Sunday, November 22, 2009

Taking credit for another’s effort


There are teachers who pass off the hard work put in by their colleagues in completing a task as their own, without feelings of guilt or remorse.

PUT two or three teachers together and chances are that after some time the topic of conversation will inevitably veer towards school-related matters.

It doesn’t matter whether you are all attending a wedding dinner, house-warming party or a wake. It doesn’t even matter whether you all know each other. You already know that the lady in the green baju kurung three places in front of you in the buffet queue, and the one with the clingy child are both teachers.

So while waiting for your turn to get some nasi tomato, you exchange a few comments about the bride’s make-up, express your disapproval at the short red dress someone is wearing, and then of course you begin the real discussion. How bossy the new ketua bidang (department head) in your school is, or how you are about to get a new principal. It happens all the time.

Why! You could be in hospital waiting to get your appendix out and generally feeling sorry for yourself, when the nurse informs you that the patient they had just wheeled in – yes, the one with the bandaged right leg – is a cikgu just like you.

Suddenly you don’t feel so alone anymore. Between the doctor’s rounds and the nurses taking your temperature, you manage to share a few school stories about the principal’s pet or the recent hysteria episode in your school.

Therefore it was hardly surprising that during a week-long course I attended lately, despite loud proclamations of going out to unwind and ‘get away from all school-related stuff’, the conversation during tea made a round turn back to teaching.

Mrs Tan, who taught English in all-girls secondary school, was telling us about the unhappy situation she was facing in her English panel.

According to Mrs Tan, the newly-appointed head of the subject panel in her school had an inborn talent for passing off other teachers’ work as her own.

“You know,” said Mrs Tan, “we other teachers in the English panel work so hard to prepare teaching modules or revision papers or action plans. And at the end of it, we see all our months of hard work, beautifully bound and labelled with her name on top.

No appreciation

“She takes sole credit for everything done by others in the panel ... even if it is through our own initiative. And what is worse is, she does not even have the grace to utter one word of appreciation to us during the panel meetings.”

We could sense the bitterness in Mrs Tan’s voice.

“Perhaps the rest of you should inform the principal or the senior assistants,” suggested Aida, another teacher.

“It’s our word against hers,” said Mrs Tan flatly. “And she has a flair for wheedling up to the bosses that none of us have. I guess one really has to be born with that.”

“Would that be a form of plagiarism?” asked Aida. “After all, it is taking credit for someone else’s written work.”

“More like a lack of integrity,” said Mr Rajan, who had been rather quiet till now.

“As for plagiarism, I think that word needs redefining in our education system. What with all these cases of people getting other people to write their assignments and even theses for them.” He gave a derisive laugh.

“It can be quite lucrative, or so I’ve heard – this ‘service’ they render; the writing of assignments and papers. I hear they charge by the chapter.

“I won’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. Especially when this friend of a friend told me how much they are earning. But…” he paused and there was a cynical look on his face. “something always stops me. Call it conscience, call it integrity, call it whatever you will. Maybe I’m stupid but I know I couldn’t sleep easy at night if I complied”.

We must have looked surprised because Mr Rajan laughed again and said: “Where have you people been living all this while? This thing has been going on for so long that it is almost an open secret.”

“It’s true,” said Mrs Tan. “Sad but true. Gone are the days when people actually used their own thinking skills. Now everything is ‘adopt and adapt’. It’s really OK to research material from other sources now with the Internet and all. As long as acknowledgement of the author is done.

“But I tell you, what is done now is like wholesale copying. Cut and paste all the way, that’s what it has become.

“Look for work done by someone else, change a word or two, present it in another form, put your name to it and, voila, all the hard work and time spent by someone else’s research has now become yours.”

“Saves so much thinking time doesn’t it?” said Mr Rajan. “Imagine all the shopping and holidays one can have with time saved. Makes you wonder why you even bother with all this creative and critical thinking in our students’ learning. Might as well introduce a new subject in the curriculum: ‘How to effectively pass off someone else’s work as your own and not be caught.’ They could give A’s for that kind of thing.”

I suppose it is not an easy task. On one hand, we have to encourage our students to do independent research and use the various resources that are available. And at the same time, we have to warn them about plagiarism and that it is not alright to take someone else’s work and pass it off as their own.

We need to talk to them about intellectual property, about how important it is to begin thinking for themselves and not to ride on someone else’s opinions or thoughts. And we need to teach them about integrity.

Not just the way it is taught, as a lesson from a textbook but as something that should be ingrained in our beings.

And perhaps we should begin feeling relieved instead of frustrated when our students hand in work that is laden with errors, instead of a beautifully written piece copied from somewhere, because at least we know that the work is real.

It is authentic, and it is proof that learning is taking place – even if the process is laboriously and painfully slow.