Making Sure Learning Takes Place: When Student’s Get ‘Help’
“Did you write this paper, Helen?”
She looked shocked. “Yes, of course.”
We were standing outside my classroom. As a new member of the adjunct English faculty at one of the largest community colleges in the country, I began teaching English composition in the fall of 2011, at age 60. I had never taught before. I left graduate school in 1973 with a master’s degree in English literature and started my own business.
But I’ve always loved reading and writing, and a desire for a little (really little) extra income led me to a series of 6:30 a.m. classes, where I teach “College Composition I” with an individualized tutorial, or lab section. The purpose of the course is to prepare students for college writing and to develop their critical-thinking abilities. The lab component marks students as deficient in writing, grammar, or reading. Many are not native English speakers.
The first day, I greeted students at the door, shook their hands, introduced myself: “I’m Katherine Gekker, your instructor.” Most seemed surprised. One young woman took my hand in both of hers, turned it over as if to kiss my ring, and dipped her knees slightly, an awkward curtsey.
After two semesters, I have already taught students from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Poland, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Mexico, as well as from Oregon, Texas, and Virginia. At least three women had arranged marriages. One had been homeless. Many were parents. Almost all worked. At least one worked three jobs. A few arrived at class after their night shifts.
There have been many surprises. When I asked the students to describe their writing and reading experiences, some were unable to complete more than a paragraph in 50 minutes. One student wrote that he is “not what you’d call a big reader, if by that you would mean reading a whole book.” Another wrote of “genital breezes.” A third student explained to me that he studied English in Ethiopia, but “not this type of English.”
During adjunct orientation, I’d been warned about plagiarism and introduced to the online plagiarism check, SafeAssign. Still, I was surprised when I read Helen’s paper, which looked nothing like her early writing assignments. I attended the University of Virginia, where a single honors violation meant expulsion. Even without the honor code, it would never have occurred to me to plagiarize a paper. I Googled phrases from Helen’s paper as I’d been taught to do, and submitted the paper to SafeAssign, but found no evidence of plagiarism.