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 you 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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Teaching Little Women at 150

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This year is the sesquicentennial of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women. Based on Alcott’s own family and home in Concord, Massachusetts, the novel was immediately popular and has never been out of print. While the novel is a perennial favorite and culturally ubiquitous with multiple film and television adaptations, Little Women is rarely taught in American literature courses at the college and university level. In her newly released book Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, Anne Boyd Rioux reports that the “Open Syllabus Project,” “a database of texts in all genres used in colleges and university courses,” ranks Little Women at 431. Walden comes in at 31 and Huckleberry Finn at 47.

There are many explanations for why the novel has been overlooked in the canon of American literature that is regularly taught and studied at the college level including its “popularity,” its stigma as children’s literature (Alcott herself called her novel “moral pap for the young”), and its emphasis on women’s lives and experiences–not to mention its length. Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for integrating Little Women into American literature survey and topics courses as a core text “students must know if they want to understand the roots of American and women’s literary traditions.”

Little Women, Realism, and Genre

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Literary critic G.K Chesteron claimed that Little Women, published in 1868, “anticipated realism by at least twenty to thirty years.” Chesterton cites Professor Bhaer’s proposal to Jo as an illustration of the novel’s realism. Nether Jo nor Bhaer are idealized or romanticized; both are rain-soaked and unkempt as they awkwardly, yet authentically, express their love and loyalty to each other. While readers today may see the portrayal of the March sisters as overly-sentimental, “[e]arly reviewers almost unanimously viewed the emotions evoked by the novel as ordinary and natural.” Rather than seeing the novel as over-wrought and emotionally manipulative, its original readers saw it as “true to life.” Although Alcott enjoyed writing sensational and sentimental stories, “she staked her literary reputation on her realistic writing.” Indeed, Little Women can be taught as a realistic novel on par with those of Mark Twain, Henry James, and other exemplars of the tradition.

That said, Little Women can also be taught in the traditions of sentimental, domestic, and women’s literature and examined for the ways in which it conforms with and deviates from traditional generic conventions. With its portrayal of four young women navigating the transition from girlhood to womanhood, it could be taught as a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel. The depiction of Jo’s literary ambitions and trials, based on Alcott’s own, means it could also be taught as a künstlerroman, a novel of artistic development.

Literary Influence and Adaptations

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Present-day writers as wide-ranging as Barbara Kingsolver, bell hooks, Anne Lamont, and J.K. Rowling have cited Alcott as an inspiration for their literary ambitions. Through the writerly Jo, Alcott has influenced women writers such as Mary Gordon, Anne Tyler, Gloria Steinem, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri.  Little Women has left a mark on American and women’s literature, and studying it in our classes shows students its worth and provides them with an important context for understanding contemporary literature.

The novel has not only inspired multiple film and television adaptations, but several literary adaptations that could make terrific classroom pairings to explore issues of genre, gender, and point-of-view. Joyce Carol Oates’s 1982 A Bloodsmoor Romance is a satirical spoof of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Alcott’s Little Women, and Alcott’s sensational thrillers. Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005) re-tells Little Women from the perspective of the absent Mr. March and emphasizes the injustices of the Civil War and slavery, both in the background of Alcott’s novel. English Pakastani author Sarvit Hasin’s This Wide Night (2006) re-casts the March sisters as “colonized subjects” after the end of British rule. The novel is told from the perspective of the girls’ neighbor Jimmy, thereby re-imagining the novel from Laurie’s perspective.

Beth Matters!

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I haven’t taught the novel since 2013, but colleagues around the country tell me that their students are noticing and relating to the shy and reclusive Beth in ways they haven’t before. Perhaps Beth’s social anxiety and agoraphobia speak to a generation of students facing emotional and mental health issues; those of us in the classroom have witnessed a marked increase in emotional fragility and sensitivity among young people just in the past few years. The real-life Beth, Louisa May Alcott’s sister Lizzie Alcott, today probably would have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. In the novel, Marmee is more worried about Beth’s “spirit” than her physical health.

Beth’s substance and significance as a character have been overlooked, although it is Beth who voices the most beloved themes of the novel—that family, home, and love matter most. Jo, the novel’s protagonist, changes because of Beth, as Beth’s illness and death prompt Jo’s passage into womanhood and her more serious literary aspirations. The recent BBC/PBS adaptation of Little Women on Masterpiece Classics pays much attention to Beth, especially compared to previous adaptations. This is another indication that Beth is receiving renewed recognition as a compelling and vital character, and that the novel continues to speak anew to each generation of readers.

Teaching Alcott’s Other Writing

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Little Women was by no means Alcott’s only literary endeavor. Alcott’s other writing can be integrated into American literature classrooms to introduce a variety of themes and aesthetic and literary concerns. Her short story “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) tells of the Alcott family’s time living at Fruitlands, a utopian farming community led by Alcott’s father Bronson when Alcott was a young girl. It is a satirical critique of the toll that utopian reform takes on women. Because Alcott seriously considers women’s lives and experiences, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) should not be taught without it.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873) tells the story of a woman who seeks financial independence and pursues several career paths including actress and governess. Students relate to Christine Devon’s search for vocation—meaningful work that is also financially remunerative. They are also fascinated by her love interest David Sterling, supposedly based on Alcott’s teacher and friend Henry David Thoreau. Moods (1864), Alcott’s greatest literary ambition, portrays a woman who marries and then regrets it. The novel portrays Alcott’s early crushes on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I’m currently teaching it as a major text in my senior capstone on Transcendentalism along with Emerson’s Nature (1836), Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1843), and Thoreau’s Walden (1854).

Alcott’s first literary success was Hospital Sketches (1863), based on her work as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War. Taken directly from Alcott’s letters home to her family in Concord, Hospital Sketches’s discussions of women’s work, women and war, and women and medicine make it a teaching possibility for a wide range of interdisciplinary and general education courses. That Alcott wrote sensational, darker fiction is well known at this point. My favorite of these stories is based on Alcott’s experience as a war nurse. “My Contraband” (1863) is about a formerly enslaved man and Union hospital orderly who exacts revenge on his former master, a captured Confederate soldier and patient in the hospital. Alcott’s Robert is no Uncle Tom, and the short story is an antidote to the romantic racialism of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and other anti-slavery and abolitionist literature of the day.

Men Should Read Little Women

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Perhaps a major factor keeping some instructors from teaching Little Women is its very title and the fact that it is an overtly gendered novel. Women and girls, of course, have always been asked to read and identify with literature written from the male perspective. All too often when making decisions about syllabi and reading lists, we may, consciously or not, consider the male experience as the universal default. Yet over the years, I have found that all of my students—women and men alike—love reading Little Women. Some of the novel’s noted male fans have included Teddy Roosevelt, George Orwell, and Rudyard Kipling.

Little Women passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and Rioux reminds that it is important for boys and men to occasionally, at least, read books about girls, particularly books in which “girls appear as individuals, rather than as extensions” of male protagonists. Jane Roland Martin writes: “Given that the ability to take the point of view of another is a basic element of morality itself, it is unconscionable—I would say positively immoral—to deprive [boys] of the opportunity of identifying with the other half of humanity. . . . How can boys respect girls if they are never encouraged to see the world as girls do?”

Teaching Little Women at 150 provides today’s students with opportunities to think deeply about gender, genre, literary influence, and the tension between “popular” and classic literature. Its themes and characters resonate with audiences today more than ever, as indicated by several new adaptions, including the BBC/PBS adaptation that appeared earlier this year. A new film adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig and featuring Meryle Streep as Aunt March will be released in 2019, and an adaptation set in the present day starring Lea Thompson as Marmee will come out later this year.

Have you ever taught Little Women or any of its adaptations? In what classes and contexts? How did your students respond? Do you know of other great resources for teaching the novel? Please leave your comments below!

Select Resources for Teaching Little Women

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Louisa May Alcott. Little Women. 1868. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein. Norton, 2004.

Along with the novel itself, this edition includes contemporary reviews and relevant cultural and literary contexts such as excerpts from Pilgrims Progress and Alcott’s sensational fiction.

John Matteson, editor. The Annotated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Norton, 2015.

This edition includes a scholarly introduction and annotations, including a nineteenth-century recipe for pickled limes!

Anne Boyd Rioux. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Norton, 2018.

Rioux’s book is a “must have” resource for teaching Little Women. Her chapters on Little Women’s literary and cultural influence and its portrayal of female development are excellent lecture and classroom resources.

Elaine Showalter, ed. Alternative Alcott. Rutgers, 1998.

This volume contains many of Alcott’s lesser-known works cited in this blog post, including Hospital Sketches, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Work: A Story of Experience, and “My Contraband.”