Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I think one of my students is going to fail the Shakespeare course. This is a new and upsetting experience; that is, of course I've flunked students before, but they have always been students who were actively complicit in their failure -- the ones who stopped coming to class, or didn't turn in assignments, or turned in a Wikipedia entry as their term paper and didn't even have the wit to claim they wrote it.

This student is legitimately trying. She's also woefully unprepared for an upper-level Shakespeare class and has no clue how to write an academic essay. She managed to scrape by with a D+ on the first paper, since she made a good-faith attempt to follow the guidelines. The second paper, which was supposed to be a summary and response to a critical article, was massively plagiarized, but it wasn't an Internet cut-and-paste job; it was the sort of plagiarism students commit when they don't really understand what they're reading and therefore haven't the foggiest idea how to paraphrase or summarize it. You know, "The author talks of how the subject is interpolated into a preconceptualist paradigm of reality. Also, he say that promotes the use of the posttextual paradigm of reality to deconstruct hierarchy."* That kind of plagiarism.

I highlighted the plagiarized passages on the first page, explained why it was a problem and told her that she would need to add quotation marks and citations or else paraphrase thoroughly, and advised her to focus on putting the parts of the essay she did understand into her own words and not to worry about trying to paraphrase stuff she didn't. And I gave her a week to rewrite for a maximum grade of C. (Honestly, I would be shocked if the final version earned a higher grade than C in any event.)

She said she wasn't very good at English, and the last time she'd taken a comp course was in 1992. Holy fuck. I don't know who advised her that taking an upper-level Shakespeare course would be a good idea. (She is a "general studies" major, which is Misnomer U.-speak for "this student started off in a preprofessional program but wasn't able to pass the qualifying exams; in theory, they are supposed to be taking a study skills seminar and getting some intensive advising, but it doesn't seem to be working in this case.)

I don't know if I did the right thing by giving her a second chance. I'm not sure there is a right thing to do in this situation (it is too late for her to drop the course now, and I don't think she would drop in any case because she said she needs another English course to graduate in December). On the one hand, this is very, very clearly not a student who intended to plagiarize, and we're meant to be educating students, not penalizing them for not already being educated, yes? On the other hand, it's just as clear that she hasn't come close to mastering the academic skills graduating seniors are expected to master, and almost certainly will not master them in the next few weeks. I'm putting this as if it were an academic problem, but of course it's a human one, too. It seems like a cruel cat-and-mouse game to lead a student on for almost two decades, taking her money and pretending to give her an education in return, and at last offering her a nearly meaningless degree. And yet it seems equally cruel to say no, you're not going to graduate after all, we know you tried your best but sometimes that's not good enough.

Ugh. I don't know what to do in situations like this.

* This is not an actual quotation from the essay; I made it up with a little help from the Postmodernism Generator. But you get the idea.


Susan said...

Can you talk to the advisor? Is it too late to drop the course?

Fretful Porpentine said...

It's too late to drop, and I've already counseled her to make an appointment with Academic Support (the closest thing we have to a writing center), so I'm not sure there's anything else the advisor can do, apart from maybe reiterating the message to go to Academic Support. Which might not be a bad idea, actually.

Sisyphus said...

:( What about running it by your chair? There's the not being able to pass *this* class as one problem, but it sounds like she's just getting her money taken from her again and again, which is the real problem.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sadly, this isn't an isolated case -- it's just the way the institution rolls, and there's not much my chair can do about it. Our funding is tied to the number of students enrolled, and the state has threatened severe cuts if that number doesn't grow by something like 40% over the next few years; the bar for admissions is set artificially low, also at the state level, especially for community college transfers; and the administration bends over backward to keep students enrolled, even when they clearly shouldn't be.

This student, at least, probably will end up with a degree. I had a student last spring who had been enrolled on and off since 1995, had joined the army and been sent to Iraq during one of the off periods, and returned too damaged to concentrate. I asked him if he'd been to Disability Services. He wasn't aware of where Disability Services WAS. He'd never heard of the building before. This happens to be the same building that houses Academic Advising & Support, so I guess he'd never been there either. He flunked the class spectacularly and ended up on academic suspension for the third time. It was horribly sad, and there's a student with a story like that almost every semester.

Bavardess said...

What an awful situation to be put in, both for you and for the student. It seems sadly symptomatic of the wholesale commercialisation of education and a pretty callous sort of 'buyer beware' mentality (i.e. if you end up in an advanced class that you obviously do not have the skills or preparation to pass despite your best efforts, it's your own problem). I hope Academic Support can help, but it sounds like an almost impossible amount of ground to make up in the time available.

hck said...

Assuming that this is about a student for an MA without a thesis that will be published: I'd tend to say: ignore some things and let her pass, and be quiet about it. If it can be done "absque scandalo": graduating her will benefit both her and your university.
Sticking to academic standards is no end in itself. If no damage ius done by not sticking to them: why stick to them?

Fretful Porpentine said...

HCK -- Bachelor's, not master's level (we do have a few master's programs, but there's no reason any of the students in them would ever take an English course). I see your point, but at the same time -- if we habitually graduate students who can't write clearly, can't read a college-level text, and can't do research, it weakens the value of the degree for the other students who can do these things.

hck said...

"if we habitually graduate students who can't write clearly, can't read a college-level text, and can't do research, it weakens the value of the degree for the other students who can do these things."
I agree completely.
But: IMO the important word in your sentence is "habitually":
if you shold have (and I assume that you don't have), if you should have a considerable number of students who can't write clearly, can't read a college-level text, and can't do research, even after they have studied at your university for quite some time: then either something is so wrong with your admissions procedures/requirements that should damage the reputation of your university considerably, or part of the training you provide for the students is that inefficient that endangers the reputation of your university too.
IMO this is about damage control. If it is about a single student (or one of extremely few): let her slip through. If it is about many students: being strict about your own requirements won't be enough to safeguard the value of the degree of the rest of your students.

I might be too cynic.

the rebel lettriste said...

This sucks. I am annoyed at Misnomer U. for taking this poor woman's money for so long, and for whatever crap advising allowed her into your advanced class.

I concur with the going to Academic Support, and also to the chair, to discuss.

And FWIW, when I taught at a similar institution, the issue was letting students take course overloads. As in, 6 courses at a time. While they worked full time. Often as strippers. They failed, and frequently. And it was awful, because it wasn't like they were slacking off in any way.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Ye gads, I hate situations like this. Good luck resolving it. I haven't had this situation before in Shakespeare, but I have in my writing classes. It's so different, though, because my writing students are usually first-year students and have lots of time to re-do whatever they screw up. Of course, the student could always withdraw with a "W" on his/her transcript. I did that as a senior in college, and it didn't stop me from going on for my masters and PhD. Is doing a "W" an option for him/her?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Fie -- No, withdrawing isn't an option, as it is now well past the drop date (and honestly, I doubt that she would be willing to withdraw in any case; she wants to graduate in December).

HCK -- Yes, this sort of thing definitely habitual on the institution's part; the general studies major wouldn't exist if it weren't.

hck said...

"Yes, this sort of thing definitely habitual on the institution's part"

Brrrrrrrr! Argh!
No idea how to cope with that.
Is is possible to get the chair's/dean's advice on how to deal with that student of yours?

(captcha is "pheat": seems fitting.)