Friday, April 16, 2010

April 16

This has been yet another grueling week of grading. The dire warnings Briggs made against missing the deadline for turning in the book reviews this past Tuesday worked pretty well. All but five students turned in their papers that day either during Briggs’s lecture in the morning or during my office hours that afternoon. Of those five, three came in on the Wednesday with different excuses (“My computer went bust and I had to write the paper all over again on a friend’s,” “My printer wouldn’t work,” and “I was sick). None of these problems would have delayed these papers if the students had written them ahead of time instead of right before the deadline, of course. I checked with Briggs about them, and he told me just to accept them without penalty.

The fourth late paper came in on Thursday with a form from the Charles University athletic department saying that the student was a member of the basketball team who had been at an away game. Briggs had told me in advance that, annoying as they may be, these forms are meant to encourage exempting student athletes from any penalties for lateness. The fifth late paper still hasn’t come in yet. I have no idea why.

Grading these papers was easier than grading the midterms. The midterms were all written by hand, and so I had to struggle through a lot of truly dreadful handwriting. By contrast, the papers were all prepared on computers, and so reading them was no problem.

That said, however, the papers turned out to be far more disappointing than the midterms. Since the midterms were written in class and by hand, it was understandable that many of them contained spelling mistakes and poor grammar. That the papers were filled with similar errors, though, was not. Unlike an in-class exam, the students presumably had the time to reread and revise their papers. The spell check feature that comes with word processing programs make spelling mistakes particularly easy to avoid, but most students apparently don’t bother to use them. Perhaps it doesn’t occur to them that they are capable of making such mistakes.

The content of most papers was pretty disappointing too. Although Briggs had repeatedly warned students against just describing what was in the book they chose to review, this is exactly what most of them did. Those who did this, I assume, were those who didn’t come to class to hear Briggs repeatedly say, “Don’t describe! Analyze!” I had no choice but to give these papers low grades. I fully expect that once they get them back, a lot of these students will come to complain, saying, “Nobody told me this wasn’t what I was supposed to do!” The behavior of undergrads, I am learning, is highly predictable.

As with the midterms, there were some students who wrote really good papers. These were a pleasure to read. Three of the papers, though, seemed too good. The students who wrote them, I suspected, had each plagiarized somebody else’s work. They just didn’t read like something an undergrad would write. My suspicions increased when I noted that all three had done poorly on the midterm. One of them, I am sorry to say, was the African-American male who had had differences with Danielle last fall.

As everyone reading this already knows, I am incredibly sensitive to racial issues. Thus, I fully realized that I had to tread very carefully here. Not knowing how to proceed, I went to Briggs to ask for guidance. He shook his head in dismay when I told him about my suspicions. “This is a problem, Jonathan. Unfortunately, it is all too common a problem.”

He then outlined the university’s procedure for dealing with cheating. The person who made the discovery (in these three cases, me) must fill out a set of forms (which Briggs had several copies of right there) and file them with the student judicial affairs office as soon as possible. This office would then convene the honor code committee, which was composed entirely of students, to consider the matter. If the committee deemed the evidence to be sufficient, notice would then be sent to the student that he or she was being accused of cheating.

The student would then be called upon to respond to the charge. If the student pleaded guilty, and if he or she had no previous record of an honor code violation, then the committee would usually hand down a relatively minor punishment such as an “F” for the assignment, or even just order the student to redo the assignment honestly. If the student pleaded not guilty, however, then the committee would hold a hearing at which the accuser (me) and the student must each present their side of the story. Each could call witnesses, “just like a real trial.” A student who pleaded innocent but was found guilty would, at minimum, receive an “F” for the class, and might even be suspended for a semester. And if he or she had a previous record of honor code violations, the student could even be expelled altogether.

“But, Jonathan,” Briggs warned, “the burden of proof is on the accuser. It is not good enough to suspect that a student plagiarized. You’ve got to find the original source from which he or she copied from. Often, you can do so by typing just one sentence into Google. But if that doesn’t come up with anything, then it’s usually pretty hard to find the original source.”

I told him that I was prepared to hunt around on the internet to see if I could find the original sources for the papers I suspected were plagiarized. I also handed him copies of the three papers in question in case he recognized or wished to do any searching for the original sources himself.

It appeared to me that Briggs blanched when he saw who had written the papers. “There are very sensitive issues involved here, as you well know,” he said, clearly with regard to the paper by the African-American student. “You can’t afford to make any mistakes here. If you can’t find the words written here already in print somewhere else, then you can’t file a plagiarism charge.

“And in any case that you can’t do this,” he continued, “you must grade the paper as if the student really did write it even though you suspect otherwise. Do you understand?”

I assured him that I was aware of the complicated issues involved, and that I wouldn’t file a plagiarism charge unless I could prove it. I expressed my hope that the honor code committee would be especially sensitive in dealing with a student of color found guilty of plagiarism. I insisted, though, that it was my duty to report to the committee any student whom I could prove had cheated, regardless of his or her race, religion, or sexual orientation.

“Quite right, Jonathan, quite right!” Briggs commented. “I’ll take a look at these papers myself, of course, but it just so happens that I’m incredibly busy over the next week. I’m afraid you’re going to have to bear the burden of searching for proof of plagiarism.”

He then let me know that it was time for me to leave by thanking me for bringing this matter to his attention. I don’t think, however, that he was really thankful that I had done so.

So in addition to hours and hours of grading this past week, I also spent time entering various sentences from the three suspicious papers into Google. I wasn’t able (so far) to find a matching source in two of the suspicious cases, but I did find one in the case of the African-American student almost immediately.

I clearly had no choice but to go ahead and file the plagiarism charge against him, complete with a copy of his exam and of the review he copied from, with the student judicial affairs office yesterday (Thursday). It really, really pained me to have to do this to a minority student, but I had no choice.

I told the secretary in the student judicial affairs office that this matter needed to be dealt with very sensitively because the student accused was African-American. But the secretary, who was black herself, didn’t seem to care. “We treat everyone equally here,” she said, and then abruptly returned to her work. I thought she would appreciate my racial sensitivity, but somehow she didn’t. Maybe she was just busy.

I haven’t been able to find original sources for the other two suspicious papers yet, but I will work on this over the weekend. I hope I succeed since I will otherwise have to give each of these papers an “A.”

There’s one other thing I should mention: Shivvy did something amazing on her paper. She too chose to review Briggs’s old book. What she did, though, was cite the most critical things I had said about it in both my senior thesis and paper for Saltz, and then present an argument as to how my argument was wrong while Briggs’s was right. Very clever, but very annoying.

I was just going to give her a “B+” at first. That’s certainly all she deserved. But then I remembered how she showed the midterm I gave her a “B+” on to Briggs, who then raised her grade. I didn’t want her showing this paper to Briggs, since he would then see my critical remarks about him (some of which she blew way out of proportion in her commentary). So I decided I’d better give her an “A.” That way, she’d have no reason to show it to him. [I’d better delete this entire paragraph before allowing anyone else to read this.]

Before I forget: although Shivvy handed in her book review, she hasn’t yet given me back either my senior thesis or the paper I wrote for Saltz. I must remind her to do so.

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