid) arrested for failing to follow instructions (especially when those instructions have legal implications). This is true in college, too.
Training for the Olympics is no less “real” than the games themselves — the training process is a part of what makes the games themselves, and bad training or bad practice does not make for reliable victory. The competition is not in a world different from the world of training — it is the natural end of training. When Jesse Owens kicked butt at the 1936 Olympics, it wasn’t just an ideological triumph over Hitler’s Aryan nonsense — it was also a triumph of systematic training, taken to its logical conclusion.
*What happens at [institution of higher ed] stays at [institution of higher ed].”