An Open Letter to My Clueless Students


You asked the other day how you were supposed to know that the Week 6 paper was due by the end of the week. You seemed miffed when I answered that it said so in the syllabus and in the weekly reminder of the work due that I send to everyone, and that we talked about it in class. I think your exact words were “Jeez, don’t be so pissy about it.”

Donald*, you asked how you were supposed to know that the school’s rules about plagiarism applied to all assignments, not just long papers. You seemed outraged when I referred you to the school’s academic honor code. “It’s not fair,” you said. “How was I supposed to know about that.” When I said that it was in the syllabus, that we’d discussed it in class, that I’d mentioned it in my comments on your earlier paper, and that I’d begged the class to share any questions they had on the topic, you went all sullen and silent. For a while. Then you asked the same question on the phone. And via email. Emails.

Jenny, if you want to know why I sounded pissy, see the note to Donald above. That’ll tell you about a quarter of the story: you asked me about that due date when I was in between questions from Donald. My bad, and I apologize.

The other three quarters of the story are the parts you can’t see, and can’t know. The second quarter is that I had blocked out my own writing project to work on that afternoon, and answering Donald’s questions, phone calls, and emails. You don’t know adjunct from tenured, so you don’t know I’m more careful about CYA in those exchanges than my professors were when I was an undergraduate, because I’m always afraid of being let go. Too many student complaints: blip! No more Dr. Beatty, at least here.

Jenny, unlike Donald, I love to write. I live to write. It is calling, and I skipped Monday’s writing to deal with his bull. I could feel the story slipping away, buried under irritation and simple distraction as I fielded questions.

And a chunk of Tuesday’s writing time was spent documenting his plagiarism. Again, you don’t know adjunct from ad hominem (I know—I graded your quiz on fallacies), but that too is due to being an adjunct. I don’t want to be let go, and I don’t want to not be scheduled because I didn’t follow procedures…and I have a mortgage and no job security. That means I spend more time documenting Donald’s plagiarism than he spent “writing” the assignment—several times as much, in fact. That’s the third quarter.

The fourth invisible quarter is that our school doesn’t care about my writing. This means I have to maintain my motivation in the absence of praise, support, or even acknowledgement. Jenny, remember how you smiled when you earned that B+ on the first paper? And how you were reassured when I told everyone I’d gotten their papers? Try writing without any of that. It’s possible, but it is harder.

And that part isn’t your fault. It isn’t Donald’s, even, though he’s a mighty fine lightning rod for my irritation over the situation.

But I thought you should know…

I’ll be better on Thursday. The story’s just a pile of notes, not a story, but at least I’m not mad at you guys anymore. But seriously, read the syllabus and don’t cheat, or I may stick a pencil in my eye.

Sincerely yours,

(* = Names have been changed to protect the guilty and clueless.)

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