Where Have All the Essays Gone? Check the Standard Paper Repository

Where Have All the Essays Gone? Check the Standard Paper Repository

  • AuthorAnne-Marie Yerks
  • Published Tuesday, March 12th, 2013
  • Comments0

The television commercial begins with a man in a dusty office. He’s packing the contents of his bookshelf into a box.

“Professor Fuller?” asks the woman who enters with an envelope. She is Beth Hooper, a student from many years ago who stopped by because she heard that he is retiring. After an awkward second or two, the professor brings up bonsai trees, his new hobby. Beth Hooper smiles with sympathy before offering the card she brought. Since Professor Fuller does not have his glasses nearby, she opens the envelope and reads, her shaky voice more steady with each word:

Who in their life hasn’t planted a seed just hoping that somehow something would grow? You may not remember all the things that you’ve done, but everywhere around you seeds are growing and people are blooming. I know, I’m one of them.

The professor and his former student are quiet. Then the professor speaks, his gaze on the wall behind her, remembering: “Birth order and early childhood development,” he says.

“That’s right,” Beth Hooper responds, chin trembling. “That was me. That was my paper.”

“Good work, Hooper.” Professor Fuller says. “Thank you.”

This advertisement for Hallmark greeting cards might be sentimental, but it reflects a culturally ingrained fantasy about education. We like to think that going to school—especially college—is a rewarding and personally fulfilling experience. The people responsible for that fulfillment, we also think, are the educators who stand at the front of the room and deliver lectures loaded with fascinating food for thought. We are made to think that these faces of wisdom and knowledge are fence posts along the path to success, which is where education promises to take us. We will enjoy remembering them someday, their jokes and quirks and the demands they made. We hope they will recall our merits as Professor Fuller did with Beth Hooper. (With such outstanding tutelage in her past, it’s no surprise when she announces at the commercial’s close that she is a teacher now, too.)

Hallmark’s business is to sell cards, so they can’t be blamed for reinforcing what feels good about student-teacher relationships. But can we blame ourselves for believing—or even hoping—that Professor Fuller remembered what Beth Hooper wrote about?

While it’s a heartwarming thought, it usually isn’t true that teachers remember research papers and their authors. Do the math: A college class like the one Fuller taught might have had anywhere from 15 to 100 students enrolled in each section. As full-time faculty, Fuller might have two to five sections every semester. Most classes require about three papers, so Fuller would have some number between 90 and 1,500 papers to grade during a semester. In a career that might include 40 semesters (if not more), Fuller would be looking at up to 60,000 papers. That’s a lot of reading, commenting and grading. No wonder he went Bonsai.

Professor Fuller retired before Turnitin.com came along. A product of iParadigms, based in Oakland, Calif., this web software provides educators with a set of assessment tools that automate grading. With an essay open in a window, the teacher can check for plagiarism (an “originality score” of more than 10 percent should be investigated), apply a rubric, drag and drop pre-written comments onto any page and take a look at what e-Rater, a natural language processor (NLP), notices about the writer’s punctuation, grammar and style. Before returning the paper, the instructor can record a text and voice comment.

The student opens his or her essay inside Turnitin.com to see a report with a grade on the very top. The assigned rubric percentage points are explained in neat boxes. Each comment the instructor dropped into the paper is supplemented with a summary of what the comment means. If the student received a personal text or audio comment, the report will include it (text) or, for audio, link to it. The paper is stored in the student’s account and—if the teacher allows—in Turnitin.com’s standard paper repository, a mammoth database of student writing that has been the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit.

A judge decided against the accusation, but iParadigms is as guilty as charged to those who view Turnitin.com as yet another example of privatization of public education. In a journal article on the “Scriptural Enterprise of Plagiarism Detection,” Bill Marsh of University of California San Diego argues that Turnitin.com’s plagiarism-detection feature is a vehicle of detection and surveillance that upholds cultural norms: “the originality report – as both figure and signifying form – functions as a kind of remedial or therapeutic device designed to index and recode in relation to standards of health and normalcy.” Marsh goes on to discuss the ways in which Turnitin.com assumes ownership of the “resulting text product” and “then sells it back (as an exact duplicate) to the client.”

Turnitin.com’s grading tools might save a teacher some time, but what should we make of Marsh’s claim that it’s just a new way to employ an archaic system of assessment?

A Case Study

I’ve been teaching freshman composition at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus for about five years, and I’ve used Turnitin.com’s grading tools for about three semesters. Sometimes I have 75 students at a time, yet I don’t teach as many classes as some of my colleagues. Why not? I find that reading and grading sets of 75 essays four or five times in a term, along with the work of preparing and teaching class, is more than I can handle for the pay I receive. The challenge of giving my students what they expect and what they need in order to improve their writing is what led me to the Turnitin.com grading system and the time it promised to save.

Although universities have come to value the profit-pulling model of large classes taught by adjuncts and lecturers instead of tenured faculty like Professor Fuller from the Hallmark commercial, most students have not come to value scant feedback in a composition class. An essay returned unread with a few hasty marks and a grade that’s probably too high will hardly inspire a nostalgic visit and a retirement card in the future. And it certainly won’t inspire positive course evaluations. Turnitin.com is a solution: Now that I know exactly how to use it, I can grade more quickly and more effectively. My students receive the feedback they deserve through the rubric, both pre-written and original comments and my audio remark. And although they may not always like what I have to say, or may find it difficult to face an originality report that reveals patch writing and plagiarism, they are at least receiving enough feedback to address specific problems if they choose to do so.

Still, I haven’t put away the purple pen just yet. For all its merits, Turnitin.com has revealed an effect that I never anticipated: The student-teacher relationship so romantically presented in the Hallmark commercial, which is also deeply rooted in our society, changes significantly when a digital entity is invited to the party. With Turnitin.com, a third person sits between every student and me. That third person involved is not only a computer, but also a corporation.

In The Skillful Teacher, a well-respected book about teaching, Stephen Brookfield labels the psychological, cultural and contextual experiences of college students as “the emotional side of learning.” Certainly, learning affects us on every level of being, but I think that emotions and learning are more intertwined in a language course than in, say, a geology class. As a composition instructor, I’ve read private and highly personal confessions about eating disorders, suicide attempts, drunk driving tickets, hate crimes and many, many dysfunctional families. As the somewhat reluctant recipient of the trust embedded in these personal narratives, I’ve learned that students see me as more than a grammar guardian. As an English teacher, I am, in essence, a filter for life experience: Pass through my gates and – voila – you are transformed. Pass through Turnitin.com’s gates and you are…well, we don’t know for sure. Not yet.

Lynn Z. Bloom, chair of the University of Connecticut’s Writing Program, more exactly defines the unspoken psychology behind composition instruction in the October 1996 issue of College English:  “When students learn to write, or are reminded once again of how to write (which of course they should have learned in high school), they also absorb a vast subtext of related folkways, the whys and hows of good citizenship in their college world, and by extrapolation, in the workaday world for which their educations are designed to prepare them” (656). I agree with Bloom that college is initiation to life, especially the middle-class life she goes on to discuss in her article. Although I want to teach students that they don’t have to write the way their parents or peers do, this is nearly impossible because I am the moderator of cultural and linguistic standards.

Turn it In, Tune In, Drop Out

Turnitin.com affirms the teacher as one who polices and mediates language and that situates the student as a consumer of his or her own writing. But iParadigms is guilty only of recognizing an opportunity for profit and giving administrators what they wanted: an easy and secure way to sustain status quo. The real problem lies with educational institutions that fail to consider what really happens when classes are overfilled, instructors are underpaid and education is increasingly digitized. Giving instructors the license to use Turnitin.com or a similar software product for grading and grade management not only affects emotional learning, it also sends a subtle message to students that their writing – so easily numbered, queued, processed and regenerated – is just another entry into the “student paper repository” and is therefore without value. The economic value is instead with iParadigms, who might be commended for creating and sustaining useful technology, and with educational institutions credited for creatively and efficiently solving pedagogical and organizational problems with software.

In 2009, the New Teacher Project (NTP), an organization that works with schools to identify good teachers and train new ones, put out a second edition of “The Widget Effect.” The catchy title refers to the core idea driving the NTP, which is that most educational institutions today view teachers as interchangeable parts, or widgets that are small but fundamental components in a machine. Schools today “conflate educational access with educational quality,” NTP claims in the executive summary.

The group signifies that change and progress is on the horizon. In the meantime, Turnitin.com will certainly grow and thrive. We can only hope that this widget for widgets will not evaporate what is real and human about teaching and learning. I plan to turn off the originality report and eRater and focus more on developing my database of personal comments. And, of course, I won’t forget the words on that Hallmark card:

Who in their life hasn’t planted a seed just hoping that somehow something would grow? You may not remember all the things that you’ve done, but everywhere around you seeds are growing and people are blooming. I know, I’m one of them.

Anne-Marie Yerks teaches composition and creative writing at University of Michigan-Dearborn. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University.

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