Friday, December 23, 2005

On Being Played by a Student

I generally love my students, and I don't have much patience with the blogs (usually anonymous) that do nothing but complain about students, but every once in a while I get a really egregious example, and this is one.

For this particular class, one paper was due Friday the 9th and the other on Monday the 12th (the one on Friday was a revision, so it's not like I was piling the work on). On Monday the 19, I received the following [n.b.: I've paraphrased the emails so as not to be posting the student's exact words, though I don't see why I shouldn't]:

Professor Drout,
Just wrtiting to make sure you got my final paper. Also, what did I get on essays X and Y, I don't remember getting them back.

Now it's very strange that a student writes on Monday the 19th to ask if I received papers from a week before. A few students, who were worried about dropping things off at my office, emailed immediately afterwards, but to be unworried enough to wait a week, but then worried enough to email was strange. Also, this student hadn't received essays X and Y back because the student had never turned them in.

Back when I was a naive paper I would have said "Oh no! Your papers must have gotten lost! Do you still have an electronic copy?" Now I write:

I have gone through all of the student papers that were submitting to my office and I have not received yours.

Student replies:
I don't know what happened then, can I email/fax it to you or something?

Note that we're still talking about a final paper (singular) although two papers were due.

I write back:
where and when did you turn the papers in?

Student replies:
On last Monday, I thought I put them in your office. Maybe I accidentially put them in the wrong office.

Notice that now (that I've reminded the student) it's two papers, not one. Notice also that they are put "in" the wrong office (implying that the student walked in. Now what's in my office is very different than what's in the office of the film prof next door and the creative writing prof on the other side, and office doors aren't left completely open any more.

So I write:
What do you mean you put them "in my office"? Where exactly did you put them? Did you turn in both at the same time, even though one was due on Friday? Why would you put them in the wrong office when office doors are marked with names?

Student replies:
I'm not sure where I put them, I did turn them both in on Monday though. That is the reason I emailed you, because I checked my binder at the end of the week, and there was nothing there. But, I didn't really remember dropping them in your office. I honestly can't tell you where I put them, I might have spaced out and put them in the wrong place, I'm not sure.

Now the papers might have been put "in the wrong place," rather than in the wrong office. So that seems to limit it to the baskets on the doors of the professors on either side of my office (again, ridiculous, as I have Beowulf pictures on my door while the door material of the other two profs is very distinctive -- not to mention the names on the doors).

I write:
Well, we'll have to figure out where you put them. I will email the colleagues in the offices next to mine to see if they received them by accident. But generally if a paper gets turned in to the wrong office, the person who receives it posts it in the department secretary's office. There were no papers there when I checked on Monday.

At this point the student stops emailing, so perhaps the student has gotten the message that I'm not going to fall for the "I turned it in, but it disappeared" story. Students used to always blame the custodian, which I found particularly odious, since he is a friend of mine and has never in his life thrown away a student paper stuffed under an office door.

Now, before you think I am too mean or obnoxious (ok, I am, but not too much) note that I could have set a trap by accepting an e-submission and then checking the "created" date in the MS Word file. There is a small chance that this is entirely a cock-and-bull story (although the attempt to suggest that two previous missing papers had been turned in is pretty sleazy), but I'm skeptical, also because this semester students have tried to pull all kinds of stunts with electronic submissions (including the famous "I forgot to attach the attachment but now I'm home on mid-term break" -- which also may be true, but which is why I don't allow e-submissions without a hard-copy submission the same day).

Memo to any students reading this: Your professors are not as dumb as you think we are. And this isn't high school -- be a responsible adult and own up to your mistakes and you'll get a lot more slack than if you're trying to weasel something.


Chaser said...

On the first day of class, I take students up to my office, show them the time stamp they are to use stamping their work (no time stamp, no credit) and the flat file where they are to turn in their graphics, just outside my door.

My office is a such disgusting mess I don't want anybody risking their work by shoving it under the door or putting it on any of the chairs.

Natalia said...

This is only my first semester teaching, but evidently my students were awesome. I had no totally missing papers, no weird cases of students never ever showing up except for the final, no elaborate hospital stories. I had one final paper four days late, and one midterm paper requesting a three-day extension, and that was it. My supervising prof was stunned. Go students.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting exchange with that student -- and good implicit advice on how to handle dishonest procrastinators.

As a public service, I'm pasting here the index to a plagiarism series that I did recently:

Plagiarism Index

Read the indexed entries, and you'll learn the exact steps to take in tracking down students who plagiarize from online documents.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Jason Fisher said...

note that I could have set a trap by accepting an e-submission and then checking the "created" date in the MS Word file

But this date isn't reliable, anyway. At the risk of revealing another dirty trick to any lurking would-be procrastinators, all you have to do is change the system time on your computer to some much earlier date, then write, edit, and save your paper, and—as far as Microsoft Word or Windows is concerned—the paper will genuinely appear to have been written "on time."

While not every student may be aware of this trick, you can be sure that some are. Therefore, the created, modified, and other dates really aren't worth anything at all.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

Keep in mind that Microsoft Word appends all sorts of data in the metadata inside the file itself--the data depends on the version of MSW, and the OS, but it's worth keeping in mind.

m. smith said...

These are all interesting points from the professor's side of things; however, what happens when a professor is really wrong and not big enough to admit it? I have encountered a case where the professor accused me of plagarism on the basis that he assumes that no one on the undergraduate level capable of writing a "sophisticated paper, with well delevoped arguements,which incorporates complex themes." Never having read anything written by me, the professor thought it impossible for a well written paper, fully cited, could possibly have been my own work. After reviewing other papers from other upperdivisional classes, and finding no concrete evidence to support his claim, the professor decided the paper wasn't plagarized after all. However, the professor was not big enough to admit formally that he was wrong, and weaseled out of giving me my deserved a by requiring an additional research paper. I generally don't complain, and I have a huge respect for professors in general, I hope to be one some day. I think the system is, however, flawed. Universities seem to protect the professors more than the students, holding the students more accountable than the professors. In a class I had an a in, I received an f because one professor could not bring himself to believe that some students actually work really hard to be good writers. I'm learning that there are other avenues for resolving such an issue, but professors are people who can make mistakes also; however, when they do, they should own up to it and fix such mistakes. Plagarism is a serious accusation, and shouldn't be taken lightly; however, general stereotypes certainly do not encompass those who are outside the norm. As a learning experience, I've come to realize that professors are actually more human than they would have their students believe at times. In the future, if I should have to confront plagarism by one of my students , I'll be certain the material is stolen before I accuse!

History Guy said...

But professor,

"Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals. Except the weasel." -- Homer Simpson