The Struggle to Ensure That Learning Takes Place

Michael Morgenstern for the Chronicle

August 13, 2012

"Did you write this paper, Helen?"

She looked shocked. "Yes, of course."

We were standing outside my classroom. As a new member of the adjunct English faculty at one of the largest community colleges in the country, I began teaching English composition in the fall of 2011, at age 60. I had never taught before. I left graduate school in 1973 with a master's degree in English literature and started my own business.

But I've always loved reading and writing, and a desire for a little (really little) extra income led me to a series of 6:30 a.m. classes, where I teach "College Composition I" with an individualized tutorial, or lab section. The purpose of the course is to prepare students for college writing and to develop their critical-thinking abilities. The lab component marks students as deficient in writing, grammar, or reading. Many are not native English speakers.

The first day, I greeted students at the door, shook their hands, introduced myself: "I'm Katherine Gekker, your instructor." Most seemed surprised. One young woman took my hand in both of hers, turned it over as if to kiss my ring, and dipped her knees slightly, an awkward curtsey.

After two semesters, I have already taught students from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Poland, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Mexico, as well as from Oregon, Texas, and Virginia. At least three women had arranged marriages. One had been homeless. Many were parents. Almost all worked. At least one worked three jobs. A few arrived at class after their night shifts.

There have been many surprises. When I asked the students to describe their writing and reading experiences, some were unable to complete more than a paragraph in 50 minutes. One student wrote that he is "not what you'd call a big reader, if by that you would mean reading a whole book." Another wrote of "genital breezes." A third student explained to me that he studied English in Ethiopia, but "not this type of English."

During adjunct orientation, I'd been warned about plagiarism and introduced to the online plagiarism check, SafeAssign. Still, I was surprised when I read Helen's paper, which looked nothing like her early writing assignments. I attended the University of Virginia, where a single honors violation meant expulsion. Even without the honor code, it would never have occurred to me to plagiarize a paper. I Googled phrases from Helen's paper as I'd been taught to do, and submitted the paper to SafeAssign, but found no evidence of plagiarism.

After her denial, I pressed on, explaining carefully that the writing quality seemed beyond her abilities. Indeed, the grammar and usage on the essay she submitted were completely different from any of the greatly flawed writing I had seen in class. Finally Helen admitted that a friend "helped" her write the paper—but contended there was nothing wrong with that.

"When someone else does the work for you, no learning took place," I said.

She seemed baffled, questioning what I meant by "no learning took place."

It was my turn to be baffled by a student who did not seem to understand the basic point of college.

I gave Helen (not her real name) an F for "her" paper, and reported the incident to the assistant dean, as required. Because this was a first offense, I allowed Helen to submit a revised paper, as I had allowed other students to do, as long as it was on a fresh topic. She appeared visibly relieved, and I expected the problem to be over.

But during the Columbus Day weekend, Helen e-mailed me to say she needed to get an A in this course because she would be applying to 11 colleges, including Ivy League institutions. All the students feel I am too strict, she said. Since I am a new teacher, perhaps I do not understand that bad ratings on will mean that other students will not sign up for my courses in the future, and then I will have no work. Just to be sure I got her point, she embedded a link to in her e-mail. I forwarded her message to the assistant dean.

I had not expected a student to know so much about adjuncts—or to practice academic extortion. I spent the rest of the weekend feeling angry about allowing this manipulative student to ruin my holiday weekend.

Early the next week, the assistant dean sent me a sternly worded e-mail that she suggested I forward to Helen. She noted that Helen's e-mail was a threat, that it was clear from the message that Helen's writing was not college level, that Helen may not speak for other students, and that if this continued, she would be reported to the student-conduct officer. Grateful for this clear show of administrative support, I forwarded the message.

The next day in class, Helen looked scared. Immediately my anger softened. She was a young woman, lost and afraid. She seemed surprised and grateful when I greeted her in a friendly manner.

Helen began to make appointments with me to review her papers. Her writing began to improve, and she brought me a cookie from her native country as a gift. I learned through her journal entries that she was under intense pressure, and that poor grades might result in her losing her student visa.

Then, suddenly, she stopped attending class. I gave her an F for the course, since she did not complete the final essay or exams. She was not alone in abandoning class; several students stopped coming during the semester's final five weeks, which are devoted to a research paper. Other instructors told me this is common.

Midway through the next semester, I stopped in the ladies room, and there was Helen, washing her hands at the next sink. I greeted her warmly, genuinely happy to see her. She was reserved but polite. I asked how her semester was going. She told me she was retaking "English Composition I," adding, "I learned that I was expecting too much of myself."

Apparently learning did take place. Still, I found myself hoping for something else: "Thank you," or "I'm sorry."

I never expected to become a teacher. I didn't expect plagiarism. I didn't expect a student to threaten me. I didn't expect to invest so much time and energy in what had been billed as a part-time job. The students—their fears, faults, faux pas, and successes—touched me, and on my good days I believe I touched at least some of them.

I hope I taught them some English. I still don't know what to expect next semester—and maybe that's why I'm going back.

Katherine Gekker teaches composition at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus.