Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Confederacy of Dunces

I actually picked up A Confederacy of Dunces this weekend after having a few too many people tell me just how hilarious this book was. Honestly I'm a little worried that, like with the movie Sideways, I'll end up identifying a little too much with the subject of ridicule to fully enjoy the humor. Oh, I'll get the jokes and be able to appreciate them. I'll just feel a little to exposed to laugh with the usual loud abandon that embarrasses K so much in movie theatres when I'm the only one laughing.

But this post isn't about the book. I haven't even read page one of that sucker yet. It's still sitting in the bag in the living room nestled among Omnivore's Dilemma and a couple of David Sedaris books. This post is about the idiocy of real people.

Well. Not really people. More like students.

I'm grading research papers right now. I did the same yesterday. Usually when working with "tech" classes (the lower level classes), I don't get a lot of research papers turned in. This is all well and good for me. I hate grading the writing of the barely literate. Actually, I hate grading the writing of the fully literate. It just takes too damn long and I'm lazy, so I'm perfectly happy to take home a stack of five papers from a class of twenty. It hurts the kids (they aren't allowed to pass the class without at least turning a paper in), which is why I nag them every day until the due date to get to work and turn the things in, but I'm not exactly crying on the inside when I end class with a very anorexic stack of drivel.

So imagine my shock and horror when the due date for this semester's papers comes and I end up with over 22 papers from about 32 students. That's a lot of crappy writing to go through and read. I'd planned on doing some grading during a recent break, but as always, I didn't even think about work until about 8 p.m. on the Sunday night before the first day back at school. Instead of leisurely grading a few papers a day, I instead had to spend my entire planning period slashing furiously away at research papers for the past two days. I did manage to finish before lunch today, but it was not looking good for a while there.

The one good thing I've got going for me is that some of these kids are exceptionally dense. One paper was turned in copied from the website, the photos deleted, but the large rectangular gaps where images had once displaced the text remained. That one went in the trash after letting the kid know he was busted and he needed to get a real paper turned in the next day if he wanted a grade. Since I've started grading this week, I've caught about five other plagiarizers, several of these in a stretch of stolen words that seemed endless. These papers are easy. I read one paragraph, plug a few "exact phrase" searches into Google, make a note on the paper, slap a zero on it and move on to the next paper. The sad thing is that I warned these kids that I'm exceptionally gifted at catching plagiarism. I even told them (in more polite, more politically correct terms, of course) that part of my ability comes from the fact that they suck as writers and anything with few errors or with good flow or organization is going to get checked. Anything that sounds like a typical teenage writer might slide under the bar, but you're likely to get busted for bad facts and grammar deductions if you're copying a source like that, so I'm not too worried. I even gave them a little help with the cheating by telling them that it's REALLY easy to catch plagiarism from an Internet source. Still, the only suspicious papers were verified as fakes with a couple of taps on the Google search button.

It's a little depressing that so many of these kids still copied and pasted into their papers. Some had the decency to at least jumble the sentences into a new, more random order, or add or change a word or two per sentence to make it harder to bust them, and most at least reformatted the text to something appriximating what the paper was supposed to look like, but in all cases, the plagiarism was obvious. It wasn't like I had just sprung the seriousness of the crime on them as they were turning in the paper. I warned them several times that even a whiff of plagiarism would earn them a zero. I guess that the reward of a good grade outweighed the risk of not turning in anything, but even a little bit of work could have disguised the plagiarism enough to make it too difficult for me to catch in the time I was willing to spend on it.

Oh well. They at least cut my workload by at least a third for me. I'm tempted to give them free points just for that. But I won't.


Courtney said...

I once knew a girl who was a teacher, and she said about five girls in her class got together once and all five turned in the same paper. Like the teacher wouldn't notice the EXACT same paper five times over. It kills me what kids think they can get away with.

At least you didn't have too much work to do.

Mickey said...

Did not care for Confederacy of Dunces.

It is definitely an apt title for this post, though.

Jacob said...

Mickey: You're the first one I've met. There's probably something wrong with you.

Courtney: Most intelligent people don't realize just how stupid the average person is.

sid said...

I've heard of the Omnivores Dilemma. Many people have said it is quite good and I am tempted to purchase the book.

I never understood how students could be so lazy as to simply copy and paste from the internet. Of course if they put a lot of effort into plagiarising and trying to make it look like their own, it would actually feel like WORK. And who wants that?

Mickey said...

Yeah, I'm sure there is something wrong with me. I've never met anyone who agrees with me on the book, either.

It just never connected with me. I never found it that funny and could never get inside any of the characters. I feel like people just give it a lot of credit because the author killed himself long before it was published.

It would probably make a good movie, though.

Chris said...

I did get a lot of laughs out of "Confederacy of Dunces." I would not call it high-quality fiction, though, and I agree the characters are not exactly easy to relate to. It would make a good movie -- borderline mindless comedy, I think.

I'm sorry your students are such dumbasses, Jacob. What they need is a Robin Williams or Michelle Pfeiffer to inspire them.

Julie said...

It's true, but kids are jerks so you shouldn't be surprised that they plagiarize. They don't understand that to steal words and ideas that are another writer's property is grossly unfair. It is intellectual theft. Plagiarism also prevents students from finding their own ideas.