A few years ago I decide it was time to compile all the ‘howlers’ I was encountering during my usual descent into the despair of essay marking. This activity was rather like being a gold miner a kilometre underground, except any gold I found down there I got to keep myself. I had enough for a great three pages of hilarity (sometimes you have to contextualise the howlers and sadly, while you’re doing that you do start to realise that whatever you’re expecting your students to have down pat, you couldn’t expect even your close friends to have a clue about - and so some of the funniest stuff wasn’t quite as funny as it seemed and you also end up slightly admiring your students for half-way understanding what you had trouble explaining in brief). I had my three pages, and I sent them out to a few close friends, realised how unethical it was, panicked, followed up with an imploring email to destroy the evidence, and feared for quite some time after that somehow something would get out and somewhere along the six degrees of separation a student was going to recognise their own awful work and shoot me down from a high tower or something.
It is unethical to poke fun at your students’ bad English and I was wrong to do it, but it’s very hard not to, particularly after the fiftieth essay that spells ‘where’, ‘were’ (or ‘where’, ‘were’), the interminably ghastly use of ‘intern’ (or ‘inturn’) for ‘in turn’; and so on. It’s the cumulative effect, really, which of course the students themselves can have no knowledge of, so it’s hardly fair on them. (This paragraph would be much more entertaining had I been unethical enough to fill it with recent examples of bizarre claims from the essays I’ve just finished marking, but you’ll just have to take my word for it).
The general gripes about arts students have remained the same all the time I’ve been teaching in the tertiary field, and it’s hard to separate the eternal gripes (an earthropologist from Alpha Centauri would use a special machine to understand what the academics are really complaining about, eg ‘They’re young! So young! We’re old! How can it be!’) from the genuine indicators of future decline of literacy, language etc. However, if I may I’ll just put forward a few personal observations that I think do have ramifications for the future, even though I’ll probably end up tempering them to death…
It’s certainly true that most students don’t want to read, and won’t, if they can possibly get out of it Of course, there are the exceptions who you practically want to rescue from their gruesome cohort lest they be tainted, but in the main it’s true. Students don’t read the papers - I mean, I have intelligent close friends who don’t read the papers too, because they believe it’s all propaganda after a fashion, and I can relate to that idea although I do read at least one newspaper every day because of my addict’s notion that it’s not affecting me, I just want to know what everyone else is being told. But these kids (hah! When I was 18 or 19 there was nothing worse than being called a kid!) not only don’t read the papers, they believe everything they hear or see from any other media source. That said, when I was 18 or 19 I didn’t read the papers much and I wasn’t really that au fait with political process, etc. I felt very disconnected from democracy, too. It was all stuff being done to me and others by those in charge.
Presumably because students don’t read, they get all their language from what they hear, so they end up mangling the written language Every semester, a new range of misspellings flow through the system like a virus. The abovementioned where/were has been very prevalent in the last 18 months (but before that, I don’t remember it at all, except perhaps in isolated instances). Whether/weather is another one. Intern/in turn is one of those ridiculous ones that really gets my back up, particularly I suppose because most Australian students would not know what an intern was (or would not use the word that often, anyway), though that actually should be more of an excuse for this misuse than a condemnation in itself. Another oddity I have encountered for the first time I remember in recent months is ‘predominately’ for ‘predominantly’. You’d be surprised - I was - how often students actually want to use the word ‘predominantly’. And how often they are unable to.
Plagiarism is still where it’s at At the beginning of every semester I want to tell the students that if they plagiarise they’ll get caught. Every time I get scared and don’t tell them because I fear hoots of derisive laughter because no doubt they’ve all dunnit and they all know someone who didn’t do a jot of work themselves their entire university career and the teecherz were too dumb to find out (note my middle class middle aged fears rising in my deliberate misspellings). On the other hand, it does seem to be true that it takes at least as much skill to plagiarise properly as it does to write something original. More likely plagiarists get through because they’re squeaky wheels and the poor lecturer/tutor/assessor just wants to get his/her marking done (and in many cases, get the money for the marking) and lets junk through that a more idealistic educator might not. That said - just like they used to say crooks want to be caught - a lot of plagiarists seem to be begging to be nabbed, particularly when they hijack large slabs of text from the internet but don’t bother to reformat it. (My favourite, long enough ago to be usable I guess, was an essay that ended along the lines of ‘that is why we’re standing here today to honour the memory of…’ i.e. the student had ripped paragraphs from the transcript of a speech and not bothered to read it before printing it out).
I do have a couple of plagiarism cases going on right now which I can’t discuss, I suppose.
Is all of the above really a problem? I think the rise of email in the last 10 years has done a lot if not for literacy exactly at least for the continuation of written expression (this from the person who first heard of email via that Dean Kiley novel!) There are tons of other examples of similar new media that no doubt have equal validity in this regard. Perhaps it’s the system of assessment that’s the problem (I have found, for the first time and I’ve only recently started to wonder if it’s indicative of a more wide-ranging development, that the most articulate and interesting students in class are often handing in seriously poor essays). All of the above is probably too broad and partial to be anything other than interesting, really. And of course if we go back fifty years we’ll find educators up in arms about slack standards, and to some extent the kids (sorry kids) have always used their wits to get around the pointless rules and regulations.
One terrific thing about the whole shebang is I’m not teaching again for at least 8 months or so, if not longer. I look forward to investigating what crazy misspellings they’re on next time I mark an essay.
Cross posted with Sarsaparilla