Professors, please let us submit PDFs

We are under two weeks away from a presidential election and already eight months into a deadly pandemic, but we still have time for the little things. No, I don’t mean smelling flowers and sipping pumpkin spice lattes, though you are welcome to do so—I mean the types of file formats that professors request students use to submit papers.

In my experience, most professors ask for files with a DOCX extension, a format which was developed by Microsoft in 2007 to help standardize its file extensions across its various applications. Officially known as Office Open XML, the DOCX format broke backwards compatibility with the old .doc format. This meant that all previous versions of Microsoft Word prior to the new standard would be unable to open files with this particular extension. Consternation followed that development in 2007 (or 2008 for Mac users), but in the year 2020 we have mostly solved that issue, as most computers these days do not run any pre-2006 versions of Microsoft Office. 

The modern problems with DOCX are really not problems with DOCX itself, but rather with its place in the pantheon of file extensions that are now available. Most students in our current age produce their work in a Google Doc (in point of fact, this very article was produced in a Google Doc). It’s a simple workflow that has all the functionality of a full-blown application without having to leave a web browser or fight with a sign-in form (beyond the one that we’re always signed into as a part of daily campus life). I don’t support submitting an essay or exam as a raw Google Doc, however, and my reasons for not doing so are partially shared with my aversion to submitting in DOCX: all the writing tools are immediately available upon opening the document. 

In traditional essay editing, pre-pandemic, a professor would sit down with a red pen and a student’s paper and provide marks, comments and notes in the margins. This is how I imagine professors read students’ papers, and I imagine they read the work of their colleagues and peers in the same way. There is an air of seriousness and gravitas that is lost when the professor reads sources and contemporaries’ papers as PDF files, but all student papers as a DOCX file or a Google Doc. Because of all the exposed writing apparatuses that Microsoft Word and Google Docs present, student papers look incomplete, as though they’re not finished being produced.

But the main reason that asking for DOCX is detrimental is not because of psychological reasons, but practical ones. I do not have Microsoft Office on my computer, and I am not alone in this. My reasons are my own for leaving the Microsoft ecosystem, but regardless of the particular reason, I’m certain I’m not the only student to do so. As such, when I finish writing on a Google Doc and hit “export as DOCX,” I have no idea what the finished product looks like. I don’t know if the numbers in my graph are all now overlapping, whether my footnotes and page numbers remain formatted correctly or if the equations I entered look anything like the last thing I saw before I exported. I have no way to view or proofread the assignment that I took care crafting until it was just right. 

The obvious solution is for professors to request papers in Portable Document Format, PDF. Originally developed in 1993, the PDF file format has not outlived its usefulness. Anything, from Windows 10 to Windows 95, MacOS to OS X or Unix to Ubuntu, anything can open a PDF. And since anything can open it, when students finish writing and export to PDF, we can see exactly what it is we’re submitting with our names attached. And it’s not like professors should hate it; it’s the default format for any downloaded academic document, and providing comments is much closer to how comments are written on physical paper. 

Students shouldn’t be the only ones submitting files in PDF format either. For every file in DOCX a professor puts on Moodle, there are probably three copies on every student’s hard drive. Every weekday we face the choice of digging through our downloaded files for the syllabus we downloaded a week ago or downloading yet another copy of that same syllabus. Uploading PDF files instead of DOCX to Moodle lets students open it in a web browser, a faster and less cluttered operation that lets our focus stay on class instead of going through old files.

This is not to shame anyone who prefers to have assignments turned in as DOCX files. The pandemic is hard enough as is, and if you’re comfortable with DOCX files and they’re what you prefer, then I don’t believe it’s too much to ask that students extend some grace and conform to your preferred format; we’re all young and generally tech savvy, and we’ll be fine. But, I think I speak for every student when I say we want to do good work, and that when we go to great lengths to impress—sometimes with graphs and charts, sometimes with copious footnotes—we want to know that our time was worth it and didn’t just end up a mangled mess on the page.  

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