Thursday, September 06, 2007

Facts and Arguments on Role Models

It has long been a contention of mine that schools ought to prepare students for the real world. School society should, in an age-appropriate fashion, mirror adult societies such as the workplace.

For instance: nobody in a workplace is going to sit down with a bully and ask them nicely to stop it. Bullying exists, will always exist, and while teaching children not to do it is an admirable goal, it is also vital to teach children how to deal with it. Otherwise, they will leave their bully-proof school without the means to handle such an interaction on the outside.

Conversely, what is unethical in a school context must also be unethical in society as a whole, and teachers and other role models have a responsibility to acknowledge mistakes when they are made, and rectify them as much as possible.

This all has to do with a recent column in the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, brought to my attention by a listserv discussion. Each weekday the paper runs a personal essay in a column called Facts & Arguments. I first heard of it several years ago in a writing seminar, when the seminar leader seemed impressed that one of my fellow classmates had already been published there. “It’s hard to get into that one,” she said.

A little more digging in google shows that the column has hosted numerous award-winning essays and has quite a prestigious reputation.

But it’s probably just as well that I never got around to submitting an essay there, because now I’d be considering removing it from my resume had it been accepted, and would be really really peeved if it hadn’t.

The essay in question is The English Assignment by Sharon Melnicer, herself a well-established author and artist. It revolves around a purported school writing assignment that Melnicer, a former teacher, claims was done by her students in 1997.

It is well-written, entertaining and thought-provoking – but somehow familiar? That would be because the central part of this essay, the work that the students supposedly submitted, has been floating around the internet for at least ten years according to the relevant entry at

(Update: the Snopes page now includes Melnicer's claim to have written the original piece.)

Hundreds of other instances of the story turn up in google searches for distinctive keywords.

Of course the letters to the editor started rushing in; I later learned that the response I received was the stock response sent to everyone and since it has already been posted online I don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable about reproducing it here:

Dear Pauline Brock,
Thank you for your e-mail re the essay of Sept. 4.
The essay writer, Sharon Melnicer, tells me she first presented this article at a province-wide workshop for Manitoba English teachers in 1997. She says she had found the idea ( 'Writing a Tandem Story') as explained in the essay, in a professional journal . The first part of a sample tandem story (the "Outer Space" theme) as well as the teacher's instructions for students were provided in the article. Ms. Melnicer says she tried it out with Grade XI and XlI students, as her essay describes, then wrote up what happened and presented it at the workshop. Copies of that paper were distributed to the 50 or so participants who attended. Nothing further happened regarding publication of the piece until she picked it up again after retiring, did some revisions, and submitted it to F&A.
Ms. Melnicer says she knows plagiarism is a serious offence, and not one she would commit. I have no reason to doubt her.

Moira Dann
Okay, I suppose someone had to have written the original story and while I have my doubts, I have no proof.


What on earth was the editor thinking when she decided to use the story? If it’s not a real example of plagiarism it’s doing a darn good imitation of one, and is certainly not worth the potential aggravation!

Obviously there was no fact checking going on, or somebody did a really sloppy job.
The Globe and Mail is a major national Canadian paper. If I can’t be assured of the originality of their essay page, what can I be assured of?

I replied to the editor saying that if I had been aware that they accepted recycled stories that I had a few hundred of my own lying around to send in, and that I was disappointed in the Globe and in the column; to her credit she did bother to answer that email as well but only to say she was sorry that I was disappointed and that she had acted in good faith.

I am sure she did act in good faith however that is not the point. The point is she, or someone, should not have published the essay without some kind of disclaimer, and the paper should now publish some sort of clarification, if not outright apology.

Which brings me to the extra special bit of irony in all this:
Sharon Melnicer had used the example of the student writing assignment to illustrate a point, which was:

Every good teacher - every effective leader, for that matter - knows that it is from our mistakes we all learn. It follows, then, that failure is something to celebrate; it is the very soil in which learning grows and knowledge blooms.

Nice – and something that the editors at the Globe should take to heart. So far no correction, apology, or explanation has appeared, and it seems as if they are hoping the whole thing will just go away.

What on earth does it say when a former teacher puts herself in the position of appearing to plagiarize and the editor who lets it slip by makes excuses and doesn’t address the issue? How can a society that permits this expect better from its students? Schools rightly make a very big deal about plagiarism and must have the backing of those in real life or the lesson will surely fail.

If you can’t trust the integrity of your teachers... and your editors... who can you trust?

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