Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Just a Quick Note...

... before I switch off for the evening.
Christ, is it only Wednesday? It seems as though I have already spent a full week working on the academic writing skills of my Arabic-speaking students and I’m knackered, my brain is overcooked, I’m incobloodyherent and talking turtle ballshit. Their dedication and persistence are truly admirable but boy, do we have some ground to cover. I had given them a few snippets of info about plagiarism, culled from various sources, plus a few notes on the topic. The idea was that they would produce a little essay on plagiarism and why it is not acceptable, using the five sources provided and referencing them according to the Harvard system. Well, frankly, their efforts were crap.

I got quite ratty marking them. Even people who had earlier got the hang of knocking together a fair little for-and-against essay of the bland and uninspiring IELTS* type went down the pan on this one. I marked them, harrumphing and for-Christ’s-saking, and planning a mass bollocking session where I would rail at want of diligence and lack of proper procedure, like a Somali imam denouncing the infidel. Graduates, this lot are, fuck’s sake, you expect better than what they might scribble on the back of a fag packet, well, don’t you? Je-zus

Well, honestly.

I calmed down before handing the essays back and realised I had taken far too much for granted. The task had mystified most of them. There are so few similarities between the conventions we would have them observe and the ones they are used to observing in their own countries. For one thing, reading other people’s stuff and using their ideas to back up your own points or to take issue with them is a bizarre practice for most of them. Then, telling your reader up-front which bits of your essay you got from other sources strikes them as plain daft. Some cannot yet distinguish note-form from connected prose (bit worrying, that, at this stage) a summary from a direct quote, or the author’s name from the publisher’s or the place of publication from either. I queried the apparently unmotivated use of italics in one essay and discovered that the perpetrator believed their purpose to be merely decorative, and that the odd italicised word gave the essay added eye-appeal. Once, a couple of years ago, a Chinese boy whose spoken English was pretty good handed me an essay that was just one three-hundred word sentence. I said we had better sit down and punctuate it. ‘Oh,’ he said, mildly surprised. ‘Do the dots matter?’

Well, we set about untangling all this, hence my mashed brain. It was clear that for most of them the conventions for referencing books, journals and so on were the main worry. What do you underline? What do you put in italics? Where does the date go? I kept insisting that they have no need to memorise all this dull stuff. There are dozens of booklets and web-pages where the info is stored, ready for when they need it. Some fussbudgets actually want to have it all in their heads, though. They are probably the Arab equivalent of the sort of bookish kid - now surely extinct? - who knew all those daft collective nouns for animals and the correct plural of ‘sergeant major’, and who was careful in speech always to use the article ‘an’ before a noun beginning with ‘h’. All pretty pointless, really, occupying mental disc-space that could be used for more useful stuff, such as distinguishing facts from opinions or where subject of verb is have went in that thicket of verbiage who you have just written it.

Once again, and I do go on about this rather, I try to get them to focus on the process of writing, how you decide what to say, rather than on the end product, which is all they are interested in. They come from learning backgrounds where teachers would probably regard memorising every possible convention for referencing sources as a laudable undertaking, simply because it would be so fucking tedious. Several students have come to me with the idea that success in essay writing depends on the number of sentences they include in the introduction and conclusion. They have recipes: take five sentences for the lead in, four for each paragraph of the body, throw in a nice fat conclusion, six or so here, what the hell. Bollocks, I say, politely. It all depends on what you have to say, so sod formulas. Where do you get all this stuff from? Pay-sites that want to make you sufficiently paranoid to shell out for more such useless tips, that's where.

Tomorrow I have to hit them with a similar assignment to the plagiarism one, but this time they will be given fifteen pages of source material on which to base their essay. I’m getting ready for a session with rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, and a general sense of hopelessness that I will somehow have to dispel by three o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

This post is hardly a model of good writing, so it’s as well none of my students reads this blog. I OUGHT to revise and edit this now, but I need a shower and then a few glasses of merlot, pretty desperately, so sod it. Please don't tell anyone I said that.

*IELTS = International English Language Testing System. Tedious exam for overseas students who want to study in an English speaking country. There's an academic version and the hideously named 'general training option' for students who go for vocational courses. I have a prejudice against the term 'training' when applied to humans. 


Fionnchú said...

We suffer here with MLA format & documentation, and our students' similar lack of what this means. I tell them where in their textbook, online, and in handouts to look; they even have programs that compile from raw data you enter the formats now, and still this confounds "advanced composition" students. Even with DIY software that our institution subscribes to for this very purpose, an enormous amount of class and personal grading time's given over to correcting, in vain, such tedium.

Coming from the prelapsarian era of space pencilled in for footnotes at the bottom of a mechanically typed page, when all of us "just seemed to know" how to do bibliographical citations out of sheer repetition and terror at how we'd be graded otherwise, I cannot account for such a rapid decline in standards. Maybe blame it on the Net's evolution that undermined the stodgy journals-and-books foundation of Works Cited?

More complications: citing downloaded files? Blogs? Facebook comments? Twitter? No format can keep up with tech evolution of often ephemeral and perhaps irretrievable new media. The plethora of systems (you have Harvard for chrissakes in Britain! We use MLA; our colleagues Turabian, APA, or CBE ad infinitum) does not help. I wonder why this documentation profusion? Occam's Razor's needed.

vilges suola said...

We have Harvard in the Humanities dept but other depts in the same university have different systems. Ours not to reason why. Yes, it is very tedious but if you know what system you are required to follow, why in hell can you just not bloody follow it...


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