Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two days and counting

I have two more days of work this week (administrative duties) and then I have some much needed time off. Of course--as with all academics--that time "off" will be partially spent revising a manuscript for publication and recruiting subjects for the study we begin in the spring.

Today was wearying at the mental and emotional level. I spent the day fielding calls and meeting with students who showed up at my door. I told one student if they were in my office as much during the semester as they had been since it ended, they might have done better. : Some truly just want to understand what they failed to do and how to do better, and I am always happy to show them, and hopefully help them. It is always hard for me to see a student fail when she or he is trying to improve life chances by getting a degree, as well as wanting to make a difference by choosing social work. I tend to find that the ones who get to me the most are those who have tried, but simply were unable to master the course objectives. When you enroll in college needing remedial work in reading and writing, it makes it difficult to succeed even with the greatest motivation.

Then there are those who fail for either not turning in assignments, not passing exams, and/or plagiarizing. More than ever, it is easier to detect plagiarism. Where as once it took hours of searching on the Internet, and poring over paper copies of journal articles, it is relatively easy these days. It amazes me that students think we either will not or cannot detect it. I can generally spot a plagiarized paper based on the inconsistency in the writing. When sentences that are grammatically incorrect, no noun/verb agreement, numerous mistakes, etc, are interspersed with beautifully written sentences using vocabulary that I rarely even employ, it raises a red flag. That's usually when I make the check. Find the first instance, look for the next one. Once I see the pattern, I am like a pit bull--I won't quit until I find them all. I can overlook one or maybe two mistakes as a mistake in citing. When the paper is just chock full of them, it's either failure to master the course objectives and deserving of the F, or it is intentional academic dishonesty, and deserving of the F.

There are even programs now where students submit their papers electronically and they are checked against data bases in the university, other universities, and any published online source. It links you right to the website that the material was lifted from, and compares the original with the material in the student's paper. Amazingly, in spite of that, students will still do it.

Meanwhile, students in the US fall further and further behind those in other countries.

Sadly, there are students who blame everyone (usually the professor) but themselves for the outcome. I had a series of really disrespectful voice mails today with outrageous accusations. "I know for a fact that there were students who passed your class that did not even turn in a final paper." (Well, I don't know how that rumor got started, but nope, you can't pass the class if you don't turn in a final paper, and besides that, everyone did turn in a final paper. And it is "students who" which is a mistake I have repeatedly pointed out for you throughout the semester.) "All the black students failed and all the white students passed." (Well, again, no they did not--on either account. Some black students passed, some black students even made As and Bs. Some white students failed--due to plagiarism, and some white students even made Cs.) As I told one of my colleagues, I am an Equal Opportunity Failer when it comes to plagiarism. If anything, I am more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to an African American student because most of them have come from inferior education systems in which they have been neither taught nor held accountable. While I hold all students accountable, I also work really hard to teach them all along the way what to do to correct the problems.

I had students who showed up in my office every single day, after every single assignment, and stayed until they understood what I was telling them. They passed.

Why am I writing all of this? Why do I keep agonizing over it? My colleague today said she thought we agonized over it more than the students did. Why I am writing this is because I just don't know what to do about it. I have struggled repeatedly since coming here to improve my teaching, to understand the barriers our students face, and to learn new ways of instruction to help them master the content--in all the classes I teach, but most particularly in the Research Writing class. I constantly try to look at it with the understanding that I am viewing it through my white lens, and the experience of when I was in school when you simply did not progress if you did not master the content--period. I know that is a white perspective. But on the other hand, I have black colleagues who are better writers than I am, who also have PhDs, and who demand excellence from their students, so it is clearly not solely a white/black issue.

It is yet another reminder that we must work harder to bring about equality in education, in housing, in access to society's resources. If equality were the norm, we would not end up with so many students who are not only disadvantaged educationally, but so wounded from the institutional racism experiences that they are unable to benefit from help even when offered.

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