Sunday, August 26, 2007

I Get that Sinking Feeling: Sunday Scribblings

I sit down with about four or five research papers. They are late. It's all right that they are late. I've been working with the students and I have a pretty good idea what delayed them.

The students are all doing research about social and economic class in the USA. Some write about poverty. One writes about the history of the anarchy movement. Others write about work or unions or artists who have made workers the subject matter of their art.

Then I come to the paper I never want to see. I read a couple of paragraphs.

I get that sinking feeling.

The prose is too good. It's a student whose work has been chronically late. She has missed a lot of class. She's a good writer, but not this good.

I type out a particularly juicy sentence into a search engine.

It comes up.

It's plagiarism.

My sinking feeling gets that sinking feeling.

My job just got very tough.

The sinking feeling begins as anger. Plagiarism betrays the whole purpose of research writing. It betrays the idea of working out one's own ideas and arguments with the assistance of learning more about the subject by reading what experts have said.

The anger deepens. What kind of fool did this student take me to be? Why did she think she'd pull this off?

Then the sinking feeling shifts to dread.

I have to confront the student with her paper and my evidence. I have to photocopy the paper. I have to print the material she copied. It's not how I want to spend my time.

The moment of confrontation occurs in my office. I get that sinking feeling early in our conversation when she denies it. I close my eyes and utter to myself, "Please. Just own up. This is really going to hurt."

I present my evidence to her. I get that sinking feeling that this is going to upset her.

It does.

She begins to cry. I get that sinking feeling that she'll say she didn't know it was plagiarism.

She does. She says her boyfriend helped her with her research and handed her stuff he had gotten for her and didn't mention he'd taken it word for word from articles on the World Wide Web.

My sinking feeling again gets that sinking feeling as I explain the consequences:

"This means you fail the course. You'll have to take WR 123 over again."

"Can't I just rewrite the paper?"

"No. This is too serious. It's not like you just failed to document some material. Most of what you wrote here was written by other people and you represented it as you own."

She left my office, ashamed and distraught.

I put my face in my hands for several minutes, rubbed my temples, and shuddered at what had just transpired.

The summer passed. School started up again in the fall.

I was leaving campus one day and the plagiarizing student was walking toward me.

I couldn't avoid her.

I got that sinking feeling.

"Mr. Woolum. Hi! Do you have a minute?"

"Sure."

"I just wanted you to know that I took WR 123 over again in the summer. I had a great time. I did all my own work and I really enjoyed it. I know this sounds weird, but I want to thank you for flunking me last spring. It was the best thing that happened to me. I decided to get more serious about school and I'm really enjoying it."

Stunned silence.

Stammering.

"G-g-g-good for you. I'm glad it's all working out."

"It sure is."

She smiled past me on her way to class.

I got that rising feeling.


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8 comments:

Hope said...

Waves of emotion.
In my experience the toughest things have been the most rewarding.

Robin said...

Wow. What an incredible moment to have as a teacher, to know that you have truly touched someone in a way that will change their life, however unsuspected.

Student of Life said...

I felt the sinking. This is a thing of beauty.

If you ever feel like you can't muster the strength to fight another battle with another lazy student, remember that moment.

Inland Empire Girl said...

This is a lesson I need to remember when I feel I am being to harsh on my consequences with a student. You were fortunate to get the feedback later.

Redness said...

What a marvellous teacher you are and what a brilliant lesson that was - congratulations!

tumblewords said...

Not an easy lesson to teach. Glad you got feedback from the student!

Amber said...

What a fantastic post!! That last line is a doozy. ;) Wonderful. Part of growing up is finding lessons come out of stupid mistakes, and being smart enough to change because of it.

Olsum said...

I was glad that I've read through. Seems a bit lengthy initially.
Turn out to be a great post!
Valuable teaching point.