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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The teaching teeter-totter

So, today I had a harder time with the Poetry class than with the 101. One side goes up, the other goes down?

I was happily marking student responses to the poetry as I sat in Advisement, which was blissfully empty of students for the most part--and suddenly a red flag went up: uh-oh, this student wouldn't use that kind of language. Google search, and there it was: plagiarized. I checked another response by the same student: plagiarized. I checked all the responses by that student: plagiarized. And as I was finding the sources this one student had stolen from, I was starting to see phrases and ideas that I'd found in other students' responses.

At least three students had plagiarized their homework. More may have, but I caught three for sure. God dammit.

I was deeply disappointed--and I told them so. I told them that the plagiarism says to me that they're insecure and afraid to be wrong--when I've been telling them, over and over, from the first day, that being wrong is good, is fine, is wonderful. I told them that--not trying to sound dramatic about it--I actually was personally hurt that they plagiarized: I felt like I've done something wrong as a teacher that, despite my reassurances, they still felt that they needed to resort to cheating. I had planned to go over the plagiarism handouts with them today anyway, but the need was all the more compelling after that.

Of course, I now have serious doubts about their first responses--but one came up to me after class and confessed that she'd been in a time crunch and cheated because she didn't have time to do the work. Fair enough--but maybe then you need to reconsider your course load. She wanted to avoid the penalty of the zero for the assignment, but I told her no: that was going to just be a painful lesson learned--and if she does well with everything else, she won't suffer from it. Another of the plagiarists came to me and said, "Maybe I need to re-do the ones I'd done for today and submit them next class?" Um, yeah, that would be a good idea, unless you want another zero. The third didn't say anything at all. Fair enough.

One of the problems I'm having is that those students want to stay and talk to me after class--and that makes me late to the 101. I had to cut one student off; she's desperately trying to get caught up after missing the first two classes, but she wanted to talk about whether she should withdraw--and that's complicated, requires a whole discussion at this stage in the game. I hope I see her tomorrow during my office hour (the real one, not the "I'm supposed to be in P&B" one)--but I did have to dash.

And I knew I was going to be late to the 101, which got me more agitated than I'd been before. However, I think--maybe, possibly--the reboot worked. They were a lot more responsive today--and were responding to each other. That one young woman has me so tense and jumpy that I'm making things worse: I have to stop trying to figure her out, trying to "reach" her, and just leave her alone unless she wants to participate. Which she did today, and she did a fine job--and I did start to relax a bit with her.

I find my whole visceral reaction to this young woman fascinating. I want to figure out why she has gotten under my skin the way she has, and why I am so compelled to win her over. She's just a kid, really, and doesn't know squat yet, but something about her turns me into the awkward, insecure social pariah I was from 5th grade through 9th. Bizarre, but I realize that's what's going on. Dealing with her feels like trying to deal with the "popular" girls when I was a kid myself. Prof. P, remember that you are in your 6th decade of life, are highly intelligent and well-educated to boot, and have absolute authority in that room.

The other student who has, I feel, contributed to the somewhat toxic feeling in that class was sitting back in the corner of the room texting. Paul would have thrown him out. I should have. I may, next time it happens (because it will happen again). But today, I just thought, "Fine. He's in his own little bubble, and he isn't bothering anyone else, and if he's not learning anything, that's his problem. I don't care if he learns or doesn't, as long as he doesn't screw things up for anyone else."

That should be evidence that--although the whole atmosphere of the class was better than it's been--it wasn't yet a complete and smashing success. There were still a lot of absentees--I have no idea who's really in the class and who isn't--but there's starting to be a core group, and that will work fine.

I think, some time ago, I mentioned the young man who had been either absent or so late he might as well have not come at all, the one I talked to in the hall, the one who had tried to cover over the pot smell on his clothes and breath. He's been e-mailing, as if he's a student who's on top of things, but he wrote to say he couldn't make it to class on a Thursday (he's in the M/W class, remember); he's written to say he has all the work ready--and then follows with an e-mail saying he can't find any of the handouts, which is followed by an e-mail saying he's going to look in the Essay 3 folder (when we're working on essay 1).... He's so completely lost and fucked up that I finally told him that he has to withdraw. He has absolutely zero chance of making it, none, zip. I doubt he's going to want to believe that, but I delivered the news as gently and compassionately as I could. I also said that if there's a situation in his life that is damaging his chances in all his classes, he should look into getting an "Excused" (or administrative) withdrawal from the entire semester, and try again when his life has calmed down. I hate to say it, but he's probably in a gang of some kind--and he's probably facing enormous pressure not to succeed, because then he'd be acting like he's "better than" the people around him.

One of my former students had that problem--and the intensity of it shocked me. She had done beautiful work on an assignment, and I was using her work as an example the next semester. I hadn't removed her name from it--thinking she'd be proud to own the work and to have it held up as a shining model. She was in another class of mine at that point, and she told me that word had gotten out among her circle of friends about it, and they were very upset with her: "What are you trying to do, be white?"

How on earth can I, a middle-aged white woman, counteract that? She absolutely knew what was wrong with what her friends were saying--but they were her friends. More than friends: they were her people, her community, the only support network she felt she had, and if they turned on her, she'd be completely outcast and alone in a world she didn't feel she had any ability--or right--to enter.

A little touch of that came up in today's 101, the way that what our parents expect of us can help or hinder where we go. I told them about my father, who came from a working class background. He was the first person in his family to go to college at all, and he went on to get a Ph.D.--but I think he felt he'd educated himself out of his family. Looking back on it now, I think he may have been partly (and secretly) ashamed of his background. He did deliberately get rid of his Okie accent when he went to college (which worked until he was talking to his family), and I know that he was petrified when he met my mother's family: her professor father and concert pianist mother. But, I said to students, I've just explained why I'm standing up here. It may not have been expected that we'd get Ph.D.s, but it was absolutely unquestioned that we'd go to college. I came to New York originally to be an actor; my mother supported that (it had been her dream, which she'd not fulfilled, so she wanted me to succeed at it for her), but my father had nothing but disdain for it: not practical, a waste of my intellect.

I don't often share that with students, but it absolutely fit into the conversation we were having. I did connect that back to what the students had shared (one who wants to be a graphic arts major but who has been pressured by his family into becoming a nursing major), but I also should talk about how to use personal experience as background for what we study--but to avoid using it as "evidence," unless the writing calls for personal experience (as in the case of the Mike Rose essay, "I Just Wanna Be Average").

In any event, I am almost looking forward to next Monday, to see whether today's dose of antivenin has done the trick or whether I need to keep trying. I won't try much longer, if the toxicity continues: it becomes a losing game pretty quickly. But I do hope the turn-around will work.

I need to bring this post to a close. I "should" have marked more assignments for tomorrow's 101, or started looking at a promotion application for one of my mentees, or done something besides going for the world record in lengthy blog posts, but I needed this time to vent, to reframe, to contemplate. I feel like I can breathe better now than I could when I walked in here after my classes. And that's the purpose of the blog, really: it helps me breathe.

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