April 21, 2009


Two quotes to get us started today. One is from Science magazine, when talking about the difference between the limestone core of Queen Nefertiti's famous 3300-year-old bust and the outer stucco skin. "Nefertiti's bust. . . is an intersection between realism and stylization," said the lead author.

And then this in my email box when I arrived home from school:

"Honestly it was not my intent to not citie my sources I did not look over my essay good enough.I will stay in the class ,and if there is anything I could do to pick up my grade please let me know.All I need is a 70 to get my degree this semster.If it dose not look like its going to happen I could use some help taking it in the summer.So if you know of a good professor let me.Thanks again for your help.It just got to me a little being so close to reaching a goal then slipping when almost there."

This is an email note from one of three students who failed their research essay because of plagiarism. The student's plagiarism was especially egregious because nearly the entire conclusion was lifted from the source, without any attempt at attribution whatsoever. This student, who is a custodian at a local high school, is a nice man with great intentions. However I'd have to say his evaluation of how he is doing in the class is certainly an "intersection between realism and stylization."

I was dreading this event today--not only telling him, but also the other two students who also failed their paper. One young woman said she didn't put quotes in because her classmate (who is well-meaning) told her that if she didn't directly quote the source, in other words, didn't use quote marks, then it wouldn't be plagiarism. Um. Wrong.

The last of the three was just sloppy, tired, sick of it all, and she knew it and I knew it. But the first student, the one who wrote me the email told me this was his 4th try through this Less-Than-101. I was reminded of that essay in Atlantic Monthly titled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" (illustration above is from that article--if you haven't read it yet, you must) about the myth we impose on people that everyone should go to college, get a degree, get ahead. From the essay, by a Professor X:
"Beneath the surface of this serene and scholarly mise-en-scène roil waters of frustration and bad feeling, for these colleges teem with students who are in over their heads. . . . Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile."

I read and re-read this essay a lot. I have it saved on my hard drive. It butts up against our little community college's efforts at cheerfully urging us proffies to Retain More Of Our Students. The only way to do that, is to allow writing, like that in the above email, to be the norm. Texting as text. Sloppy scholarship as the only scholarship.

My father, who was a professor at Harvard, repeats often the line "The university is bigger than any one student." In my tiny corner of my tiny college in the tiny community where I teach, this line is my lifeline. It's the only way I can sit across the desk from an anxious student who resides in the back row of the classroom, smiling and nodding like he does get it, only he doesn't, and tell him that he has a 60% in the class, and no, that is not passing, and no, I don't give extra credit work, and yes, it's very likely he'll get a D, which is neither passing, nor failing.

My classroom is that intersection between the stylization--the college brochure pictures of smiling grads surrounded by their friends--obscuring the realism of the classroom, where MLA rules, grammar conventions and research papers take their toll.

Some days the drive home is a sad one indeed.


  1. Wow. That's a tough one. You want to maintain your own integrity and the integrity of the course, but at the same time I feel for this guy! I can't believe he would take the course so many times without giving up. Maybe he just doesn't read enough, or doesn't "read like a writer" as we teach the young kids to do. It must be hard to have your job! I have lots of patience for kids, but not nearly as much for adults.

  2. Elizabeth, I just read your post. Coincidentally, my post yesterday was about an adult student who was also struggling. I appreciate your perspective.