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Samantha Sharf
Elements of Style

Credit: Samantha Sharf

If you are a living, breathing member of the Penn community, you know by now that professor Henry Teune did not show up to teach “Citizenship and Democratic Development” this semester because he died in April. You also know that nine students did show up for the Political Science class only to receive an email from a department administrator explaining there had been an “oversight.” Perhaps you are one of the 35 commenters on the Under the Button post that broke the story or you (like me) are one of the 267 people to “like” the post on Facebook.

Maybe you got an email from a high-school friend who read about the mishap on The Huffington Post. Leah Finnegan, editor for the site’s college section, described the situation as an “oh-my-God story” that she posted because she knew her audience would respond to it. In a phone interview from New York, she noted that it is not often that journalists come across a story with such a potent blend of tragedy and irony. In short, this could have been avoided.

But it wasn’t. Instead, “oversight,” combined with a couple thousand mouse clicks, put Penn at the center of a national joke.

Roll your eyes and question where your tuition dollars are going one last time. Now consider how Edward Mansfield, chairman of the Political Science department, tells the story: “Professor Teune’s course was supposed to be canceled over the summer,” Mansfield wrote in an email. “Instead, the instructor was changed from Professor Teune to STAFF and the course remained on the roster. This was obviously a mistake and one that we did not catch until the course met for the first time.”

From this perspective, someone presses a wrong button, and a few months later the University is being showcased in The San Francisco Examiner’s “Dim Bulb” feature. Of course, the introduction of human error does not make the situation less newsworthy or less absurd. Nor does it make the implications less frustrating, but it does shed a new light on the events.

As Finnegan noted, “Technology makes it a lot easier to do things and a lot easier to make mistakes.” As more and more of our lives move to the internet are we becoming less accountable for the multitude of things we put out in the world and even for which buttons we press?

As Penn students, we like to believe we are immune to silly mistakes. You would, however, be hard pressed to find a Quaker who hasn’t accidentally replied-all to an email or booked a ticket on the wrong BoltBus.

Patricia Rose, director of Career Services, explained, “Some students have taken the rules of texting and applied them to all online communication.” While there has not been an epidemic of students writing “U” when they mean “you” in formal correspondences when emailing with potential employers, students need to be “very aware these are business communications, formal communications” and to be “alert to the kind of habits they have fallen into,” she said. We have all heard horror stories of resumes being thrown out because of an innocent typo.

Shannon Kelly organizes Career Services’ social media and has run a workshop on how to leverage tools like Facebook and Twitter. She saw a lesson in the episode, pointing out that “whoever made this error is now keenly aware this was an error and exactly how people feel about it.”

While this is not the standard we’d like to set, it is important to recognize that silly mistakes happen even when the stakes are high. It’s easy to criticize the Political Science department for failing to properly deal with the death of a colleague, but perhaps we’re losing sight of the more important issue — life is too short to spend it focusing on silly mistakes. No ill-worded email or wrong box checked should get more attention than four years of hard work or a lifetime of research, teaching and advocacy.

Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.

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