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!”

We laughed.

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.”

“What happened?”

“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?”


“Why not?”

“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.

“Yeah, O.K.”

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?”

“Which part?”

“That she made the whole thing up!”

“She what?”

“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.

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Chicago State tries to shut down faculty blog

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University tells professors to shut down website (which is critical of the administration) because it is uncivil and uses institution's name. They respond by changing name to "Crony State University Faculty Blog."

Essay on what's missing in discussion of the humanities

Over the last year there has been a steady stream of articles about the “crisis in the humanities,” fostering a sense that students are stampeding from liberal education toward more vocationally oriented studies. In fact, the decline in humanities enrollments, as some have pointed out, is wildly overstated, and much of that decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the press is filled with tales about parents riding herd on their offspring lest they be attracted to literature or history rather than to courses that teach them to develop new apps for the next, smarter phone.

America has long been ambivalent about learning for its own sake, at times investing heavily in free inquiry and lifelong learning, and at other times worrying that we need more specialized training to be economically competitive. A century ago these worries were intense, and then, as now, pundits talked about a flight from the humanities toward the hard sciences.

Liberal education was a core American value in the first half of the 20th century, but a value under enormous pressure from demographic expansion and the development of more consistent public schooling. The increase in the population considering postsecondary education was dramatic. In 1910 only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; by 1940 it was 50 percent. For the great majority of those who went on to college, that education would be primarily vocational, whether in agriculture, business, or the mechanical arts. But even vocationally oriented programs usually included a liberal curriculum -- a curriculum that would provide an educational base on which one could continue to learn -- rather than just skills for the next job. Still, there were some then (as now) who worried that the lower classes were getting “too much education.”

Within the academy, between the World Wars, the sciences assumed greater and greater importance. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology did not seem to depend on the moral, political, or cultural education of the researchers – specialization seemed to trump broad humanistic learning. These discoveries had a powerful impact on industry, the military, and health care; they created jobs! Specialized scientific research at universities produced tangible results, and its methodologies – especially rigorous experimentation – could be exported to transform private industry and the public sphere. Science was seen to be racing into the future, and some questioned whether the traditional ideas of liberal learning were merely archaic vestiges of a mode of education that should be left behind.

In reaction to this ascendancy of the sciences, many literature departments reimagined themselves as realms of value and heightened subjectivity, as opposed to so-called value-free, objective work. These “new humanists” of the 1920s portrayed the study of literature as an antidote to the spiritual vacuum left by hyperspecialization. They saw the study of literature as leading to a greater appreciation of cultural significance and a personal search for meaning, and these notions quickly spilled over into other areas of humanistic study. Historians and philosophers emphasized the synthetic dimensions of their endeavors, pointing out how they were able to bring ideas and facts together to help students create meaning. And arts instruction was reimagined as part of the development of a student’s ability to explore great works that expressed the highest values of a civilization. Artists were brought to campuses to inspire students rather than to teach them the nuances of their craft. During this interwar period a liberal education surely included the sciences, but many educators insisted that it not be reduced to them. The critical development of values and meaning was a core function of education.

Thus, despite the pressures of social change and of the compelling results of specialized scientific research, there remained strong support for the notion that liberal education and learning for its own sake were essential for an educated citizenry. And rather than restrict a nonvocational education to established elites, many saw this broad teaching as a vehicle for ensuring commonality in a country of immigrants. Free inquiry would model basic democratic values, and young people would be socialized to American civil society by learning to think for themselves.

By the 1930s, an era in which ideological indoctrination and fanaticism were recognized as antithetical to American civil society, liberal education was acclaimed as key to the development of free citizens. Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany:

To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking.... The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don’t let any one do your thinking for you.

This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance.

In the interwar period the emphasis on science did not, in fact, lead to a rejection of broad humanistic education. Science was a facet of this education. Today, we must not let our embrace of STEM fields undermine our well-founded faith in the capacity of the humanities to help us resist “the straitjackets of conventional formulas.” Our independence, our freedom, has depended on not letting anyone else do our thinking for us. And that has demanded learning for its own sake; it has demanded a liberal education. It still does.

Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, will be published next year by Yale University Press. His Twitter handle is @mroth78

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Social media outlet sheds light on substandard teaching facilities

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Fed up with unanswered maintenance requests and substandard instructional facilities, some professors are taking a new approach: "shaming" their institutions into action.

Ex-Professor, Acquitted of Rape, Sues Wittenberg for Millions

A former professor of French at Wittenberg University in Ohio is suing the institution -- along with local police and media -- following his acquittal on rape and kidnapping charges in a case involving a developmentally disabled man, the Associated Press reported.

Hollant (Max) Adrien filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last week seeking reinstatement and $2 million in damages from Wittenberg, which fired him last year, before the case went to trial. In lieu of reinstatement, he's seeking $10 million. He's also seeking $50 million from local police and $110 million combined from six news outlets. A Wittenberg spokeswoman said via email that while the university doesn't comment on pending litigation, "we are confident that our institution was lawful and consistent in our policies and procedures in connection with Max Adrien."

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Academic Minute: Wound Care

In today’s Academic Minute, Joel Beam of the University of North Florida examines what the body of research says about the best method for treating wounds. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Essay suggests liberal arts training relates to skills

The liberal arts are dead, or — at best — dying. That's the theme of story after story in today’s news media.

Professional skills training is in. The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are in. Practical, vocational higher education is in. The liberal arts are out, relics of a “traditional” way of thinking that has been overtaken by the pressing demands of our dizzyingly complex digital age.

As new students arrived on college campuses this fall, the message many of them heard is that majoring in history, or English, or anthropology is a surefire recipe for a life of irrelevance and poor job prospects. These “conventional” disciplines cannot possibly train students for productive, enriching careers in the high-tech information age whose future is now.

Although this viewpoint is rapidly gaining the status of settled wisdom, it is tragically misguided. It is based on a false dichotomy, namely that the liberal arts and the more vocational, preprofessional, practical disciplines — like, say, computer science — are fundamentally different and opposed. But this misunderstands both the age we’re living in and the challenges we face, not to mention one of the most significant trends in higher education over the last few decades — the evolution of interdisciplinarity.

In essence, this whole debate comes down to skills. The liberal arts are often said by critics to provide little that is of “practical value” in the “real world.” In reality, though, liberal arts curriculums can and do give students skills that are just as professionally useful as those in more “relevant” occupationally specific fields of study.

At my university, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, students this fall can declare a new major called global studies, which integrates courses in 12 liberal arts departments — including economics, geography and environmental systems, history, media and communication studies, and political science — into a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum. Majors are required to study abroad and to achieve fluency in at least one foreign language. By graduation, they will have demonstrated their research, analytical, critical-thinking, and writing skills in a substantial, “capstone” research project. Our students will also do internships with companies, not-for-profits, and government agencies.

Equally important, they will develop “global competence,” which employers in many professions have identified as one of the most desirable, but grossly lacking, sets of skills required of their new employees. Broadly defined, global competence is “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.” Its central elements include knowledge of world affairs — cultural, economic, and political; proficiency in communicating with people in and from other societies, both verbally and in writing; the ability to appreciate multiple perspectives and respect cultural diversity; and the intellectual and psychological flexibility to adapt to unfamiliar and rapidly changing circumstances.

Developing the skills that we hope to instill in UMBC’s global studies majors is an inherently interdisciplinary mission. In a recent New York Times column, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis argues that the social sciences (a subset of the liberal arts) badly trail the natural sciences in generating innovative “institutional structures” that can produce the kind of cutting-edge science necessary for solving some of the world’s most intractable — often intrinsically interdisciplinary — problems. However, he also notes that this is beginning to change, for example, in the form of a new global affairs major at Yale.

Whether it’s global studies at UMBC or global affairs at Yale, these exciting new programs tangibly articulate why talking about liberal arts education versus practical training creates the false perception that these two enterprises are essentially at odds. At UMBC, it's the combination of interdisciplinary liberal arts education; substantial research, writing and analysis; rigorous foreign language training; study abroad; and experiential learning in the form of internships and other applied opportunities that will give students the skills they will need to thrive and “do good” in the 21st century.

The tragedy is that we might blow it. If we continue to present students with a false choice between the liberal arts and “real-world” vocational training, we will produce what social scientists like to call “suboptimal” outcomes. Too many talented, energetic, hard-working students will choose “safe” educational and career paths, and too many truly global problems will go unsolved.

Devin T. Hagerty is a professor of political science and director of global studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

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Essay on what academic job-seekers need on their websites


Eszter Hargittai and Brayden King share ideas about what should be there.

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Academic Minute: Technology of the Terminator

In today’s Academic Minute, Edwin Torres of Monmouth University explains why the technology for building a Terminator is on the rise. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


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Psy draws a crowd in the classroom

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More students are enrolling in Korean studies or language courses, spurred by interest in pop culture.



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