Essay about an experience with a writing assignment that didn't go according to plan
How many weeks does it take to get over a bad semester? Is it like the end of a bad relationship? Too painful to talk about except with one’s closest friend… or with a complete stranger?
You are my stranger.
Kari (I should use her real name but I won’t) had trouble with writing grammatically; she had trouble with phonetics, even. When she typed, she couldn’t see the difference between building and blinding.
When she read her work aloud, she didn’t seem to understand what she herself was saying. As far as she let on, in our office conferences (that I called her in for), she was not in need of our college’s excellent Access-Ability program, though I think she was and I tried to suggest it could be useful for her to find out.
She had never had problems with her writing before, she said. She had always earned Bs in English.
Why did she want to be a journalist, I asked. Yes, she was a journalism student in the last journalism course I will ever teach.
I’m hemming and hawing, because I don’t want to get to the story.
The story is that I was going to fail Kari, even though she tried. I was going to fail Kari because she was a journalism major and she did not have a grasp of writing in English. She had lived in America for 10 years and she was 21. In my experience with first-generation students, those who arrive before age 16 adapt to English very quickly. Kari didn’t have much of an accent; she had grown up in… let’s call it Asia. She lived in Queens -- with two other large families in one house. Her family had the basement apartment, and in the summer all three families liked to hang out in it because it was cooler there. She wrote a “personal” piece about that living arrangement. It was not as clear as I’ve summarized it. I thought that the students should hear and read aloud their own articles; some were terrific, some were bad. When Kari read her piece aloud, she continually stumbled and had long squinting pauses wherein she seemed to be trying to decipher hieroglyphics.
She was, on the other hand, as she claimed, a good listener -- to her fellow students and to guests. She asked visiting writers O.K. questions. The children with learning disabilities that I used to work with had clear and vibrant strengths that sometimes masked their dysfunctions. But in a journalism class, Kari’s dysfunctions were loud and clear almost every day.
I was going to fail her. To my shame or pride (your choice) I had never flunked a student who tried and did all the work. Kari tried and she did most of the work, much more than many of her could-be competent classmates. I appreciated that she attended regularly and was polite and pleasant. I liked her; but she was illiterate. She was not illiterate in that mean way we say when we talk about our distracted students; she was functionally illiterate in the way that someone can be legally blind; she had various perception gaps and fogginesses.
So I was going to flunk Kari, but then, toward the end of the semester, I went to one of my old standby assignments, the observation of a public space. I write down simple emphatic instructions and hand them out; I read the instructions aloud and ask for questions. They say, “I get it, I get it!” And usually they do.
Each student plants herself in a spot that is public to any member of the college community. She only has the class hour to go find the spot and sit herself there and start writing down everything and anything she hears, sees, smells. Objective. She isn’t to stop writing. Usually students like this; they realize they are taking in so many details they usually overlook. They catch actual language. Their hands get tired. I love the assignment. We did that and the next day reviewed our work. Kari’s illiteracy did not get in the way of her ability to accumulate details. It was a fine observation really. It was ungrammatical, but I understood it. Her language seemed at the level of some of my weaker developmental reading and writing students.
A week later, I had them repeat the assignment.
The next meeting I asked them to write about and then talk about the differences between their two observations. One of the students mentioned feeling self-conscious, because someone came up to her and asked her what she was doing. She took down the whole conversation, including, “Hey! You’re writing down what I’m saying!”
Another student, whose dial was always set on “Complaint,” said she felt creepy watching people. I pointed out again that there are cameras everywhere we go; we are continually photographed, filmed and electronically identified by nameless organizations; whereas in this modest assignment, we are only individuals looking at other people.
“That’s stalking, pofessa!”
“When did people-watching become stalking?”
Kari raised her hand. “Professor, I got looked at too.”
“I was sitting there at the Starbucks and I was writing… and this psychology professor -- I heard someone call to her and say, ‘You’re my psychology professor,’ and that’s how I knew that detail, professor -- ”
“And she kept walking around me and trying to look at my paper. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t do nothing and I just kept writing like you said and she kept coming over and then she went to the doors near the fishes, the fish tanks, and made a phone call on her cell phone -- I wrote that down -- and like a few minutes later a police car came up to the outside doors and the security guys got out and she went to them, and I saw her point at me.”
“And they came by and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and they made me give them my purse and my notes.”
“Oh, my god!”
“See, Professor!” said Complainer. “You got one of us arrested!”
“Then what happened?”
Kari told us they told her to follow them to the security office and then she got interrogated there about why she was writing about the arrangement of chairs and how many people were in line at the coffee stand and who told her to do this? …
“You told them who! You showed them my instructions, right?”
“I wanted to see what would happen.”
I realized at that moment: So, I’m not going to flunk Kari.
I was astounded by her description of the actions of the campus police and I was delighted with Kari. She was after all a journalist! She couldn’t write, of course, but she was a journalist at heart. I would pass her.
“So what happened?”
She explained to them she was just writing, that it wasn’t their or anybody else’s business.
“You’re making people really paranoid,” the interrogating officer told her.
And they let her go.
“That’s incredible!” I said. I regretted the assignment now, even though it had brought out Kari’s latent journalistic skills; arrested! That was unbelievable! It was a violation of civil rights! Of freedom of speech!
The students were taunting me, “See, see! Your assignments be getting us in trouble!”
I tried to justify it again. “But nothing really happened, finally -- except I’m going to go see the security people.”
“No,” said Kari. “That’s O.K. I still want to see what happens. You can just give me a note that I’m a student in your class so I can get my purse and my ID card back.”
It was just a few weeks after the Boston Marathon tragedy and the officers at our entry-gates were being careful about identification checks again. She needed her card.
I wrote her the note and said, “You sure you don’t want me to go with you to Security? I want to go. I’m really upset about this.”
“No, no. I can handle it. It’s my story, right?” She flashed her big eyes at me and nodded, begging me.
But I was uneasy.
Later that afternoon I went to a meeting and mentioned to a colleague what happened to Kari and she made me repeat the details about the psychology professor ratting out the student; she said the arrest was outrageous and I agreed. “What are you going to do, Bob?”
“I don’t know yet.” Why did I hesitate? Why didn’t I march over to the security office?
After the meeting, I went to my department mailbox and Kari had left her notes from the observation as well as the last draft of her last article.
What was I going to do?
On the subway home I read her observation notes and got even more outraged at the security officers -- and even more unsettled with myself for not having already confronted them about it. I started reading her article. It was not her article. Every sentence was grammatical. It seemed to be not one but two professional articles stitched together (which I discovered later it was).
All right, she’d get an F.
But meanwhile, her rights had been violated. I couldn’t let that go.
The next day at school, when I asked Kari to see me at the end of class, she came up and I told her I was about to go to the security office. She asked me to please not to; it was her story.
“Yes, that one is,” I agreed. I opened my folder and pulled out her three pages of plagiarism. “But this is not your article.”
“Yes, it is. I gave it to you.”
“But you didn’t write it.”
“I made it.”
“You made it?”
“I researched it. You said to use research.”
“This is not research. This is two articles from the Internet you’ve put together.”
“I put it together. I wrote it.”
“You didn’t write it.”
“The tutor helped me.”
“This is plagiarism, Kari.”
“You didn’t write these words and yet at the top of the page you write, ‘By Kari M --.’”
“Yeah,” she sighed, “I see your point.” She nodded. Meeting my eyes, she said, “O.K., so I’m going to fail now?”
“Yes. But I still want to get to the bottom of your run-in with security.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“It matters to me.”
But I didn’t go to the security office. I ran into a senior colleague, a former journalist, and told him about Kari’s arrest. I knew by his puzzlement that he thought I should have already gone to security. This was an important matter.
And yet… that plagiarism.
Instead of walking to the security office after my last class of the day, I walked to the subway and sifted the situation through my head: “I’m going to go to the defense of a plagiarizing student …” (she had plagiarized her first article too; I might’ve thought of that earlier, but when it happened, she had convinced me she had only been confused about using sources) “…a double-plagiarizing student who is illiterate and whom I’m going to fail.”
The next day, a non-teaching day that I spent at home, my conscience gnawing at me, my cowardice sitting up straight at my computer, I wrote an angry email to the security director. I should say -- I have to say -- at the last second I cc’ed the dean of the college on it. (I wanted action, Jackson!) The security director responded immediately by email, thanking me for bringing the matter to his attention and saying he would investigate and get back to me as soon as possible.
Two days passed. I let the weekend go by and on Monday morning when I showed up in the department office, my chair greeted me, shaking her head. “Your student? -- Unbelievable, huh?”
“That she made the whole thing up!”
“You didn’t hear? From the security director? He was pretty upset at you too.”
“She just wanted not to fail, so she made it up.”
I was blinking in disbelief.
“She confessed, Bob!”
Let me confess, at first I thought that explanation was too simple, that Kari must’ve been bullied into saying she had lied... and lied... and lied. Oh, yeah.
I winced, retreated to my office with my tail between my legs and emailed an apology to the security director and the dean.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.