Plagiarism: From Bad to Worse

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe following exchange took place this weekend on my personal Facebook page.  What would you do in my shoes?

Siobhan: Colleagues and others, I need help. A student has clumsily copied a definition from Wikipedia into his introduction without attribution. His essay is otherwise his own work. My inclination is to let him off with a 0 in “expression” and a stern warning. However, I have already given one of his classmates (and a friend of his) a 0% for copying a couple of lines into his essay from the novel publisher’s website. That seems like a more egregious offense to me, but I’m having trouble explaining this to myself. Thoughts?

Ms. A.: I think it’s equally egregious. Both were unattributed quotations from websites, no?

Siobhan: I think my hesitation is because it’s so common for students to do this with definitions. They seem not to understand that a definition is a set of carefully chosen words, as opposed to a Platonic form that belongs to everyone.

Ms. B.: If you can’t explain it to yourself, you can’t justify it to them, either. Copying and pasting from a different source without attribution is plagiarism. Also, isn’t it questionable to be quoting Wikipedia anyway?

Siobhan: Wikipedia wasn’t used as a “source” per se – the student needed a grabber in his introduction, and we talked about definitions as weak but acceptable grabbers, so I suspect he took it from there. His essay-writing skills are poor, and I’m pretty sure this was an essay-writing error and not a deliberate attempt to pull something over on me. In the other student’s case, copying from the website added nothing to the essay except to fill out the word count. Thus my dilemma.

Here’s the relevant passage in the college Cheating and Plagiarism policy: “Plagiarism versus incorrect or incomplete documentation of sources: Many… college students have not yet developed the academic skills necessary to correctly and completely document sources used in an assignment….Teachers should endeavour to distinguish between students who incorrectly or incompletely document source material and students who attempt to cheat, through plagiarism, by copying source material and presenting this material as their own original work.”

Ms. C.: In similar cases, I have let the student fix the error but told them that I would grade them on 80 instead of 100. It looks like you are accomplishing the same thing by grading a portion of the essay at 0%. I do this in cases where I really do think it was a question of simply not understanding that what they did was wrong.

Siobhan: Ms. C., would you do the same for the student who copied from the publisher’s website?

Ms. C.: If it was their first essay, and it was the only instance of plagiarism in the paper, I would let them fix it for a reduced grade.

Siobhan: I’m tempted to write to the student and say, “Give me a reason not to give you a zero, taking into account the fact that someone in your class got a zero for a similar offense. My feeling is that your offense is less serious, but I can’t figure out why, so convince me.”

Ms. C.: Sometimes what I do when I am uncertain is I set up a face to face meeting with them. I let that interaction help me decide whether to let then redo for a reduced grade or assign a 0.

Siobhan: I think that’s what I’ll do. In the meantime, I’m giving him a zero and will see what he says.

Ms. D.: I like the end of this exchange: I think I too would start by assigning a zero (or no mark at all) and then arrange a meeting. I try to explain things unemotionally and objectively, and also I don’t make any final decision on the spot, while the student is there with me. The passage you cite from the policy leads me to believe that there is plenty of wiggle room here for you, and I completely understand your desire to find that ‘wiggle room’ and use it, but on the other hand, really, students often learn very little from the ‘stern warning’ if there are no actual consequences to their actions. I have certainly had occasion to give a student a 0 knowing that they are fully capable of passing the course with the rest of the work, but what remains with them is that they could have had a significantly better grade, had they made better decisions. Now, if this is a 1st semester student, I would tend to be more lenient; but for a post-intro student, less so.

Siobhan: Yes, one of the considerations here is that this is a post-intro student. To his classmate who earned the zero I said, “You didn’t just arrive in college this minute. You know what plagiarism is. If you don’t, you haven’t been paying attention.”

Ms. E.: At my school (I teach international students who want to go to university, and plagiarism is a huge issue), after the first instance of plagiarism, the student can rewrite the plagiarized parts and resubmit with no penalty. But their name (and details of the offence) goes into a database, which teachers can check. Each subsequent offence (in any class) carries a heavier penalty. They’re let off easily for the first offence because they often don’t connect the ‘theory’ of what plagiarism is to their own practice until they’ve actually screwed up.

Ms. F.: Well, Siobhan, since you said the essay was the student’s work with the exception of the definition, it seems that his intentions were not to plagiarize. How old is this kid? As the mother of a teenaged boy, sometimes all they need is for things to be pointed out to them. I’d give the student the option of fixing it up which I hope he would gladly do. Tell him that you do not expect this repeated action again. I would allow him to redo that part, then mark him. Like I said, I have no idea how old these students are but I’m all about helping them learn and grow from their errors. If this continues, of course, the consequence would be different.

Siobhan: These are college students, and they’ve all been in college for at least a year. They’ve had plagiarism explained to them many, many times by many different teachers. My approach to a first-semester student is always considerably more lenient, but at this point, they’re expected to know these things.

Ms. F.: College student – totally different ball game. Thought they were younger. Yup, I’d have no tolerance for plagiarism at that level.

Ms. G.: I think I might dispute that they all fully understand plagiarism by second semester. Some students in some classes are encouraged to do just what these two students have done and documentation isn’t stressed or even covered. I think with a definition students assume a second party, as you mentioned. Unless the student blatantly says my definition of this is… I don’t know that I would fully penalize either student for just a couple of lines, though reducing their possible grade seems fair.

Siobhan: I would never suggest that they all fully understand it – I would only suggest that they SHOULD, and are responsible if they don’t, especially as it’s already been discussed in our class. Also, this is not second semester but second year for most of these guys. If a student were able to demonstrate to me that he/she had been misguided in another class as to what proper documentation is, I’d certainly take that into account, but if we don’t penalize students for a “couple of lines,” then the concept of plagiarism is not very meaningful. There are of course exceptions and blurry areas, but a student in his second year of college who copies sentences from an online plot summary into his essay needs to feel the full force of the consequences as far as I’m concerned. The fact that some others are not enforcing these consequences is part of the overall problem.

Ms. G.: I’m not advocating being soft on plagiarism; I’d just go with your gut on this one.

Readers, what should I do?

Image by John Nyberg

This Book is Too Sad

o3XIW26A reader and colleague sent me this question the other day.  What would you do in her position?

Dear Siobhan,

A few of my college students (note, not the class as a whole) have told me they’re having a really hard time with the book we’re studying in class because it’s too sad. It’s The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The principal person in this small group suggested that at her age, she’s too sensitive to read a book like this. She’s studied slavery before, but finds this book– which follows a slave woman’s life– too graphic, too emotionally difficult. How would you handle this?

H.

I’m not sure.   Dear readers, what do you think?  Should college students be obligated to read texts that challenge them emotionally in ways they might not be prepared for?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Honeymoon’s Over

Yesterday’s adventures in college (really?) teaching:

  • A student who changed an answer on a returned quiz and tried to convince me that it was his original answer.
  • A student who asked me if it’s ok that she will have to leave class half an hour early at least once a week, even though I told her on the first day that if this is the case, she should not take a course at this hour.
  • A student who walks on chairs to get to his assigned partner, who doesn’t seem able to communicate below a yell and who speaks French with his classmates with a sort of sneaky, pulling-one-over-on-the-teacher amusement (because…he doesn’t think speaking French is allowed in English class?)

The semester, like childhood, goes through defined developmental stages.  We seem to be at the “testing the teacher” stage.

How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

Image by matchstick

The Art of Running Away

meSMNSmIt’s been a tough semester.

I’ve described some of the trials already: a new course that didn’t work very well, an unsuccessful experiment with blogs, a number of unpleasant end-of-semester exchanges.  More than a month after the end of classes, I’m still dealing with a challenge to one of my plagiarism rulings, and still awaiting a decision on what to do about a very rude email.

I’m also trying to work out a solution to a bigger problem, and the solution I like best is the one that probably reflects worst on me.

This semester I had an unusually high number of failures in one of my sections.  Actually, “unusually high” is hedging it – eleven out of forty failed.  For me, this is unheard of: I was consistently astonished by how weak the majority of the students in this section were, how resistant they were to following instructions, how unpleasant the atmosphere in the classroom was.

I interrogated myself about it.  Yes, the course was more challenging than it should have been, but I’d made adjustments, and the other section of the same course was doing fine.  (Four students in the other section had failed, three because they disappeared from the course and/or stopped handing in their work early on.) With only one or two exceptions, those who were making a good effort on all assignments were squeaking by.  It just seemed that there were a lot of students who weren’t invested, weren’t skilled enough to skate through, and weren’t really getting along with each other or with me.  The whole experience was nasty, and it was borne out in the course evaluations: while the other section was very positive, this section returned the worst evaluations I’ve ever received.

Generally speaking, once the semester is over, the grades are submitted, and some straggling complaints are dealt with, it’s time to move on.  Out with the old! Learn from your mistakes! etc. However, there’s a wrench in this scenario.

This course is a requirement for a major.  I’m currently the only teacher who teaches it.  This means that all these students – as many as FIFTEEN REPEATERS, not including students who have failed the course in previous semesters – will end up back in my class next winter.  This includes the student who has filed the plagiarism challenge, the author of the rude email, and the other students I mentioned in the post about requests for makeup work.  It also includes other plagiarists, other students who got angry at me about something or other, other students who have ALREADY failed the course before, and all sorts of other problematic situations.

Perhaps you can imagine how I feel.

So here’s the question.  My “good teacher” instinct is to say: Here’s a learning experience for you!  What are you going to do with this mess?  It will involve, obviously, a close examination of everything that went wrong with the course, and everything that I didn’t do to address issues as they came up.  It will involve up-front discussions with all the failing students right at the beginning of the semester.  It will involve careful “handling” of students who will be resentful and will believe that their failures are all my fault.  What a challenge!  What an opportunity for growth!

My “self-preservation” instinct is to ask someone else to teach this course next year.

I finished this semester exhausted and overwhelmed.  In addition to the struggles outlined above, I’ve been juggling other work, home renovations, MEd studies and, less and less, attempts to work on my own writing.  (As you may have noticed, my blog fell mostly by the wayside.)  The idea of not only trying to fix this broken course but doing it in the face of a pile of students who are coming in with a grudge feels like way, way too much. What I really need is a sabbatical, but I can’t afford one.  So maybe what I need is a sabbatical from this course.

This feels like a massive, cowardly cop-out.  It’s also what I really, really want to do.  Is there a way to justify it?

Image by Moi Cody

Makeup Work: 3 Scenarios

meZaC80I have a blanket policy against end-of-term makeup work for students who have failed.  If you didn’t complete all the assignments and get the extra help you needed during the semester (and if you did, you probably passed – it is extremely difficult to fail my courses), then you need to face the consequences.

This semester, I’ve received more requests for makeup work than ever before.  It’s exhausting.  Over the last few days, in particular, I’ve grappled with three scenarios that, when I add them all together, I can’t come to a comfortable decision on.  I need your advice.

1. Student 1 is a competent writer and could easily have passed the course.  When we met at midterm, we agreed that she was in serious danger of failing if she didn’t buckle in, come to class and do the work.  Nothing changed.  She did not do the required minimum of blog writing and didn’t show up to do her oral presentation.  A few days before the deadline for her final essay, she wrote pleading for extra work, citing personal problems throughout the semester, a need to graduate etc.  Answer was a blunt “no.”  She failed the course by a few points and wrote again to plead for allowances.  Answer?  Still no.

2. Student 2 failed this course with me once before, due to both poor skills and inattention to work and deadlines.  She was always pleasant but seemed confused and tuned-out, and repeatedly expressed surprise when it was pointed out that she had not followed (very clear) instructions.  For the first half of this semester, it seemed that her approach would be exactly the same as it had been last time.  By the second half, though, she started to try to pull herself together, mostly without success.  There were glimmers of potential in some of the things she produced, but deadlines were still missed, word counts nowhere close to met, writing riddled with all manner of errors.  Again, she looked surprised when told that she had failed assignments for these reasons.  A couple of weeks before the end of classes, she asked me to tell her honestly where she stood, and I told her honestly that there was no realistic chance she would pass.  She soldiered on anyway, and handed in what amounted to a good final paper, but it wasn’t enough.  The day after her final grade was posted, I received an email from her in which she began by wishing me a “pleasant good day” and then went on to say that she couldn’t believe that I “had taken pleasure in failing her by only 3 marks” and that it was clear that I had been “determined all semester to see her fail.”  She informed me that she had thought about “taking me to the dean” but had decided instead that she would benefit from doing the course again because she “had learned nothing in my class.”  (Perhaps she hasn’t put it together that, if she wants to maintain her major, she needs to take the course for a third time WITH ME.)  She ended by wishing me blessings from God.

3. Students 1 and 2 wouldn’t really trouble me if it weren’t for Student 3.  She is a nationally ranked athlete.  Her spoken and written English are very poor, and she was spotty in her completion of assignments.  At midterm, one of her coaches wrote to me and asked me to call him.  I hesitated, but did so, after confirming his identity with the student.  Only during the conversation with him did I discover that he was not a college coach, but a private one.  He informed me at length about Student 3′s prospects, including a scholarship to a major American university contingent upon her passing all courses.  I explained that I understood the situation but was not going to GIVE the student grades she wasn’t capable of, or dedicated to, earning.  I also asked some questions to find out who at Academic Advising is responsible for monitoring her progress (a setup in our “Sports Etudes” program in which elite athletes are given some academic flexibility to accommodate their training schedules).  I suggested that in future, the coach should ask this contact person to deal with me, and should not write or call teachers directly.  Nevertheless, I received a message from the coach again yesterday, asking about Student 3′s final results.  Although she had made significant effort on some assignments, others had remained undone, and I had posted her failing grade the day before.  I didn’t reply to the coach right away, but minutes later got a panicky email from the student, asking for extra work or other ways to make up her grades.  I immediately wrote to their contact at Academic Advising, asking him to handle the situation and contact me if needed.  He has promised to do so, but I am left with the question: if her results in my course are the only thing standing between her and the next important step in her academic and athletic career, do I take that into consideration?  If I decide to be flexible, should I also be flexible for Students 1 & 2?

What would you do in any of the above situations?  Does leniency for Student 3 also require leniency for the first two students, or should the answer be a “no” across the board?  Or should I lighten up when it comes to borderline failures and allow students to do makeup work regardless?  I would be very interested to hear  your thoughts.

Image by Sigurd Decroos

The Worst of Me

mmZCRsEWhich of your character traits is your worst enemy, in your life but especially in your job?

In one of my courses, we’re writing reference letters for fictional characters.  In addition, as a possible blog assignment, I suggested students write reference letters for themselves, imagining they’re applying for their dream job and giving an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  It made me think about how I would assess my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher – and as a person, for that matter.

My biggest flaw (and I have thousands) is irritability.  I get annoyed even with people I love, people whom I know have the best of intentions.  When someone interrupts me when I’m talking, or hogs the spotlight, or expresses him/herself in a way that’s less than clear, I turn bitterly cold and sometimes shut down completely.  This seriously bruises my relationships with my students and others.

Example A:

Student: Miss, what were you saying about that thing?  That talk?

Me: “Talk?” [Long pause]  [Note: I know what the student is referring to.]

Student: You said something about … a talk, you said … we have to do something.

Me: When did I say this?  Today?  Last week?  What exactly did I say?  I need more information here.

Student: Never mind.  Forget it.

Example B:

Me: Would you like some coffee?

Mother-in-law: Well…you always make your coffee very strong.

Me: Yes, we do.  [Long, long pause.]

Mother-in-law: Maybe you could add some water to mine?

Me: So you’d like some?  Certainly.

I’m not suggesting that teachers, or people, should always be friendly and sweet.  However, irritation can be mean, and its primary goal is to make the receiver feel bad.  (The ultimate objective is to change the receiver’s behaviour, but it is not a good method for doing so.)  I struggle with this in the classroom, in my marriage, in my friendships, and in my interactions with grocery store cashiers and people who walk too slowly in the metro tunnels.  It tires me out and in makes me an a**hole.

What about you?  Do you have character traits that make your job, or your life, more difficult?  Have you done anything to change them?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

ClassROOM: Teaching and Physical Space

ChairI was thrilled when I learned my schedule this semester: noon to 4 most days, a nice change from my usual 8 a.m. start.  Then I learned the catch.  When you teach in the middle of the day, it seems, you’re much more likely to end up in a terrible classroom.

My first class of the semester was in a room with no computer projection system.  A major inconvenience for that course, but resolvable – we have portable systems that are usually available, as long as I book in advance and leave for class early enough to get to the IT Centre first.

My next class was, to my astonished chagrin, in the college amphitheatre.  It is, as the name would suggest, a lecture hall.  It seats around 100, so the first order of business was to move everyone in my class of 40 down into the first 4 rows.  The bigger problem is that – well, that it’s a lecture hall.  It has a wonderful big projection screen and interesting acoustics, but I’ve never lectured for more than 10 minutes at a go in my life.  The seats are bolted to the tables, and it’s impossible for me to get between rows; when it comes to group work, moving students around is going to be a crazy headache.  Doing in-class essays is also going to be a challenge, as everyone’s right on top of everyone else.  Lecture halls are for lecturing, not teaching.  I have no idea how I’m going to work with this space.  (When I asked the students how they feel about it, though, they said, “It’s cool!  It’s like being at the movies!”  I guess so, but they’re unlikely to still feel that way after staring at ME for a few weeks.)

The next day I had my third class.  It’s in an almost windowless room in the basement, and five minutes before our first lesson, all the power in the building went out.  I fumbled my way downstairs to find that the students were all shining their phones around to see each other, as the room was completely black.  Mercifully, the power came on about 10 minutes in – or maybe not so mercifully; the fluorescent glare revealed up a blank, bunged-up, low room twice as deep as it was wide, meaning that I seemed to be shouting at the students in the back through a train tunnel.  I have no trouble projecting, but a room like this magnifies student-in-the-last-row behaviour issues; they truly believe themselves to be invisible, so I have a feeling a lot of pauses and “ladies in the back, I’m still talking”s are going to be necessary.

Some colleagues have suggested that I make room change requests – the winter semester is never as crowded as the fall, so there’s an outside chance that such requests will be honoured.  However, I’m curious.  How will working in these spaces affect my teaching and my students’ learning?  How can I accommodate myself and my lessons in creative ways?  Is it even possible that dealing with challenging spaces will make me a better teacher?  I’m tempted to stick with these weird rooms and see what happens.

Have you had experiences, good or bad, with challenging classrooms or other teaching spaces?  How did you deal with them?  What did you learn?

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Friends, I’ve taken on too many projects.  I’m going to do my absolute best to post once a week at least, but the next few weeks may be sporadic.  I’ll do my best to be back on a regular schedule as soon as possible.  I hope your winter semester is starting off really well!

Image by Agnes Scholiers

Now You’ve Made Me Mad: Reprise

I don’t like this time of the semester.  A couple of years ago at around this time, I summarized why.

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What do you mean, “Why am I failing English?”

You’ve failed EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT since the beginning of the course.  You handed in your first essay 2 weeks late, and you wouldn’t have handed it in at all if I hadn’t asked you where the hell it was.  You got 37% on your last practice essay, but you didn’t ask me a SINGLE QUESTION about why, or even look at the detailed feedback sheet I filled out for you, and then you went ahead and wrote the real essay, and got a 40% on that.

What do you mean, what can you do to catch up?  There are TWO WEEKS left in the semester.  You’ve been failing English since the fourth or fifth week – why are you coming to see me about this now?  Your grades have been posted up this whole time.  The fact that you’re failing English is NOT NEWS.

Yes, I’m sure your other courses HAVE been very difficult.  If you’ve chosen to prioritize your other courses, then that is a perfectly legitimate choice.  We all make such choices.  Most of us also recognize that if we don’t prioritize something, we’re not likely to do very well in it.

Why am I angry with you?  I’m angry with you because you’ve had 13 weeks to deal with this problem, and yet you march into my office when the semester is, for all intents and purposes, OVER, and you suggest that a) the fact that you’re failing English is a total surprise to you, and b) I am somehow responsible for the fact that you are surprised, and c) I should now be doing something to help you deal with this problem.  THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE NOW, and certainly nothing that I can do.  The time for dealing with this problem has PASSED.

What’s that?  Why don’t I care about your success?

I do care about your success.  I care about it very much.  I’ve been sitting here in my office, and standing in your classroom, caring about it, all semester.

You’ve been so busy not doing your work, you haven’t noticed.

Photo by Dominic Morel

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