Dear College Professor: On the (Un)Ethical Use of Technology

Clay Zuba is very excited to make his first post as a regular contributor to PALS. Zuba is a teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona. He writes about his prior experience in the college-level classroom and asks higher education professionals to consider how to best serve the teaching needs of incoming students.

In this post, Zuba informs us of how high school and early college students often inadvertently use technology in ways that harm their learning process. For more from Zuba, you can find his nonfiction and fiction writing about House of the Seven Gables here

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Face of Laocoon in the Vatican via Livioandronico2013.

Dear College Professor,

You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you. It’s going to make you uncomfortable. I daresay it may terrify you if you’re reading this blogpost near All Hallow’s Eve. But I’m going to tell you anyway. Because I care.

You and your students have vastly divergent conceptions of academic honesty.

I’m a high school English teacher. But as I’ve mentioned before, I used to teach college writing and literature. Because I have served as a university instructor, I can anticipate your expectations. Yet as a high school teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of how your incoming students will actually go about completing the tasks you will assign them.

Because at this point in the year you might be feeling pretty good about yourself. Approximately two months into the semester, you may be congratulating yourself over how your students, on only the second day of school, discussed Ethan Frome as an example of realism. You may regale your colleagues with a story of how, only three seconds into group work, one student had identified the climax of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You may marvel at how well your students comprehended the plot of The Sound and the Fury before even discussing it in class!   

If any of these scenarios describe your classroom this semester, I have bad news: your students are cheating.

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IMG_0429 via Xavier R. Chen

The Problem

This isn’t the kind of cheating you and your Dean have been concerned about. When a college professor thinks of cheating, she usually thinks of plagiarism. Or of students writing notes on the inner surfaces of their arms and legs, or using their Apple Watch, to answer questions during a test.

In this case, I’m talking about using online sources to replace their readings of the text. Or simply as a substitute to avoid thinking about the text. In a sense, you may not think about this type of behavior under the umbrella of academic honesty. Certainly, it falls under the category of unethical use of technology. Still, you might not have thought about it as cheating. But I want to suggest that it should.

Because your students do it all the time.

I have found that when confronted with a particular literary question, high school students consult the internet as a matter of course. For instance, when I teach Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” I also teach how Thoreau uses irony as a literary device. I cite the author’s famous adage “the government is best that governs least” as an example. I help students see how by its very definition the function of a government is to govern. And that when he concludes that the best government is the one that governs least, he contradicts reader expectations. This is what makes it irony. I then ask students to work in groups to identify other examples of irony in the text of “Civil Disobedience” and to explain how Thoreau is using irony to persuade.

Invariably, if I divide students into groups of four, two of them will open their laptops, open their browsers, and ask its search engine to help them identify suitable examples of irony. It is their instinct. It is how they have been learning since they learned to ask questions. “How do I tie my shoe? What is the capital of Denmark? When was the War of 1812? What are some examples of irony in ‘Civil Disobedience?” And they will use the examples they found on the internet, rather than doing the work to find their own, as the basis for your class discussions.

They are not bad people. They do not think of this as cheating.  They just don’t know the difference between using the internet for research and using the internet to read and to study. They do not recognize that they are using technology unethically.

My students resort to the internet almost automatically as part of the act of reading. Having trouble with Margaret Fuller’s vocabulary in “The Great Lawsuit”? Finding it hard to follow Hawthorne’s byzantine sentences in The Scarlet Letter? Your students can find help on the internet. Even for understudied authors like Fuller, reading aids abound in the form of sites like Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, Gradesaver, random Prezi’s created by other students (many of them high school students), and their go-to-source for everything: Schmoop. They love to look it up on the Schmoop.

And if you assign your students The Golden Apples, I promise that left to their own devices (see what I did there?), your students will consult the Schmoop after reading the first three sentences rather than puzzle together the plot themselves. And after they start with Schmoop, you will be lucky if they read Welty’s text alongside an online reading aid. And they will come into your classroom having prepared themselves to discuss Welty based on their reading of some anonymous stranger’s reading of the novel (which that anonymous stranger probably pieced together from other online resources).

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Heathers via IMD

The Damage

Besides the fact that all of these behaviors I have described should fall under your school’s definition of Academic Dishonesty, unethical use of technology harms your students and prevents them from meeting the objectives of your course.

First of all, when your students look up answers to literary questions on the internet instead of doing the intellectual labor necessary to answer them, when they confuse research with study and interpretation, they are cheating. You might not like to think of it this way, but they just are. And they are plagiarizing because they are taking the ideas of others and representing them as their own.

Secondly, unless you curb unethical use of technology in your classroom, your students will never learn to think. I want to take a moment here and use Schmoop’s analysis of one of my favorite American novels, The House of the Seven Gables, to illustrate my point.

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Actual Screenshot of Analysis of House of the Seven Gables via the Schmoop. #notjoking.

As you can see from the above screenshot, the supposed knowledge that sites like Schmoop offer our students ranges from the inane (“You can’t really talk about the Puritans without talking about religion”) to ridiculously dumbed down: “The House of the Seven Gables is all about how families can mess you up. The Pyncheon family is a bad one – maybe even a cursed one – and it passes bad blood down through the years to perpetuate generations of badness.” You can only be thinking one thing right now, reader: “O. M. G.”

After reading Schmoop our collective heart beats faster. Not with joy, but with panic. For one thing, the Schmoop here vastly oversimplifies, even distorts, the theme of the novel. The House of the Seven Gables is certainly not “about how families can mess you up.” The novel is about how, to paraphrase the author himself, the collective sins of one generation pass down to the next. We know this, William Faulkner knew this, everyone knows this, but if our students take Schmoop’s analysis as fact they will adopt this gross misinterpretation of the novel as their own.

Furthermore, analyses like the one above teach our students “bad” writing. Because seriously, the writing on sites like Schmoop is bad. So bad, reader. I’m not going to even waste our time together by explaining it to you. But unchecked, your students will learn to write based on the example of these sites. And in doing so, will learn to write badly.

Because they may have not comprehended the novel, or may have skipped parts, or not read it at all. Your students are browsing sites like Schmoop because they believe that the anonymous writers on sites like Schmoop are smarter, or possess greater expertise in literature, than they do. And as students, they aspire to achieve expertise, or at least imitate it. So when your students sit down to write their analytical essay on Gertrude Stein, they will remember this writing and consider it a template.

Sites like Schmoop are one reason I advised you that you need to teach writing, a lot. You need to make sure that you and capable others like you become your students’ model for writing analysis, not random anonymous people on the internet.

If your students use the internet as a substitute for thinking and reading, their critical thinking and reading comprehension skills will not grow through your teaching. And it is especially important for you to challenge students to grow when they enter your classroom at ages 18 and 19 because their brains are still developing. Now more than when they grow older, they can become better readers and better thinkers.

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4 Suggestions for Teaching Ethical Use of Technology

  1. Include unethical use of technology in the definition of Academic Dishonesty on your syllabus. In my own syllabus, I attach this additional rider to the boilerplate language on plagiarism provided by my school.

Note: in addition to the examples of plagiarism in your Student Handbook, using online sources such as Sparknotes or Schmoop to demonstrate reading and reading comprehension also falls under the category of academic dishonesty and constitute an unethical use of technology. Do not use such sources to answer questions in homework, group work, or class discussion. Do the work. Perform the intellectual labor necessary to meet the course objectives.”

  1. Explain the challenges that technology poses to your students’ learning in class. I usually do this on the first day of class, and again whenever I teach how to cite sources correctly and avoid plagiarism (and if you don’t teach citation, and I’m not telling you what to do, but OMG). Tell them how, and why, the websites they habitually use when they read literature harm them and constitute plagiarism.
  2. Police unethical use of technology in the classroom. At the very least, walk around and see what students are doing during lecture and group work. Call students out when you see them on Schmoop and Sparknotes and Gradesaver. At most, prohibit laptops, tablets, and phones from certain class discussions.
  3. Become familiar with the most commonly consulted internet sources for information about assigned texts. This is not as difficult or laborious as it sounds. Just type the name of the text your students are studying into the Google and read the first few search engine hits. This is what your students do. You don’t need to get too deep into the results, or any more complex in your queries.
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Teacher Appreciation Day via Karen Hedge

You are their teacher, not their friend

Even if you give your students guidelines in Rules 1 and 2 above, they will try to get around you. Your relationship with your students is by its very nature adversarial. It is your role to create and enforce rules, and their tendency, when the going gets tough and grades are at stake, to come up with ways to circumvent them.

They will conspire against you. Not in any sinister way, but they will work together to find the quickest means to complete reading and other assignments because they have overextended themselves between school, work, family, and extra-curricular activities. They will share their cheats and shortcuts with each other. They will circumvent you while you willfully remain blind.

Future cohorts of your students will ask your current students how they ever got through The Sound and the Fury in the two weeks you give them to read it, along with their Fundamentals of Inorganic Chemistry class, the accompanying lab, their social lives, helping take care of their younger siblings, etc. And unless you stop it now, your future students will arrive in your classroom equipped with the workarounds necessary to ace your class without the time, effort, and critical thinking that you expect of them.

I know that you don’t want to do this. Snooping around their most probable internet crutches makes you uncomfortable. I mean they’re your students! The should be able to trust you! You should be able to trust them, right? Resorting to such lengths to uncover their furtiveness does not conform to your idea of yourself as their Kool Professor. It does not fit the idea of the Kool Professor that your students, as long as you don’t push them too hard, allow you to believe yourself to be.

But you’re not their friend, and that’s not your job. You have to remember, your job is to help them, in some cases coerce them, to become their best selves. They are not your buddies. They are someone else’s children, and it is your job, it is your privilege, to intellectually, and to a certain extent emotionally, nurture them.

They are our future citizens and leaders. If you value literacy and critical thinking as I do, you will agree with me that the future of the human race, quite literally, depends on our vigilance in the classroom.

So you have to make them do the work. They deserve this from you.

It’s not too late. You can still make a difference.

orange clay

 

Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.

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When Aliens Invade the Classroom: Notes on Teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“But…showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you have vague distorted rumors of them. And this much I know. Some of them—some of them—are true” (Finney 216).

Articles on Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers often begin with the novel’s famous opening lines, but here I open with the novel’s conclusion (don’t worry—I’ll get to the opening later!). Perhaps it’s poor form to reveal the novel’s eerie closing lines to those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, but I do so because of allusions to topics students eagerly discussed when I taught the novel earlier this semester. While the first few lines address the hot topic of fake or sensational news, the final two lines ask readers to think about how we, as humans, attempt to understand true phenomena that appear completely “alien” to us.

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Before diving into these specific issues, however, we should address some relevant background context, including common interpretations of the novel:

Originally published serially in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers, the title was changed the following year to Invasion of the Body Snatchers for paperback editions. Set in Mill Valley, California (a typical small “Anytown, USA”), the novel’s narrator Dr. Miles Bennell recounts his discovery of and struggle against aliens who invade the town by duplicating the residents’ bodies, mannerisms, and memories, making residents who’ve been “snatched” difficult to detect. As the ever-observant doctor, Miles eventually realizes that the aliens can only “perform” emotion, not genuinely feel emotion.

In classic sci fi protocol, the events of the novel take place in the not-too-distant future of 1976. It’s worth briefly noting a good question to ease students into discussion: Why would Finney set the novel only a few decades into the future as opposed to hundreds of years?

While the novel was initially criticized for its plot holes, it quickly managed to achieve, according to Maureen Corrigan, a mythic status: “Sometimes the stories that stay with us aren’t the classics or even all that polished. They’re what some critics call ‘good-bad’ stories: The writing may be workmanlike and the characters barely developed, but something about them is so potent that they’re unforgettable—so unforgettable that they can attain the status of myth” (“The Sad Lesson”).

We credit Finney with the “myth” of the alien “pod person.” Corrigan writes, “The term ‘pod,’ used to connote a blank person, has become so much a part of everyday speech that even people who’ve never…read Finney’s novel know the gist of the nightmare he gave to America” (“The Sad Lesson”). Indeed, when I ask, I find that most students are generally familiar with the concept prior to reading.

 

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Corrigan adds, “Ever since Finney’s novel…critics have been generating theories about why this story has taken root, so to speak, in our collective imagination. The pods seem to mean all things to all critics; lately, a post-colonialist interpretation of the pods as imperialists is popular. But given the 1950s context, the pods are most commonly seen as either symbols of the ‘Communist Menace’ or, conversely, of McCarthy-ite group think” (“The Sad Lesson”).

Students generally jump on historical readings without my prompting, but this semester students also offered interesting feminist readings (the way the character Becky Driscoll tricks the aliens by acting against the gender stereotypes she seems to embody for most of the novel) and ecocritical readings (upon arriving to Earth, the pods initially and unsuccessfully attempt to replicate items of garbage).

Now we’re ready to tackle the issues that evoked the most energetic student discussion this semester. What follows is a breakdown of key points students identified in relation to relevant passages:

Fake and sensational news: One character who joins Miles Bennell in his fight against the aliens is fiction writer Jack Belicec, who saves newspaper clippings of weird and unbelievable occurrences. Several clippings (alluded to in novel’s closing lines) include “Frogs Fell on Alabama” and “Man Burned to Death: Clothes Unharmed” (Finney 81). Jack tells Miles, “These are lies, most of them for all I know. Some are most certainly hoaxes. And maybe the rest of them are distortions, exaggerations, or simple errors of judgement, or vision” (Finney 84-5).

The reliability of sources: One of the most seemingly sensational of Jack’s clippings cites L. Bernard Budlong, a biology and botany professor at a local college who claimed that “mysterious” pod-like “objects” found on a pasture outside of Mill Valley had “come from outer space” only to later retract his comment (Finney 84). Students noted that they recognize college professors as reliable sources of information and initially felt relief when Budlong himself (or at least the man who claims to be Budlong) explains how the reporter took his words out of context in order to “create” a more exciting story.

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Students discussed how they were inclined to perceive information presented by characters as “reliable” based on profession. Miles and his colleague Mannie Kaufman, a psychiatrist, are presumably good sources of information because they’re doctors.

Generally speaking, I certainly agree that college professors and doctors are reliable sources, but Finney’s novel complicates matters since some of the professional sources we are inclined to trust have been “body snatched,” such as the professor and the psychiatrist. This led students to critically consider the dangers of blind trust.

Inexplicable truth: While Jack acknowledges that most of his clippings are likely fake, he resists writing them all off as fake. Students described the difficulty of distinguishing fake news from real. Jack says, “Strange things happen, really do happen…. Things that simply don’t fit in with the great body of knowledge that the human race has gradually acquired over thousands of years. Things in direct contradiction to what we know to be true” (Finney 82). Students acknowledged how people often dismiss or resist, sometimes with hostility, information that seems too unbelievable, sometimes despite evidence. As Jack says, it took “hundreds of years to accept the fact that the world is round” (Finney 83).

Explaining the unexplainable: Multiple residents in Mill Valley arrive at Miles Bennell’s office, claiming that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an imposter. In each scenario, Miles recommends psychiatric counseling for what he assumes must be delusions. Mannie Kaufman (or at least the man who claims to be Kaufman) explains the occurrences away as a case of “collective psychosis.” Miles is also inclined to seek a more rational explanation than “alien invasion” even after he sees an alien “pod” duplicating a body first-hand in Jack’s basement. Jack asks, “Should they [unbelievable occurrences] always be explained away? Or laughed away? Or simply ignored?” (Finney 83). Jack goes on to question the “objectivity” of science, claiming there is “no such thing” as “impartiality without prejudice” (Finney 83). Jack concludes, “We hate facing new facts or evidence, because we might have to revise our conceptions of what’s possible, and that’s always uncomfortable” (Finney 83).

Understanding the unfamiliar through the familiar: Once Miles is finally convinced that his town is under invasion, he next must figure out how to fight beings so completely “alien” to humankind. Based on textual evidence, students concluded that characters attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Budlong explains it as follows: “What do imaginary men from Mars, in our comic strips and fiction, resemble? Think about it. They resemble grotesque versions of ourselves—we can’t imagine anything different! Oh, they may have six legs, three arms, and antennae sprouting from their heads…like insects we’re familiar with. But they are nothing fundamentally different from what we know” (Finney 173-4).

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Students also noticed the frequent use of analogy throughout the novel. For example, Jack compares the process of the alien body duplication by comparing it to “medallion” making: “First, they take a die and make impression number one, giving the blank metal its first rough shape. Then they stamp it with die number two, and it’s the second die that gives it the details” (Finney 36). Miles attempts to understand the duplication process by comparing it to photo developing: “Then, underneath that colorless fluid, the image [on the photo] began to reveal itself—dimly and vaguely—yet unmistakably recognizable just the same. This thing [the transforming alien pod]…was an unfinished, underdeveloped, vague and indefinite Becky Driscoll” (Finney 59).

To wrap up, students recognized that knowledge is often limited and uncertain. As promised, here’s where the novel’s famous opening words come into play: “I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended” (Finney 7).

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Ultimately, I think Miles’s warning, to which students respond with a fair mix of curiosity and frustration, is an important closing note because it suggests both uncertainty and continuation—even after Miles’s first-hand experiences with the aliens, he admits his understanding of the invasion is still a work-in-progress.

 

Works Cited

Corrigan, Maureen. “The Sad Lesson of ‘Body Snatcher’: People Change.” NPR, 17 Oct. 2011, npr.org/2011/10/17/141416427/the-sad-lesson-of-body-snatchers-people-change.

Finney, Jack. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Simon & Schuster, 1955.