Last year in my LES Studies class I taught Jennine Capó Crucet’s My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education which led me to read her debut novel Make Your Home Among Strangers and teach it in my Multicultural American Literature class. This novel contains a lot, and even in my lectures, I cannot cover everything within the novel. My class is for educators, and as such, I decided to focus on Lizet’s experiences as a first-generation college student far away from her family and how she worked to navigate the world of academia. I could have focused on the ways that Crucet uses Ariel Hernandez’s story as a parallel to Elian Gonzalez, which is important. I’m looking forward to their discussions of those parallels as we start talking about the novel, but the focus on Lizet’s educational experiences ties the novel into conversations we have had over the course of the semester so far.

The week before we read Make Your Home Among Strangers, I had the class read two of Rebecca Moore Howard’s essay on plagiarism, “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty” (1995) and “Sexuality, Textuality: The Cultural Work of Plagiarism.” In each of these articles, Howard argues that we need to think about the language we use to describe and discuss plagiarism, even moving, in the second article, to argue that we completely do away with the term because of the connotations associated with the word. Howard points out that, per “university regulations,” we think about plagiarism “as a purely textual issue”; however, while we do this on one hand, we also “think of student plagiarists who are either unethical or ignorant of citation conventions.” By bringing in ethics, we move the focus from the text to the person, and this shift brings in moral and gendered associations.

During her first semester at Rawlings College, Lizet faces the Academic Integrity Committee regarding one of her English papers. Lizet says that she “accidentally plagiarized part of a paper” and that the meeting in front of the committee would determine what that meant in regard to her status at Rawlings. During her “testimony” she told the committee that she “attempted to correctly cite something, but [she] didn’t even know the extent to which that needed to be done to count as correct.” Lizet’s teacher, of course, should instruct her on how to cite material, but instead, the instructor reported Lizet for academic dishonesty, a term that, as Howard points out, places ethical connotations on Lizet.

When the teacher approached Lizet about the paper, she presented Lizet with two papers: Lizet’s paper with a highlighted section and a photocopy of a section from a book in the library, circled in red. Lizet told her teacher, “I copied that from the book I cited in the bibliography” and asks if the teacher saw it. The instructors tells Lizet that she saw it, but even after Lizet asks what is wrong, the teacher slips the papers into a folder labeled “Ramirez, L. (plagiarism issue).” It’s obvious that Lizet knows she needs to cite her sources for the academic paper; she just isn’t sure how to do it properly. That is where the instructor steps in; however, the teacher accuses Lizet of academic dishonesty, presenting it as a moral not a pedagogical issues. In this manner, she moves the blame from herself onto Lizet, without even an indication of caring about helping Lizet learn how to cite sources for texts.

Lizet is in the process of learning, and her instructor hinders that learning. As well, the committee hinders that learning by talking down to her in the hearing. They refer to Hialeah Lakes High, where Lizet graduate from, as “an underserved high school,” implying that Lizet was lucky to learn anything and make it to Rawlings. As well, the committee, made up of four white women and one white, would decide her fate as her advisor, someone she only met once, at orientation, who was paired with her because his great-grandmother was Cuban, and who worked in a different department, would provide comments during the hearing.

All of this–the lack of empathy from her instructor, the condescending tone from the committee, the lack of mentorship, and more–all set Lizet up to fail because she did not know how to navigate the system, a system that, as Crucet has pointed out, did not expect someone like her to take part within it. Rawlings, through its treatment of Lizet, labels her a morally corrupt and as unworthy of attending Rawlings because she did not cite her paper correctly. In this manner, they fail at the basic charge of any educational institution, to provide education to all of its students. They fail to offer Lizet any semblance of hope or support in their actions, yet she still learns.

Lizet learns from this incident, not just about Rawlings’ lack of empathy and assistance. She learns about fact-checking and citing one’s sources to combat misinformation, but this knowledge separates her from her family. We see this when Lizet returns home and eats with her sister Leidy and their mother. Her mother tells her about Ariel Hernandez and says that Ariel’s father’s family, in Miami, has taken him in and, “They knew Ariel was coming–it was the father that told them. And what does he care? He let them [Ariel and his mother] leave. He has a new family in Cuba. New wife, new baby, everything. He gave them his blessing.” This was not true, and Lizet asks her mother where she received the information.

Lizet’s mother tells her, “From everyone!” To this, Lizet says, “I closed my eyes, the word citation suddenly coming to me, and said, Right, okay.” Lizet knows, not even from the hearing but from doing the paper, that one needs sources to support a claim, no matter what those sources happen to be. Her mother does not provide sources, and Lizet becomes skeptical of the information she has just heard. This points to Lizet’s critical thinking, her interrogation of information in order to determine whether or not it is factual. However, as she thinks this, she also thinks about the ways that she would have a hard time explaining all of this, with the academic jargon of of words such as citations, academic integrity, and more to her mother and sister.

Lizet does not view her mother’s lack of “citation” as morally inferior, but she questions it, showing that she knows how to think about arguments and references, what one needs to do when writing a paper in a college English course. Yet, the committee at Rawlings College only sees the paper, the paper where Lizet used patchwriting to construct, pulling from multiple sources to work through her thoughts. Howard points to patchwriting as an important stage in the development of young writers in school because it helps them to cognitively think through and organize arguments, but many see it as plagiarism and not as an important step in the process. Again, Rawlings positions Lizet as morally suspect simply because she is working to learn how to construct her arguments and ideas in a specific manner.

At the core, we do not need to punish students for things that we fail to teach them. It is one thing, as Howard puts it, to hand “in a paper that somebody else wrote” and working to cite sources correctly. She continues by stating, “let’s deal with everything else as issues of pedagogy, not as issues of morality or sexuality [the other connotations that Howard discusses].”

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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