Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Stoopid Do You Think We Are?

I will post again on my own personal graduate school experiences soon, but for now I want to relate to my readers the kind of nonsense that comes along with being a graduate student teaching assistant.

For the record, the lab I am teaching this semester is kind of depressing. It is the abandoned child of the biology core curriculum. It has no continuity with anything going on in lecture, and from what I can tell, the lab portion isn't a priority to the students or the professors teaching it. It's fair to say that the faculty have more or less abdicated any responsibility for the labs, and so they are run as separate entities from the lecture. The lab itself is only worth 20% of the students' total grade, and it has at least 30 different assignments for the TAs to grade (multiplied by however many students we have). That doesn't include the lecture quizzes or exams, mind you, which we are also responsible for.

I'm not saying I don't want to work, or that I hate teaching. I love teaching those students who want to learn something. What I am saying, however, is that it is very difficult to get students to invest any consistent amount of effort into activities that have almost no reward. The only ones who really try are the ones who really care about getting an A. Which sort of brings me to my next point, which is related to the title of this post.

The students have no incentive to work in this lab course, and so they sometimes turn in complete garbage. The TAs have to grade this garbage, which takes time and substantial effort, let me tell you. For example, a couple weeks ago the students wrote a short scientific paper for their homework. It was no more than 3 pages long. Today, one of my friends who is also teaching this class with me discovered that one of her students plagiarized from four different sources on their one-and-a-half-page-long paper. I kid you not. What's even more amazing is that this person just copied huge chunks of text which were easy to find in a simple search on the internet. So not only was this person lazy, they were stupid about it.

They are told not to plagiarize, and we define for them every semester what plagiarism is: it is stealing. These students know the rules. The people that do this kind of thing assume that the TAs are 1) too lazy to go into Google and look up the obviously ridiculous paragraphs in their paper or 2) that we are stupid and don't know how to use an internet search engine. Both of these are bad assumptions, because graduate students do research for a living, we are experts at finding stuff in the most bizarre of places.

The truly spectacular bit of this whole thing is that my friend can't just give this student the zero they fully deserve. Our grading policy forces us to only give zero points for what is specifically plagiarized, which means that they still get points for the little bit of thinking they did do. This stems from fear of retaliation if the student appeals to a higher authority. In other words, to catch plagiarism it takes longer to grade the paper than it did for the student to write the paper in the first place. That just doesn't seem right to me. I think my friend deserves some kind of chocolaty reward for being such a trooper.

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