White Ink in Student Essays: Easter Eggs or Insults?

Imagine having to literally read between the lines in order to understand what is going on in an essay, a project, or an assignment. Not read between the lines in the sense that literary scholars usually mean – looking for subtext or clues as to the differences, say, between the implied speaker and the real, flesh and blood author. No. Imagine if you had to read the blank space(s) in a document because the writer had hidden text there, like an Easter Egg, for you to find if you were ever so smart enough to discover it.

You found the Easter Eggs! Huzzah! Congratulations. I’d give you a prize, but, this being the internet, all I can offer you is a hearty congratulations. I’ll shake your hand if we ever meet in person. How about that?

I want to share a little technique I have discovered that some students use that can be incredibly subversive, but also incredibly problematic within a classroom setting. That is, white ink. 

No, not that kind of ink

Most documents default to a white background and black or grey text, which replicates the image of a printed sheet of paper. If you change the text colour to the same as the background colour, you have yourself a way of hiding text. It isn’t exactly the Enigma code, mind you, but it is an easy way for students to hand in even electronic documents without professors recognizing what it is they are actually looking at.

This isn’t the most complex form of code that you will ever come across, and then, you shouldn’t have to worry about deciphering codes in student papers. Still, apparently this is a thing that we have to worry about now. I’m not sure how sad I think this is on a scale of 1-10…
Some assembly required

Why would a student possibly want to embed white text, you may ask? Well, one possibility, apparently, to insult the teacher and the course. (This happened to me last year.) Other possibilities include hiding unused notes, sentence fragments that were edited out but never deleted, and so on and so on. 

Hidden text, codes, cryptography – these are fascinating areas of textual studies, where literature crosses over with mathematics and science. There’s a great opportunity here, if we are smart enough to grasp it.
These are too difficult to use on a computer screen.

I don’t really mind the practice for the most part, because it seems so innocuous – though now I check for it habitually, if only because one student took the opportunity to use it to insult me to my face/behind my back. No one wants to be insulted at work, after all, and such white text creates the opportunity for a toxic work environment to flourish.
White text offers such a brilliant chance to interrogate the boundaries of text as being-to-be-read, and the very concept of textuality. After all, if a text cannot be read by human eyes, is it really a text at all?

Nevertheless, I thought I would share this with all of you, if only because many of you teach. I mean, yes, use the white text technique. Please do! But, use it to make your work stronger, more fun and playful, not so you can insert insults. It isn’t lemon juice scratched fart jokes between the lines of Ovid, after all. It is so much more easy to detect than that.


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