About seven of my writing students from last semester descended on my office in a group the other day wanting to know if I could change their final grades. They didn’t even speak up for themselves; they had elected one of the best students in the class as their spokesman. It was a striking instance of collectivism at work. I told them to come back later and I would discuss each of their papers with them individually. A couple hours later they came back in groups of 2s or 3s, still with an elected spokesman.
Two of the girls wanted to know why I had given them zeros. I told them that they had submitted fantastic essays – but, unfortunately, they hadn’t written them. To test them, I asked each of them to orally summarize their main points. They stumbled, muttered, giggled and looked at each other for help. They couldn’t do it. I switched tactics and pointed to specific words in their essays and asked them to define them. More stumbling, muttering and giggling ensued. Then, right in front of them, I entered some random lines from their essays into Google and showed them how their exact text appeared on a website. Isn’t that remarkable? They left wide-eyed and even more speechless than before. Yes, that is why you are both getting zeros. I hope you learned something.
While I had seen hints of plagiarism with my writing students last semester, it wasn’t a huge problem because most of the time I would read their drafts and they would have a chance to rewrite before submitting their final papers. It was disappointing when students skipped the first and second drafts and just handed in a plagiarized final paper (like the girls I just mentioned), but it was nowhere near the heartbreak I felt when I graded the final essays from my Cross Cultural Understanding students. It was so devastating that for a long time I just felt anger. In fact, I still get really worked up whenever I talk to someone about it.
I had loved teaching CCU. We had lively classes with animated discussions and the students really opened up to me in their weekly in-class journals. We covered topics like the culture iceberg, individualism and collectivism, stereotypes, body language and non-verbal communication, dating customs, and classroom behavior. For their final assignment they had to write 3-5 pages on one of the following three topics to demonstrate what they had learned in my class: a) How has your understanding of culture changed since the first day of class? What insights have you gained? b) Describe a cultural misunderstanding you had. Can you explain what went wrong? c) Compare and contrast American and Indonesian culture in at least 3 different ways.
I expected to receive organized, reflective short papers in an academic format on material we had covered in class. What I got instead was a dismaying collection of hastily written or copied essays that often had nothing to do with class. They wrote about literature, architecture, economics, technology, food, American holidays and, bizarrely, driving. They gave me papers with so many spelling mistakes and/or Indonesian words that I had a hard time reading them. They gave me papers copied verbatim from class handouts, from the internet and from each other. Two students even gave me the same exact essay comparing the U.S. to Japan. I was flabbergasted. As for organization, many papers had none at all. They had missing titles, introductions that did not relate the body of the paper, missing conclusions, and no demonstrated knowledge of paragraph construction. There were papers that were no more than a collection of bullet points; some were mere lists of keywords. There were also papers that were stapled together out of order. It was an absolute nightmare – these were supposed to be university students? I was angry at their sloppy work and academic dishonesty.
But perhaps in the end it was not my students who learned the biggest lesson in cross cultural difference here, but me. I had assumed that students in their third semester at university would know how to write a simple 3-5 page reflective essay on what they learned in class. I had assumed a general knowledge of essay organization, despite the fact that this wasn’t a writing class. I had assumed that students would write original reactions to class material, as they did in their journal entries. I had assumed that the description of the assignment on the syllabus and my in-class instructions would be enough. Clearly, I had assumed wrong. The big lesson I learned is that my Indonesian university students need a lot more scaffolding and guidance in their academic work – and less opportunity to cheat. Maybe I should have given them a timed in-class essay or a test. Maybe I should have turned the CCU class into a quasi writing class and had them submit multiple drafts. Maybe I should have given them an entire lesson on what plagiarism is and how to paraphrase. I’m not sure exactly what I could have done, but this paper assignment was a real eye-opener - I had to give zeros to 41% of my beloved CCU students.