Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Spring is Sprout

with 10 comments

It is spring, and with spring comes what I think of the inevitable and you probably don’t–term papers.

It also brings the end of another Gregor novel, and I’m getting up at ridiculous hours of the morning to do that, but I like writing Gregor novels.

I don’t so much like correcting term papers.

Part of the reason for that is the obvious.  Correcting essays,  if you do it right, is dull, slogging work.    You have to pay attention to everything, including things you haven’t thought about for years:  grammar, punctuation, spelling, argument structure.

I’m not saying that these things are not important in my every day life.  Of course they are, but they’re also things that I learned decades ago and don’t really think about anymore while I’m doing them.

When I first came back to teaching after many years of being away, I would find myself stuck on the obvious wrongness of things in papers, with no way of being able to articulate why they were wrong.

Spelling was easy enough, but the other stuff just let me blank.  It was so obviously wrong that I couldn’t understand how anybody could miss is, never mind not know.

I’ve gotten past that by now, of course, and I’ve got a lot of things to say when the papers come in looking like they’ve been written by people whose first language is Klingon.

Oh, and by the way–papers from ESL students are almost always better written than papers from native English speakers, because they ESL students know they don’t k now and are careful about it.

But it’s not that kind of thing that gets to me now.  It’s the stupid.

To give you some idea–the stupid is not about people with low IQs.  My guess is that, if we ever decided to admit people with significant mental handicaps, they’d be like my ESL students–better, because they’d know they didn’t know.

The stupid does not have to do with that but with a kind of casual thoughtlessness.

One of the things I do is to give a short quiz at the start of every class.  This is a three paragraph writing sample, and the point of it is to let me watch my students’ progress through the term.  The daily writing samples tell me if my students are progressing or falling back, if there are things I need to work on with them–and, of course, what their writing is generally like.

This means that when a paper comes in with a vocabulary worthy of The Atlantic Monthly, I know if the student who submitted it does in fact write in a vocabulary worthy of The Atlantic Monthly.

And, of course, many of them don’t.  I can confirm this fact by calling them up and asking them what various words mean, and I can reconfirm it by Googling specific phrases until I find the original document (or documents) that the student has plagarized.

But if this was the extent of the plagarism problem, it wouldn’t be so bad.

What blows me away is the extent to which these kids go to the Internet, copy and paste an essay straight off the Web, and then hand it in.

It’s not the dishonesty that shocks me.  I do understand that there will be a certain amount of this kind of thing whether I like it or not. 

What shocks me is that they’ve apparently never considered the p ossibility that if they could easily find this thing to hand it, other people before them probably found it, too.

This is about the tenth term in a row that somebody has handed in the essay that starts–“there are three kinds of love: agape love, eros love, and philos love.”

To be fair, I should note that there are actually several versions of this essay on the web. 

They all, however, use these three names for the kinds of love, and the students who turn these things in to me cannot define the terms if they’re not looking at their papers.

Now, plagarism is a slippery slope.  There are sometimes shades of grey.

Sometimes students will say to me that they did see the essays on love, but they just used them to write their own essay using the same ideas.

Then I have to explain that not citing ideas is also plagarism, whether they used somebody else’s exact wording or not.

At that point the student will tell me he or she did not know that.

At that point I will have to explain that I went over the  parameters of plagarism already twice in class, and that there’s material on the subject up on Blackboard.

But for me, the kicker isn’t this, either.

It’s their absolute shock that I, um–I actually know how to use the Internet. 

And they are genuinely shocked, as if anybody over the age of 25 couldn’t possibly spend time web surfing or figure out how to use a search engine.

Actually, I’m better at all of it than any of them are, although I don’t know why.  I thought they were supposed to be geting computer training in high school.

Come the research paper, I have to spend an hour or so showing people how to find the information they need to produce an MLA format works cited item on a web site.

I still find it enormously depressing to find these papers scattered in among the rest. 

Part of me wants to say, “for God’s sake, if you’re going to cheat, at least do it right.”

Instead, I try to put the best face on it I can, and explain as patiently as I can.

Then I give the paper a 0 and don’t allow a rewrite.

There’s so much plagarism now that no place I know of maintains the old zero-tolerance, expelled on your ear the first time policy I remember from my own years in college.

I’m not sure that I think that that policy was ever the right one–and now, dealing with “nontraditional” students, students who are first in their families to go to college, students who have had a lot of life before they show up at the door, and all the rest of it–

With all of that, it makes a certain amount of sense that we’re a little more flexible than we used to be.

Even so, the cheating is an indicator of something, and I think it may be yet another indicator that the entire credentialing system is going to go up in smoke.

Because some students cheat because they’re panicked.

And some students cheat because they’re dishonest.

And some students–maybe most of them–cheat because the entire process has lost all meaning.

They don’t think we have anything to teach them, or that they have anything to learn.

They just think their futures are being held hostage, and sitting for four  years in classrooms so that teachers and administrators get paid and universities make money is the price of admission to real life.

 I think they’re honestly shocked when they find out that we care that they cheat at all.

I’ve got papers to correct.

I’d better go do them.


Written by janeh

April 25th, 2013 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'Spring is Sprout'

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  1. Isn’t it “Spring is sprung?”

    Let’s see. The students have had four years of high school English, but can’t spell, punctuate or organize a paragraph. They had four years of high school math, but have trouble with basic statistics. They had probably three years of history and some sort of civics, but can’t locate major events in time nor major countries in space. I’m seeing a pattern here, and the pattern makes me unsurprised that a course or two on computers didn’t leave them expert.
    I’m just an old dumb science fiction reader, but as a rule when the newly-met stranger expects to be tortured or killed for minor offenses, or doesn’t think anyone will care if the Big Man rapes or murders, we consider that the stranger knows his own civilization, and that this does not speak well of it. If, year after year, you get reasonably bright students who are genuinely surprised when anyone cares whether or not they learn anything, perhaps you should consider that while they don’t know you, they DO understand the overall system?
    Just because a conclusion is depressing doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate.


    25 Apr 13 at 10:31 am

  2. US high schools teach basic statistics? They certainly didn’t in my time but that was 60 years ago. Why do I suddenly feel ancient?


    25 Apr 13 at 7:42 pm

  3. I think Robert nails it. It has long been my impression when meeting young people that their scarcely-hidden contempt/pity for us doddering auld phartz is based on their certainty that the overall system is every bit as corrupt as they think it is, and that we are simply too stupid to realise that fact.

    And if Jane had used “Spring is sprung”, she’d have had to footnote the quote to avoid accusations of plagiarism. :-)


    25 Apr 13 at 8:52 pm

  4. jd, I didn’t have much, but I certainly went into college knowing some of the statistical tricks Jane mentioned her students not knowing. Of course, my own high school days are more than 40 years in the past now, but my son’s high school mathematical education was better than my own. (This proves that things are not hopeless everywhere, but we knew that.)
    Mique, I think you’re right about the quote.


    25 Apr 13 at 9:50 pm

  5. I’m so glad I retired from teaching . . . among other things . . . how to write a research paper.


    26 Apr 13 at 3:29 pm

  6. Fine for you to retire, Sara, but they really ought to have replaced you when you did. These days it’s almost a lost art, like Greek fire, Damascus blades–or reasoning.


    26 Apr 13 at 4:06 pm

  7. Bu I is still say Spring is sprung: BRUSSELS is sprout.


    27 Apr 13 at 12:56 pm

  8. And ONIONS spring.


    27 Apr 13 at 7:15 pm

  9. Being addicted to numbers gathered impartially and scientifically (the maximum extent possible) I would like to address your attention to in particular page 18, figures 3 & 4 of “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait:


    Directing your attention to fig. 3 you will note that the percentage of white males graduating from high school goes from under 25%in 1940 to nearly 80% in 1991, the year the statistics stop in the report. The line is very nearly linear except for a slight bump in the early 60’s.

    My hypothesis, which could be investigated, is that circ 1940 the typical high school student came from a better educated family living in, for lack of a better word as late as I am writing this, the ‘better’, socio-economically, parts of the cities where high schools existed.

    Somewhat by proxy, then, they were likely – statistical distributions being what they are – a fair bit smarter on the average than their non-high school going peers.

    And again, statistical distributions being what they are, if you go from a somewhat self selected just under 25% going to, well anything, and ramp it up until you get 80% participation, then ability distributions being what they are, you have a good number of kids now in high school who are, well, not quite in the same league as the kids of the 1940’s.

    Not because kids on the whole were any smarter in 1940, but in 1940 we weren’t forcing everyone, regardless of ability or desire, into high school.

    I don’t feel like chasing down more numbers to fill in the gap from 1991 to the present – but it’s a safe bet it’s climbed still more, although likely approaching an asymptotic limit, i.e. flatting out well shy of 100%.

    This statistical truth has nevertheless not stopped the push to shove everyone ever onward to “college”.

    Yet, unlike athletics, where no one is silly enough to propose that every male would be capable of playing at a professional level, and no one thinks the less of you if you can neither throw nor hit a 90mph fast ball — somehow, by some magic, everyone is supposed to be capable of “college level work”.

    That can only ever be if, and ONLY if what is meant by “college level work” comes down to the level that more people can actually achieve.

    Obviously that can not happen.

    Instead, what happens is that we end up with a top tier of schools that weed out, often viciously, the less capable so that they do NOT have to dumb down their curriculum (they may still dumb at least parts of it down for other reasons, but that’s not the discussion here). These are the schools Jane talks about where the major corporations recruit the ‘liberal arts’ grads — and it’s quite independent of whatever value an “Ivy League” (or just below) liberal arts education might have — it’s because the recruiters can be assured that if the student got into THAT school, and then didn’t flunk out, that maybe they can actually think and even write a coherent paragraph and actually research a topic.

    Whereas a “liberal arts” major from Nameless State University may well end up a barista at Starbucks, no matter that in any particular individual case the person may well be in all relevant respects the intellectual equal of the top tier graduate.

    Our almost insane insistence that everyone go to “college” guarantees that some such informal, though very real, sorting take place.

    And no, it doesn’t matter that, oh, Harvard might have ways to help the occasional deserving but financially challenged student pay for a Harvard education. Last I checked there were something like 20-30 applications for every open seat in the Freshman class, so trying for that is a crap shoot. Even shotgunning applications to 20 different schools in the hope that one of them will both accept AND provide scholarships is not, for most, going to work. Too many people are chasing too few seats.

    It’s not fair, it’s not even a smart. It certainly wastes a lot of talent.

    But it’s the American way.

    As for the cheating or feelings of entitlement. Eh, maybe.

    It’s more the reality that you have to have the damned paper to get past the idiots in the HR department to get to the interview.

    Hell, if you don’t have the right keywords on your resume a human might not ever see your resume in the first place.

    So yeah, it’s insane.

    Lake Woebegone is the reality now. Everyone is expected to be above average.

  10. I agree with you about many of your critiques about the problems with an over-emphasis on college, I am rather suspicious about historical records of high school graduation rates proving anything more than that there’s an increased importance seen in the possession of a high school diploma.

    Our local high school rates have gone up over time. There have also been massive changes in what actually constitutes high school graduation, or even what used to be called ‘matriculation’ and is something like a diploma representing the ‘academic’ program; that is, the courses required by most post-secondary institutions for their more or less academic programs. Moreover, the curriculum has changed, too. For example, for a number of years the core academic chemistry course was re-designed to appeal to more students to the howls of chemistry teachers (secondary and post-secondary) who said it taught much less chemistry. Eventually it was changed again, to make it more ‘academic’.

    It’s really tricky to figure out just how the knowledge acquired by a typical high school graduate compares with that of another such in the same system twenty of 50 years ago.

    And that’s even in a system (like ours) which has external public exams for some courses. The proportion of the final grades they contribute has varied from 50-100% over the years, and if the results for a class or even everyone are unexpectedly low, investigations will occur, but the actual marks will be adjusted. And of course the exams are tied to the curriculum, so they measure different things over time even when they work.

    Our pass rates are usually quite good. There are self-congratulatory press releases every summer.


    28 Apr 13 at 6:49 am

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