Life After the MFA: Why Your Students Should Care

I teach English part-time at a community college.  You guys know that.  It is an amazing learning experience, figuring out ways to teach people something that I enjoy.  Do I enjoy grammar?  Literary theory?  All that?  Yeah, sometimes I do.  What I really enjoy is reading a story, figuring out what we can learn from it, and explaining that to people and showing them how to understand what they read.  I also like explaining to people how to write something clearly, so that other people understand what they are trying to say.  Your opinion matters.  How you convey your opinion to other people will make it matter to them.  So it is interesting to me when I teach students that do not care, at all, about any of that.

It happened twice.  I was reading a student’s essay when I noticed that the essay was…good.  I don’t mean, “good” as in sticking with the Five Paragraph essay style or “good” as in smart paragraph organization.  I mean it was using words that I didn’t know.  That isn’t a giant feat.  My vocabulary is thin, I’ll admit. But if I have to grab the dictionary four times in three minutes, something isn’t right.  So, yeah, I googled the first sentence of the second paragraph.  Hey, kids.  Did you know we could do that? Ten seconds later, I was looking at the exact essay that the student had turned into me.  A few words had been changed, but it was almost identical.  

Plagiarism is a weird beast.  How I was taught was that reading something, and getting an idea from it, means you have to give the generator of that idea some love.  You wouldn’t have come up with the idea yourself.  I even do this in casual conversation.  Instead of, “Dick Cheney is dealing with issues of helplessness” I often attribute the idea of Dick Cheney and his helplessness to Rachel Maddow or whoever.  I didn’t think of him being helpless until someone made me think that. But students don’t understand why they have to write papers and use another person’s idea in that paper.  The Internet new-sites or the newspapers don’t use MLA.  Why should students?  The worst part is that students don’t see the need for a well-done, well-attributed, thought out, grammatically correct English paper.  And I have the hardest time trying to explain to them why it is important.

When I have my doubts, I think of an English Professor I had at Cape Fear Community College.  He was old, and I don’t remember anything we read.  But once, we were talking about the importance of English, and why a mechanic that works on cars all day should know how to analyze a short story.  The overall consensus of the students was that the mechanic shouldn’t care, and we shouldn’t force him to learn it. Then the professor said something smart.

“Education isn’t just for the educated.”

Everyone should know a little bit about everything.  How to farm.  How to change a tire.  How to post a blog.  How to stock a grocery shelf.  How to report the news.  How to check your email.  How to run a meeting.  How to give a presentation.  How to write a paper.  Everyone is vast.  We have unlimited potential to be amazing.  Once we stop seeing the importance of that, once we stop learning things we don’t need to, then we limite that potential.

The worst part is that, the higher you go into your education, the more limited your education.  I have heavy issues with this, but I have no idea how the educational system can be adjusted.  And until we as educators can convince our students of that, we’ll continue to see them cut-corners and plagiarize and not learn a damn thing.

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