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

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Plagiarism: What Do Students Think?

It is only a week and a half into the semester, and already my office mate and I are talking about plagiarism.  There are hangovers from last semester – cases that never quite got resolved – and our college has a new plagiarism policy that requires, among other things, that we submit any plagiarism accusations to the dean within 15 business days.  (This is good to know; sending off those letters often falls to the bottom of my to-do list.)  So we’ve been wondering what instances will rear their heads this semester, and what we can do to head them off, beyond the myriad precautions we already take.

In discussing it, an old question from a friend and reader, Gen X, emerged for me: if you asked students, what would they say about plagiarism?  Why do they do it?  Why do they continue to do it even though they know it a) may get them into trouble, b) does not help them learn, and c) is both cheating and stealing?  Do they see it some other way?  Are they desperate?  Do they (as I suspect) really feel it’s no big deal as long as they don’t get caught (and sometimes even if they do)?

I would be very interested in anyone’s take on this; I’d be especially interested to hear from students, but we’ve all been students at one time or another.  Have you ever plagiarized?  Why?  Did it seem justifiable, or did you not understand the problem, or did you know you wouldn’t get caught, or did you feel it was your last best resort?  If you did get caught, what were the consequences?

(I did it on minor assignments in high school all the time.  If my biology teacher asked me to answer five short questions about the beluga, I knew he wasn’t asking me to copy information out of the encyclopedia, but I was never, ever reprimanded for doing so.  I never plagiarized anything in university, from what I remember, but I had friends who did, shamelessly.)

Why do students plagiarize?  What can be done to prevent them from doing so? Is it really such a big problem?  Gen X wants to know, and so do I.

Image by  Michal Zacharzewski

Top 10 Posts of 2011

It’s that time of year again.

(Actually, it’s a little past that time of year – it was that time of year, oh, two weeks ago, when it was still last year.)

Nevertheless: a roundup!

Here are the posts from Classroom as Microcosm that received the most hits this year.  The reasons for their popularity are varied and, in some cases, mysterious.  No matter.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give some indication of what’s been going on around here.  If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  (Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.)

1. Fail Better

This post was chosen as a “Freshly Pressed” cover story by WordPress, which guaranteed that it would get tonnes of hits (over 11 000) and comments (245 at last count – about 15 of them are my replies, but I soon ran out of steam.)  In this little anecdote, I explore a problem – my students are so afraid to fail that they won’t even try – through the lens of some recent research – Paul Tough’s NYT Magazine article on “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  The results are inconclusive but gratifying.  All in all, it was a good week.

2. Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Another “Freshly Pressed” pick.  This one received almost 9 000 hits and 177 extremely interesting and thoughtful comments.  It’s a response to an article by Virginia Heffernan on Cathy N. Davidson’s book Now You See It.  Davidson’s book proposes, among other things, that the academic paper has had its day and needs to make way for more current tech-friendly forms.  I, and the commenters, are not so sure.

3. When in Doubt, Make a Plan

This post is a response to a reader’s plea for advice.  Nick’s not sure college is the place for him, but he can’t see his parents agreeing to any other path.  I can’t solve his problem for him, but I have some suggestions, as do readers.  His original query, and a lot of interesting reader responses, appear here.

4. The Five Best Podcasts in the World

In May, these were my top five, and I still love them all, although “The Age of Persuasion” is now defunct (but was replaced on Saturday by Terry O’Reilly’s highly anticipated followup, “Under the Influence.”)  If I wrote this post now, I might rearrange these and introduce a couple of new favourites, including “On the Media” and “Planet Money.”  If you have a favourite podcast, please visit the post and leave a link in the comments.

5. What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

I got so many responses to this open call that I followed it with a full week of guest spots: five posts from students explaining how school could be better.  You will find most of those responses in the comments section of this post, along with lots of other interesting ideas on how to improve the education system.

6. “Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

Ah, plagiarism: the inexhaustible inspiration for teacher rants everywhere.  Here, I discuss an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Rob Jenkins explains that we need to just chill out.

7. Character = Behaviour: A Lesson Plan

This extremely successful lesson, in which students write reference letters for fictional characters and, at the same time, learn a bit about how their own behaviours reflect on their characters, is just now coming home to roost.  This winter, I am receiving an unprecedented (i.e. crushing) number of reference letter requests from students who clearly took this lesson to heart.

8. Life and Death and Anthologies

The stats for this post took a couple of random spikes, and I’m not sure why.  I like it a lot, but it’s just a quiet little meditation on the joys of anthologies and of travel, and on the links between the two.  In particular, it describes my experience of reading an anthology of Irish short fiction while travelling through Ireland.  It seems to have resonated with some people.  Perhaps it will for you.

9. Why Do I Have to Learn This?

We don’t always take this question seriously.  Louis Menand says we should.  I agree.

10. What Young Adults Should Read

After a Wall Street Journal essay made some indignant pronouncements about the trash that young people are reading these days, and after everyone got all upset about it, I threw in my two cents.  This post makes special reference to the thoughts and writings of Linda Holmes, blogger at NPR’s “Monkey See” pop culture blog, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” and person I most want to be when I grow up (granted, she’s probably younger than me, but I still have a long way to go.)

And, just because I loved it:

Bonus Post: Rolling In the Girls’ Room

I walked into the women’s washroom outside my office.  I discovered three students, two of  them male, sitting on the counter, rolling joints.   This post transcribes a Facebook conversation with my friends and colleagues, in which my response to this event is analyzed, critiqued, and mostly (but not entirely) supported.

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Resolutions for 2012:

  • Continue to post on Mondays and Thursdays.  Posts will, if all goes well, appear around 9 a.m., although dissemination to Facebook, OpenSalon etc. may be slightly delayed, as I am teaching early classes.  If you want to be sure to know about posts the moment they go up, please make use of the “Sign Me Up!” button at the top of the right-hand margin to receive email notifications for every post.
  • Tweet more!  I am lazy Twitterer.  However, I find all sorts of cool stuff that I don’t have time to blog about but should really share with you all.  So now I will.  Again, there is a button to the right that will allow you to follow me at @siobhancurious.  Follow me!
  • Be present, be present, be present.

Do you have a favourite post that you read here this year, and that I haven’t mentioned above?  Do you have blogging or teaching resolutions that you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment.  I always love hearing from you.

Thursday’s post: my favourite reading experiences of 2011.

And finally: Happy New Year, everyone!

Image by Maxime Perron Caissy

More Ways To Cheat (Because Where’s the Fun in Doing the Work?)

This week, The Tenured Radical has an imaginary conversation with her imaginary college-age progeny in which she explains why he/she should not cheat in order to get through the hellish last weeks of the semester.  In the process, she directs us to some more online cheating resources (see one of my earlier posts for an enlightening one).  My favourite: a detailed video on how to cheat using a Coke bottle, a scanner, Photoshop, and all that time you could have used to study.

TTR also gives the progeny some tips on how to avoid plagiarizing and how to avoid being accused of it if you haven’t done it.  I heartily wish I’d found this post three weeks ago – a number of my students could have benefitted from its wisdom.

Image by Alice Luidelli

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 Turnitin.com 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

“Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

As the new semester creeps nearer, I’m starting to think about plagiarism again.  My use of Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-detection software, is helping me relax a bit – last semester, the software made discovering plagiarism, and talking to students about it, a lot easier.  However, cheating is a perennial source of anxiety for most teachers, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is causing me to re-think my approach yet again.

In Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism, Rob Jenkins asks if it’s necessary for us to focus so much of our energy on student cheating.

“Of course I care about plagiarism, and I certainly take steps to deal with plagiarists once I have sufficient proof. But I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about plagiarism or trying to catch students at it. I’d prefer to direct my time and energy toward something more positive, such as actually teaching the subject I’ve been hired to teach.”

Jenkins then goes on to list steps he uses to deal with plagiarism, most of which are common-sensical: put your plagiarism policy in your syllabus, talk about plagiarism on the first day but not only on the first day, design assignments that make plagiarism difficult.  I do all these things.  It’s his final point that really makes me think.

Let it go. If some students take unfair advantage of the fact that I let them do most of their writing outside of class, or that I don’t use Turnitin, so be it. It’s not that I don’t care. I do…  When I say ‘let it go,’ I mean that in the metaphysical sense. I’m not saying you should ignore clear cases of plagiarism. But the truth is, there aren’t many clear cases of plagiarism. Most cases are borderline, at best. It’s also true that, no matter what you do to deter cheating, some students are going to find a way around it. You can go crazy thinking about that all the time.”

I’m almost ready to embrace that philosophy.  Unlike Jenkins, however, I find that Turnitin.com makes relaxing about plagiarism easier.  Jenkins says he doesn’t use it mostly because it creates an atmosphere of mistrust, but talking about plagiarism at all creates the same problem.

I used to get complaints from students about the fact that I mention plagiarism more than once and have them sign contracts stating that they understand what constitutes cheating and what will happen if they do it.  I think these complaints are warranted, and now, I always reiterate several times that I know most of my students would never cheat, and that they have every right to be insulted by the implication, but that I need to do everything I can to protect people who do their work honestly. That includes having them submit their papers to a program that will help me identify plagiarism.

Turnitin allows me to stop obsessing over every line that is atypically erudite or awkwardly shoehorned in.  If the program doesn’t find something, I usually feel like due diligence has been done.  Also, simply having students submit through Turnitin makes them less likely to copy things, so I feel I can relax a bit about the whole problem.

What’s more, there’s something about the use of a software program that allows me to step away from cheating and take it less personally.  I know, intellectually, that it’s not personal when they cheat, but I can’t help feeling outraged and hurt, especially when I need to waste my valuable grading time looking for plagiarized sources or comparing two student papers line-by-line.  A student who submits a plagiarized paper to Turnitin is not so much saying that he thinks I, the teacher, am a dupe.  He is saying that either a) he believes his cheating skills are invincible (and who knows? He may be right this time) or b) he  feels this is his only recourse, so he’s going to cross his fingers and take his chances, or c) he somehow still doesn’t understand what cheating is or what’s wrong with it, or d) he just doesn’t give a damn.   It’s hard to take this personally, and when I call him into my office, the printouts covered with highlighted “matches” usually head off any attempts on his part to make it so.

A perfect solution?  No.  There are those who object to the fact that Turnitin stores student work, and others who will have noticed that it doesn’t catch everything.  For now, though, I’m grateful for anything that, as Jenkins says, lets me worry less about cheating and more about doing my job.  “Either you can be a teacher or you can be the plagiarism police,” he says.  Well, I may still have to be a bit of both, but I know I’d rather be mostly the former, and the latter only when it’s unavoidable.

What are your plans for dealing with plagiarism this year?  Are you obsessed, or can you find ways to “let it go” so that it doesn’t colour everything you do?

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Yes, plagiarism can make a teacher crazy.  If you’re not convinced, check out some of my real-life cheating-in-the-classroom stories herehere, here, and here.

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Image by Manoel Nato