Dropping the Sanctimony

February 28, 2007

I was at my self-righteous best, channeling Jonathan Edwards and giving my sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God talk on plagiarism -- a lecture intended to make my first-year composition students tremble mightily about the steep consequences of cheating.

After a long litany of "thou shalt nots," I offered a few real-life examples of plagiarism, culled from recent publishing infamy: those well-known historians and novelists who lost cash advances, or at least their reputations, when they tripped in the lair of copying transgressions.

Because I teach at a Christian university, my message really was Edwardian strident. In my mind, turning in someone else's work, or cheating on a test, meant displeasing not only the professor, but also God him- or herself.

But then, as my homily reached its peak, an image from my subconscious re-emerged and my pieties suddenly rang tragically hollow: The image was of me as a high-school freshman, wearing high-top Adidas and too-short pants. Standing before me was Mrs. Habermann, my Spanish teacher.

I had not studied much for the Spanish test, and felt pressured to do well -- perhaps because Mrs. Habermann persisted in calling me by my older brother's name, perhaps because she always seemed a bit disappointed when she remembered I was not he. Hours before the exam, I had used my enormous foot size to my advantage, scrawling some crib notes on the upper portion of my high-tops.

I did not realize, of course, that a growth spurt and a cheapskate mom meant I was wearing pants that hitched to midcalf when I sat down. Mrs. Habermann quickly discovered my ploy.

I was caught -- back then by a fuming Spanish teacher and now, 20 years later, by her memory as I stood lecturing my composition students.

In the midst of my own sanctimony, what could I do with my narrative of high-school misbehavior? Or "narratives," I should say, because that Spanish test was not the first, or the last, time I had cheated during high school. It seemed almost imperative that I come clean before my class. And so I did, admitting that I, too, was a cheater, now redeemed.

As I move into my second decade as a professor, I have discovered that the perfect antidote to most of my teaching woes is a healthy dose of my younger self.

When I lecture on plagiarism, when I wring my hands about "kids" these days, when I receive late work, shoddy work, or no work, I think about who I was at 18: a child on the cusp of maturity, starting essays hours before their due date; chatting in the dorm lobby when I should have been studying; whining to professors about unfair expectations, using as evidence the fact that I never got below an A- before; facing the especially strong pull of academic dishonesty.

Several years ago, when my parents moved to a new home, I unburied the historical artifacts attesting to my collegiate deficiencies. In a box stuffed full of old papers and notebooks, my own first-year composition essays sat awaiting whatever mockery I might deliver, given the derision with which I sometimes treated my students' writing.

Those first-year essays I had painfully constructed were clearly as bad as -- or worse than -- almost any writing my students had produced. Embarrassingly, as a scholar-athlete (emphasis on the latter), I chose to write every single essay that first semester of college about my particular sport. My poor professor, clearly not an athlete herself, must have tired of reading about running in a wide variety of discourse modes.

So really, could I groan when one of my students wrote all of her essays -- including a personal profile -- about her horse? Or when another student chose my writing assignments as the perfect place to grind his parents' ax about the Internal Revenue Service?

My composition folder also evidenced my then-atrocious writing skills. Bad spelling, poor grammar, ill-conceived ideas: My every writing weakness was circled in red by a kindhearted professor who must have wrung her own hands about my dreadful skills.

I imagine her, an old-school grammarian, complaining over coffee with colleagues, wondering how I had ever become an English major -- the same sort of objections I make with colleagues about my own students.

Could I really criticize the seeming illiteracy of this generation if, at one time, I also confused "its" and "it's" with startling consistency?

The healthiest dose of my younger self I administer to my self-righteous older self comes in the form of an essay I wrote for an advanced writing class. Every now and then, when I am tempted to ban any and all essays written from the pro-life, pro-death penalty, or pro-gun perspectives, I pull out my own sophomore essay, compellingly titled (I thought) "Being Pro-Life: Motives Revealed."

I still remember workshopping the essay in class, feeling smug in the superiority of my reasoning, the fine turns of phrase, the tour-de-force thinking that stunned my peers to silence. "It's really good," they all said, their typical workshop rhetoric mistaken by me for real praise or thoughtful critique.

My professor, of course, had other ideas about its quality. When I received the evaluated piece, I eagerly searched for his praise. Instead, he wrote on the last page: "If you ran track like you wrote, you would never get to the finish line. You would be all over the track, just as you are in this essay."

He included some encouraging comments, too, about how I might express my thoughts more clearly, but I was crushed.

I decided to change my major, to become a social worker instead. But not really, because then I got angry, revised my essay, and resubmitted my work. He gave my subsequent drafts tempered but positive responses, and as we puzzled through my shoddy thinking and poor reasoning, I began to appreciate the issue about which I was writing for its extraordinary complexity.

Assuming a polar position about abortion could no longer come easily, nor could I so facilely write about something I could not clearly understand. I imagine my professor still did a lot of hand-wringing, and, most probably, a small bit of coffee-shop mockery about my essay.

But whenever I grow jaded about my students' seemingly narrow-minded thinking, when I have to read another teenager's poorly written argument about abortion, when I moan to colleagues about my students' lame reasoning, I pull out "Motives Revealed" and take a good look at my own 18-year-old mind at work.

And I remind myself of the great favor that a professor did for me several decades ago: allowing me to choose an oft-covered topic and run with it, even if doing so meant swerving all over the track. In letting me run, my professor guided me to a deeper understanding of a complex issue and provided me the tools to write more clearly.

Now, when I begin to channel Jonathan Edwards, when I tend toward piety rather than humility, I remember I was once like my students -- a child on the edge of adulthood, a nascent writer in need of a guide, tempted by plagiarism and the lure of lazy thinking.

And I stop wringing my hands about "kids" these days, if only for a moment, so I can get on with doing the job I have been given.

Melanie S. Mock is an associate professor of writing and literature at George Fox University.