Friday, December 22, 2006

A Long Hard Slog

Handling the demands of teaching doesn’t get any easier, regardless of how much experience one has gained. This last semester, which ended for me on Wednesday morning, proved particularly difficult. I approached the grading of each set of essays with dread and took longer than I should have in returning the grades and my comments to the students. The writing assignments in the second-semester composition course, for example, are more exacting and require that I give attention to not only how the student constructed his/her argument but also how well the student incorporated sources and acknowledged them. I usually made my way through the expressive and referential essays in the first-semester course fairly quickly and preferred that course when I first started teaching. Administrators would be more sympathetic to the workload in second-semester composition courses if the number of students allowed in any one course were set at, say, twelve, about half of the current size at the institution where I teach.

Each semester I emphasize paraphrasing, integrating quotations, avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources, and providing the bibliographic information, using MLA style, on the Works Cited page. Some students learn the conventions of academic writing quickly; other students think it is possible to simply add the author or title of the source in parentheses at the end of a paragraph and that that marker signifies having used that source at some point within the paragraph. Even at the end of the semester, when the student had shown otherwise in the previous essays, the student reverts to that weird form of documentation when writing the so-called research paper. High school classes would prepare students for college if the conventions of academic writing were in place even then.

This semester proved to be the semester for plagiarism as well. Students when summarizing lifted entire sentences and added them without quotations marks and without documentation. The class had addressed the distinction between paraphrasing and quoting and the essential elements of a summary (brevity, objectivity, and using one's own words, for example). These students apparently don’t realize that I have used the textbook for several semesters, have grown familiar with the essays and can identify passages taken from one of the essays, and keep the textbook open when I read their work, referring to the text when necessary. One student when evaluating a movie used an essay that someone in New York had written and had posted as an example of an essay about film in a graduate course. I guess students don’t realize how easily theft can be identified when using the Internet. If they can find the essay, using Google, then I can find the essay as well and probably with less effort. I have to admit that I was stumped when the student who had used the plagiarized evaluation turned in a research paper addressing the nursing shortage. I recognized that the essay was written in APA style, but I couldn’t find the exact essay online. My success rate was higher when a student addressed a summer reading program in California. It turned out that the student hadn’t changed a word.

Overall, getting to the point where I could add up the points and figure out grades was a long hard slog. I was up several nights in a row and caught about five hours of sleep after my son left for school. Anyone driving by my house would have seen the light visible through the blinds and curtains covering my office window until the early morning night after night. It was mostly me and the computer and the occasional horns of freight trains and the rain on the roof.