March 31, 2008
Image from Wikipedia
I don’t know anything about Nationwide Insurance except that they have a great slogan these days: Life comes at you fast ™. I like the slogan despite its obvious grammatical failings.1 I’ll go further and add that some life events come at you faster than others.
One of the fastest life turns I ever had to make was my transition in 1973 from the military to grad school. There wasn’t a lot of geography involved because Pease Air Force Base where I did my military service was only about 10 miles from the University of New Hampshire. There wasn’t a lot of time involved either because I left the military in mid-January and started at UNH early in February. But, culturally speaking, the move from one institution to the other made me feel as if I had traveled to another planet.
I was a teaching assistant in the Freshman English program, charged with helping 26 members of the class of ’76 to improve the way they expressed themselves on paper. In those days the program was directed by Don Murray, a master teacher, accomplished writer and all-around force of nature. The rules in the program were few, but they were set in stone. Two stood out in particular. One of those is for another posting, but the other was that any student who submitted plagiarized work failed the course. Period. No exceptions.
The teaching methods Murray advocated are the norm now, but they were radical 35 years ago. In keeping with his methods, for example, I held an individual conference with each student every week. The student would bring his or her week’s writing (1,000 words minimum) and would sit in my tiny office in Hamilton Smith Hall while I read through the paper and responded on the spot. I was a little shaky at first, but after a few weeks I began to develop some confidence.
At the same time, I was making other discoveries about the academic life. I learned, for example, about “review copies,” books that publishers would send to academics for free. Books that real faculty members didn’t want would find their way to the faculty lounge where they were available to teaching assistants who might want them.
One book I picked up was a collection of essays about writing and teaching writing. The book was my introduction to Joseph C. Pattison’s classic How to Write an “F” Paper. In the essay Pattison lists a dozen or so common writing faults, using the named faults to describe themselves. Writing teachers still use the essay because it is clever, engaging and memorable.
The anthology sat on the shelf in my office when the freshman hockey player in my class showed up for his weekly conference. With obvious pride he handed me his week’s work, a piece entitled How to Write an “F” Paper. I swallowed hard and handed the paper back to him. Then I took the anthology from the shelf.
“Follow along,” I said, “while I read from this book.”
I expected a strong response from the student but not quite the one I got. “This is impossible,” he said. “It’s absolutely impossible!” He knew he was copying the essay, he explained, and he had done so because a hockey trip had taken longer than he expected and he had run out of time. But the essay had come to him (apparently without attribution) from his high school English teacher. He thought his teacher had written it, so that he was copying from an unpublished source 300 miles away. In short, he thought there was no chance he would ever be caught.
Murray’s plagiarism rule, however, had no hockey trip or errant teacher exceptions. A few days later, the freshman hockey coach called me. I had heard stories about the lengths to which coaches would go to keep their players eligible, so I was astonished when the coach said, “You did the right thing. When they can’t perform in the classroom, I don’t want them on the ice.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. This story should end right here, but it doesn’t.
Five years later I was a teaching assistant at a university in the Bible Belt that I won’t name for reasons that will become apparent.
I had taken Don Murray’s freshman comp rules with me to the new school and spent some time explaining them to students at the beginning of each semester. When the plagiarism problem came around this time, the student was a freshman basketball player whose girlfriend was writing his essays for him, and finally passing them in for him in her handwriting. Once again I found myself giving a student the hard word, but this student’s response was different. “You’ll be hearing from the coach,” he said and stormed out of my office.
When the call came in, I found that this was an altogether different sort of coach. “Son,” he said, “I guess you don’t understand who you’re dealing with here.” He was right about that. This coach apparently felt that the sole purpose of the university was to protect his athletes’ amateur status until they could be drafted into the pros, and that it was somehow my job to keep his player eligible. At the end of the semester, he saw to it that the F the student deserved and received from me was magically transformed into a gentleman’s C. In that freshman English program, there was no one like Don Murray to back me up or to put the thumb on a coach who was way out of line.
I didn’t complete my degree at that university, and the coach’s wretchedly corrupt behavior was part of the reason. I didn’t like being called “Son,” and I didn’t like his open contempt for academic work. Grad school is too much work to do at a place you can’t respect.
1 Yes, “fast” should be an adverb, but the slogan writers were in a jam here. There’s no such word as “fastly.” Quickly, rapidly and speedily don’t work. Phrases like “at high speed” or “at a rapid rate” are just wrong.