Saturday, March 15, 2014

Reconnect Part VI: Getting my First F

Last fall I was taking a labor course at my university. The first week of class we were assigned a short paper on Marx's theory of alienation in labor. Being no stranger to Marx and wanting to make a good impression, I decided to wax a little poetic, citing some other thinkers and discussing the true alienation of man from every aspect of his life due to the nature of work, but also citing some hope on the horizon.

The paper was turned in on the second week of class, so the professor didn't really know any of us very well. When the third or fourth week of class came around, I got the paper back. I immediately noticed there were no comments or corrections anywhere even though when I'd reviewed it, I noticed at least one typo. So I flipped to the back page. 

In red ink there was an encircled 'F' staring back at me.

Below, it said "Write in your own words. Do not plagiarize the ideas of others. The assignment was to show how Marx's theory of alienation ties into situations in your life and work."

When I saw this, I literally laughed aloud. I thought it was some absurd joke, but couldn't think of who would've possibly put this guy I'd never met up to it. I sat in my seat staring at the paper for a long while. As the class got into full swing I started to go over in my mind what could have possibly led the professor to this conclusion even though deep down I felt I knew. After a few minutes of listening to him drone on, I got up with the paper in hand and walked out of the class
I went to see a student advisor and explained that I'd like to lodge a complaint. I showed him the paper and he asked me what I thought could have prompted the professor to jump to this conclusion. I told him it was obvious that I had written it in a way that was too high minded for that place (which I instantly regretted because it made me sound like a smug jerk). He said I should go talk with the professor, but gave me the information for filing a grievance in any case. 
I left his office and returned to class. When we had a break I pulled the professor into the hallway and asked him to chat.

"Can you explain this," I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Well, I read it and it just seemed like something that, you know, might not have been original work."

"And what didn't seem original about it?" 

"Well, it was just kind of, you know, kind of..."

"Too well written?" 


At this point I exploded (which for me means rattling off a bunch of terse SAT-word laden sentences to exorcise my intellectual insecurity). I told him his accusation was outlandish and unfortunately had to get into "do you know who I am bro?" territory (which I also regretted, but I didn't know how else to defend myself since I was so upset). I explained to him that the grade insulted my intelligence and cast aspersions on the general student population. I also told him that the way he was running his class was an insult to all of us. My school was designed for working adults who want to improve their general knowledge or complete their degrees. We were from all walks of life, not kids, so the assumption that a decently written paper couldn't be original was plain ignorant.

Further, there's an application for checking plagiarism which he could have easily run my paper through, but he confessed that he didn't know how to work it. I told him there were a number of ways he could have handled it, from asking his colleagues to getting IT to help him use the software to asking for a follow up sample. He eventually agreed that he chose the absolute wrong way and acknowledged that he'd made a mistake.

To his credit, after our conversation in the hall, he was very contrite and even pulled me outside after class resumed to apologize a second time. He said he took credit in not being that kind of professor who judged students and that there had just been a general change in the quality of work there over the past few years and he was a little caught off guard. It was a strange sort of compliment to me, but I was by then more worried about the perceptions of my fellow classmates, many of whom were definitely not putting their best foot forward because of long work hours, having families and, in some cases, poor preparation in high school. The prejudgment that no one might be capable of producing decent work? They didn't deserve that anymore than I did.

Eventually he was so shaken up by the affair that he canceled class early. I wrote him an email that evening expressing my concerns that he give all of us the benefit of the doubt and that really the only common characteristic anyone in that class shared was that we were all people of color, so what was the real basis for thinking we'd all perform the same?

He replied, contrite again, and thanked me for the learning opportunity. When the paper was regraded, I was given an A+ (using some strategic photocopying and re-stapling techniques with the last page of the paper).

So what was the net effect?

I noticed an almost immediate difference in his teaching style. Rather than coming in and talking about a thinker or historical period and saying "well, you guys probably found this challenging" or over-explaining things we'd all learned in high school, he began asking the class at the beginning of his lectures whether we'd had any exposure or experience with the material. Hands began shooting up and class participation soared. By the end, even though the class had its faults, it was better than it started out. I ended up with an A+ in that class and a recommendation letter from the professor for some scholarships I'd applied for. 

The moral? Many times when we are confronted with low expectations for our success, our feelings can get the better of us and we can fall prey to losing interest or giving up. If in those critical moments we stand up for ourselves and are aware of the skills of self-advocacy, we decrease the chances of falling prey to the cynicism that might have led us to disconnect from other opportunities in our lives. For whatever reason, I thought of Dr. King's line that "love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." The line held a lot of meaning for me in my youth, but sounds almost trite and corny now. On that evening in September, those words gave me a chance to make a correction that ultimately yielded a better learning opportunity for a number of people.

(and probably saved me from ending up on "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong")