Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hi, My Name Is Clio and I am an Enabler

I think I got it from my dad, but that's a matter for analysis.

In this case, I enable cheating. In this particular case, there were two approved courses of action, but I don't think that I took the better of two.

This has to do with the two sets of cheaters in a previous post. I contacted all four and got four responses that all fit together. That is, the two who wrote original papers all said that they had loaned their papers to other students to use as examples; and the two who copied papers admitted that they had "borrowed" from the first two. There are a few more details, but they are not particularly important here.

This should be clear cut, right? Two people copied, word for word, from two other people. You don't find a better example of the definition of cheating than that. Flunk them and turn them in to higher powers.

Instead, I give them a second chance, explaining that what they did was wrong and that I could turn them into higher powers. Maybe they don't turn in the second chance paper, thereby earning a 0, maybe they do. In either case, I'm not really dealing with the cheating in a way that demonstrated true consequences.

Now, I can guess what you are thinking -- some of you have expressed it quite succinctly! My initial reation was the same: What a pair of entitled brats! Do they think I am that stupid? I must confess that, had these two students been the sort who rarely show up, turn in half-assed assignments when they bother to turn them in at all, and general let you know that they really don't respect you or what you do, I would have taken great schadenfreude in sending them to the (interim) Dean of Students.

These two, however, don't act like disrespectful, entitled brats. They show up to every class, they take notes, they do moderately well on quizzes (yes, I give quizzes -- they are the enticement to read the book and engender good study habits), and for all appearances are making an effort to do well in the class.

Additionally, the type of cheating that these two did -- well, who does that type of cheating after 5th grade? Sure, you have students who copy from student is other or previous classes, students who copy from the internet, and students who copy from books. In other words, most students who cheat at least make some effort to cover their tracks. They don't copy, word-for-word, from a classmate's paper.

So, what is the deal here?

The students who wrote the original papers are native English speakers. They are as comfortable with the language as your average college freshman. The students who copied are not native-English speakers. As evidenced in their in-class assignments and previous assignments, their writing skills in English are quite weak. This alone would have tipped me off if they had attempted to cover their copying through other methods (except I wouldn't have been able to prove anything there, which is a situation that I have encountered in other instances).

Given their poor English writing skills, given their general desire to do well, given that I had marked up their previous writing assignments in an effort to help them with their writing skills -- given all of this, I think what the did was panic. In their panic, they just copied, hoping that I wouldn't notice, or hoping that I would assume that they worked with the other student as a group, or just trying to buy some time before they were caught. I think they thought that they might get away with it because I encourage them all to study in groups. I think they did not comprehend the part in which I said, "but you must turn in your own work."

Then I became both suspicious and curious. At our school, you have to pass a test on basic written English before you can take even the most basic of composition classes. If you don't pass, you have to take classes until you can. Then, you have to have taken a semester of freshman composition before you can take my class. I've seen the instructors of those classes at work. They are tough. They take no crap, and ride their students hard. Heck, I might not do so well in their classes!

The quality of the in-class writing and earlier writing, however, made me wonder how these students got through those classes. "Every now and then one slips through," said my chair, who himself is also an American English Language instructor.

"Yeah," I thought. "I understand that; but how do they slip through?"

Forgive me for thinking this. Based on this case and a few others that raised my antennae but which I couldn't prove, I started to wonder if some students who understand the material, but know their limitations at this point in their acquisition of English, compensate by copying or plagiarizing or otherwise cheating. They have the ability to do well in school; the language is the main barrier to the good grades that lead to graduation or transfer that ultimately lead to better job prospects, upward mobility and all of the things that people go to college to attain.

Still, copying doesn't solve the basic problem that these students seem to face. First of all, it doesn't improve their command of English which comes from the practice of writing. Second, in copying, they don't really engage in the process of the assignment, and therefore genuinely demonstrate their ability to understand the material.

To punish them by initiating academic dishonesty proceedings is fair, but somehow not quite right a response. My response wasn't particularly effective either. On the one hand, they get the consequence of a 0 if they don't redo the assignment and they get the practice of writing if they do. On the other, they could easily see this as a narrow escape and continue to do the same thing in the future.

I talked to my chair about this. Again, he is an ESL instructor, so has some sensitivity to the language problems facing immigrants. He hasn't had so blatant an example of cheating as this, but he did understand the ways that non-native English speakers work their way through both the language and this end-of-the-semester panic. He approved of my solution, as I wrote. He also told me that he has his students turn in any big writing assignments at mid-term, and refers any problems to the writing center at that point. They can turn in the revised assignment at the final. That's a good idea; but I've done some of that, and still this.

I think what I want is to send them back to those basic English classes so that they can get a better command of the language and then do better in the rest of their courses; but you can't make them re-take classes that they've already passed, no matter how much they seem to need it.

As I work my way through this by writing it, I'm seeing that they were still in the wrong. I did refer the students to the writing center. They did go. They know the rules. I can be as understanding about the language issue and the desire to perform well as possible, but they still copied from someone else.

In giving them that second chance -- which will be the last that I give -- I'm not sure that I did anyone any favors except maybe the administrators that would have to deal with the issue as it moved up the hierarchy. If those administrators want to give the students second chances, I don't have a problem with that. Right now, I'm feeling a little culpable in something vaguely fraudulent, all because I really just wanted to be understanding and nice. Understanding isn't really a problem, but "nice" is.

The evils of "nice" are a subject for another post.

(By the way, I feel like a complete Ugly American shouting "learn English if you are going to live here" in writing this, but that's not what I mean. In this case, the problem lies between the acquisition of English and the attempt to perform well in school, with my job being to ensure that they do both.)

13 comments:

Susan said...

I think sometimes not strictly following the rules makes more sense. And this is one of those times. The problem is that if you are going to college, you need to be able to write in English. It's too bad...

Belle said...

Well, I'm supportive of you but not them, if that makes sense. I've taught internationals and in an international environment, and the biggest part of the problem, IMHO, is that there is a culture of 'helping' that many students don't want to abandon for American standards of 'academic integrity.' So that when they panic (again, giving them the benefit of the doubt) they fall back on 'it's not cheating, they're helping me.'

And since most of the profs prefer rewrites to the hassle of reporting them, they get away with it. Because reporting and appeals and hearings are just not going to solve the problem either. They get away with it and then have more time to work on the assignment (and probably more help from you).

That's my rant. Hot button issue.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Susan, that's exactly what is at stake: being able to write for college, which is why I'm thinking I was too soft on them.

Belle, makes total sense, and I with you on the frustration.

dykewife said...

you got caught between a rock and a hard place with them. i think that for your future sanity you can make it clear as to what is expected and what will not be tolerated from students. for instance, as policy at the u of s each professor has to include the university policy on plagiarism with the course syllabus at the beginning of term. this way if you encounter it again, you can tell them that they knew at the beginning of the class what was expected and what the consequences would be if they copied/cheated.

each prof i had included the university policy and also reminded us during the term when talking about papers and presentations. if anyone cheated it would be their own fault. certainly they couldn't say they didn't get any notice of the repercussions of their actions.

thing is, if you were going to university in spain, france or china, you would be expected to function in their languages. the expectations are the same in each country students attend school. you're not being an ugly american. you're being professional.

Digger said...

Unfortunately, it isn't just ESL students who can't write. Many students seem to be coming to University woefully prepared. As in, don't read assignments, can't do even a basic essay structure, don't know what a thesis statement is, etc. Some... in my experience, very few, work hard to get themselves up to speed. They submit drafts for me to review before the due date, they go to the writing center, they apply comments from one assignment to the next. Others... cheat. Because they don't think they'll get busted (even though we TELL them they will get busted... what, do I make this shit up? NO! I read your tests! I listen to you in class! I KNOW YOU DIDN'T COME UP WITH INTERSECTIONALITY OR POST-PROCESSUAL ANYTHING ON YOUR OWN! [headdesk, for real]). Then, when they get busted, they're all surprised. Others just muddle through.

I've tried assigning essays that aren't plagiarizable... synthesis of in-class stuff, critical reading exercises, etc. But, then I'm afraid I'm cheating them out of learning how to write a good research paper. Or at least giving them practice at writing some sort of research paper.

So... yeah, obviously a button here too. And I don't have the energy to go shake all the high school teachers who set these kids free so -so- unprepared.

Re: Commenting on papers. I tend to comment a lot on students' papers. Suggestions for improvement, engaging their ideas, etc. I'm trying to help them with their writing, and give clear justifications of how they got the grade they got. But Clio, you indicate that this kind of feedback can freak them out. I read somewhere else also (can't remember where) that lots of comments = freak out for the students. Is there some middle ground, or is it just personal preference?

Bavardess - said...

The generally poor (and declining!) level of literacy is really distressing, and it doesn't just apply to people for whom English is a second language. The attitude that it doesn't really matter if you can't spell, write a complete sentence or express your ideas clearly is becoming much more common. I think you took the best course possible given the circumstances, but your experience seems like a small indication of a much bigger problem.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Dykewife, I include a statement on academic honesty in the syllabus, but I go over it just briefly as I would any other item. Maybe I need to develop a whole presentation with "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" overtones to put the fear of retribution in their minds. I think I might do the same with "follow the directions." Heck, that might even be fun!

I also keep that in mind, that I would have to have a working knowlege of both spoken and written Cantonese or French or Arabic if I were to attend school where those were the dominant languages. Of course, I don't think I would become so desperate that I would copy from a classmate! But, then, I keep forgetting that I have a PhD because I have an aptitude for school and my students generally don't.

Digger, isn't that funny when they use $10 words and don't expect us to get a little suspicious? One teacher I knew cornered a kid and asked him "what does hegemony mean?" He looked at her perplexed as if he had never heard the word before, despite its repeated appearance within his research paper.

I try that same strategy of assignments that seem un-plaigairizable. That's what this particular assignment was, and why it was so comic at some level. I mean, when I ask about a person's experience, I don't expect everyone to have had the EXACT SAME experience!

On the lots of comments issue, I'm not sure what is going on with that. I tell them that my comments are not accusations or indications that I think they are horrible people, but pointers on helping them improve. Still, they take them as some sort of punishment, or demoralization, or something. Its' as if they think, "I made a good grade, so why does she have to write anything on my paper?" or "I'll never be able to make a good grade because of all of these comments so I'll just give up or cheat." Sometimes, when the overall content is good, most of the marks are the typical grammatical mistakes like using the possessive when they mean the plural, or failure to use capitalization, or their/there mix-ups.

Bavardess, (at the risk of sounding like an old fogey) I wonder if that literacy decline has to do with new techniques of written communication? Based on what I've seen, many of my students generate thousands of words (or "words" because "u" for "you" is only marginally a word) each day via textmessaging and e-mail and so on. The medium in which they write and thereby get the most practice discourages attention to grammar and, I think, communication of complicated ideas.

One of the bigger problems that I notice goes beyond literacy. Many students don't get the concept of "education." It's part of that trade-school mentality that seems to affect even people with decision-making power over educational institutions (LSU, I'm looking at you).

For instance, I give extra credit. I know, it is evil to many teachers; but I give it to them for using the writing center or going to lectures and events both on and off campus -- really, anything relevent to the class that will expand their horizons and their knowlege beyond what is covered in the class, and make them use the support services available to them. I only give them 1 point, but it is the sort of immediate or tangible gratification that they crave, otherwise they won't go. The inherent benefit of seeing a speaker or going to the writing center means nothing. That single extra credit point is the only reason they will go, and the only good that some of them find from the experience.

If this is the attitude toward my class, I wonder if they feel the same toward their English classes. I used to think that they just hadn't made the connection that composition lessons can be applied outside of class -- and I still think that is true -- but now I'm also wondering if some of them see composition as just another class to get through with no inherent value unto itself.

Ahh, I hate this time of semester, when all of the little annoyances come home to roost and finals create this bottleneck of frustration! I feel like such a failure at these times, although I know that I'm not.

Clio Bluestocking said...

P.S. To be fair, I should also say that for every cheater there is at least one (if not more) like the student in my class on Wednesday. After the final, he said, "I never liked history before, but now it is interesting; and I can't beleive I was enjoying writing that essay!" (He meant on the final.) He was saying this as if he was amazed at himself, not as if he were sucking up. Now, THAT's a victory for him, and the feeling that my work does have some impact in the world.

Digger said...

I actually held a student's essay back for having a plethora of $10 words. They were a good student, and I was unhappy. All the words were used correctly, but damn, the paper was riddled with them. And I could not, for the life of me, find any of the most suspicious sentences on Google (Aside to students: Your professors know how to Google, too).

So I talked to the student, asked about it, and wouldn't you know, they could translate every dang sentence into Real English. So, I snacked on some crow, they were tickled, and we had a chat about $10 words and needing to "sound academic." I argued that a good argument doesn't need $10 words. They argued that they wrote like that all the time, and no one ever fussed. Their next paper KICKED ASS.

The good ones make it worthwhile.

(PS: I give extra credit also. Put in the extra time and thought to go beyond the classroom stuff = bonus points).

Bavardess said...

I must be an old fogey, too, because I absolutely agree with you re: the texting, Twitter etc. phenomena, although maybe the popularity of those mediums is more a result of declining literacy and attention spans than a cause.

On comments - as a grad student myself, I say bring them on! I would much rather have more feedback than less. No one gets any better without constructive criticism, even if it can sometimes feel a bit harsh.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Digger, that is my big fear: that I will accuse a student and find out that the student is actually a graduate of Harvard who is making a mid-life career change to nursing or something of that sort, and has to take all of the basics over. Yeah, I know, slim chance! On saner days, I do realize that lots of bright, accomplished students take classes at community colleges for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to get into a university. Every now and then, they unwittingly raise the cheating radar simply by being good.

Bavardess, I think the whole instant, breif communication medium and the poor rates of literacy feed on one another. Then, in the classroom, we also face a significant number of people who just want to get these credits over with already! After all, they got along this far in life as they are. They don't come to us with the sincere desire to become better writers, as more advanced students and we do. Some do, but others see writing as a hassle and not a means of effective communication, and writing classes as an obstacle in their education rather than the basis of, at the very least, making better grades.

A long time ago, my aunt worked as an editor at a universtiy press (which is on the verge of being closed down, now). She said the crappy writers chafed and argued every suggestion for improvement no matter how small. She said that the best writers are always starving for more critique because they want to be better writers.

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