Friday, October 12, 2012

Better than I thought/worse than I thought

As my previous post suggests, I'm knee-deep in academic dishonesty paperwork. But in the course of chasing down one apparent case of plagiarism, I made a new and possibly more horrible discovery.

Without going into the specifics, let me present a roughly analogous fictitious example. Let's pretend that I'm teaching a 20th-century American novel, and I get a pretty good essay with one entirely gratuitous paragraph claiming that some event in Chapter Five is an allusion to the French and Indian War.

This strikes me as mildly odd: it's not impossible that there's an allusion to the French and Indian War--I can see what the student is talking about--but there's no reason why there should be; it doesn't add any layer of meaning to the scene or to the novel as a whole. Moreover, it's a little weird that a student should make this particular observation (I mean, the French and Indian War? The average undergrad doesn't know squat about that).

So I run a few checks, and bang! There that claim is, in SparkNotes--a whole stupid argument about this stupid supposed allusion (which I'm now even less convinced by). The student hasn't taken anything verbatim, and nothing else about the essay seems suspicious--but come on: The French and Indian War! A twentieth-century novel! It can't be a coincidence.

I haul the kid in, and he's surprised and terrified. The student stammers out that he loves this novel, and read it in high school, at the same time that he was taking a class in Early American history. He remembers this allusion, because he thought it was so neat, the first time he read the book, to know what his English teacher meant when she referenced the French and Indian War--because he'd just studied that in history class.


Got it.

His high school teacher was cribbing from SparkNotes.

Imagonna bang my head against a wall for a while now.


i said...

Man. It's hard to know whether to laugh or to cry. Then I remember that even a few years in, the high school teacher might actually have been my/your student. A B or C student to boot, but one who passed, got their ed certification (which I'm starting to believe has to do with breathing at a regular pace) and passed on their "research skills" to the next generation.

Yeah, I think it's a case for crying.

Servetus said...

I'm sure this happens more than people realize. In my case it was 1986 and my English teacher was talking about Fahrenheit 451. About a week into reading the book, someone in the class got the Cliff Notes and what she was taken in some cases *verbatim* from the text.

Talk about delegitimation. Of course it got out. The class was really cruel to her. I bet / hope she never did that again.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I hate to stereotype, but when I think about some of the ed majors I've known, I am SO not surprised.

Bardiac said...

On the other hand, I've certainly taken things out of those MLA how to teach this or that text, books.

And we all take things we've learned elsewhere and pass them on, don't we? The **notes stuff may be less useful than other resources, but there they are.

Rose said...

One of my colleagues--a tenured professor--introduced an eminent visiting lecturer by giving verbatim the wikipedia article on that person.

Flavia said...


The issue isn't unoriginality; we all borrow lesson plans and ideas from elsewhere. The issue is lame-ass BULLSHIT ideas, and watered-down lame-ass bullshit at that.

As I tell my students: SparkNotes are written, at best, by 25-year-old, second-year grad students for beer money. They aren't vetted and they aren't reliable.

What horrifies me is the idea that my students are getting second-hand SparkNotes bullshit. Bad enough to be getting it first-hand. But second-hand??

i said...

Right on, Flavia. I wanted to post earlier -- it's not the job of high school profs to create new knowledge, for each and every class. Their job is just to teach it. And often, that's our job too. There is no such thing as originality in teaching. But if you're teaching twice-digested crap... yeah, that's bad. At least steal some good ideas.

Flavia said...

Servetus & Rose:

Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy oh boy.


Students can't major in education in my state, and thank goodness--at my previous employer, in a different state, students could. And the vast majority of the ed majors I taught were Not Strong.

But I still teach a lot of students who are pursuing teaching certification and who vary widely in ability; many, I'm delighted to think that I'm preparing to teach in my community. But sometimes I do pause to wonder how what I'm teaching them about, say, Shakespeare, will get garbled and reappropriated when they teach THEIR students (and then what damage I'll have to undo when I get those students eventually myself...).

Best not to reflect too deeply on that one.

Bardiac said...

Good point, Flavia.

And yes, we all see garbled stuff come back on exams, who knows what comes out four or fiveyears later!