Help From St. Louisans Needed!

N. always promised me that when he got a high-paying job, he would take me to a very good restaurant with the first paycheck. That paycheck is coming the day after tomorrow, people, and I need a good restaurant in St. Louis.

And by good I mean expensive. I deserve to be taken to the place for stinking rich folks for how good I’ve been during the harsh times of N.’s unemployment. He agrees and leaves the choice of restaurant entirely to me, as long as it isn’t Ethiopian. For some reason, he dislikes Ethiopian food, which I don’t understand.

I also hate noise, so it needs to be a quiet, romantic place. I’m too old to be around drunk adolescents or amidst huge boisterous crowds.

If anybody has any suggestions, I will be eternally grateful. Where do you go in St. Louis where you have some (somebody else’s) money to burn?

Is This Bullying?

So, the other night, Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment which compiled viewers’ video responses to his latest challenge for parents to pull holiday-related trickery on their children, after his “film your kids’ reaction after telling them you ate all their Halloween candy” segment went viral last month. This challenge was to wrap up some random garbage and give it to kids as an early Christmas present.

I find this entire thing really troubling, because pranks are a form of bullying even between peers, and a prank played by someone in a position of power, especially a parent pranking a child, is bullying that can fundamentally undermine trust.

Where some people see bullying and child abuse, I see over-entitled kids who are spoiled rotten. Getting hot dogs, juice, or a book as a Christmas gift is a huge tragedy for them. I can just imagine what they will grow up into. But oh, those poor kiddies who didn’t get a mountain of expensive toys and gadgets once in their lifetimes. They are total victims of horrible, mean parents.

We all know how sensitive I am about child abuse. But giving kids a book or a carton of eggs for Christmas is NOT abusive. It teaches them a very important lesson about entitlement.

I once saw this segment on television where grandparents gave their small grand-daughter $100 wrapped in a simple white handkerchief. The kid didn’t see the $100 bill but when she got the handkerchief her face lit up. She walked around the room, showing her gift to people and looking extremely happy about it. I don’t think there is any special attachment to handkerchiefs that this child has. She just managed to retain the kind of happy, joyous attitude to receiving any gift that all children have naturally. Of course, most of them lose it because they are showered with endless expensive gifts they no longer even manage to value for more than two minutes.

These kids are old enough to know that you do not throw tantrums no matter how much you dislike any gift you have been given. Where are their manners? Where is at least a glimmer of understanding that you should not hurt the feelings of a gift-giver even if s/he failed to please you with the gift?

The Attitude Towards Responsibility Among Progressives and Conservatives

People of the Liberal persuasion seem to embrace the idea that human beings are not capable of messing up, making mistakes, or being irresponsible, lazy, and plain stupid. Any misfortune one encounters has to be the result of some hidden oppressive forces.

Once I was talking to one of the organizers of my union about a large group of people who had failed their comprehensives. The organizer’s position was that these people had been failed unjustly by the profs who wanted to punish them for being politically active on campus.

“But isn’t it possible that at least some of our colleagues simply hadn’t prepared well enough for the comps and were failed fairly?” I asked. (I had very specific reasons to know that this was the case, to be honest.)

The progressive union organizer was incensed. He screamed, “How dare you speak like that of your comrades? If you passed your comprehensives it was only because that year the activism on campus was low and the profs didn’t have a reason to castigate you!”

And he stormed out on me.

To be fair, the organizer later called me to apologize. Still, this attitude that every failure (and, consequently, every success) belong not to the person experiencing them but to a combination of oppressive forces and good or bad luck is very common among my fellow Liberals. Recently, when I shared the story of N.’s hard work and professional success, some progressive readers immediately started suggesting that he was lucky while other people were less fortunate, even though they might have tried to succeed just as hard.

The Conservative readers, however, simply expressed their admiration and congratulated N. with his success.

There is, of course, a flip side to the Conservative readiness to recognize individual success. Within the Conservative worldview, you are responsible for all of your failures, too. They have very little interest in analyzing the oppressions and the individual circumstances that might have prevented one from succeeding.

I have to say that I prefer to analyze my own life based on this Conservative approach. Whenever things don’t work out or I don’t find myself in a situation I like, this is a sign to me of some sort of a personal failure. We all know how much I hate this impotent, “Society makes me do bad things / feel inferior / have psychological issues.” All of my mistakes and issues are fully my own. And so, of course, are my successes. This is why you will never catch me talking about how I am being marginalized and persecuted by some unidentified source. There is always an active agent of any oppression and a consenting victim who reaps some reward from being oppressed. And if I am being consistently oppressed, this means I am consenting to that because it serves some purposes of my own.

In this sense, I am a Conservative. But only in this sense, though. On social issues, I’m so far to the Left that I don’t think anybody who reads this blog can catch up with me. This is why I can never feel fully at home either among Liberals or among Conservatives.

Battling Plagiarism

I graded 66 final essays last week. And do you know how many of them were plagiarized? Zero. Not a single one. Given that the first time I taught this course, over 20% of essays were plagiarized, this is a huge achievement. And that achievement is all mine.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the essays were necessarily good. A minority of the students worked hard, improved their writing, and produced brilliant essays. Many, however, were very bad. Several were plain atrocious. But they were the students’ own work in every single case. And that makes me very happy.

What I discovered is that all the software that is supposed to catch plagiarized essays is a total waste of time. Turnitin and Co are useless, so just forget about them. Students keep coming up with ways to cheat Turnitin and render it useless. For example, they substitute some of the characters in the essay with characters from other languages, which makes Turnitin pass them as original. You can’t distinguish a Cyrillic a from a Latin a visually, so there you have it. My advice is: forget about software. It’s useless.

The only way to get students to write their own stuff is by investing a lot of time and effort into it. Here is what I do to battle plagiarism:

1. I always come up with topics for the essays that will force students to think. I Google my topics before assigning them to make sure that online searches will render nothing to my students that even remotely sounds like the topic I assign.

2. I give a list of very specific requirements for the essay. The elements that should be included and excluded, the length of quotes from the texts we analyze, the way the first, second and last paragraphs should be, etc. If there is a single generalization or a dictionary definition, the grade drops. You lose points every time you fail to complete one of the requirements. Students can’t help but find that it’s easier to write their own paper than to redo the one they bought somewhere to fit my specifications.

3. I get the students to create a thesis statement for the essay and submit it to me a month before the due date for the paper. Then, they submit the entire first paragraph two weeks before the due date. I give them a buttload of comments on these exercises and if the final version they submit doesn’t take these suggestions into consideration and doesn’t demonstrate significant changes, I refuse to grade the essay.

With 66 students, this means a ton of work for me. I have decided that teaching them to read critically and to write well is a huge teaching priority for me. That’s why I don’t begrudge the time for this. if this is not a priority for you, that’s fine. Just do us all a favor and stop assigning essays altogether. It is very annoying to see students do a half-assed job on an essay because other profs didn’t take it seriously and allowed this kind of crap to slide.

4. I use the essay format to teach students to be meticulous, careful, and to listen to instructions. Their name, my name, the course number and the date go in the top left-hand corner of the paper. If they place this info in the right-hand corner, I lower the grade. The title is not underlined, bold-typed or cutesified in any way. If it is, I lower the grade. If there is a cover page of any sort, I refuse to accept the essay.

These measures might sound draconian, but they serve a useful purpose. You will not succeed in any workplace if you can’t listen and follow simple instructions.

5. I give a huge number of comments on each essay. On over 10 essays this semester, I gave 80+ comments for 4-5 pages of text students produced. People tell me that it’s a waste of time because students don’t read the comments and just skip to the grade. I couldn’t care less, to be honest. I’m doing my job by reading and commenting their work very carefully. Nobody forced me to assign the essay. I made that choice and now I live with the consequences. The same goes for the students. If I see that they disregarded my comments to the first essay and made the same mistakes on the second one, the grade drops significantly. If, for example, I wrote on the first essay that the student needs to remove all the “actuallys” and “basicallys” from the essay and the final essay still contains them, the penalties are harsh.

6. I always remind students that if I see a single plagiarized sentence, just a single one, I stop reading and give them a zero, irrespective of how fantastic and original the rest of the essay might be.

The idea of shifting the burden of doing all this onto software or paid graders is understandable. I’m exhausted from all this grading and my own writing style has suffered from reading so much garbage. (You don’t have to tell me that my recent posts are poorly written. I know they are. This is the price I pay for being a responsible teacher). But the truth is that nobody will do this work for us. There is no software in the world that can substitute the continuous dialogue about writing between a student and a teacher.