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Imagine There’s No Grades

About a month ago, Asao Inoue visited my campus to talk about pedagogy and race; the room was packed, standing room only. Among his recommendations that day for addressing systemic racial injustice in education: Don’t grade.

For most people who have been raised in most late 20th/early 21st century formal education systems, this seems impossible. But it’s worth it to, with apologies to John Lennon, imagine there’s no grades.

Dr. Inoue was, of course, mostly concerned with what instructors and administrators, as arbiters and bearers of authority, can do to dismantle systems that reproduce and amplify racial injustice by disguising it as “merit” and “achievement.” And that is a worthy concern, one I respect deeply, while acknowledging that in more ways than I’m even capable of seeing, I benefit from these systems.

However, what I want to look at here is how eliminating grading might benefit instructors–that is, how do we, who are the arbiters of these labels themselves, improve our own lives by removing grades.

Instructors benefit very little from the tedious decision-making of ranking each student into one of 5 ranks (one of which, it should be noted, is usually a MUCH larger range of scores than the others). Well, you say, just replace it with raw numbers. But what I mean here is to focus not on generation a cumulative mark at all, but rather to use a pass/fail at most to indicate if students have succeeded in mastering the skills promised by the course description.

The slavery to these marks that we practice, for both ourselves and our students, results in focusing on the marks themselves as a substitute for content and skills themselves. It focuses on putting numbers and letters on assignments and assessments rather than responding to them in their own rights, leading to false equivalencies.

It also results in too much anxiety for both students and instructors alike. The anxiety for students is obvious; the difference between an A and a B is functionally very small, yet who among us has not seen a student cry over it? For instructors, it’s more subtle. It is a sort of Pavlovian conditioning, so that we flinch when we grade precisely because so often when we put a grade down, we are immediately slapped with a complaint, generally as an email, often so fast that we can be sure the student didn’t read our carefully considered feedback. The grade, then, harms the student by distracting from the feedback, and harms the instructor by forcing them to spend more time defending their grading practices and balancing rubrics and answering emails than focusing on the students’ work itself.

So what would a class without grades look like? For that, we probably need to look outside the academy. When I asked a colleague with some experience how Dr. Inoue does it, I was told contract grading, which seems to be many instructors’ favorite answer–but contract grading is still grading, as Dr. Inoue himself admitted in his talk. What I am proposing is more radical than even that, but not so radical that I haven’t seen how it would work in practice.

My mother is an art teacher; I learned a lot of my teaching skills from her, rather than my pedagogy classes (sorry, it’s true). But she doesn’t teach in conventional settings; instead, she teaches at after school programs through a park system, at senior centers, at renaissance fairs and anime conventions, and anywhere else that will give her a table and access to students. While it is she who taught me to clearly articulate the purpose of each part of a lesson, and to consider how I might evaluate that my students learned what the lesson was supposed to teach, her evaluations are never grades in these settings. Never once does she have to sit down at a spreadsheet and figure out letter grades (she does sometimes have to sort out attendance and rosters as a practical concern in some settings).

So what does learning look like outside of schools?
Image by Steve Johnson via StockSnap

Generally, her students are there because they want to be (there are exceptions). And while many of her lessons are under strict practical time constraints, they aren’t under the artificial constraints of the bell curve. Unlike myself, never once has she come under supervisor scrutiny because too many of her students did too well in her class.

But her students do learn. And often come back, hungry to learn more. And she can measure that her students learned. But those measurements are qualitative, not quantitative. She assesses her students not by tests and percentages, but by watching them do the thing that they are learning to do. The content is first and foremost.

But, you might say, that’s fine for teaching art skills, which are by nature qualitative and subjective. But, I answer, so also are other skills, hard or soft. Our numbers and letters and spreadsheets are meant to help us process more students more efficiently, but that doesn’t serve us or the students. It serves only the administration, if anyone at all. Then again, the hard part would be persuading the administration to let us do away with grading. To let us teach the ways that these students on the margins–in these cracks where learning is happening without official sanction–are learning anyway.

What would this look like in my perfect classroom? I would still carefully assign my students work that would teach the necessary skills. But instead of a grade, I simply write the comments I usually write anyway. But without the grade, students would not be able to shortcut past those comments. Instead, their emails would no longer be “Why did I get a B?” but “What did you mean by…?” And at the end of the semester, I simply sign off on a checklist of skills to say that they acquired the necessary skills.

And somehow, that seems like a better world.

Encouragement for Lower Word Counts: NaNoWriMo 2019 Report #1

This first third of NaNo has not been my best first third of NaNo ever. I’ve averaged about 1k per day of actual writing. That’s about 700 words per day short of where I should be, which I’ll need to make up, of course.

However, it’s not unusual. Sometimes you get a rocky start. It’s ok. If you’re out there doing NaNo and you’re ready to give up because you’re already really behind, please rest assured that I’ve seen recoveries enough to know they’re possible, from anyone.

And there’s probably a good reason you fell behind. You’re out of practice because you haven’t written anything in months, maybe years. You’re busy because it’s November and November is a crazy month. You’re exhausted because you have other responsibilities. And all of that is legitimate, valid, and ok. You’re going to be ok.

Me? Well, I’m working too much, planning a wedding, and this week I got hit HARD with something that may or may not be strep throat (the test was negative, but apparently it only tests one or two strains, so it could be strep throat!). I mean hard. I spent all of Wednesday and most of Thursday in bed. I’m very fortunate that I have a job that’s flexible and I was able to just cancel class for one day and I’ll just shift work around. It’ll be fine. But I’m still weak and recovering. I went to church on Sunday and was exhausted from just one hour of worship. Seriously.

Like me, you’ve got your own unexpected stuff going on. Of course you do. Forgive yourself. You didn’t do NaNoWriMo to shame yourself for not writing enough. You did it to write more than you normally do in a month. Did you do that? You win.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo every year since 2005. Sometimes at this point in the month I’m approaching or past 25k. Sometimes at this point in the month I’m right on target. And sometimes, like this year, I’m considerably behind and struggling. But every year, I cross that finish line somehow, because deadlines are magical, and there’s a lot of month left.

Remember that if you miss a day it doesn’t mean you have to do double the next day. You just do a little more over several days and it works out. And remember to forgive yourself. You can’t take back a day and make it better, but you can adjust course as you go and make the next days better.

Take care of yourself, Wrimo. I’m cheering for you.


Report by the numbers

  • Days of NaNoWriMo 2019: 10
  • Wordcount (at the time of writing, which is Sunday afternoon): 9,661
  • Chapters: 4
  • Write-ins attended: 1 (sorry for cancelling the other, y’all)
  • Days written: 9
  • Days spent mostly unconscious because of illness: 1.5
  • Character count: Like, 7 named characters I think?
  • Characters killed off: Hard to count. -2? I mean, seriously, the whole premise is people sometimes un-die.
  • Favorite character so far: The cat Scruff of course, but the bi owner of the local gay bar (who has only been mentioned, mind you) named Maxwell is a pretty close second 🙂
  • Favorite thing about this novel: Creating random new characters
  • Least favorite thing about this novel: Setting. Seriously, I knew before I started that it would be weird writing something in the present “real” world. It’s the first time I’ve attempted this, apart from some portal fantasy that has one foot in both. It’s been a real struggle. “Write what you know,” they say. Well, the fact is, there’s a lot I don’t know about the real world and I’m feeling it.

PS: If you need someone to cheer you on, add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo website and send me a message. My username is Valanice. I’ll even find some time to do some wars with you. Seriously. Goodness knows I could use the wars too 🙂

The Lonely Comfort of Internet Invisibility

This blog is pretty new, so it doesn’t really bother me that my best views of all time on a post is less than 20. This blog is meant as part professional placeholder, part personal experiment. I want it to grow into something, someday, but right now the fact it’s tiny is almost by design.

Writing in the cold glow of a computer screen–what if no one is on the other side of the screen?
Photo by Vojtech Okenka via Stocksnap

Sometimes I feel invisible elsewhere too; the same three or four people like most of my Facebook posts, and my tweets seldom get very many impressions, and again that isn’t really a problem.

Sometimes the invisibility makes me feel powerless–I’ve spent most of my life working with words, studying what makes them meet an audience, and yet I have trouble getting anyone to hear me.

But most of the time, honestly, it’s freeing. Most of the time, the fact that I’m speaking to a digital room about as full as a 7:30 am academic conference panel (that is, nearly empty) is comforting, and it’s definitely something we should consider accepting in a world where our media is designed, almost gamified, to make us chase after likes and retweets and whatever it is on Instagram people do (I have an Insta account. I don’t use it. It confuses me. I’m old, I know).

Lately on Facebook I’ve been feeling censored. It was my safe place, where I carefully curated who I allowed on my friends list to people I trusted, but somehow it’s gotten too big, and I’m intensely aware that I have multiple audiences there, too many audiences. Best to keep to cat posts, then. Every time I say something there that’s a little bit opinionated, either I feel ignored or I get intense social anxiety that I’ve offended someone.

Sometimes I feel safer saying things on Twitter. Most of the people I communicate with on Twitter I have never actually met in real life; that’s where I try to cultivate my scholarly identity and to connect with people whose work intersects my own, and I’ve built a lovely enclave there. It’s really a positive place now. But it’s also anonymous. If I say something there, I don’t have to face someone about it at work the next day. But that’s also a place I want to be professional, so I hold my tongue sometimes and I don’t spam the cat photos. And I’m also scared there, because I’ve seen too many of those people whose work I admire get harassed and bullied there. I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself.

There’s something freeing about knowing that no one is really listening. You can say what you like. You can try things out. You can change your mind. All that pressure we put on public people–such as influencers, celebrities, and politicians–is gone. You can be a truly private citizen.

I teach my students that a text isn’t complete until it’s been delivered to its audience. And I stand by that. But I also teach them that sometimes our audience is ourselves. And maybe that’s not just true in the case of our most private writing practices–our diaries, our prewriting activities, etc. Maybe that’s something we need to be reminded of even when we write publicly; when we write with a tiny audience, it’s easier to see ourselves as part of our audience, because we’re a greater percentage of our audience.

Sometimes we lose ourselves in a crowd, and sometimes we lose our own voice on a podium.


(Sorry for the subpar post this week–it’s NaNoWriMo, so there’s a lot of other writing going on! Thursdays might be better)

Last Minute NaNoWriMo Post

It is, at the time of publishing this, October 31st. Not only is that Halloween (which is important for its own sake), it is also the day before National Novel Writing Month. At midnight, the writing may begin.

This is the 20th year of NaNoWriMo, which started in 1999. It’s my 14th year. And I guarantee you, it will be my 14th win. At this point, it’s going to take something pretty drastic to stop me.

Why does NaNoWriMo work so well? (for me, at least–I acknowledge there may be some problems with applying it universally) And how can you make it work for you? There are, I think, three parts to the secret of NaNoWriMo: quantification, community, and blatant mediocrity. All of these are worth celebrating and, perhaps, applying to other parts of our lives.


Quantification

Quantifying goals makes them more engaging.
Photo by Tevarak via Stocksnap

Quantification may be the most obvious part of the NaNoWriMo challenge: 50,000 words. 30 days. It’s that simple. It breaks down to 1,667 words a day, and since I write about 500 words in 10 minutes, it’s honestly only a 40-60 minute commitment per day for me. When you start playing with numbers like that, even big things (like writing a novel), start to look pretty manageable.

It works for other things, too. We use FitBits to count our steps and our heartbeats (well, maybe you do. I’m on the late end of the curve for most tech, sorry). We count our calories. We count our minutes at work, and put a dollar value on everything from time to entertainment.

Too often we look at creative endeavors as nebulous and uncertain, but that’s not very productive. Inktober uses quantification, too, albeit to a lesser degree, by simply requiring one drawing per day. This breaks things down into finite amounts, and makes the endeavor, while still big and awesome, doable. Most truly successful creative endeavors, at some point, get into quantification, I would expect.


Community

Writing is actually, contrary to popular belief, a social activity.
Photo by Startup Stock Photos via Stocksnap

One of the remarkable things about NaNoWriMo is how it organizes community. My record for November is perfect; a flawless 50k every time (and once 100k!). My record for off-season attempts, such as Camp NaNo? Not so great. I’m not sure what the magic of November is, but I strongly suspect it has to do with the community aspect of the event, the fact that I’m just one of a massive throng of novelists trying to do the same thing.

Many of my friendships have been forged or strengthened through NaNoWriMo. Attending write-ins, supporting each other in a creative endeavor… it’s a great way to meet people and make friends. And definitely my relationship with my sister has deepened with our doing NaNoWriMo every year together.

My first year of NaNoWriMo, I participated avidly in the forums on the website. I strongly urge new Wrimos to do this! These days I’m not really active in the forums (I’m just less interested in forums in general) but I know from other Wrimos that they remain excellent social support for the endeavor.

There’s just something about the social accountability of doing a thing with other people. I only really work out when I have another person I’m responsible too–a buddy to go with, in other words. Why not the same thing for writing?


Blatant Mediocrity

It doesn’t have to be perfect! In fact, it SHOULDN’T be perfect!
Photo by Thought Catalog via Stocksnap

When we are worried that what we do has to be perfect, we become paralyzed. We can’t move forward. In our creative writing classes, we’re generally taught to work for quality. We workshop pieces repeatedly. We read models that are the best of the best, the groundbreaking, revolutionary stuff, the things we put on a pedestal.

NaNoWriMo throws all of that out the window and says just one thing matters: that you write as many words as you can. Is it bad? Sure. But you wrote something!

NaNoWriMo teaches us to celebrate mediocrity, to acknowledge that sometimes doing something at all is more important than doing it well. It teaches us that mediocrity is ok, as long as we keep moving. One of the basic “rules” of NaNoWriMo is to not delete anything, even if you know it’s not going to stay in your novel when you revise. At one level this is simply gaming the system; words are words, and they all count for your word count. But at another level, it teaches us to live with our mediocrity and even to honor it. It teaches us to look at the parts of our work that we know are not good and to say to those parts: “I acknowledge that I had to create you in order to create what is good. I honor your existence as part of my process, and will not hide that you exist.”

This celebration of even the mediocre makes writing less mysterious and more accessible. It also makes us better able to emotionally handle the often demoralizing work of making ourselves better. Mediocrity is valuable.

So, this November, I hope you will join me and my friends writing a novel–or, if writing a novel isn’t your dream, doing something crazy. Remember that as you do the crazy things, set your goals in a way that can be quantified, supported by a strong community (large or small!), and will embrace mediocrity.

Halloween, Grace, and Kindness

If, as it should be, Christianity is marked by a desire to, as scripture tells us, do justice and love kindness (Micah 6:8), if we are truly to love our neighbors and understand that all the people whom God places in front of us are our neighbors, then Halloween is the most Christian of holidays in the Western calendar, at least as presently celebrated.

Halloween is the most gracious holiday. Free spooks for everyone!
Photo by Skitter Photo via Stocksnap

Yes, Halloween. You heard me right.

Not Christmas, not Thanksgiving, not even Easter. Halloween.

Sure, I acknowledge that in the liturgical calendar, other days have more significance than All Hallow’s Eve (or All Saints the next day, or even Reformation Day for those of us in that tradition). Easter is, honestly, my favorite holiday for deeply theological reasons, of course. But Halloween comes next, because it is only on Halloween when we truly live out loving our neighbors. It is Halloween when we are our best selves (or at least, expected to be). And I’m not only speaking to Christians here, despite my opening gambit–because part of the beauty of Halloween is that it’s become so secularized that its observance is open to literally everyone.

But, on Christmas, you say, we give presents. Yes, but we give presents only to those whom we expect presents from, or those whom we consider “our own”–our family, our close friends, our coworkers if we get roped into an awful secret santa thing that no one actually wants to do. Likewise, we celebrate Thanksgiving and Easter with those we consider closest already.

On Halloween, though, we lovingly prepare our houses for complete strangers. We buy candy in the hopes of delighting those strangers. We set up decorations in the hopes that those strangers will be thrilled by them (it’s worth noting that scaring people for Halloween really only is fun if it’s what they are looking for–we scare the people who want to be scared, we comfort those who are scared more than they want). We open our door to children we have never met–and may not ever recognize because they are wearing disguises. We give them gifts simply because they appeared and asked. We expect nothing in return. We are pleased simply to give, because that’s part of the game.

(And a note to all of you who complain about trick or treaters, withhold candy from older trick or treaters, or are otherwise stingy about Halloween: really? You’re gonna be that person?)

Halloween: A bright spot in our calendars!
Photo by Jeffrey Bretts via Stocksnap

Halloween is the one day of the year when it’s socially acceptable for people to go out in the streets and greet strangers. It’s one day of the year when it’s socially acceptable for people to look any way they please, to be anything they please, and they will be greeted with delight all the same.

Other holidays might have once had this community aspect–consider, for instance, caroling–but for the most part our celebration of holidays (in American culture at least; can’t really speak for anyone else) has become insular, limited only to our existing social circles, which increasingly don’t even include our next door neighbors.

Unfortunately, even Halloween is becoming increasingly insular. We must fight against the tide of fearful “trunk or treat” events that are meant as alternatives to neighborhood trick or treating, just one more way that many of us use our cars and our mobility to hide ourselves away from those around us.

But there’s really nothing to be afraid of, so there’s no reason not to let your children go trick or treating (in fact, if they are old enough or have old enough siblings, you don’t even need to go with them! I honestly can’t remember my parents actually accompanying me trick or treating). But, you say, strangers do horrible things to children! Not nearly at the rates that people who are not strangers do. Generally strangers treat each other decently, and Halloween has its own rules that enhance that general rule–you trick your friends, you treat your neighbors.

For instance, consider the perennial rumors of tampered candy–whether you learned it as pins, poison, or (in a more recent twist) edibles. There are no documented cases of poisoned Halloween candy being distributed to trick or treaters. It is true that there have been a couple of very tragic cases in which a child was poisoned with Halloween candy; but, in every single one of these cases, the person who poisoned the candy was targeting a specific child who knew them well. It’s usually a family member. Strangers, then, can be trusted better with your children’s safety than your family.

Won’t you be my spooky neighbor?
Give the gift that keeps on scaring this season.
Photo by Corinne Kutz via Stocksnap

And that really is the beauty of Halloween: it’s a time when we can selflessly give without expectation of return. It’s a time when strangers become your neighbors. It’s a time when you can truly show love and grace.

All while decorating with every horrible thing you can imagine, because sometimes loving someone means scaring them.

More About Plagiarism

Last week, I wrote about how the metaphors and imagery we use to impress the eeeeevils of plagiarism on our students results in scared, confused students. But that’s not the end of the story. Maybe our focus on plagiarism is the root problem because of its attendant focus on originality. What I mean is that maybe we shouldn’t be so focused on being original in the first place.

Question: How do we get students to write original work?
Answer: We don’t, because originality is a rotten concept.
Photo by Birch Landing Home via Stocksnap

Originality, at its core, is a myth. I’m normally uncomfortable with calling things “myth” when we simply mean a notion that isn’t really true, because folklorists use “myth” to mean stories that are in some way sacred to the cultures whose stories they are (e.g., stories about figures like Abraham, Hercules, Thor, etc), meaning that someone believes/d they’re true. But you know what? Here I’ll accept it. Originality is a myth. In the not-true sense and the folklore sense.

We worship originality in our culture. We consider it mystical, something that people have by merit of being geniuses rather than by study and effort. We fetishize and fight over who was “first” to do a thing, as if the thing came ex nihilio and somehow was not an organic product of its time and all the things that came before it. We constantly celebrate the new, the fresh, the unique, while ignoring that these things are seldom actually new, fresh, or unique–more likely they’re simply imports or fusions.

Most creative writers start out writing something quite derivative. I know I did. My first draft of my first novel was a godawful melange of damsel-in-distress tropes mixed with every dashing swordsman I could think of punctuated with way too many exclamation points. The first thing my older brother said to me when I excitedly summarized to him what I thought was an original story core was “Terry Pratchett already wrote that.” And he had, but I hadn’t gotten as far in the Discworld series as my brother had at that point.

And I was crushed. My idea–which was original and fresh and new to me–wasn’t original at all. But how was I to know? I was eleven years old and while I was reading voraciously, there was a lot to read that I hadn’t gotten to yet. Some time thereafter, some time after I had picked up the pieces of my broken spirit and decided I could go ahead and write my novel anyway (ultimately changing its premise) and that I would be a writer for realsies, I came across an interview with Terry Pratchett (I’d link it but I can’t remember where it was–I was like 14, ok?) in which he said that a woman had once said to him that she didn’t read because she didn’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas. He said that this was a surefire way to write something completely unoriginal. And it is.

There are two things that are necessary to write something that will be perceived as “original”: 1) you must be saturated in the things that you are writing and 2) you must also be saturated in something(s) else. For the first, you need to know what’s new and old in your genre, what’s convention and what’s invention. For the second, you need to have something to add to the genre that isn’t there already. Neither of these things is actually creating something new; they’re both innovating on what already exists. Both these require being exposed to and unafraid to use other peoples ideas.

Painting doesn’t come from nothing. To paint, you need a palette, which gives you options. To write, you need genre conventions, which give you options. Photo by Birch Landing Home via Stocksnap

We scare our students away from using sources. They’re scared that if it’s not a direct quote, with perfect citations, it’s not correct and will (as per my last post on the dreaded p-word) land them, apparently, in jail (it will not). This makes them scared to incorporate other people’s ideas, scared to synthesize, and scared to innovate.

Innovating is not the same as creating ex nihilo, being original. It’s making something new by remixing it with other elements. It’s, well, how writers write.

Terry Pratchett’s genius isn’t originality. Sure, I encountered a lot of tropes first in his writing. A lot of us did. But nothing he wrote was original taken granularly; it was all bits and pieces from here and there. The truly original–rather, innovative–part of his writing was in the recipe, the arrangement, the unique mix of ideas and tropes and motifs, rather than creating ex nihilo.

Writing is messy. Let students get messy, ok?
Photo by Lisa Fotios via Stocksnap

If we want to truly foster good, innovative writing–writing that engages with other ideas and has conversations, rather than that just shouts itself into the darkness–we need to move away from the idea of originality. That means we also need to move away from the scary p-word plagiarism.

Instead of telling our students “don’t take other people’s ideas,” we need to tell them how to take other people’s ideas in genre-appropriate ways, in ways that recognize the hard work and innovations of others while also recognizing that nothing is truly new. It all comes from somewhere.

Front Paw/Back Paw: a Game For Flexible Cats

I want to play a game with you. It’s called Front Paw/ Back Paw. The rules are simple: you try to figure out which paw is which in a picture of a cat that is jumbled up, as cats do. My little one Legend is very good at this game. So here we go with an easy one. Which paw goes where?

Got it? I’ll put the answers at the bottom.

Here’s another:

And another:

Another:

Second to last:

And one more!

I hope you enjoyed this game! Do your kitties play front paw / back paw?

Here’s the answers. Front paws are in circles, back paws are in squares.

Front paws in circles, back paws in squares.
Triangle for tail!
Yes that’s a hind leg. But it’s definitely a front paw! (The back paw is under her chin)

Stop Scaring Your Students About Plagiarism

It’s October, so it’s the season for spooooky things. So, let’s talk about plagiarism!

Oooh it’s sooooo scary!
Photo by Skitter Photo via StockSnap

No, but, really, stop scaring your students about plagiarism. Seriously. Stop. They’re terrified. They’re paralyzed with fear at the horrible p-word. STOP IT.

“But,” I hear you say, “students need to know that plagiarism is bad! They need to know that they need to avoid it!”

They know. Trust me. They know. That’s about all they know, though. And that’s why they’re scared rather than educated about plagiarism.

When I talk to my students about plagiarism, I often give them case studies and have them imagine they’re the teacher, and ask them what they would do and why. My students often tell me things ranging from “they should be kicked out of school” to “they should be put in prison.” I’ve had students suggest torture and capital punishment (I really hope they were joking!).

When I ask why, they tell me that plagiarism is illegal, that it’s criminal, and that it’s outright theft. None of these things is true.

Plagiarism is not illegal. It’s an ethical problem, not a legal problem. You’re thinking of copyright infringement, which is illegal, but is technically not the same thing, even though they often overlap. When I teach plagiarism to my students, I tell them that it’s less like shoplifting and more like sleeping with your best friend’s partner. Not technically illegal (except where adultery or fornication laws are in place, perhaps, depending on the situation), but we can all agree it’s not the right thing to do.

Likewise, plagiarism is not criminal. Even when plagiarism entails illegal copyright infringement that could be charged in a court of law, it gets brought to a civil court, not a criminal court, meaning it almost never involves prison sentences, just a requirement to repay damages for lost income as a result of the copyright infringement. As best I understand, it’s tried in the same sort of setting as other kinds of civil cases, such as divorce settlements.

Finally, and perhaps most important, plagiarism is not theft. It is more accurately described as misrepresentation. It’s not theft to lie on your resume; it’s misrepresentation. Plagiarism functions the same way. It’s not shoplifting, and it’s certainly not larceny. It’s simply saying you did work that you didn’t do.

When we explain plagiarism in this way: as an ethical issue about misrepresentation, one that has to do more with integrity than with the law, we reduce the fear, but we also increase the understanding of how plagiarism works and what to do about it.

Another approach I use to teach plagiarism is I point out that you can plagiarize yourself. The fear-based approach that likens plagiarism to criminal theft to be punished can’t handle this simple fact: you can’t steal from yourself, right? This challenges students, and many students become indignant, because they rightly assume that whatever they write is theirs to do with as they see fit (legally, it is; we get to grade it, but they retain the copyright unless otherwise indicated). However, if we understand plagiarism as misrepresentation, then it makes sense that you can misrepresent your own work. You can plagiarize yourself when you say you did a piece of writing for a particular assignment, but it was actually written for another class. You can plagiarize yourself when you submit a text for publication and assure the publisher that they’re getting first rights to that text, but you actually published it elsewhere. And, because it’s not theft, these cases are ameliorated simply by an open and honest disclosure of what the text actually is. Theft isn’t avoided simply by saying to someone “I am taking this item,” but plagiarism is avoided simply by saying “I am taking this text.”

When students are scared of punishment, when they are scared that they will Do Something Wrong, they’re also scared to try, scared to do anything. If we teach them that they will be punished if they so much have a comma out of place or forget one parenthetical citation, how can we expect them to practice citing sources at all?

I see very few plagiarism cases. I get perhaps one a year. Seriously. That’s a rate of perhaps .5% of students plagiarizing over the course of four major writing assignments in a semester, most of which have some research component.

Scaring your students by misrepresenting plagiarism as theft is basically the same kind of sin as plagiarism itself: misrepresentation. If you want to ensure you don’t have to do the dreaded plagiarism paperwork (whatever that looks like in your institution), it’s very simple: Talk to your students about what plagiarism is, and don’t mislead them or scare them by telling them it’s theft. It’s an ongoing conversation over the whole semester, not just a threat in a syllabus.

Teach them, don’t scare them.

Fanfiction is Research

You heard me right. Not fanfiction and research. Not fanfiction requires research. Not even fanfiction should be researched. All of those are true statements. But today I want to do a quick argument: fanfiction is research.

Literary stuff
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood via StockSnap

I want to clarify something: I’m pro-fanfiction but I don’t really write fanfiction. This is not because I think I’m somehow above fanfiction. It’s quite the opposite: I think fanfiction is too hard, so I tend to avoid it.

This is not to say I’ve never tried my hand at fanfiction. I’ve done a few minor forays into the genre, but never really gotten deep enough to say I write (or draw or otherwise create) fanfic. Which may sound odd coming from someone whose dissertation was literally about fan communities. I don’t claim to be a fanfiction expert. I claim to be a fanfiction ally, in the same way that I can be an ally for LGBTQIA+ folks without myself being LGBTQIA+. (I will defend the comparison in part because a lot of LGBTQIA+ writers, readers, and characters wind up relegated to the realm of fanfic, because marginalization).

But I want to use my various fanfic experiences and my research experience to argue that fanfiction is research. That is, to do fanfiction is, in some important ways, to do research as much as most literary criticism counts as research. Perhaps, though, it would be more precise to say fanfiction is literary criticism. And it’s filling a niche that a lot of conventional, mainstream literary criticism isn’t filling, and it’s a niche that needs to be filled. Popular culture scholarship is often slow and behind the curve, but fanfic is often right on top of it, if not even ahead of it. Fandoms move swiftly in ways that scholarly communities could never hope to do. Moreover, fanfiction touches the texts that most literary critics would sacrifice their career if they glanced in that direction–but those are often the texts that are making up the cultural moment, that are feeding the zeitgeist, and that most need to be examined.

When I was a master’s student, I was taking a course on 19th century fiction, and we read Vanity Fair. [SPOILERS FOR VANITY FAIR AHEAD] As a Serious Scholar(TM), I knew full well the limits of my interpretation; I knew any argument I made required extensive evidence from the text itself. But sometimes there is a hole in the text, something the author either decided not to address or simply didn’t include. There is one such hole in Vanity Fair (at least one!): When William Dobbin (the ur-Nice Guy) returns from war, about halfway through the book, without his rival in love George, there are very few witnesses to George’s death, and William is hailed as a hero for his efforts in the battle. But the story of what happened in the battle is only ever told in the story filtered through the characters who stand to gain from a valorous telling of it. But what if–hear me out–Dobbin killed George? He certainly has the motive, opportunity, and means available. And how then does that change our reading of poor Dobbin? He certainly begins to align more closely, then, with modern understandings of how toxic masculinity can mix fatally with possessiveness and unrequited desire. There’s nothing in the text to say that’s what happened but… there’s also nothing in the text to say it didn’t.

This is not the sort of speculation that formal research allows. But it is the sort of exploration of an interpretation of a character that creative work–adaptation (which is more socially accepted) or, yes, fanfiction–would welcome.

Fanfiction likewise has a way of exploring the gaps, holes, and cracks in a text. Anne Elizabeth Jamison writes in her extensive study of fanfiction that “The best fic writers are fantastically close readers,” meaning that the work that fic writers do to open up the space for their stories in the texts they’re expanding is very much the same work that literary scholars do.

Also, a LOT of “great Literature” is really fanfic, and deep down you know it.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso via StockSnap

Identifying the spaces where something more can be said (or isn’t being said) is as important as identifying what is being said, but our methods of literary research in the canon of scholarship are ill equipped to do that compared to the massive crowd-sourcing and creative leaps that fanfiction is allowed to make. Admittedly these are some of the spaces that adaptations, translations, and other creative interpretations can fill–but what, apart from official cultural sanction, is really the difference between a fanfic and an adaptation?

One November I attempted to write my own fanfiction. I was in the beginning stages of my dissertation, and I wanted to know what it was like to do more than small one-off speculations and parodies as I had done before. It was, admittedly, a strange project: I was writing a deliberate misinterpretation of lyrics by the fantasy symphonic metal band Rhapsody of Fire. I had misheard a few lines, and in so doing, it changed the meaning entirely–taking the story from a fairly conventional epic fantasy about a hero taking down a dark lord to a deep, layered internal struggle and ultimate downfall of a hero who, driven by his consuming need for revenge, becomes the dark lord himself. That is, it became less Lord of the Rings and more Star Wars, I suppose.

But writing the fic was exhausting. It required constantly going back to the source material to check details. It required intense documentation. I had to have character lists, annotated lyrics, everything–probably as much note-taking as if I were writing a historical fiction. In fact, the process is very similar. Playing in someone else’s world requires all the research skills that writing about the real world takes, only you don’t have the advantage of lived experience to help you.

Fanfic is hard work, yo. It’s a LOT of research.
Photo by Tevarak via StockSnap

I have deep respect for fanfic creators (here including not just writers, but all artists who do fan work). They do real research. They do real cultural work. They stay on the cutting edge of the zeitgeist and explore all the possible directions. They test the boundaries of genres and texts and even culture itself. The battles over cultural spaces in fanfiction spaces are ultimately the battles over cultural spaces that the mainstream will also have to face, but fanfiction spaces often see it first.

If academic culture can’t learn to respect fanfiction culture, then academic culture is the problem, not fanfiction culture, and I’ll be happy to tell you which one needs change to change first (hint: we can go in alphabetical order here).

Marble Gel Nail Art Tutorial

One of the first things people notice about me these days is that my nails are always done, and often change. That’s because I do them myself, and I often pick at then, and if they aren’t basically perfect, I chew on my own fingers. It’s better this way.

So, today, I offer a nail art tutorial. Here’s how to do a dry marble in gel polish on natural nails.

Image of finished nails.
Finished manicure.
All images by the author.

You’ll need the following supplies:

  • A UV lamp suitable for your gel polish
  • UV activated gel base coat
  • UV activated gel color coat, in 2 contrasting colors (I used white and black in this tutorial)
  • UV activated gel top coat
  • A fine tipped dotting tool. You can also use a pin or other fine tip tool.

First, apply your base coat and put it under the light for 2-3 minutes (follow your polish instructions).

I used Coscelia for this. You use whatever brand you prefer.

Then, apply a thin coat of the lighter color. I used white. It’s ok if it’s not even. Cure it with the lamp 1-2 minutes.

Using Born Pretty gel polish. Probably not the best but it does the trick.

Next, apply a thicker coat of the lighter color. Don’t cure it yet. Take the darker color and dab small drops on the uncured thicker coat. Then, dab tiny drops of the light color overlapping the dark drops. Don’t cure it yet!

Dab lightly. It should look like a ladybug.
Now it looks like leopard spots and you’re ready to drag something through them.

Now, take the dotting tool (or pin) and lightly run the tip through the dots. Don’t do too much. I suggest going horizontally then vertically.

Half dragged. Use a light touch. You just want to pull the very top around.

When the marbling looks the way you want, cure the nails under the lamp for 2-3 minutes.

Cure it when you like it. Don’t over work it, though!

Now, apply a top coat and cure it 2-3 minutes. The marbling can make an uneven texture, so you may need to do more than one layer of to coat, curing between layers.

Again, use whatever brand you like and works for you. But you may need two coats.

And you’re done!

Is it perfect? No. Is it easy? Yes. Will it make most people impressed? Also yes.