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Word Processing Skills

Monday night, I spent an hour reviewing basic Word skills with my students. One student asked why she needed to learn the "right" way to use Word, when nobody cared if you used spaces instead of tabs, hit return instead of inserting page breaks, and manually numbered your pages. I was stunned, to say the least, that anyone — especially a child of the digital age — could suggest software skills aren't important.

Learning to use any application effectively eventually saves time and improves your work. If you learn how to use Word moderately well, you save minutes a day, and those minutes become hours over a month. Learning any application's features opens up new possibilities. I tell my students that letting Word automate some tasks frees more time to focus on the words instead of the formatting. To me, this is a self-evident observation: I would rather spend time writing rather than formatting.

And then, on Wednesday, I received an official departmental syllabus that violated dozens of proper Word techniques. Someone used the spacebar to almost align text in columns. Headings of sections were formatted manually, instead of selecting styles. Margins and fonts changed randomly, for reasons I cannot determine. One-cell tables were used around all but two paragraphs within a seven-page document. The page numbers were all "1" because they were not proper Word fields. I could list another dozen formatting issues.

The irony of our department failing to properly format documents is depressing.

I've asked colleagues if they'd like help with some Word tasks. I offered to host a "brown bag lunch" for colleagues, during which we could explore some basic Word features. The response from an administrator was, "We don't have time to waste learning Word." It is discouraging when academics don't wish to learn a tool of the trade. Writers and editors use word processors. We should at least learn that the tools we use are more than glorified typewriters.

When I write, I use bibliographic software to assist me. No, it isn't perfect, but it still saves me hours. I have used EndNote and Bookends, both of which support "cite while you write" and automated bibliography creation. A colleague told me that those are horrible "crutches" to use. Seriously? I'm sorry, but that's simply a distrust of technology, nothing more. If you don't trust the software, then check the formatting. I used EndNotes for my dissertation without any serious formatting errors.

As teachers, we should be role models. We often distrust technology because we don't understand it. The solution is to learn how to use applications effectively, recognizing their imperfections. I use Word's proofreading tools, knowing that software cannot identify all errors. I don't assume spellcheck is perfect, yet it helps me catch many errors as I type.

I'm frustrated that many people in communications and language arts don't want to master the technology we use. Too many of us don't try to develop basic or intermediate skills, much less mastery. That any professor would suggest there's no reason to learn a technology he uses daily leaves me disillusioned.

And we wonder why employers consider students unprepared for the modern workplace. We have modeled an almost proud ignorance of technology, so our students assume nobody bothers to learn the "right" way to use office applications.

Whatever software you use for daily work, try to learn more about it; discover how efficient use of an application can improve your life.

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