Thursday, 25 July 2013

From the highest of horses: a sermon to a plagiarist.

I got an email this morning from a student who failed her first assignment and partially plagiarised the re-sit. Because I'm in a preachy mood, I sent her a long, personal and emotional email about the value of education and in particular, of doing an English literature degree.

Obviously now I'm cringing at the thought of it being passed round for the cynical amusement of my students, but there's always the possibility of my words striking a chord. Embarrassing as it is, here's what I said to her, lightly edited to avoid identification.

I really want you to think about why you're here. Nobody's making you take a degree, and we operate under the assumption that you're enthusiastic about studying literature, even if individual texts aren't your favourites. If you see modules as obstacles to get over (or around), then trying to cheat or take shortcuts makes perfect sense, but we will catch you. We don't want you to treat your time here like that. We want to help you widen your intellectual horizons, to enjoy the process of learning more and thinking more. Cheating doesn't help with any of this. It might get you a degree certificate if you evade detection, but you won't come out of it educated. We aren't your judges: you should be your own judge. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Am I here for the right reasons?
  • Have I fulfilled my own potential?
  • Am I thinking about study in the right way? 
  • Are reading and writing changing me? 
At the risk of being extremely boring, let me tell you about my first degree. I got to university (not this one) on the Clearing system. I'd done well at English but never felt I was particularly good at anything and assumed everyone else was better than me. But I was lucky in one regard: all I ever wanted to do was read and think about books. Before long, I decided that to get anything out of my time at university, I had to talk about books too, in lectures and seminars and tutorials: a horrible thing for someone naturally very quiet. But enthusiasm and determination got me through: a good degree, an MA, a PhD and finally a job in academia. 
But all these things are far less important than one fact. Doing an English degree changed me in every way possible. I read more. I thought about what I'd read in lots of different ways. That meant that in a sense I knew less – because the things I assumed were totally true were revealed to be contingent on context and background. Finding new ways to think about poems and plays and novels soon meant that I had new ways to think about people, ideas, politics, belief, love, hate, sex, death, the past and the future, communities, and everything in the world about me. The world was revealed to be a much more interesting place: more difficult, sometimes terrible, always hard to understand and always changing, but definitely more interesting.  
Perhaps this sounds ridiculous to you, and on the screen maybe it is. But I know one thing for sure: if I'd copied and pasted from the web on an essay, I'd still be the idiot I was when I started my degree. So what I'm saying is: it's OK to find a lot of it difficult. It's OK to struggle, it's OK to absolutely hate some of the texts we ask you to read. It's OK to find it hard to balance academic work with all the other things in your life. We understand all that and we can help. But it's not OK to treat your time here – an opportunity to transform yourself into someone even more wonderful than you might already be – as a game with a prize at the end. Forget the degree certificate: that's just a piece of paper. It's what happens to you in-between that really matters. Give yourself a chance to be changed and amazing things will happen. I know: it happened to me, and that's why I'm in this job.  
I know this sounds really preachy and heavy-handed: you just caught me on a day when all these things are on my mind. But I and all my colleagues really want you and all the others on the course to grasp the opportunity. The worst thing for me is sitting on stage at Graduation Day and not recognising some of the people who are collecting their degrees, because they've never made an impression on us, or seeing students who could have done really well but chose not to make the effort. Don't be one of those people. You've failed this module, but you have every chance of fulfilling your potential. 
You just have to want to. 
Wonder what the Employability and Retention units will make of that? They're probably tying a noose as we speak…


GMS said...

It does need to be said, even if we're never far from stony ground... And all the current cant about employability and vocationalism doesn't help. I'm with you all the way, though.

Oldgirlatuni said...

Brilliant! I hope the student reads and truly understands what you've said.

Rob Spence said...

I've often felt the urge to write something like this, but then resorted to the usual official blandness. I hope your student reads and digests those words. It's really important that they have a sense of what study actually is.