Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What I Don't Know for Sure

Recently, I had an experience where a student clearly appeared to have cheated. Turnitin.com showed that the student’s essay matched a classmate’s essay by 47%. The classmate and the student in question had been in the same peer review group, and the classmate’s draft contained the material first.

My body reacts to such discoveries. I get hot. I bite the inside of my cheeks. My mind swirls with a mix of emotion: shock, disgust, embarrassment, and anger. My gut wants to lash out at such a student, to explain at length how such a blatant act of stealing violates our writing community and insults me as an instructor. Then the worry and guilt sets in: What kind of class have I created where a student feels such desperation when confused? Why didn’t the student see me as more accessible, whatever the challenges with the assignment might have been?

Over the years, I’ve learned to let these reactions wash over me. I entitle myself to that experience, but I don’t act upon it. When I confront a student about such a situation, I limit myself to reporting events, explaining implications, and opening a discourse. Here’s what I wrote to this particular student:

Student X, your Turnitin.com report shows that significant portions of your essay match Student Y’s essay. In your group thread for peer review of Essay One, these passages are original to Y’s draft, not your draft. It appears you lifted chunks of Y’s essay and represented them as your own in this essay.

Please explain.

Ms. K

Whew! It takes lots of restraint to write a relatively inert response like that, but over the years, I’ve learned how little I know in these situations. I’ve drawn conclusions, acted accordingly, and ended up with egg on my own face. By granting students a bit more rope, I can gather more information before committing to a course of action. I do this process because I’ve benefited from it in the past, but this time, I truly thought my narrative for the data was indisputable.

Not for the first time, I was wrong. The student explained what happened, and while the student clearly used bad judgment, the person hadn’t been guilty of all the things I’d imagined. Even though I thought my note asking for an explanation should earn me a nomination for sainthood, the student started by telling me that my note created feelings of “bafflement and humiliation.” I actually think both those reactions are called for, so I’m okay with that, (alright, maybe not "humiliation...") but the student’s response made me very happy that I’d refrained from responding to the paper with the vitriol I’d felt.

So in the end, my accumulating experience teaches me how little I know for sure. Students, with their variable human nature, create new and unique ways of mangling text each semester!

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Personally, I would have a problem with the student's explanation. It sounds rather far-fetched to me.