Showing posts with label education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label education. Show all posts

Friday, May 16, 2014

Academic (Dis)honesty

Although we're only halfway through the quarter, one of my students has already failed another class because she plagiarized an essay, apparently in a very blatant and deliberate way.  She sat in my class last week, tears rolling down her face.  I felt sorry for her.  I was also disappointed.  I address plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty in every class, warning students of the consequences if they are caught.

I tell them the story of the late Edward Kennedy, who was suspended from Harvard for convincing a classmate to take his Spanish exam for him.  Of course, his father quickly bought his way back in, but for the rest of his life, despite a long and distinguished senatorial career, this incident remained a blemish on his character. In fact, in retrospect, it seems to have foreshadowed a personal and public life that was plagued with ethical lapses.

If my non-native speaking students are particularly vulnerable to accusations of plagiarism, it's not because they are more "dishonest"; it's because they don't have enough control over English to "dumb down" the language of their plagiarized sources so that they can be plausibly passed off as their own efforts.  And when they "google" their material, they somehow fail to consider that instructors can also "google" it.  Which is how the hapless student (above) was busted.

Part of the problem, from my angle, is that too many assignments practically "invite" students to plagiarize: the topics are too general, too over worked, and do not require students to do any more than synthesize other writers' ideas.  The failure of instructors' imaginations in designing writing assignments is a big part of the problem.

But here's an example of academic dishonesty that troubles me even more:  There is a tenured writing instructor who habitually teaches 20 credits a quarter.  That's a stunning load in terms of marking.  How does he manage it?

Easy!  He farms out his students' papers to an outfit that, for a modest fee, reads and grades the papers for him.  It's common knowledge that he does this.  Perhaps his dean does not consider his behavior unethical.  (His students complain it takes a long time to get their work back from him, but no wonder; he probably sends the stuff in batches to India.)

I find it infuriating.  I also wonder if I'm a bit of a chump.  What is keeping me from recruiting my own cadre of "assistants?"  Marking grammatical errors isn't difficult, nor does it require any qualifications beyond a command of English sentence structure; it's just tedious.  Being relieved of reading and marking student papers would free me up to focus on the parts of teaching I do enjoy (e.g., story telling, pontificating), allow me to moonlight, and probably double my income.  Furthermore, there are some (bored housewives looking to supplement the income from their monetized blogs, unemployed English majors) who might view this kind of piecework as "an incredible job opportunity."

Friday, May 9, 2014

What's To Be Done?

If you are a teacher or work in education, kill yourself. It's the only way to save your fuckin' soul.

Hey, if I thought it would help, I'd seriously consider it. But then who would teach my classes?

Learning that I taught in community college, a smart-aleck I once dated snarked, "You mean 13th grade with ashtrays?"

Yeah, in retrospect, he was "negging," wasn't he?  But it worked in this case.  And he wasn't far off the mark, although the ashtrays are in danger of disappearing thanks to a push to ban all smoking on campus.

This morning I devoted to "professional development," attending a series of informal talks and workshops designed to share "best teaching practices" as well as to acquaint faculty members and administrative staff from disparate disciplines with one another.  After a luncheon sponsored by the Foundation (burgers consumed on bleachers) there will be a variety of engaging activities, including an opportunity to roll around the floor of the gymnasium in "human hamster balls" (and yeah, the metaphor is not lost on me either). 
So very much... not me.
Actually, I get a lot out of these affairs.  I have learned more about teaching from watching other teachers (especially in the role of a student) than I ever have from classes in pedagogy.  I often admire their creative techniques, their classroom innovations.  I am always impressed by their caring and commitment, by their boundless optimism that seems to feed on thin air.  (Whatever one says about teaching as a refuge of the mediocre, most instructors care a lot -- at least the ones who show up for "professional development" sessions on a Friday.)  And since I teach remedial classes, it's helpful to be reminded what it is (and for whom), I am preparing my students.

The most interesting workshop addressed the problem of "under-prepared students."  Since the majority of my students will freely admit that they have never read a single book in their lives, and my objective is to prepare them to be successful in their college-level English classes, this hour promised to be highly relevant.  Ah, the eternal question: How do we get these students from A to B?

The session was heavy on statistics and predictably short on answers, because when it comes to education, I think we're all flummoxed -- especially the instructors, who are like soldiers sent forth to vanquish the enemy (of ignorance) by generals and a public at large who, far removed from the front lines, lounge comfortably in their barcaloungers, endlessly carping about the crap job teachers do.
Metaphorically, of course.
OK, here's a fun fact: 58% of students who enroll in community colleges in my state do not place into college-level classes.  They spend their first quarter or possibly first year struggling with the basic skills that you and I probably mastered in eighth tenth grade.  Except this time around, they are paying for the privilege (usually in the form of financial aid) to study "Fundamentals of Algebra" or "Vocabulary Development."  Because they cannot place into core college level classes until they demonstrate proficiency in high-school level math and English, they must supplement their schedules with electives like physical education or Introduction to Ceramics -- for which many must also borrow the money to pay.*

Of these under-prepared students who enroll in remedial classes, only 25% go on to earn either a certificate or a degree.  Those under-prepared students who decide to enter college part time have virtually no chance of ever graduating at all.

What accounts for such a low success rate?  We can assume that whatever roadblocks stood in their way as children continue to impede learning:  poverty, alcohol/drug abuse, chaotic families, mental disorders, or just plain PPP.**

Looking at various factors (race, age, etc.), the most salient one appeared to be gender.  Male students are significantly less likely to overcome the hurdles and wind up graduating (with either a transferable A.S. or a vocational certificate).  In other words, a single mom has a better chance of graduating than a single man with no dependents. 

We were invited to discuss why this might be so.  It was hard for me to discount the anger of certain manosphereans who claim education has become "feminized" to the point of disenfranchising the boys, but no one else was suggesting this as a possible factor, not even the several male faculty members present -- although one male math instructor interpreted the relative (modest) strides of women in obtaining degrees as "a positive sign."  

And complaints of "under-prepared" students are by no means confined to teachers in the humanities (which may be dismissed by manospherean sages such as Captain Capitalism as "feminine" or "fluff" fields).  In fact, the Construction Management and Information Technology instructors are equally vexed by students who are unable to read a manual or write a set of coherent instructions.

I have observed in my classes that the "under-prepared" women do seem to be more compliant: more willing to do what they are told they must do in order to pass my class, for example.  They exhibit a certain dogged persistence in pursuing their goals in comparison to the men, who are more likely to express impatience or "give up" (or "blow up") when faced with frustration.  

Female students, regardless of their degree of preparedness, are more likely to seek support (to approach instructors for help, to identify and consult with advisers, to figure out how to navigate the byzantine system of higher education).  Being a student, especially one with academic deficits, is humbling.  Before we can learn something, we have to admit we don't know it.  Is this something that women are socially more conditioned to accept?  In other words, is it possible that their typically "feminine" behaviors serve them?

I don't know what the solution is.  I'm not even sure what the problem is.  I've been known to piously intone that "College isn't for everyone," or that "Students deserve the opportunity to fail," but such sentiments are not only sacrilege in my circles, they seem like terrible cop-outs.   

*For profit colleges and technical colleges often lure such students with the promise they will not have to meet these pesky prerequisites, and indeed will often push students through their programs, but their rate of success in subsequently placing graduates in jobs is abysmal.
** "piss poor protoplasm"