Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Knife in the Back

Many moons ago I taught a class in modern drama as an adjunct at a nearby community college. After finishing our discussions of the plays of Henrik Ibsen, our first playwright, I required an essay paper from the class. Following the precedent of my own undergraduate English department, where we were allowed (or perhaps, forced) to devise a suitable topic for investigation, I had the students choose their own topics. Upon reading the submitted papers, I was dismayed to discover that two of them were dead-on plagiarisms (they were completely identical except for the first verb—one had “is,” the other “was”), while a few others had rather a smell about them.

I had recently taught at a college that had an institutional policy on plagiarism, but I didn’t know if the community college (or the English department thereof) had one, and was, therefore, at a loss at how to handle the issue. Having a friend who had been in the department for a short while, I sought his advice. No, there was no institutional or departmental policy that he knew of, and he advised me to handle the case as best I could.

Having decided that I didn’t want to get into the accusation business or a name-and-shame exposure, I announced at the beginning of the next class session that I had foolproof knowledge of plagiarism and since I could not trust the work of those students, I advised them (without naming them) to drop the class, which they do for at least one more week without academic penalty. It seemed the perfect solution. I could be rid of them without beating them over the head, and they could be thankful to escape punishment. Some hope!

At the end of the class, a very intelligent student (judging by the level of his class participation) came up to me to confess that because he had been pressed for time he had submitted a copied paper (ironically, it was one that I never suspected) and apologized and said he would drop the class. However, the blatant plagiarists went another route—to the office of the department chairman, who did not back me up, but who subsequently called me into his office and on the carpet for my allegedly draconian punishment. I tried—to no avail—to point out to him that, on the contrary, I was being quite lenient, as there was no failing or other punishment being meted out for the students’ deceitful acts. The chairman then mandated that I devise some other way of dealing with the issue.

What to do? I could give the plagiarized papers an “F” grade, but would that be fair to the dull student or two who sweated over an honestly-conceived “F” paper, one that was wrongheaded or foolish? I thought not. And so decided to give the plagiarized papers a double “F.” For some reason the guilty parties did not squeal loudly at that. I have no recollection of what grades the plagiarists ended up with at the completion of the course. But I can report that I never taught at that school again.

A decade or so later, I received a phone call from my friend in the English department to tell me of a letter found at the back of a file cabinet during a ritual clean-out of old papers. It was an unsolicited testamonial from a student (or a married couple, I don’t recall) in that modern drama class in praise of my teaching. I immediately perceived a universal truth: Complaint Goes Straight to the Top, While Praise Lies Buried at the Back of a File Cabinet!

In my last blog entry I offered three of my laws but did not include the above observation as my fourth, because someone else got there first—Marc Antony in Julius Caesar

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.  

(Act III, Scene 2)

Still, a figurative knife in the back is better than a literal stab to stomach.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Three Laws

Gotthelf’s Law Number 1 (or, The Beginning of All Wisdom):


The rationale behind the law should be self-evident. But just in case it isn’t, remember that even if you catch it, you’re sweaty. And that’s no way to start the day.

The Tonnele Avenue Law:

This was the result of an incident several years ago. I was driving north-bound on Tonnele Avenue in Jersey City, NJ. I was in the right-hand lane when a car going at speed suddenly cut in front of me from a side street. I had to brake hard to avoid a collision. The driver of the other car went speeding off but after several hundred yards suddenly, with a clear lane in front of him, hit the brakes, which I again had to do to avoid calamity. The upshot of all this was the formulation of the Tonnele Avenue Law:


I have always thought of this law as the Lifesaver Law. And if it doesn’t save your life, at least it can help guide you in business, personal relationships, and so on. Craziness doesn’t occur just once.


The third law doesn’t have a neat name. I formulated it years ago while contemplating the disastrous floods caused by the overflowing of the mighty rivers of the Middle West.


Money is going to have to be spent either building levees or dealing with the aftermath of the floods where there are no levees. The old adage has it that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Whether that ratio of expenditure is correct is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it is better to attempt to ward off disaster than to have to patch the world together again afterwards. I won’t go further with this myself, because in The New Yorker of December 3, 2012 ( James Surowiecki discusses this issue with his usual intelligence and insight (and much better than I could). Just let me quote the closing lines of his essay:
In a time of austerity, there’s bound to be opposition to expensive infrastructure projects. But if the government—and, by extension, taxpayers—is already on the hook for all the damage caused when disasters strike, we owe it to ourselves to do something about how much those disasters cost.