Betrayal and plagiarism: on falling in love with students
Through Inside Higher Ed, I found this post: Loving the Liars, by Ryan Claycomb, a professor at West Virginia University. He and I and countless other profs are dealing with the influx of finals and term papers this time of year, and we're also dealing with the ancient bugbear of plagiarism.
Ryan writes of one of his early experiences with confronting a young fellow who had lifted his final paper entirely from the Washington Post.
When I figured it out I was so angry--furious--that all afternoon long I was literally seeing red around the edges of my vision, my face was flushed, I couldn't sleep that night.
When I confronted him, long after I had gotten my emotional response in check, he wept like a chil... and still, I thought, "Man, is seeing him cry making up for the anger I felt? That would make me a horrible person." But I just couldn't figure out why it had made me just so mad--it had completely ruined my day. It ruined his, too, but HE did something to deserve it.
You know, we are often reminded by our students how much power we have over them, but we really do give so much back to them--we lay our hearts in their little fingers every time we assign a paper, and have them broken dozens of tiny ways, and mended in another dozen.
For God's sake, we didn't go into this for the money. We went into it because we love it--we love the material, and at our best we love them--maybe not individually, but collectively. And sometimes, just like all the people we love do, they betray us, in little ways and big ways.
My point is, the moment I stop feeling just a little betrayed by my students is a scary one for me. Maybe that's not a bad thing for many people, but for me, and I suspect for others, too, it's a moment I dread, because then it might become just a job, and I never wanted just a job.
In the hypercritical field we're in, it's really very hard to talk about something so unrigorous as love--for the books we read; for the time we spend in front of the classroom; for the stupid little crushes we get on students with bright ideas, and with potential; for the silly idealism of it all. It's important for me to remember, right now especially, as papers pile up, as cribbed papers slide across my desk, as identical wrong answers appear on consecutive quizzes. And I want to tell my students, yes, dammit, it makes me mad. It makes me mad because unrequited love always makes us mad.
(The bold emphases are mine.) I read this last night, and wanted to call Ryan up on the phone and cry "My brother! You get it!" Claycomb nails perfectly exactly why it is that I still get so upset when students plagiarize and cheat. Even after a dozen years and close to ten thousand students, I still find myself deeply invested in the work they do and the possibility of witnessing their growth and transformation.
If I can trust my teaching evaluations (not the ones at the uncontrolled online sites, but the in-class ones), I'm a pretty good professor. And I don't doubt for a second that there is a direct correlation between my love for my students and my success as an instructor. I teach four classes spread over seven different sections. This fall I've got three sections of ancient history, which means I give the same lecture three times a week. No matter how passionate I am about the subject, I will get bored and frustrated if I focus on the fact that I'm delivering the same information thrice weekly. What turns me on is the certainty that each class is hearing this information for the very first time.
When I lecture, I pace back and forth, making eye contact. I try to focus on my students as people (it becomes easier as their faces become more familiar). It may be my 326th time lecturing about Constantine, but it's the first time -- and probably the only time -- that Maria, or Soon, or Armen, or Mike, or Cynthia will hear this information. That thought excites me every time, week after week, semester after semester. Thus the only way I can be even remotely effective as a teacher is to personalize the relationship I have with my students. I'm focused less on my own delivery and more on my students' reception, and if I didn't have intense feelings about my students I wouldn't be able to do that.
Beneath Ryan's post, there's a rather snarky comment from a Mike Lee, who teaches Electromagnetics at Kent State. Mike writes:
We are educators, not parents. We have classes, not families. We are paid to educate, not sit and decide what students "deserve". Maybe you never "just wanted a job", but the students who are in your classes and the university that hired you did not have that in their contract. You do not get to add your morality and emotional responses to the job.
Perhaps this is the difference between someone who teaches electromagnetics and those of us who teach English (as Ryan does) or history! No, we are not parents. But I hate the word "educator", and never use it. It should only be employed by administrators and union hacks, not by real teachers. I can't quite articulate it properly, but the word "educator" is a "distancing" word -- there's a cold, clinical tone to it that seems utterly at odds with what it is that we're supposed to be doing.
I'll be honest: the teaching style that works for me is modeled on seduction. Not the sexual seduction of individual students, but the emotional and intellectual seduction of a group. I walk into my class meeting of the semester confident that a great many of my students don't care about the subject they've signed up for. They just want their grade and their units and they want to do as little work as possible. My job is not to convey information -- that's what textbooks are for! My job is to seduce the students into taking a genuine interest. I want to arouse passion, not for the teacher but for the subject. I want them to become fascinated with what they once considered dull; I want them to be turned on by what they once considered deathly and alienating. In order to do this work and do it well, I need of course to care about history itself -- but I've got to, just like Ryan, care with great intensity about my students.
We use the same word "cheating" to describe both adultery and plagiarism. Frankly, Ryan's post reminds me that we are right to do so. My students and I are in relationship together. Like all relationships, it has rules, both spoken and unspoken. It has expectations and hopes. It has its little compromises and little bargains (I'll let them out early in return for a good overall class score on a test). It also has its little betrayals. Like so many relationships, especially in high school and college, it is sometimes one-sided. Sometimes (not so often now that I'm older), students get crushes on me that I can't and won't reciprocate. Far more often, I try and try to motivate a student to get the work done, take an interest in the course -- and I fail. I don't fall to pieces when this happens, but I do feel a little twinge, even now, of real disappointment. And sometimes, the great betrayal comes: I'm cheated on in the form of plagiarism.
Like Ryan Claycomb, I still respond to plagiarism the same way a betrayed spouse responds to infidelity. Disbelief, followed by rage, followed by a nagging sense that it might all have been my fault! I ask the same sorts of questions: Was I unclear about what the boundaries were? Should I give the student another chance? I have no problem giving failing grades to those who cheat, just as I have no problem justifying terminating a relationship based upon adultery. But the fact that I can move to a swift and just punishment does not mean that I am not personally affected by the betrayals.
I am in love with one woman. But I fall in love with my students, collectively, over and over and over again, semester after semester after semester. I grow older and older each year, and they, for the most part, stay forever youthful. Where once I was but five years older than my average student, today I am old enough to be their father. The nature of the love I feel has changed a bit over time, the way all relationships change and grow as we age and mature. I'm more patient; I'm a heck of a lot less insecure. But I still love them, just as I love Clio whom I serve, and the day I take that intense emotional urgency out of my teaching is the day I will cease to be a useful professor.
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