Academia, How We Should Respond to Student Writing

Last Thursday, Tiffany Martinez, a first generation Latina college student at Suffolk University, posted “Academia, Love Me Back” on her blog. The post, written by the McNair Fellow, describes how a professor accused her or plagiarism for using the transition word “hence” and called her out during class. The teacher, in front of the class, told her “This is not your language,” and on the top of the page wrote, “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” If the professor’s exclamation to her in class were not enough, the authority figure in the course circled the word “hence” on the literature review and wrote in the margin, “This is not your word,” underlining “not” twice.

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Martinez writes in her blog post about this incident and about the space(s) she must navigate as a p.o.c. everyday amongst her “high-income white counterparts.” Before she even relates the interactions with her professor, Martinez spends the first paragraph listing her myriad accomplishments, and  then she notes that she must do this because she “understand[s] the vitality of credentials in a society where people like [her] are not set up to succeed.” Even with these accomplishments, she still endures scrutiny from those who hold the keys to academia and success. Why? For no other reason than her background and the presumptions of others.

Martinez’s post sparked action amongst the academic community, and on Saturday, more that 175 academics, artists, and others, signed a letter of support for Martinez and sent it to Suffolk University’s president and school newspaper. The letter addresses the incident and notes that as professors  “[s]tudents look to us for affirmation, not just students like Ms. Martinez, but students of all backgrounds.” These students may be well-prepared or under-prepared for the rigors of college; however, that does not mean that we, as teachers and mentors, should treat either group differently.

For me, Martinez’s post brings up a couple of things that we should keep in mind and analyze in regards to our own pedagogical practices. First, we need to realize that the language of the academy is a language of power that, whether people do it consciously or not, some use as a gate keeping mechanism to keep others out. David Bartholome, in “Inventing the University,” states that students “must learn to speak our language. Or [they] must dare to speak it or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is ‘learned.'” Thus, students, of all levels, enter the university and have to learn the linguistic maneuvers to succeed within the classroom. Some students do not find this difficult to do, but others do. (I am not saying that Martinez found the acquisition of this language difficult. The preconceived notions of others, as the professor shows, projected these views upon her.)

There has been work on language and first generation college students and p.o.c. in the university by scholars such as Geneva Smitherman, Keith Gilyard, Richard Scott Lyons, and others. However, Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own” speaks to Martinez’s need, as terrible as it is, to list her extensive credentials as a student and emerging scholar. Royster writes, “At the extreme, the African American community, as my personal example, has seen and continues to see its contributions and achievements called into question in grossly negative ways, as in the case of The Bell Curve. Such interpretations of who we are as a people open to general interrogation, once again, the innate capacities of ‘the race’ as a whole.” Martinez should not have to list her accomplishments as if she is applying for a job before she relates what happened last week. However, she does. If she began with what her professor said and wrote, then readers may have let their preconceived views of her as a first generation, Latina student take over.

The other issue that I began to reflect upon after reading Martinez’s post relates to the ways that we respond to student writing. Over the years, I have streamlined my comments when I respond to papers in my composition classroom, and along with this streamlining, I have though about the ways my comments could be taken by the student, especially the ones that I write on their papers. There has been work done responses to student writing in composition studies, and Harvard’s Writing Project, along with other schools, has a page entitled “Responding to Student Writing.” Amongst the information on the page, the writers address how to make marginal comments. As teachers, we need to note positives about student papers. There is always something positive there, even in a paper that we struggle to read because of the grammar. More importantly, we must “[u]se a respectful tone” because “it’s important to address students respectfully, as the junior colleagues they are.”

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Finally, I would like to end by commenting on the fact that Martinez’s teacher asked her where she copied and pasted the text from. As the letter notes, there are software programs that can detect plagiarism, but I have found that the most useful method is copying a couple of words and pasting them into Google. If a student plagiarizes, either on purpose or by accident, this method shows it. While finding plagiarism may be easy, that is not the be all end all of the situation. We should not treat plagiarism cases as “gotcha” moments, or as moments where we, as teachers, seek to impress our authority and power over students. These instances are a space for learning, rather that be in a composition or literature course. On top of this, we do not need to call students out, in front of the class, for plagiarism or anything else. This is a matter that needs to be settled in private, again in a respectable manner.

There is more that could be discussed here, especially when thinking about how we treat and respond to all of our students. Do we recognize the things that we do when interacting with certain groups over others? How do we correct these interactions? As I said earlier, I think about these things as I lecture and grade. It’s important for us, as educators, to show all of our students that we care and want to see them succeed.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

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