Thursday, November 21, 2013


Okay, not gonna lie, it's been a tough week. The good news is that I'm not sick anymore, and my body is getting used to the cold that's settled in for this early winter. On the other hand, taekgyeon has been kind of a drag, because an ahjussi who is in my class turns into this vicious beast whenever we spar, and I'm close to losing my temper at him. I've been too busy to get groceries or work on my grad school apps since Sunday, because school. My schedule was changed (for hopefully the last time!) on Monday, and my class load increased so that I would see the third-years four times a week instead of zero. I was excited about this, until I (foolishly? brilliantly?) decided to create a documentary film project out of thin air to keep them occupied for the last four weeks of school. That took some time.

The real 고민 (trouble), though, is coming from my first-years. Next week, they have their speech tests, so this week and last, they've had to turn in drafts of their work. It's now the time of the semester when I normally post funny tidbits and excerpts from my students' writing, because it's comedy gold. This week I'm posting nothing funny, only something that made me angry and upset.
Two students' second drafts. The pink sentences are the same in both papers. There is some delicious irony here, given the subject of these students' research project.
Cheating. 컨닝. 기만. These two students are in the same research group, so their speech topics are the same. Yet what makes them think they can submit drafts that are over 50% identical? Last night, I went through the first student's draft in its entirety and made notes. Later, when I read the second student's draft, I was shocked to find myself reading the exact same sentences. I highlighted every one that was the same.

Today, I handed back edited second drafts and gave my students time to work on their final drafts. But I took these two students aside, showed them their papers just as you see them, and said, "Can you explain this?" The first student immediately went into a stammering ramble of an explanation. First, it was that they were in the same project group. Second, they had the same information. "We have the same chart," she kept saying, but I didn't understand what she meant. The second student didn't say a word. I told them that it was not and never okay to copy homework, that I wanted them to rewrite their drafts, that I would take away ten points (wildly lenient, but that's my department's policy), and that their main English teacher already knew what they had done. The first student began to try to explain that it was her fault, that she had asked him for help translating hers. The second student was still completely silent; it was actually unnerving.

(Another student in the class was eavesdropping, but when I saw him, I said, "DH. You did not even give me an outline. You did not give me a Draft 1. You did not give me a Draft 2. You must turn around and work. NOW.")

This wasn't the first time I caught students cheating, and it also wasn't even the last time today. Last week, one of my highest-level students wrote the first draft for a lower-level student. I knew it couldn't have been his, since it was written in impeccable English with a neat blue pen. He always uses a pencil; he confessed right away, but she tried to excuse her way out of it.

"Did you write this?"
"... I helped him write it, but I didn't write it!"
"This isn't even his handwriting."

When I realized that a student had just lied to me -- directly to my face, and with complete conviction -- I was floored. Both of those students also got ten points taken away and a severe scolding from my co-teacher. She made them write apology letters.

The policy is that I take away ten points (out of one hundred) from a student if I catch them cheating. So far, I have taken away over 100 points from the first-year students collectively. I have 82 first-year students. That means over 10% of my students have cheated on their homework! For the only assignment I give them that counts toward their grade! What the heck is the problem?

Seven students copied each other's work. Three swiped entire paragraphs from articles online (one of them used an image-to-text program to copy text from a PDF, but the result was dozens of computer-generated typos that she didn't even bother to fix). After I called these three students into my office today, lectured them, and sent them away, I slumped down in my chair and nearly felt like crying. I honestly never expected to have a cheating problem this insidious. Has anyone ever told these students that plagiarism is a serious offense? Especially for students who are going to go to prestigious research universities -- many of them will become scientists. If they think they can get away with copying other people's work now, they need to be taught otherwise, and taught in a way they won't forget.

Indeed, I'll admit I was sorely tempted to advocate automatic zeroes to my co-teacher. But this speech test is worth 10% of their grade, and it's the only grade I give each semester. 10% zilched would be a serious blow. But 10% of 10%? It's a slap on the wrist and a lukewarm, I'm-trying-to-sound-tough-but-really-I'm-just-severely-disappointed lecture that they'll forget when the door closes behind them.

Although I still smile and fist-bump my students when I pass them in the halls, I feel like they've broken my trust. The very fact that I broke my rule against taking work home yesterday and stayed up past midnight to check all eighty drafts for evidence of cheating says something. I still have two classes' worth of drafts to actually edit, but I don't even want to look at them right now. A lot of it is shoddy work; even the students who didn't cheat seem not to have worked much on improving their initial rough drafts. "Advanced students", right...

I'm going to sleep, and I'll get to the drafts tomorrow before my afternoon classes. Lest I go to bed angry, though, I think it's important that I try to look at the other side of the story. My students have been extremely busy the past few weeks in preparation for the annual science fair. In fact, they had to present their research projects (in Korean) in front of their peers, teachers, and some judges, so it's reasonable that their little English test got pushed to the side. I stopped by the science fair briefly yesterday, and it was just as impressive as last year. Word is that the first-years' projects are less "successful" overall (whatever that means) than last year's, but who cares? I was content just to see their posters and awesome displays.
JH explains his project on testing a plant's resistance to various pollutants.
YM explains the algorithm he worked out that can solve any 2x2 or 3x3 Korean "Hexagonal Tortoise Puzzle".
And besides simply making up excuses for my students, I should also remember that everyone makes mistakes. Maybe a lot of students happened to make their mistakes at the same unfortunate time this semester, but that doesn't actually make it worse (or better). So, just as I would quickly forgive one student for a misstep, I can forgive ten, twenty, maybe even more. How many times in my life have I been forgiven for doing terrible things and trying to get away with them? More than I care to remember.

Here's to my first-years, wishing them the best of luck on their speech tests next week! 화이팅!