Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mendacity, great and small

Over at The Chronicle (behind the subscription wall), Gina Barreca has discovered the world of online term papers. The students think we aren't paying attention, she says, but we are:
I bet I could hand back in-class writings from the 65 students I’m teaching this term based on their handwriting and their stylistic quirks. I know who they are. If they suddenly started offering essays (entirely, indubitably, unreasonably) written in voices different from the ones I’d heard in class, read in earlier assignments, or listened to during office hours, I would wonder who they were channeling. I would hand back the paper in question and say straight out: “HA HA HA! Obviously you were making a big joke here. Now let’s see the actual paper. Now.”
She's right. We'd know, because we know the students' voices.

But what about the gray areas?

When students emailed me their papers recently, one of them had sent me a blank document. I emailed her back, and she came to talk to me. Here's our conversation:

Student: "I'm so sorry. I don't know what happened."
Me: "Just send it to me as soon as you can."
Student: "I can't. My computer is broken."
Me: "Didn't you save it to a USB drive?"
Student: "No."
Me: "Did you print a copy?"
Student: "No."
Me: "Did you email yourself a copy?"
Student: "No. I wrote it in the computer lab, and when I went back, it wasn't there any more. All I have are the notes. I can get it to you, like, tomorrow morning."
All this interspersed with statements like "I know it's hard to believe," etc.

A week later, I got the paper.

Okay. We've all had this student. It's all classic excuse-making, isn't it?

So, a poll: do you believe her, or not?

Usually, no. I'd normally think that I was being played for a fool. Maybe I was. I decided not to make an issue of it this time.

But here's the thing. Remember in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when Big Daddy goes on and on about "Mendacity!" and how everyone around him, including his family, is so filled with mendacity that he can scarcely stand to look at them?

Maybe I'm not as outraged by the possibility of student mendacity right now because my mendacity quotient is all filled up with things like AIG. Oh, sure, they finally canceled $8 $80 million in junkets because, for some reason that they clearly don't understand at all, blowing through taxpayer money to reward themselves for screwing up just isn't flying right now. They're also puzzled about why they can't lobby against mortgage regulation using taxpayer money. Now there's world-class mendacity.

I'm still keeping students to strong standards, of course, but this one time, I chose to give the student the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I'm just tired of believing that there's mendacity everywhere.

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