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

Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

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

Student Blogs: Challenges

mi40mFwSome of you have asked to hear my final thoughts on the individual student blogs I used in one of my classes this semester.  I have a lot to say on the matter, but I may wait until I get the course evaluations back from my students before giving you my ultimate reflection.  As all you teachers well know, sometimes our assumptions about how things have gone turn out to be less than accurate from the students’ perspective.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some PENultimate thoughts.  I put these down in a recent journal entry for a course I’m taking on IT in the classroom.  The journal assignment was to write about the challenges of integrating information technology into the classroom setting.  Here’s what I had to say.

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This semester, I had my students keep blogs.  I’ve used blogs in a course before, and then stayed away from them for years because they require such a time investment.  This year, I decided to take a stab at them again, and although there were a lot of benefits, I will think twice before using them in another course.

One of the main issues was that the course, as a whole, is brand new.  Although I spent a lot of time thinking about the general topics I wanted to explore, and the assessments that I’m REQUIRED to include in such a course (some sort of research component, an oral presentation, a 1000-word essay…), I was aware from the beginning that my desired learning outcomes were…vague.

I wanted students to think about the concept of “character” and examine how that concept is portrayed in children’s literature (these are Child Studies majors).  I wanted them to come away knowing more about the way we learn, the way we grow up, and the things we can do to make our lives, and the lives of children we know, better.  I also wanted them to think about reading, and whether reading is a valuable activity for children, and, if so, what children should read, and how the things they read will affect their characters.

So that adds up to a whole lot of thinking.  How can they demonstrate to me that they’re thinking?  By writing a whole bunch of stuff making connections between these different ideas.  And then having conversations that I can observe.  So a blog is perfect: they need to write regularly about the ideas we’re discussing in class, they need to make connections between these ideas and things they already know, and they need to comment on what others have written, generating conversations about these subjects.

The potential of these tasks to lead to deep, authentic, long-lasting learning is exciting.  Writing and commenting on a thoughtful blog post requires a high level of what instructional designers call “cognitive complexity”: the students are understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing in order to create their posts.  Writing the posts involves a number of different “types of knowledge”: conceptual knowledge (understanding the theoretical works about childhood character that we are reading), procedural knowledge (understanding how to write a coherent post whose logic, grammar etc. communicate clearly) and a certain amount of metacognitive knowledge (not only are they reflecting on the theoretical material and how it relates to the novels they’re reading, to other things they know and to their personal experiences; but they are also, to a certain extent, recognizing those leaps of understanding when they make them, and recognizing that they are something worth writing about).

Which is to say: BLOGS ARE AWESOME.  They are, like, the perfect learning tool, if you do them right.

And I think, in purely pedagogical and methodological terms, I did them right.  I set out very clear requirements: they had to post at least three posts a month, and spread their posts throughout the month (one per week for at least three weeks out of the month).  They had to comment at least three times a month on others’ blogs, also spreading their comments out throughout the month.  They had to reply to all comments left on their blogs.

I promised to read and comment on every post.  I did my best to keep that promise for a while, and as I read and commented during the first month, I was truly impressed.  Some of them were just banging out the minimum, or not meeting the requirements at all.  Most, however, were writing very interesting things.  They were MAKING CONNECTIONS.  They were HAVING CONVERSATIONS.  It was clear that writing about the seven character qualities that children need to succeed, or the “licking and grooming” theory of parental nurturing, and applying these concepts to other things both fictional and personal, was helping them understand what these things mean.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong was that I hadn’t thought it all through.  Of course I hadn’t – it’s impossible to think a course entirely through before you teach it, no matter how well you plan.  The problem is, if you’re teaching a new course AND using unfamiliar (in this case, technological) tools, problems multiply.

The first came from my willful disregard for what I knew, from long experience, about many of my students.  Regular writing, including written discussion, about complex topics is a great tool for students who are already good communicators.  For students who have language issues, who are not habitual readers or writers, and/or who already have an awful lot on their plates, this kind of regular written communication is extremely demanding.

What’s more, they’re working on a platform that is new to them.  Most of them have never written blogs, and it’s not just the technological aspects that are unfamiliar to them, but the communication medium: what should a blog post consist of?  If it’s not an essay, then what does “logical structure” mean?  And so forth.  The instructions I gave them – not just on setting up their blogs but on how to earn a passing grade or 100% – were very clear.  However, because this clarity involves so many facets where blogs are concerned – one can’t take for granted that they know ANYTHING – these instructions were also extremely long and detailed, and students don’t fully understand them.  Even now, two weeks before the end of term, a number of students are not sure why they’re earning 59% even though they put up the minimum number of posts (“But Johnny, you didn’t leave any comments for anyone.” “But I did!  I answered the comments people left for me on MY blog!”)

There are things I can do to improve the evaluation scheme; for example, if I’m ever foolish enough to do this again, I will separate the grade for blog posts from the grade for commenting, and I will clarify and delineate criteria so that it’s possible to earn a passing grade even if you fall short in one area.  Nevertheless, figuring out how to grade this new form that has few formal standards is extremely challenging, and it hasn’t worked very well this time around.

Using a newish tool like blogging in a course has much in common with teaching a new course in general: it’s exciting and full of energy because you never know what happen, but it’s also messy and fraught and doesn’t always work because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.  I’ll probably take a rest from blogs next time I teach this course (maybe a discussion forum would be simpler and less demanding?)

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I’d love to hear about experiences, successful or otherwise, that the rest of you have had with blogs in your classrooms.  What could I have done differently?  Is it worth taking another stab at it?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

The Least Stressful Job on Earth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband sent me this article this morning: the Globe and Mail summarizes some key points from a list of the most and least stressful jobs on earth.  #1 least stressful job?  University professor.

I’m not exactly a university professor, and some of the conditions I work under are quite different from theirs.  My students, for example, don’t “generally want to be there,” at least not if by “there” you mean “English class;” in some cases, they don’t even want to be in college. There are also some university professors who are comfortable walking in, giving a lecture and then walking out and going off to do their own stuff while TAs grade their papers.  I can agree that such a job sounds pretty low-anxiety, and it’s not how I operate (although if I could get someone else to do my grading I would be ALL OVER THAT.)

However, I don’t have to administer standardized tests, and I have tenure and a good salary.  Do I have one of the least stressful jobs on earth?

Maybe.  I can agree that military personnel, airline pilots and taxi drivers have it tougher than I do.  That said, there are days when I think the belligerent students, sky-high piles of marking and standards of performance I set for myself are a bit too much for me to handle.

Post-secondary educators and those who know them: what do you think of this assertion?  Do university professors have the  least stressful job out there?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Why You Should Fall in Love with Abed Nadir or Some Other Imaginary Person

I want my students to believe that it’s good to fall in love with fictional people.  But I may be wrong.

My English course for Child Studies majors is called “A Question of Character.”  We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing  what “characterization” means in literature, and what “character” means in life.  Along the way, we’ve talked a little about whether reading literature can influence our personal characters and, as a result, our success and happiness in the present and future.  This is a question I want to explore more deeply in the coming weeks.

Our foray into this topic has corresponded, accidentally, with my sudden, random, out-of-control obsession with the TV show Community.  This obsession is inconvenient because it means that I can’t grade papers, can’t read the 45 books I need to read for this class, can’t really leave the house or do my laundry.  I can’t do anything but watch CommunityI devoured all 74 episodes in 2 weeks, and when they were over, I was so grief-stricken over the loss that I went back to the beginning and started again.  My husband is getting a little worried.

That said, my obsession with the show IS convenient because, although it is a multifaceted obsession, it is also focused.  I love the writing, I love the bizarro universe, I love the many layers of meta-meaning.  Mostly, though, I love Abed Nadir.  And I think my love for Abed is an appropriate discussion topic in a course that deals with character.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Community has followed a band of 7 oddball students and their equally oddball teachers through their first 3 years of community college. (The 4th season has just begun, and I’m disappointed with it so far – a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes – but I still have high hopes.)  Abed is, at least on the surface, the oddest of them all.  In the pilot, another student, irritated with Abed, barks that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he does seem to be a textbook case.  His consuming passion is pop culture, and he makes terrible movies that reveal some of his buried emotional truths.  He’s rigid and aloof, yet remarkably sensitive; a genius, yet utterly naive.  He repeats the phrase “Cool.  Cool cool cool” like a distracted owl, and he does a lot of blank, fish-eyed staring and subtle head-cocking.  He’s able to connect with the people around him only by imagining that they’re all in a film or television show – when his friends pressure him to flirt, he channels Mad Men’s Don Draper; when he dresses up as Batman for Hallowe’en, he turns into an actual superhero.

Abed isn’t really capable of loving anyone, but the closest he gets is his relationship with his best friend Troy, former high school quarterback and prom king.  Troy, for his part, loves Abed to distraction.  When a girl Troy’s interested in says Abed is weird, Troy walks out on her.  (Abed: ” I AM weird.”)  When he thinks Abed might be stolen away to England by a pen pal, Troy’s jealousy leads him to go “all psycho girlfriend,” as Troy’s actual girlfriend gently describes it.

It’s not just Troy, though; everyone around Abed loves him, even though they don’t understand him.  His friends listen to his advice because they know he has absolutely no emotional investment in their problems.  They step in front of bullies who want to pick on him; they pay for film courses that his father won’t cover, because they want him to follow his dreams.  From the moment he appears in the first minute of the pilot, telling the leading man his life story and THEN his name, he gives Community its wonky center.  And the fans love Abed with a love so demanding that some critics think it will warp the show’s orbit entirely.  (The Facebook page of the actor who plays him, Danny Pudi, has over 15,000 fans, and I would wager that at least 14,000 of them know Pudi ONLY as Abed.  That’s a LOT of love for a character who can barely make eye contact and has shrieking meltdowns when clocks are reset for Daylight Savings.)

It’s Abed who keeps me glued to Netflix for 6-hour blocks.  I want to spend all my time with him.  In the beginning, I had only a vague, inarticulate understanding of why this was, and a feeling that it would make a good basis for a lesson.  Also, great news: if I teach a lesson about Community, and Abed, I get to spend more time watching Community, and Abed.

My initial, intuitive analysis went something like this:

  • I love Abed because I’m just like him: socially awkward, unintentionally aloof, isolated inside my own mind and often unable to connect with others. (I always score in the borderline-to-Asperger’s range on autism self-tests.)
  • I love Abed because he’s so, so much better than me.  He’s adorable.  He’s charming and funny.  He’s completely self-assured – he fears losing his friends but has no fear of losing himself.  (And he doesn’t lose his friends.  This is also important.)
  • Abed therefore represents an ideal, but one I can actually aspire to.  He’s not realistic, but he feels real; I recognize so much of myself in him that it seems possible I could, someday, be as wonderful as he is.  Maybe loving him will improve me.

What does this have to do with my class?

I decided to find out by doing some research, and came across an article in the journal Children’s Literature in Education called “Why Readers Read What Writers Write,” by Hugh Crago. Crago presents us with the term “emotional matching,” which he defines as the way “a work of fiction has matched or paralleled the reader’s ‘self-narrative,’ that is, the shadowy concept most of us have about who we are, why we act the way we do, and the sort of ‘history’ we have had in the past and expect to have in the future.” (280)

Crago gives us a couple of examples to illustrate how “identification” works as powerfully with a fictional character as it does with a real human being.  For children, especially – and my course is a Child Studies course – an imaginary person can be an (unrequited but never rejecting) friend and role model, someone to connect to and also to admire, to seek comfort from and to imitate.  When we love Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, Tarzan or Nancy Drew, we feel, “I want to be like that, and I COULD be like that, because that person may be awesome, but he/she is also like me.”

Is it really this straightforward?  It feels so magical and chemical, so deeply personal despite its universality, this infatuation with a person who doesn’t exist.  Could it really come down to a simple Lego model of the soul – if your piece fits onto my piece, I get bigger?

Come to think of it, that IS kind of magic.  Maybe it’s why kids love Lego, too.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that.  Maybe we love these characters because, by watching them or reading about them, we can feel what it would be like to be as amazing as they are, without doing any of the work required to actually be so.  This is a less encouraging scenario, and certainly undermines the pedagogical validity of my lesson.  Are Harry Potter and Anne Shirley and Abed merely ways for us to escape our real selves, to put on, in our own minds, costumes that make us appear to ourselves to be more than we are?

Mark David Chapman and Holden Caulfield immediately spring to mind.

I have written about the benefits of obsession before, but am I making excuses for something that is usually a waste of time and sometimes dangerous?  The greatest achievements in art and other creative pursuits are often the fruit of a creator’s obsession – or perhaps “grit” or “focus” would be a nicer word – but can passive, compulsive consumption of a sitcom or a novel ever lead to real personal growth?  Or can it only offer us, at best, comfort?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  As any lonely, bullied, awkward or frightened child will tell you: such comfort is nothing to sneeze at.  This moving post, by an autistic woman who saw, in Abed, the first authentic reflection of herself on television, would convince anyone that simply recognizing oneself in the other is one of the most life-changing experiences we can have.

My plan is to start my lessson by asking my students to think of a book, a film, or a TV show that they have, at some point in their lives, loved to the point of obsession.  I’ll then get them to watch an episode of Community, to name the character that they each like best, and to discuss why.  I’ll ask them to guess which character I like best, and that will give me an excuse to talk about Abed for a while.  And then we’ll look at Crago’s article, and discuss the uses of “identification,” of “emotional matching.”  What do kids, and the rest of us, learn from falling in love with people who aren’t real?  Can we learn to be better versions of ourselves?  Or can we mostly just take refuge?

And if it’s only refuge, isn’t it still worth an awful lot?

*

Some related and worthwhile links:

Community is TV’s Most Ambitious Show

The Curious Case of Abed Nadir: Community and “Pop-Orientalism”

Episode Recap: “Virtual Systems Analysis”: The Fears of Abed the Undiagnosable

Crushes, Breakups and Natural Lives: How the Critical Romantic Watches Television

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