Three Things That Are Driving Me Crazy This Week

1. Plagiarism

In my remedial class, we have been talking for two weeks about paraphrasing, integrating quotations, citing sources and so forth.  Nevertheless, three students have received zeroes on the first version of their final paper because of incorrect use of source material.

There are a few mitigating factors here.  First, I don’t believe that any of the students intended to plagiarize – they simply don’t understand, still, what constitutes plagiarism.  Second, this version of the assignment is worth only 10% of their overall grade, so it is not going to make or break any of them.  Third, this is their first draft, and, given that I don’t think any of them are wilfully cheating, I am willing to allow them to make up the difference in their final version and adjust the grades accordingly.  Nevertheless, it has made for a week of very stressful email and face-to-face exchanges, and I’m exhausted by it all.

Here’s what’s driving me crazy: why aren’t they learning how to use sources correctly when they’re in high school?

2. Underhandedness

Here’s a consequence of using that I hadn’t foreseen: discovering that a student has submitted the same paper for your course and for someone else’s.

But then, what do you do?  I have been told in the past that this is not acceptable; to fulfill a course’s requirements, a student’s work must be specific to that course.  However, I can find no guidelines in our college policies as to whether submitting the same paper for two classes actually constitutes cheating.

You tell the student that you know he’s done this, obviously.  You communicate the problem to the other teacher.  But in the end, is it really such a big deal?  As far as I’m concerned, as long as the student wrote the assignment himself and has met my assignment requirements, it makes little difference what else he’s done with it.

Here’s the question, though – why didn’t the student ask us if it was ok?  Did it not occur to him to ask, because he just assumed it would be all right?  Unlikely.  He assumed we would say no, and so kept his mouth shut.  And this is not cool.  To be expected, but not cool.

It reminds me of another situation I encountered a few years ago: during an in-class essay, a student was trying to hide a paper under her books.  As it turned out, the notes on the paper were completely acceptable and so there was no reason for her to hide them.  But if she thought there was a problem, why didn’t she just ask, or not bring them at all?  This kind of sneakiness makes me mad.

3. Students Who Submit None of the At-Home Work and Do a Half-Assed Job on the In-class Work and Do Not Come for Any Extra Help and so Currently Have an Overall Average of 29% but Still Keep Coming to Class

Because their only motivation for being in school is the joy of talking about literature?  Because they are in love with me?  What do they think is going to happen?

At least a couple of them will send me panicky and/or angry emails once the final grades are in.  A week or so before that, one or two others will show up in my office asking “what they can do to pass this course.”  I know there are all sorts of biological, neurological and environmental factors that cause 18-year-olds to be completely detached from the knowledge that their actions have real consequences, but dammit, people, you’re making me nuts.

Phew.  I need to get myself to a yoga class, stat – or maybe I just need to get a little drunk and stay that way until Christmas.  Only two more weeks to go.  Wish me – and all of us – luck.

Image by Channah


39 thoughts on “Three Things That Are Driving Me Crazy This Week

  1. I teach 7th grade English in Texas, and my students learn about plagiarism and how to cite sources. I’m not saying that they learn it since it’s confusing, and my class is usually the first time they’ve heard about it, but by college, kids should know the difference! I’d be frustrated by that too!*


    1. Amy: I commend you! I know that there are some teachers who fight the uphill battle against plagiarism starting in middle school, and I thank them. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun, but the students are going to have much, much bigger problems later if they don’t start learning about it early.


  2. As long as we have school and students, there will be those who will take the path of least resistance in meeting their educational goals. The paper situation, where the same paper was submitted to two different classes…you have to ask yourself, “Did the student meet all the requirements as stated for the assignment?” If the answer is yes, then I wouldn’t worry that you received an assignment that was also submitted for another class. In my opinion this doesn’t constitute plagiarism. Next time, include in the paper’s requirements that they cannot submit a paper that has already been submitted to another class.

    I try to keep the communication going throughout the semester, even though I say it 10 times in class, and have announcements posted regularly on Blackboard….if a student isn’t coming to class or missed work, I will send them a personal email, even though technically I don’t have too. I guess its all those years in the public school system where the expectation was to do everything in my power to help students to pass. I have carried this into the college setting also, short of calling the parents which I don’t have to do anymore. I just feel this helps with the inevitable panic at the end. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it justifies me saying, “I’m sorry you’ve missed too many classes, too many assignments, you’ve failed the course. I sent you three emails (this is where I present the copies) explaining this. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to repeat this course clear through to your senior year.” And, then smile sympathetically…..

    Lastly, don’t ever feel guilty, don’t ever feel like you haven’t done enough, kids now-a-days haven’t been taught enough how to “step up to the plate.” By all means, go to yoga, and enjoy a big glass of wine that evening, and do something nice for yourself!! You’ve earned it!


    1. Thanks, Unheardof. I’ve conferred with the other teacher, and we’ve both agreed that we will allow the student to submit this paper – and the fact is, if he’d asked permission beforehand, I would have said yes. It’s just the attitude that makes me crazy.

      I have experimented throughout the years with different approaches to students who aren’t pulling their weight. I usually have a couple of personal meetings with all students during the term, when I can talk to them about issues like non-attendance. The problem is, the students I need to talk to often don’t show up to those meetings. The email approach is a very responsible one, but in recent years I’ve taken the stance that their grades are posted online, they know where they stand, and so maybe the shock at the end of the term is good for them. I’m of two minds about it. Next term I might try to do things differently.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this! So….tired….


      1. So, he turned this into someone else who has already graded it? In that case, do you get to give him the same grade and do less work like he did? Or was his paper perfect and needed no revision? If it didn’t receive a perfect grade, I would at least demand that he correct the problems before I had to grade something that has already been graded by someone else. Otherwise, what has he learned? How has he progressed?


        1. Susan: He submitted the paper at the same time (in fact, on the same day, from what I can tell) to me and to his psychology teacher. Criteria for grading will be completely different for these two courses and assignments, so, as much as I’d like to just scoop the other teacher’s grade, I don’t think that will work! It’s a nice idea, though.


          1. You might tell him that this type of approach is not acceptable at a lot of universities. At McGill, for instance, you cannot hand in the same paper for more than one class.


  3. Most of the time, I blame NCLB for this “what deadline?” attitude, though I’m sure these problems existed before that. Deadlines seem to be considered a suggestion to many students. They expect the same excuses they used in high school to work in college. There is a difference between a lack of understanding and a lack of effort. Coming to class appears to be “effort” they think they can use at the end of the semester to get some kind of sympathy bonus points to save their grades. But sitting in a classroom is far different from engaging in the discussion and doing the work. They are also aware of society’s view that students don’t learn because teachers don’t teach. This can work to their advantage because the majority of news reports don’t target the actions or attitudes of students as the culprit for low test scores or writing skills. As teachers continue to second-guess themselves, students will continue to do less work. We don’t hold them accountable. We make excuses for their behavior as “they can’t get it because the previous teacher didn’t build the foundation,” or “I haven’t tried hard enough to figure out how they learn,” instead of demanding a concrete report of what they have done to try and learn the material.

    The fact is, if these students were in a job function and produced the same results after two weeks of focused training, they would be given an ultimatum. I think we do them a disservice by making allowances for the lack of effort. They wouldn’t get away with it at a job, so why do we act like it’s acceptable in higher education?

    I actually had a professor ask me if I thought “hard deadlines” were a good motivator for students to get work done. As opposed to letting them turn it in whenever they felt like it? They are either going to put in the effort or they’re not. We can’t do the work for them – though I honestly suspect they think we will. Or should.

    Eventually, they will actually have to open the textbook and apply the information. Documentation styles aren’t something to memorize. They are resources to be used during the writing process. Even at the end of the semester, I still have students who slap a website on the last page of the essay and call it a Works Cited page. (we use MLA) There is nothing we have ever reviewed or practiced that says this is acceptable, but they think it will just result in a few points knocked off instead of a failing grade. This is learned behavior. Perhaps it’s time we help them “unlearn” it by holding them accountable for their choices.


    1. Susan: the line “Your employer wouldn’t accept this, and neither will I,” is one I use a lot – and a lot of my students have jobs, and so they get this. I have given a lot of thought to the question of hard deadlines, and in the end, that’s what it comes down to for me: getting things done in a timely matter is a skill you will need throughout your life.


  4. Great post. It makes me ask, “Where do we, as educators, draw the line and decide to turn a blind eye? Given that it’s not an infinite resource, how much of my energy do I spend on the percentage who, for example, hand in a paper to two classes–or even who intentionally plagiarize or cheat–and how much do I give to those who don’t?”

    I understand that I can’t let cheaters and plagiarizes off the hook. I owe it to the 90% of students who are working hard to ensure that their hard work is meaningful. That said, there has to be a line drawn somewhere, where I just don’t take things on, even if I suspect wrongdoing. I will get no professional satisfaction (and be a bad teacher) if too great a percentage of my time is spent on “preventing the negative” as opposed to “nurturing the positive.”


    1. Amy:
      Yes, that’s the question. I find, for example, that in my Prep course – which is where #1 and #2 are occurring this week – it is worth the expenditure of energy to identify even small problems, enforce consequences, and work toward solutions. This is because these students have just entered CEGEP, they have enough academic problems already, and if I let things slide, they are going to run into much bigger problems down the line. In post-intro courses, I am more likely to ask myself the question “Is this worth it?”, especially in ambiguous or borderline situations. Some cases are clear-cut, but in others, we have to decide what is worth the investment of time and head/heartache.


  5. A series of frustrating students! I remember in grade 12, a group project in which I had to go back through the others’ work and all the information they used to cite things properly… and being horrified and baffled that my smart friends had made it all the way through to grade 12 without knowing that direct quotes have to be cited, and that pulling an entire paragraph out of someone elses’ work isn’t really a great idea. So, plus side, it isn’t only the students in your classes.. it’s an epidemic! Or down-side, i guess.
    I would say that if they’re sneaky about it, that, in and of itself, makes the action wrong. I’d be tempted to give the student the option of getting graded by you or the other teacher, not both, just on the basis of the fact that he was hoping you wouldn’t catch on. But I’m not a teacher, and cheaters always drove me nuts in university, so that might just be my inner University student yelling “Not fair, everyone else had to do the work for each class!”


    1. Lexy:
      Yes, it’s a tough one. In the end, though, the course grade is about demonstrating the competencies (at least, that’s what it’s SUPPOSED to be about; it’s always more complicated than that…) Letting him choose which teacher grades his paper would be an interesting scenario, though!


  6. Sounds like it could be one and the same problem!! Students without a moral sense of things!
    A teacher cannot put a square peg into a round hole. The teacher deals with students all day .. encouraging, enlightening,cajoling, researching, assigning.. one thing you cannot do is ‘do it for them’ …be fearless and let the chips fall where they may. I cannot imagine a teacher ever fretting over the fact that I cheated, procrastinated, lied, manipulated, and failed. Have times changed that much??
    You’ve done what you can. Let it go if you want to keep your sanity!


    1. Thanks Trudy. Unfortunately, I will still need to do more – each of these cases is individual, and is motivated by something different, and in at least a couple of them, I honestly believe the student didn’t know any better – and now it falls to me to teach them, or at least begin to teach them… No rest for the weary OR the wicked. Thank you for your encouraging words!


  7. Siobhan, I have a question for you. I apologize in advance for taking up your time if you can even find the time to reply. I used to teach 7th grade language arts in Texas for three years and it was damaging. No curriculum and a lot of expectations about what I was expected to get these kids (many language learners and low income) to do in order to pass two state testa: reading and writing. I’ve been told I was a really good teacher. Now I’m in Asia teaching young kids and having a wonderful time. I have plans to get my masters and teach older kids; abstract thinking and writing are my passion. I see that some things about your job stress you out which is normal of course. Who’s job doesn’t drive them a little nuts once in a while? But would you describe it as a stress amount that is sustainable? I’m afraid I’ll enter into a other career that is too demanding. I’m not someone to shy away from extra work, but perhaps it’s the opposite that gets me. If a job requires tons of hours to be done properly, I’ll put in tons of hours because I have trouble cheating the people out of an education. Are you able to put in normal hours? How long have you been teaching if you don’t mind my asking. Thanks! Emily


    1. Emily:
      I’ve been teaching in some capacity since I was nineteen, but I’ve been teaching CEGEP for about 10 years now. I love my job, but I’ve gone through periods when I didn’t love it at all. It’s not possible to put in “normal” hours during the semester – I usually work straight through the weekends, for example – but we have long vacations that compensate. For a couple of years, I thought I might have to quit, because I simply couldn’t handle the emotional toll the job was taking. If you look back to the earliest archives of this blog, you will see some clues to where I was at; this post comes to mind:

      One thing that was instrumental to regaining my strength was that I took a semester off. I also began doing a masters in education, and, maybe more importantly, I started keeping this blog. It refocused me on the fact that the job I do is really important, and helped me develop some strategies for minimizing stress; if nothing else, a bad day is good material.

      I wrote a series for the Times (UK) a few years ago about dealing with stress and overcoming burnout; the archives seem to have disappeared, but someday I’ll reprint the series in a book; it details how I struggled back from the brink of quitting and learned to love my career again.

      Which is to say: teaching is stressful. To deal with the stress, you need to recognize the rewards. And if nothing else, every semester ends and a new one begins, and you get a nice long break in between!


  8. Some of this difficulty is reflection of the fact that by late teen years, the students who come to college for the credential because they’ve been told they must, or their intended job requires a degree just for the screening function that it serves, have had it. They become resistant, passive-aggressive, and worse. Educational systems that funnel students into classroom experiences that they resent, or that they feel are useless for their ultimate goal, get this kind of behavior from students.

    Of course, they are wrong to think that becoming better writers is useless. But some of them would do better in vocational programs where they could see a direct connect between the educational experience (be it classroom, lab, or workshop) and their near-term goals.

    We rarely hear about this kind of behavior from nursing students, welding students, or graphic design students (altho now I bet some teachers in those programs will prove me wrong!!!)


    1. EB: I’ve certainly heard of such behaviour in all fields! And I have students from all these programs in my English classes, and even if they recognize the relevance of English studies to their work, that doesn’t mean they always step up. Even students in vocational and professional programs are sometimes there because they don’t know what else to do, or because they’re being pressured, or because they understand intellectually what they need to do but are emotionally strung out or self-sabotagers or are getting high in the parking lot twice a day…


  9. I’m sorry, but item #3 made me laugh out loud. I wish I had the answer…unsurprisingly, I don’t. I’m confounded by humanity in instances like this.

    Stay strong, and happy Thanksgiving.


  10. I can certainly attest to the highs and lows of teaching. In an old blog of mine, I have a post titled, “Too Many Casualties,” in reference to my depression over bad students and not seeming to be able to reach many students that semester. That was definitely a low point, and I had a friend who suggested I move on.

    I’m not against the idea of moving on, but I have had good semesters and many wonderful students since then. After a thoroughly depressing spring semester last year, all of my classes this year are full of students that seem engaged and are friendly, making it a joy to teach them. All these experiences have given me perspective and allowed me to put the frustrations and the highs in the place they need to be, and not attach too much importance to the lows.

    For your current frustrations, I hear you. Even after much work about documenting sources and paraphrasing without plagiarizing, I often still have students do it later on in the semester. I also now teach an advanced writing class with juniors and seniors, and those are shockingly bad at it sometimes as well. In one ear or out the other, or bouncing off them like they have learning-proof shields, apparently.

    For your #3, I had a student one semester in our freshman college writing course who often missed class and often turned in assignments late. Those that he did not turn in late earned low Cs at best, and Ds more often than that. At the end of the semester, he was quite irate that he had a 69% in the class. He insisted that he “made it to most classes and got most work in,” so he should therefore get a passing grade. I talked to my department head about it, and she suggested we bump him up to a C- (70%), just to get him out of our hair. I did so, but I still rather feel I should not have. Most majors require higher than a C- in our class to count, but the boy most certainly half-assed everything, and earned the 69%. It was a disservice to him and other teachers he would have to let him pass, to my mind.

    I already have enough students say I grade tougher than other teachers. I have no desire to be someone a student can point to and say “but he let me pass!” but I was in this instance, unfortunately.


    1. Neal: My flexibility is at an end when it comes to students who don’t make the effort. What’s more, their grades are posted all semester, so if they come to me at the end, I tell them it’s too late. We have a Grades Review committee they can see if they have problems with their grades – unless they can point me to specific criteria on specific assignments and explain why they deserve higher grades on those criteria, I wash my hands of them.


  11. I had multiple students ask for a “bump up” in their grades last spring, as they were quite close to a B+, an A-, that sort of thing. Together with the students that ask about “what more they can do to fix up their grade” after the semester is done, I was quite frustrated. Part of my talk about the syllabus at the start of the semester now is how they have to talk to me about their grades during the semester: after is far too late for us to do anything.

    So I can understand about washing your hands of things. Still, I’m not always able to leave it at that. My university has the… somewhat questionable practice of requiring a meeting between an instructor and the department head WHENEVER a student complains about that instructor. It’s good that they have something like that in place, as students can have real issues with instructors. But at the same time, it drives me nuts and causes a large amount of stress. I have had to meet with my department head three times in the past seven years, all because a student complained to her about the difficulty of my grading. It should also be noted that all but one of these students ever talked to me in person during the semester about how to improve their work. The department head always seems to treat the meeting as a formality, but we always have to discuss the complaint in detail and talk about my teaching methods. It’s worrisome and stressful, to say the least.

    So in theory, it’s good to have a reporting system for students. At the same time, any student complaint to the department head makes instructors instantly feel like they are on the trial (and this happens to many instructors, from what I can tell). It seems perfectly designed to make students as comfortable as possible and instructors as worried as possible, even when the student cannot particularly say what is so difficult about my grading (comments are as unspecific as “I just wanted someone to know,” to as specific as “the other writing teacher my roommate has does not grade so hard”).

    It also means I feel like I have to worry about student opinions about the difficulty of my grading (and really, I grade much more easily than my college professors). A teacher should worry that they are grading fairly and teaching well, yes (something I worry about all the time), but the whole complaint system takes this to another worrying level that encourages me to be even easier than I should be. Quite frustrating and the opposite of what administrations should encourage, but that seems to be what is happening in high schools and now colleges. 😦


    1. Neal: Believe me, as this time of year rolls around, I open my email client with dread every morning, anticipating a request (sometimes polite, sometimes not) for a review of a grade. That said, my rubrics are VERY detailed, and I always tell students that if they can give me a compelling reason to change a part of their grade, I’ll be happy to do so. And I used to stress about official grades reviews, but I don’t any more. Granted, I haven’t had one in a while, but I sometimes tell students to go that route if they feel I’m being unfair – “If a group of objective observers think you deserve a better grade, that’s fine with me.” Students have never taken me up on it. That said, if I felt like I was dealing with a grades review committee that was hostile or lazy, I might feel differently…


  12. Hi Siobhan –

    It’s been a while since my last visit – blame it on an overwhelming university course load and work commitments! However, I love being enveloped by a myriad of interesting and sometimes challenging posts all at once.

    When I was doing my first undergrad degree at Concordia, the advocacy department was tentatively putting together their now ironclad “academic integrity” charter – for lack of a better term. Now that I’m back for another BA after a five year absence, I notice that submitting the same work (in part or whole) for two different courses is an automatic academic offense.

    Sadly, most students don’t realize it since they assume they have ownership of the material.



    1. Sarine:
      Interesting. I know a lot of universities have a similar policy. I wonder if an individual teacher – or rather, an individual pair of teachers – has the power to override it. For example, if a student requests permission from me and his psychology teacher to submit the same paper, can we say, “Ok, that’s fine with us,” regardless of the university policy?

      Nevertheless, I did meet with that student on Friday and warned him, as his other teacher did, that in most universities such behaviour can get you into big trouble.

      Nice to see you back!!


  13. I teach high school.

    Growing up, I remember learning in grade school how to do a bibliography, what constitutes plagiarism, etc.

    Students coming in to high school should know at least this, in my opinion… but they don’t. My school has spent a lot of time on plagiarism, and providing tools to properly cite quoted/used materials, and major assignments are submitted to The problem I see in all of this is consistency – between subjects, between teachers, between schools. Even among those teachers who are teaching how to cite, different subject areas have different preferences – History wants Chicago, while English wants MLA. Science may want APA or CSE. What’s a poor student to do??


    1. Galena:
      Yes, there are different formatting guidelines for different subject areas – this is a reality, and students do have to learn to deal with it. The way I explain it to them is that in the workforce, they will have to learn different formats for different employers, clients, contexts, etc., and that all it takes is careful attention to the guidelines, and questions when they’re not sure. The lack of consistency reflects the complexities of writing and formatting in life.


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