Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Friday, May 21, 2004

With all of the craziness going on in reaction to the Presidential election results here in Taiwan, I thought I'd refrain on commenting on it all for awhile. It's simply too frustrating and taxing for me to go into.

But in a related "lighter" story, this bit of
recent news in Taiwan
inspired some thoughts for this entry...

One of my responsibilities here at the college includes advising a group of students on a senior group project, which includes a paper written in English. Initially I start off providing them with guidance and focus, helping them to conceptualize their project, but inevitably, I end up editing their papers.

I do enjoy dabbling in the writing process, but correcting writing assignments or having to edit other people's writing just gives me a headache. I think I'm hard enough on myself and my own writing- never mind trying to guess what someone else is trying to say.

Unfortunately, several months ago I noticed that the level of writing by some of these students didn't seem to commensurate with their speaking ability. There was no way I could conclusively prove that there had been any plagiarism, so I decided to confront them and to have them ask their own conscience. I asked a few of the students in question if they had honestly authored their section of the paper. I warned them that if they had used any words, sentences or quotes from other sources, that they had to give proper credit by citing their references. I even spend some extra time and helping them to write sections of their paper and to paraphrase certain sentences.

Just the other day, I was reading over the first draft of their paper in its entirety and being curious of certain terminology used and facts stated, I decided to do a search via the internet to learn more. Then, low and behold, there it was before my eyes, word-for-word, sentence-for sentence, three pages which had had been carefully extracted in their entirety and included in my students' paper. What a disappointment. But it certainly explained a few things.

As I delved further, doing more searches on key phrases and words used in the paper I discovered that much of the paper had been copied from various websites.

With less than a month left before their deadline, I told my students that anyone who had plagiarized a significant portion of their paper would fail or have their grade significantly downgraded. The explanation they offered was that they thought it was enough to simply include a list of references at the end of their paper. I explained that by using someone else's words and sentences without citing references or giving proper credit, they were giving the reader the impression that the words and research behind what they had written were their own. After several discussions, I realize that perhaps they hadn't been taught how to properly reference materials, but I still insisted that it was no excuse for taking the easy way out by just copying someone else's words. I explained that their paper, in its current state was unacceptable and that they'd have to cite references for quotes and sentences "borrowed" and to paraphrase paragraphs that were copied.

It was very trying for me to have to confront the student who had plagiarized her section of the paper. I did loose some sleep over it and I dreaded having to confront her. I am not afraid to speak my mind, and express my opinions publicly, but in dealing with people I am more of a peacemaker and I don't like confrontation. Even though the infraction was so blatant and I had a solid case, I fretted over how to handle it and what to say.

After discussing this situation with one of the other teachers in the department, he simply said:

Why don’t you just confront her directly?”

Instead of beating around the bush, sugar coating it, trying to be diplomatic?- I thought. I _am_ the one who’s the teacher here after all and I have every right to be outraged. It’s the student who has a lot of explaining to do.

When asked my student if she had honestly written her three page section of the paper she confessed immediately that they weren't her words.

What a relief to me and for her. That was easier than I thought. I had been preparing myself for denials, arguments and conflict.

I listened sympathetically to her reasons, regrets and concerns and firmly told her that she would fail unless she could produce her own contribution towards the paper, written in her own words. At first there were the excuses and justifications- she had been working too many hours at a part-time job, letting her grades slip. I knew that she had been struggling somewhat that semester, her drafts had been late. She seemed preoccupied and had missed a few group meetings. I had had few occasions to discuss her individual progress with the group project and had decided to leave that for the students to sort out for themselves. It was something they'd have to resolve for themselves, working as a group, with each making equal contributions.

Then there was embarrassment over the realization of what she had done- did her group members have to know what had happened? Of course they’ll have to know the truth of the situation. She would be delaying the final draft of the paper.

Then there was hope for a second chance.

During the nearly three weeks that remained, she struggled to produce another three pages, and she even told me that had quit her job, but in the end it was too little too late. I made the difficult decision not to pass her since I had to evaluate her overall contribution and participation in the project along with her written product. And unfortunately, both fell short of what was acceptable. I just couldn't pass her based on the quality of work she presented in the end. I just hope that she learned a valuable lesson and realized what she could have accomplished in an entire academic year based on what she actually accomplished in just three weeks.

Well, what can you expect in a land where the presidential office is being accused of copying their inauguration logo? And where copyright laws are routine violated? For the fourth year in a row, Taiwan has been put on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Priority Watch List of violators of IPR (intellectual property rights), specifically with respect to optical media, such as movie, music and software disks.

Every semester I battle with students who either resist buying textbooks or photocopy their textbooks.


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