Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Plagiarists are people too

I catch an average of one plagiarist a semester, or roughly one per sixty students. Once in a rare while I've have two, in different classes, and a few times I've had none, but the average has remained steady over my six years at RU. I hate catching plagiarists and I hate being always on the alert for plagiarists, but it's a part of my job and I've more or less made my peace with it; I may still leap from the sofa and shout "goddammit!" when I find one, but I no longer take plagiarism as a personal insult. Plagiarism happens when students are lazy or scared or under pressure; it's about them, not me.

But not taking it personally doesn't mean that it's not still emotionally exhausting, and this semester has been a doozy: in one single class I've had two clear-cut cases of plagiarism, with two or three additional papers that I believe were influenced by outside sources--but in a relatively minor way and to a degree that I wouldn't be able to prove anyway. Moreover, they were all on the same paper assignment.

For privacy reasons, I won't go into details, but we're not talking about a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, or lazy-ass non-majors. This is a smallish class with good energy, and I genuinely like all the students in it.

And that's what's hard about catching and prosecuting academic dishonesty. When you take it personally, it's easier to nail the kid; you've got the righteous (or maybe self-righteous) sense of indignation to carry you through: "Ha-hah! Play me for a fool, will you? Here's your violation report, asshole." But when you like the kids and have taken some pride in their intellectual growth--and especially when you have some knowledge about the shit going on their personal lives--the anger is different. You're pissed off at them for being stupid and for fucking up, and you're pissed off that they've trapped both of you in a legal process where it's hard to say what you want to say and where what you want to say probably wouldn't be heard anyway.

I gave my class a lecture in the quiet, Angry-and-Disappointed-Mommy voice, and it freaked them all out and maybe it helped and maybe it didn't; part of the problem is that "plagiarist," like "racist," is a term that doesn't allow for gradation or nuance, and no one believes he can be that thing. But although the reality is that not all forms or instances of academic dishonesty are equal, any suggestion that some might be lesser or more deserving of leniency could only come back to bite me in the ass.

So this is what I'd like to tell my plagiarists, and what I wish they'd hear and believe:
"You did something unethical, and you knew it was unethical; 'giving you a break' would be unfair to your classmates and it would be unfair to you; it's my job to enforce academic standards and to see that you wrestle honestly with tough intellectual tasks. You're selling yourself short when you think that you can't come up with good ideas or write a good paper on your own. You will fail this class and the academic dishonesty charge will go on your record. But if you repeat the class, the 'F' will disappear, and if this is your first violation--and you never have another--you'll get to stay at RU and there will be no indication of this on your transcript.

"This doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you a person who fucked up, and there are consequences when you fuck up. But you can make things right over the long term, if you want to."

This shit breaks my heart.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"And with your spirit"

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, also marks the roll-out of the new English translation of the liturgy--the first since the end of Vatican II.

This new translation has been the subject of controversy for years (so many years that I first wrote about it in 2006, in something like Week Five of this blog's existence), but it boils down to this: the first English translation of the mass was put together relatively hastily, in the wake of Vatican II; it's simple and idiomatic, but there are a number of places where it neglects or misrepresents the substance of the original; a more faithful version had always been intended to replace it, and by the late 1990s "a richer translation that . . . hew[ed] more closely to the Latin without sacrificing clarity" had been completed and approved by every council of English-speaking bishops in the world. However, this translation was rejected by the Vatican. According to Rome, not only the sense of the Latin must be conveyed, but "every Latin word must be accounted for, and vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, and capitalization patterns found in the Latin must be reproduced as much as possible" (quoted text comes from this timeline of the history of English translations of the mass).

So disagreeing as thoroughly as I do with the Vatican's translation theory, I was prepared to hate the new translation. I'd gotten a preview of parts of the new translation in various articles and handouts over the past six months, and though I didn't think it was as awful as some commentators, I was still wary.

But listening and responding at mass today, I decided that it's neither a net gain nor a net loss. I actually like some of the new translation's circumlocutions and five-dollar words: as a literature teacher, I believe there's sometimes both aesthetic and intellectual value in language that draws attention to itself, that doesn't come totally naturally, that requires work to figure out. So while there's surely no meaningful difference between describing the second person of the trinity as "one in being with the Father" and describing him as "consubstantial with the Father," the second rendering is one that draws attention to itself, and hence to the doctrine it's articulating. In general, I like the way the new translation foregrounds a number of theological issues, like the incarnation, and in places its Latinate, archaic syntax does achieve a strange, reverent beauty.

On the other hand, there are at least as many awkwardnesses (Cosimo spent the second half of the service mouthing "oblations," with a look of comic disgust, following a particularly ugly new bit of prose that included the offending word), and lots of things that simply don't seem to matter. I don't know why the liturgy of the Eucharist now has the priest referring to the "chalice" Jesus drank from instead of the "cup" ("chalice" may be more faithful to the Latin, but surely it isn't a more accurate description of the actual drinking vessel), or what essential is being conveyed by having the congregation respond to the priest's "the Lord be with you" with "and with your spirit" instead of "and also with you."

Will the new translation lose congregants? Possibly, though I think not right away; regular church-goers are going to make a game effort to adapt to the new translation, and if it causes some people to feel more alienated from the church and to drift away, that effect will be perceptible only over time. But you know, the liturgy is the least of the reasons that people feel alienated from the church--and much as I enjoy fulminating, any energy I have would probably be better spent addressing those other reasons.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Heading over river, through woods. While I'm cursing traffic on the interstates and by-roads of this great nation, I leave you with this article from yesterday's Times on the health benefits of conscious gratitude. So let's try it: I'm happy there aren't more morons on the road! And hey, it's pissing rain, but at least it's not snow!

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Those interested in metonymy must explain why metonymy is required

Speaking of veterans, this just in:

The Department of Defense is now funding the study of metaphors. The full description is here (h/t G-Fav), but in brief, the DoD is interested in "exploit[ing] the use of metaphorical language to gain insights into underlying cultural beliefs"; i.e., to figure out what it means when a particular nation or political faction uses one kind of metaphor rather than another. Is life a journey, or a playscript?

The report includes this sweetly wonky explanation of what metaphors are:
Metaphors have been known since Aristotle (Poetics) as poetic or rhetorical devices that are unique, creative instances of language artistry (e.g., The world is a stage). Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reflect cultural beliefs.

Metaphors shape how people think about complex topics and can influence beliefs...Metaphors are associated with affect; affect influences behavior. This association has been confirmed through neuro-science experiments.
(There's also a great description of metonymy, and later the stern warning, "Metonymy will be in addition to metaphors. Those interested in metonymy must explain why metonymy is required.")

The project's goal is to "automat[e] the discovery, framing and categorization of linguistic metaphors in large amounts of textual data in multiple languages"--in other words, to push a whole lotta text through a whole lotta computers--but since I'm skeptical that figurative language conforms to any pattern that can be modeled, I see huge potential here for us: when the computerized model fails, the Defense Department will be forced to hire a platoon of humanities PhDs.


Monday, November 14, 2011

"After surviving firefights, sitting on a college campus with someone who doesn’t like me is the least of my worries"

Today's New York Times has a great article on Columbia's aggressive recruitment of military veterans for undergraduate study. Columbia now has more than 200 veterans enrolled, while its closest Ivy competitor, Cornell, has approximately 50. (We won't speak about the shamefully low figure enrolled at my own alma mater.)

I've thought a fair amount about veterans in the classroom over the years, for a number of reasons: I come from a military family; my former long-term partner teaches at one of the service academies (as he did for five of our six years together); and I've taught quite a few veterans myself at RU. But although there's a lot to say about this article, what most strikes me is the way it seems to align with the argument I made a while back about the limited kinds of diversity one can expect at elite colleges: it's not surprising to me that Columbia, which is located in a big city and already has a robust undergraduate program aimed at nontraditional students, and Cornell, which has the largest undergraduate population of the Ivies, are doing the best job recruiting students who are a bit older and have significant non-academic life experience.

As I wrote in that earlier post, elite colleges that are devoted to a residential model--and especially smaller elite colleges, located in smaller communities--seem to have a harder time imagining what it would mean to add older students (or married students or students with meaningfully different academic backgrounds) into the mix.

But there's no reason for this to be true. Although the student population at RU could certainly be more cohesive, quite a lot of our students, including transfer students or those who have taken several years off, elect to live on or right near campus, as a part of the academic community, and it's not uncommon for students to forge friendships with other students who are a number of years older. Surely elite colleges could preserve their academic standards, maintain a sense of communal identity, and diversify their student bodies in new and important ways--with veterans for starters, but perhaps also with other older or returning students--if they tried. Kudos to Columbia for showing them how.


In early January, I start checking the time of sunrise and sunset every day, taking pleasure in each additional minute of daylight (and usually declaring to multiple people, multiple times a week, "Tomorrow will be two minutes and eight seconds longer!" or "We've gained six more minutes of daylight since Monday!"). I'm also fond of telling my friends in Boston and New York that the sun sets in Cha-Cha City 20-30 minutes later, year round. It's a way of getting through.

But as soon as we pass the summer solstice, I stop checking. And when it's fully dark by 9 p.m. I start noting morosely that it's all downhill from there. Throughout the early fall I grumble, taking the shortening days--every single one of them--very personally. Winter's coming.

Now that we've set the clocks back, though, I'm okay with it. It's dark early and it's dark long, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. I'm grateful for the warm, sunny days we'll still get through the end of this month, and I'm grateful for weekend days spent outside, when the dark comes on more slowly. We drink cider and whiskey and red wine, eat stews and nuts and root vegetables, and we light fires in the fireplace and have people over. I'll see my college friends at the football game this weekend, family for Thanksgiving the week after that, and the end of the semester is in sight.

It'll be okay, for a while. But talk to me again in February.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Hope for the humanities? (part 2 of 2)

The big asterisk to my generally positive attitude about my institution's commitment to the humanities has to do with our foreign language department and requirements. Briefly, they're a joke. Like many institutions, mine is falling all over itself to proclaim its dedication to "global study," and to declare that it prepares its students for a "global workplace"--while doing nothing to increase the actual study of foreign languages or build its foreign language department. Spanish is the only remotely healthy program we seem to have, and I suspect that's a reflection not of any actual strategy on the part of the institution, but simply of the number of students who took the language in high school and who, of their own initiative, have decided to go further. Student demand has occasionally brought in an Arabic or Japanese instructor for a few semesters, which is nice, but there's no possibility of studying those languages past the beginner level. (Other than Spanish, the only language with tenure-line faculty, and hence some literature offerings, is French. But the most popular language courses on campus seem to be those for American Sign Language.)

I suspect there may be internal, departmental reasons that the foreign languages haven't been getting hires, but I also think it's the downside of student demand: for reasons that we in English and History aren't totally in control of, students want to major in our subjects, and that sets off a virtuous cycle in which more and better faculty get hired, which in turn attracts more and better majors. Students don't want to major in the foreign languages (and not enough make studying a foreign language a priority), so tenure-line faculty don't get hired, the programs languish, and the institution actually cuts the required number of semesters of foreign language study...thus decreasing the likelihood that students will get far enough to want to do more.

The lack of commitment to the foreign languages is an active concern in my department and in the history department, but as yet we haven't done much except complain among ourselves and urge individual students to take another year or two of a foreign language. But long term, I think we have to try to use our relative weight to put some pressure on the administration; we're neither going to attract the best students nor make our students into the best scholars they can be without a somewhat better foreign language department--and what's the point of being a robust department, anyway, if we can't help out other allied departments?


My smaller asterisk to my previous post involves my concern about what "raising our standards" does to the institution's mission. Our entering students are genuinely getting better every year, and the college is gradually transforming itself into a more traditional, more residential, liberal-arts-focused institution. The townhouses, the branding, the community ethos, etc., are all part of that effort. As a faculty member, it's hard not to be excited by a lot of this, especially since it hasn't been a case of "excellence without money": fundraising and alumni giving are way up, and faculty are pretty well-paid, with opportunities for merit raises in addition to cost-of-living raises every year. Who wouldn't want more smart students in the classroom? And who doesn't dare to hope that we might someday see course releases--or even a slight reduction in our teaching load--for faculty who are active scholars?

Well, no one doesn't want those things. And God knows, we'd all love to have our college recognized, statewide, for the strength of its humanities programs rather than having that be a pleasant surprise for the students (and faculty) who wind up here. But I worry a bit about the kind of smug self-satisfaction that I mentioned in my previous post in conjunction with the religious college up the road. One thing I love about RU students is how nice they are, how basically eager and hardworking and unpretentious; they're all here to get an education, and though the nature of that desire differs--some students just want a degree while others are intellectually ravenous--in no case is it about the cachet of the institution, or their own specialness for being here. (Our students seem happy to be affiliated with RU, and there's pleasure when one alumnus meets another alumnus, but it's not a self-congratulatory thing.)

And I wonder, sometimes, what the tipping point is: as we keep branding, and recruiting out-of-state students, and talking up our academics, will we lose some of what makes this institution so appealing? Will we lose the academically marginal students who are nevertheless full of eagerness and potential--only to wind up with a whole bunch of grade-grubbing, good-but-not-great students?

Maybe that's a foolish worry. But I think of all the spoiled, uncurious kids at middling colleges and universities, and it seems possible that for many institutions an increase in prestige--even specifically academic prestige--is accompanied by a decrease in intellectual vigor, especially in the undergraduate classroom.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Hope for the humanities (part 1 of 2)

Historiann has put out the call for bloggers to respond to Tony Grafton's review of and reflections on the shitload--I believe that's the technical, historiographic term--of recent books on the crisis in higher education. Grafton argues that although there's no one single or simple explanation for higher ed's problems, there is a problem, which is the gradual divorcing of the college experience from real intellectual development: students go to college for the professional credential and the social experience, and colleges are increasingly complicit in allowing or encouraging them to "look for entertainment and easy grades."

But because most studies of the crisis in higher ed lump very different kinds of schools together, and generalize to the point that no clear picture of any college student's experience can be gleaned, Grafton ends his essay expressing a desire for more precise and particular descriptions of the state of higher education at a variety of different institutions--and it's this desire that Historiann has been marshaling bloggers to answer.

Both Notorious Ph.D. and Dr. Crazy have already responded, giving the perspective from their rather different public institutions, so I'll now give mine from mine. And I gotta say that, despite the problems that my institution faces and the things I'm displeased with (which will be the topic of my second blog post on this subject), I'm pretty impressed with the intellectual climate and the support for the humanities at my institution--non-elite though it may be.

I teach a 3/3 load at a public, comprehensive college with an undergraduate population of about 7,000 and another 1,000-1,500 graduate students. And in some ways, our college could be said to be among those that are focusing increasing energy and resources on improving our students' social lives: we're building an enormous special complex somehow devoted to student life (it's not a student center, and it's not a gym, and indeed no one has adequately described to me what it is); we've built a whole bunch of student townhouses as an addition/alternative to our dormitory housing; and there's been an increasing, exasperating emphasis on "branding" our college in various ways: new slogans, logos, advertisements, alumni networks, fundraising initiatives; you name it.

But the thing is, when a college with a significant commuter population and a significant community-college transfer population works to increase its students' sense of collective identity and to improve their residential experience (a surprising number of our community college transfer students elect to live in the dorms), those things aren't necessarily working against a commitment to the intellectual life.

Because here's the other truth: of those 7,000 undergrads? English now has 600 majors, and history has about the same. We're the two biggest majors on campus, and still growing. The bad job market has been good for us in those two departments, and we've hired great faculty. Our chief academic officer--a scientist by training--has consistently touted our two departments as the strength of the college, and the first new academic building to be built on our campus in decades will be a showcase for the humanities.

For our students, then, creating a social life--encouraging them to live on campus, to participate in social and extra-curricular activities--goes along with fostering an atmosphere of shared intellectual engagement. (I wouldn't go so far as to say that binge drinking on the weekends is a part of this community-building! But more moderate forms of non-academic recreation arguably could be.)

Because I'll tell you what: those 1,200-odd English and history majors aren't majoring in our subjects because of a belief in the ennobling or civilizing virtues of the humanities, or even, in some cases, because they're voracious readers or innately curious or whatever else is alleged to bring students to the humanities. A large percentage of our majors have selected English or history because they want teaching jobs--which is partly to say, they want stable, unionized, middle-class jobs. (In my state, unlike many of its neighbors, students can't major in "education"; even students who want to teach kindergarten have to major in an actual academic subject.)

But however they wind up in our majors, the sheer number of them means we keep hiring. And that, in turns, means they're being challenged by an increasingly strong cadre of teachers and scholars--which attracts better majors and makes many of the weaker ones better, too. And while it can be challenging to teach to a range of different ability levels in the same classroom, I believe I've seen the ways that a shared ethos and identity, a sense that being an English major (or being an RU student) is a thing, and that those other people in the classroom are potentially your people, makes students more engaged and interested in rising to the level of their peers and to the level of their instructors' expectations.

So, okay: many things are pretty good at my institution. The question is, are the phenomena that are responsible for the general health of the humanities at my non-elite institution replicable elsewhere?

I think they are, with a few caveats.

First, the humanities will never attract majors--and this is increasingly true, I think, even at elite schools--by blather about how these subjects allow us to think the greatest thoughts, engage with the greatest ideas, etc. Students may be compelled by those arguments once they are humanities majors, but it's not the way to attract first-generation college students or convince their parents. The humanities really need to sell themselves as a smart professional move. In my state, the teachers unions, like all the civil service unions, are still very powerful, so that's a draw. But we need to make a much more powerful and explicit case for the utility of a humanities major for careers in business and other professional fields (and not just by talking vaguely about "critical thinking skills"; our students are concerned about the bottom line, and that's not a failing on their part, but one we have to be able to address directly).

Second, administrators need to have the vision to recognize that the humanities are, at most schools, well-established, time-tested, and cheap to operate. It doesn't cost much to hire really good faculty in these areas, and then boast about the fact. Regional and poorer schools need to stop chasing after the next new thing, building expensive bio-tech centers (or whatever) from scratch because those things seem sexy and forward-looking, and build on their existing strengths. No, not every English or history department is great. But you can buy a strong English department a lot faster and cheaper than you can buy a strong computer science department. Ideally, if they got on board, the administration would help to publicly promote the notion that a humanities education builds an educated workforce and citizenry.

Third, frankly? I think regional public institutions may be structurally positioned to support a healthier undergraduate intellectual life than some of their peers--which isn't to say that they are healthier, by and large, but I think they have often-overlooked advantages. Let's start with teaching: at my institution, anyway, graduate students do not teach, and although we have as many adjuncts as we have full-time faculty, they teach composition almost exclusively; a 3/3 load means that our 20 tenure-line faculty--plus a handful of full-time lecturers--actually can teach 600 majors a semester, in discussion-sized classes. This is not possible at R1 state schools with lighter teaching loads, a larger student body, and faculty who are often wooed with explicit promises of course releases, time off for research, and teaching obligations that are limited to grad students and advanced undergrads.

Then there's the money. Even when state schools are hurting for money (and I'll admit that my state system is relatively healthy and that my institution has been conservative in its cuts, so I'm probably blither about those things than most public-university faculty), regional private institutions are often in equally bad financial straits. Moreover, they have a harder time attracting smarter-but-poorer students; have to justify their high price-tag; and can be prone to unhealthy levels of self-satisfaction (a friend who teaches at a private religious college up the road reports that her students are under the belief that, since School X is the most expensive college in the area, it must therefore be really prestigious).

And finally, there's the lack of big-time athletics. Yes, we have jocks, and yes, some of them got recruited with lower scores than their peers. That can be a drag. But the athletes aren't expecting to go on to careers as professional athletes, which means they know they need a college degree, and the relationship between the coaching staff and the faculty is pretty respectful (I've been asked about a student-athlete's anticipated course grade, but merely because the coach needed to know who would be stating the next season and the kid would be benched if his GPA was too low; there was no pressure involved). And we avoid all the ancillary negatives of being part of a big athletic conference: no mayhem on game day, no raging fans, etc.


Obviously, I'm not saying that there aren't problems in higher ed; I'm not even saying that there aren't problems at my institution; I'll get to those, and to my concerns about the sustainability of what I've just outlined above, in a couple of days. But I do believe that there's a strong future for the humanities--even and maybe especially in non-elite colleges and universities--if we discard some of our outdated ideas about what motivates a humanities major and what he or she looks like.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Team teaching: mid-semester thoughts

So I took very seriously all the comments that suggested that team teaching works best when the co-teachers trade off discussion-leading responsibilities or otherwise ensure that it's always clear who's in charge at a given moment. My co-teacher, apparently, got much the same advice from the people he'd consulted with.

And for our first few weeks, we did that. We conferred by phone the day before, talked stuff through on the drive to campus, and roughly divided up teaching responsibilities: sometimes one of us would lead virtually an entire class, sometimes the period would be more evenly divided, but while one of us was leading discussion the other would respectfully remain silent or speak only after raising a hand and being called on. Those classes all went well.

But then. . . we decided we just didn't care, or that we didn't have the time to do extensive pre-class prepping, or that we had compatible enough interests and teaching styles to just play it by ear

And it's been even better this way: we take 5-10 minutes to discuss a few things we'd like to do, and a possible order, and then we get in the classroom and just go, switching on and off as we feel like it, redirecting conversation, helping each other out, and inserting tangential observations as they seem useful.

A friend with much more co-teaching experience puts it like this: having a co-teacher is like having a roommate: no matter how much you may like a person, until you live with them, you have no idea if you can live with them.

It's not perfect. We tend to have slightly longer and slightly more awkward transitions than in a normal class, since before moving on we'll usually pause to make sure the other person doesn't still have something left to say; it's also harder to scrap or invent stuff on the fly.

And though our students are lively and engaged, we don't totally have a handle on how they experience our blended class, or how they feel about the fact that we'll get into conversations with each other in the middle of discussion, or correct each other, or interrupt to exclaim, "oh! that's so cool! I've always wondered about that!"

But, eh. We're having a good time. And I hope that our students see us learning from each other, and enjoying learning from each other--and that that makes up for the class's occasional awkwardnesses.