Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Kind of Semester It's Been


I caught five plagiarizers in the last batch of essays I read. Five. One of the students, I guess somehow thinking I wouldn't notice that overnight his writing turned from what I would loosely describe as "bad" into something of witty, charming, and publishable quality, copied (WORD FOR WORD) several sections of a book into a blank Word document, slapped his name on it, and turned it in.

"I'm bad at acknowledging sources I've used," the student said. "I'm a bad paraphraser."

I narrowed my eyes. "Rule one," I said. "Don't copy and paste an entire book and hand it in with your name on top."


You know it's bad when I call the Wily Republican and say, "Can I ask you a question?"

You know it's bad when that question is, "Did I ever teach you anything? Like, anything at all? Did I teach you anything about writing that will remain with you for the rest of your life? Did I in any small way help you?"

You know it's bad when he says, "Yes! Yes, of course!" and I say, "Okay. Fine. Thanks. That's all. I just needed to remind myself it's possible. Goodnight."


This semester I've been utilizing electronic discussion boards an awful lot. And my students? They've been abusing them. Here's a sentence that represents the content they'll slap online:

i think my farther is won of the greatest people ever,,, i want to write a profilee on hym. im going to concentreat on dyfficultes he.

That makes my eyes want to bleed. That makes my brain turn to liquid and quiver near the edge of my skull, poised and ready to leak out my nose and ears.

Still, still, still I started the semester giving my students polite reminders about the professionalism of their prose--even the prose they are creating for online discussion boards.

"Treat this as seriously as you treat the essays," I said. (Of course, this motivational speech was flawed on my part; see also: #1.) When that didn't work, I sent out a stern e-mail reminding them that their grades--which were poor to say the least--were reflecting the level of attention they gave to the discussion board posts. And when that didn't work, I sat them down and had a Come to Jesus talk with them. And yet the two discussion boards I read this weekend showed absolutely no capitalization (which we learn in elementary school), no apostrophes (which we learn in middle school; which I re-taught in college), and no end punctuation (which we learn in elementary school).

I decided to try one more (one last) technique to get them to take this seriously. I enacted the "Automatic F Policy," which states that if a student's post features even one sentence without a capital letter at its beginning, one sentence that doesn't have end punctuation, one sentence that has a lowercase "I," that discussion board post is going to fail--no matter how good its ideas might be.

"Holy shit," one of my students said. "You're mean."

"You're right," I said. "I am mean. I am the meanest girl who ever lived."


I want to save these kids.

I can't save these kids.

I can't even come close.


Today in class I was talking about how to bring source material into an essay in an elegant and smooth manner. We were discussing quotation and summary and paraphrase, and I was reminding students that changing one or two words in an original source and passing it off as a paraphrase is actually plagiarism.

"Yeah, but how would you ever know that we'd done that?" one of my students asked.

"Because," I said, "I know what you guys are capable of. I know your styles. I know you how punctuate and structure sentences. When your style and structure and punctuation is suddenly completely different--and generally perfect--what do you think my first thought is?"

"And what's the penalty for plagiarizing in a paper?" this same student asked. Maybe he was weighing his options. Maybe he was wondering if he should take the chance, give it a go, see if I could really suss the plagiarism out, and if I did, well, then so be it, and he'd take the penalty, but only if it was something reasonable. And he wanted to check on it.

"You tell me," I said. "It's on your syllabus."

"YOU FAIL," another of the students (bright, sweet, kind) said. Her tone suggested that she was as tired of this line of discussion as I was.

"I fail the course?!" the first student asked, horrified.

"THE PAPER," the second student said. "YOU FAIL THE PAPER. WHICH, YOU KNOW, IS STILL BAD."

"Right," I said, "but if it were up to me, any student would fail the class if he turned something in that wasn't his own."

"That's totally harsh," the first student said.

"That's how it was when I was in school," I said. "I was in an English class with a kid who plagiarized, and he got hauled in front of a committee, then he got tossed out of school."

"And where did you go to school?" my student asked. "A community college?"


"Yeah, well, there you go," my student said. "Students at community college shouldn't be kicked out for plagiarism. I mean, it's only community college."

"NO!" I said. "COLLEGE IS COLLEGE. You shouldn't be able to plagiarize just because you're in community college!"

"Should too," he said.

"Oh my God," I said. "I think I am going to have a stroke."


Kristin said...

I would have had a stroke. How you didn't haul off and hit those f*ckers, I have no idea.

And again, I love reading your posts:)

Jason said...

I feel your pain. But the semester's over half over.

Kristin said...

They can't be kicked out?!? You would have been at my community college! I'm surprised you didn't puke on this kids desk.