Okay. You know how I was all mellow and feel-good yesterday? Well, fuck that noise.
So, today I go to work to mark the finals for this semester. Let me explain the whole final scenario. Because in this class, one of the skills that I work hard to hammer into students’ heads (think: HULK, SMASH) is critical reading and analysis of other people’s arguments, half of the exam involves requiring them to write an analysis of a reading.
Now, in my day, English exams were leisurely 3-and-a-half-hour affairs that came with what the powers that be were pleased to call “reading time”; which was time between entering the exam room (or rather, “sparrow-infested warehouse,” which is what it was, complete with wobbly desks which the white-coated invigilators would futilely attempt to stablise with little wodges of cardboard they carried in their pockets, and the occasional drop of bird shit on your blue book. One guy I knew just circled the shit and moved on: “as a comment,” he later said) and the time, 30 minutes later, you were allowed to pick up a pen and attempt to write a “very interesting essay on Jane Eyre” or similar. Reading time in literature exams was meant to give you time to find relevant passages, presumably, and you were allowed to write on the question paper during this time, make notes or a plan, get out all your lucky talismans, enjoy a spot of bird-watching, or like my friend Lulu did, read novels as a sure-fire but undetectable way of failing your law exams so that you could say to your QC father, “I tried, I really did.” But I digress.
The modern North American examination contains no such foofery. In and out in 2 hours, in actual heated classrooms, not a sparrow to be seen, wham, bam, thank you ma’am. In such an environment, then, the only reasonable and fair thing to do is to give the essay about which the critique is to be written prior to the exam, which tradition decrees is done in the last class of the semester. It consisted a photocopy of a two-page essay from a book, which cunningly fitted on one side of a piece of paper. The back, I left pristinely white. Sometimes, when I am feeling frisky, I put a lolcat on the back, which both discourages attempts to write on it, and shows me as endearingly hip. This time, I did not.
When I gave out these essays, I offered a series of dead duck style instructions to students. “You may make a few marginal notes, underlinings or highlights on the text. No writing on the back. I don’t want any question that you are trying to sneak a draft of an essay into the exam.” Astute readers will begin to suspect where this is going. All students are law students when it comes to exam instructions, so I also fielded a few questions about “how many words can we write?” to which I responded “a few notes; use your common sense.” The spirit of the law here being that the essay must be composed under exam conditions. This has never been a problem previously, I just want to state for the record. Previous classes of students, hundreds of them, have understood the guidelines perfectly well.
So, exam day comes and goes, and as I mentioned I sat and knit, and did a couple of turns of the room, during which time I confiscated the printed essay of one student who had written out her essay on the back of the paper. I gave her a clean copy, and let the “I didn’t know” go, although, COME ON. At the end of exams, I collected up the answer books, the question papers, and the copies of the essays the students had brought in. Mainly for recycling purposes, little did I know.
So, today, I am marking, and I come across one photocopy which has an essay, written in what must be 6 point font, cut into strips and pasted in the margins, header and footer of the original. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT. I leaf through the exam booklets, and sure enough, there is one that reproduces said masterpiece of cutting and pasting, word for word. This is not an accident by someone who made an error. This is a clear case of sneakery, because when you are doing a turn about the room and checking whether the students are obviously cheating by bringing in essays they intend to copy out, this one does not look significantly different. You have to get close enough to read 6 point (which in my case is very close indeed) to see what is going on.
Well. In cases like these, I am glad to have a Chair, especially one who happened to be in his office, which office also contained lollipops. “This is certainly ingenious,” he said, with a kind of horrified admiration. We discussed whether the entire essay had, indeed been pasted on and then copied out, which it had, and that I had sanctioned notes but not teeny tiny essays, which I had. “I think you have to call it cheating and give it an F,” he said, still kind of bewildered by the front of it. So, I went back to my office, and took out my feelings by giving the student in question a zero for her efforts.
Then I read the second part of her exam which was an essay on, of all things, her ideas about academic integrity. For srs. I gave that one a bad mark for being a pack of lies, and then further took out my feelings by kicking her participation mark in the taco. I expect a butthurt email about her astonishingly low grade any moment.
Okay. Well, that was unpleasant, but at least it was over, and I got back to grading the rest. Except. There’s another one. Who, instead of the high-tech 6 point and paste tactic, had chosen a more primitive “write incredibly tiny in very pale pencil” strategy. Points for penmanship, sure, but another big fat zero.
I feel violated. I mean, this was a class where students were doing reasonably well, I thought, through their own honest efforts, and now I am second guessing every grade I gave these two. How much of their other work, supposedly completed in in-class labs, had an element of cheatery to it? Vile.
And now, of course, I also have to add another set of instructions to my dead duck file. “Don’t write a teeny tiny essay and paste it in the margins of your handout.”
Sigh. I shall look on the bright side. It’s over. Pass me a G&T.