The trending case of a Suffolk University student accused of cheating in front of her class raises more questions than her manipulative story answers…
On Thursday, a Suffolk University student named Tiffany Martínez posted a blog in which she described how her professor had attacked her in front of a class for using language that was “not her own.”
This morning, my professor handed me back a paper (a literature review) in front of my entire class and exclaimed “this is not your language.” On the top of the page they wrote in blue ink: “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” The period was included. They assumed that the work I turned in was not my own. My professor did not ask me if it was my language, instead they immediately blamed me in front of peers. On the second page the professor circled the word “hence” and wrote in between the typed lines “This is not your word.” The word “not” was underlined. Twice. My professor assumed someone like me would never use language like that. As I stood in the front of the class while a professor challenged my intelligence I could just imagine them reading my paper in their home thinking could someone like her write something like this?
Martínez is right to be sensitive to the issues of bias she points out. America is far from attaining post-racial equality (if you don’t know this, you clearly haven’t been watching the last year or so of election coverage) and while the academy is supposed to be a bastion of progressive ideals, those of us who have spent time in higher ed, as students or professors, can tell you that the university world isn’t as far along as it sometimes thinks it is.
My colleague, Dr. Denny, has been teaching at the university level for 25 years or so, and has a pretty informed take on these kinds of situations. He noted, in an email to the S&R staff list:
Tiffany’s prof went way over the line. If her version of events is accurate, then 1) he has violated FERPA with his veiled accusation of plagiarism and 2) he has slandered her.
A good lawyer would love a case like Tiffany’s.
He’s dead right … to a point. The key lies in this bit: “If her version of events is accurate…”
There’s a lot of if in here, and now the mainstream media is arriving, which is guaranteed to help nothing. For example, a predictably and insufferably lazy piece by Elyse Wanshel (Associate Editor of Good News) at HuffPo this morning swallows the hook: she not only offers no critical analysis of the post, there’s really nothing in her article suggesting that she’s ever heard of critical thinking.
There are basically two issues we should look at.
First: it’s frustrating that we don’t actually know as much about what really happened as we might think we do if we take the post at face value. That’s by design. I find myself wishing Martínez had devoted more energy to presenting us with facts we can consider and less time indulging in emotional indignation.
The post doesn’t lead with facts or narrative or statements from others in the class. It leads with a graf establishing her credentials (which I think is a very smart move in this case, and she does a nice job explaining why she does it), then a graf on the bias students like her face (absolutely relevant, but it’s establishing an emotional/political/social context in an attempt to shade our reception of the narrative). This is a deft rhetorical tactic, but it’s also something that ought to alert the critical reader that he or she is being positioned. And we should always resist being positioned. When writers try to manipulate us, it signals that we’re not being trusted to reach the desired conclusion based on the facts. Never trust a writer who doesn’t trust you.
Then we get to the graf where she relates the what happened. They don’t begin with “X happened.” They begin with “I was disrespected and offended.” Frankly, that isn’t a story.
The sum total of the descriptive narrative of the events of the day – which ought to be the centerpiece of a story such as this one – is limited to roughly 160 words sentences out of nine paragraphs. I don’t even know what the paper was about. It sounds like it was a lit review for a Sociology class, but that’s about it. All I really know is one word: “hence.”
So, I have this emotional essay designed to manipulate me into outrage at the grader. If the events are as she depicts them, make no mistake, I am outraged. There is zero place in a classroom for an instructor who humiliates and slanders a student in front of her peers, especially in the absence of solid evidence that the student is guilty of cheating.
However, since the post is so long on herding me to a predetermined conclusion, I’m forced to speculate, bringing my own years of classroom experience to bear in trying to sort out what likely happened, as well as what alternative explanations might be possible.
The grader may be a tool of the first order, and one who is about to get him/herself and the school righteously sued. Or, alternately, he/she may be an experienced, talented professional who called Martínez on something – maybe simple overwriting, or perhaps something worse.
At this point, I don’t know enough to have an opinion. I just have questions.
As to the crux of the controversy – the “not your language” and “not your word” allegations, I’d give anything to have a copy of the essay to review. Here’s why.
All of us who have taught have seen this thing that inexperienced writers try to do. They believe that the success of their essays hinges on sounding cultivated and intelligent, and being inexperienced they may not be all that confident in their writing ability or their knowledge of the subject matter. This is especially true these days, when very few students arrive in college with any degree of writing instruction under their belts at all. There is nothing wrong with being conscious of these kinds of deficits, per se.
So they respond by trying to sound intelligent and expert. And when they do, they overwrite. They use words they don’t know very well, they write longer sentences than they’re used to writing, and they attempt complex constructions they don’t have the expertise to pull off. The result is what I used to call themese, an awkward, artificial language that exists only in college essays.
I have seen students – Latin, black, white, Asian, etc., as well as male and female – use words that were “not theirs” more times than I could even begin to guess at, so even if the instructor did and said what Martínez alleges, I cannot, based on years of experience grading undergrad papers, assume that the motivation was racial.
In this case the controversial term is “hence.” That apparently sounded a little off to the grader. Could be Martínez was overwriting. Could be it’s a word she knows perfectly well but doesn’t use in regular conversation (very plausible – she seems to be a sharp student). Could be she was plagiarizing, although she denies it and the nature of the exchange, as presented, doesn’t suggest the instructor had any evidence. Given her credentials and what can conclude about her from a little online research, there is no tangible reason not trust her. So it could instead be that the instructor is a self-involved jackass.
Then the instructor accuses her of lifting the term. Dangerous move, that, especially if it happens in front of a class full of witnesses. If he/she isn’t able to substantiate that charge, any lawyer Martínez hires is going to take Suffolk to the cleaners. And since the instructor asked instead of presenting her with proof (“Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste”), I’m guessing it was a moment of impulsive snark or a fishing expedition.
Regardless, plagiarism is another issue you’ll know about if you’ve taught. This happened to me dozens of times. The first three assignments come in and the student is a solid C. Or worse. The fourth assignment is handed in and magically it’s publishable. Or worse, parts of it are still C level, with some totally left-field instances of, ummm, “advanced compositional elegance” sprinkled in. If Martínez isn’t someone the instructor knows to be a fluid writer, “hence” may have set off a warning bell. What came after may have set off more warning bells.
We don’t know. I will say this. Martínez is a good enough writer, it seems, but she still has things to learn. Like singular/plural agreement. Just saying.
The second issue is institutional. Suffolk could well have a much larger problem on its hands than an instance of potential bias or a FERPA violation.
For starters, Martínez refers to the “professor,” but I wonder. That term refers to a tenured or tenure-track full-timer, but students don’t always know the official status of the person in the front of the class. I have been a professor, and professors are taught about things like FERPA, because if they aren’t the school can get sued. In addition, if you’re a prof, you’ve likely been teaching awhile, perhaps as a graduate assistant. This could be your first rodeo, but it’s not likely. You’ve probably also received a good bit of training in teaching, to say nothing of diversity and sensitivity training, all of which are intended to steer you away from scenarios like the one Ms. Martínez describes. None of this is guaranteed to make you a decent instructor, let alone a great one, but there is enough going on programmatically that the scene related in the blog sounds … odd.
Maybe the instructor is a tenure-track professor who slipped through the nets. If so, I absolutely want to know more, because what happened here would then raise larger concerns about the university generally. If I’m her lawyer, these are questions I will absolutely be asking.
Is it possible the instructor isn’t a professor at all? Absolutely. Classes at universities get taught by non-professorial full-timers with less than a terminal degree, they get taught by adjuncts who may or may not have terminal degrees, and they get taught by graduate teaching assistants. Suffolk touts its teacher:student ratio, but 54% of its classes are taught by adjuncts. This is well above the national average of 49.6%. The number doesn’t include courses taught by grad students, so the actual percentage of courses taught by non-professors is a bit higher.
What does this all mean? Well, maybe nothing. Often adjuncts are fantastic instructors (I used to be one, and I was pretty good), and a lot of full profs are horrible (I wish I had less first-hand knowledge about these people than I do). But professors do get more training in FERPA type issues than adjuncts, and all of this has me wondering if the instructor was an actual professor. When I took my first prof job, I quickly learned all kinds of things I had never been told as a student instructor or an adjunct, and I have no reason to think I was the exception.
In the end, I may be simply engaging in pedantry. If it happened, the official title of the offender may not matter a great deal. Someone charged with teaching undergrads messed up, and that raises questions about why this person was in front of a class if he or she wasn’t properly equipped to deal with issues like the ones raised here.
I put it all on the table, though, because the charges leveled by Martínez could wind up being worse than the post would lead us to believe. Martínez may have only encountered the tip of the iceberg.
I hope it all works out for Ms. Martínez. I have done a bit of online snooping and she’s a prominent presence who seems like an absolute model student and citizen, dedicating herself not only to academics but to service and social justice. To all appearances she’s the sort of student teachers wish they had more of in class.
I don’t sense anything malicious about her story, given the evidence before me at present, and as someone who faced some academic headwinds of his own (not on a par with hers, but enough to teach me some respect), I am very sympathetic to the challenges she faces as a Latina in an environment that is still working to free itself from class, gender and racial bias.
I also hope that in the coming days more details surface so that I can replace some of my questions with answers and some of my speculation with hard knowledge.
Finally, as long as we’re speculating, if I had to make an educated guess I’d say the instructor messed up. Martínez seems credible in many ways, and if she fabricated any of this she’d have to be an idiot, as there was a room full of witnesses.