Monday, June 17, 2019

Journalism Class Is Its Own Story!

Strap in, boys and girls and everyone else, 'cause it's gonna be a bumpy ride!

Journalism school has been going well.  I'm about 1/3rd of the way through at this point.  (Go, me!)

The hardest part hasn't been any of the technical skill, which is what I worried about initially.  Rather, it's been the forced interactions with my peers.  Once I have an idea, it's easy for me to sink my teeth into it and get to writing.  Inspiration can be difficult, but the writing itself is usually a breeze.

But then there's the dreaded peer review.

 Me after 10 minutes

I should specify that I don't mind interacting with others.  It's just that I don't like peer reviews.  For one thing, it's not what I'm paying for.  I do not want my own work reviewed by a person with similar or less expertise than me; most peer reviews I get are not helpful.  And reviewing another person's work is not my job, either.  It's the professor's.  You know, the guy who is getting paid to do that, and who presumably has more experience than I.

The program I'm in is open enrollment.  This means that it caters to people who already have degrees and/or aspire to have degrees, but the threshold to enter is low.  There is little competition and a minimal barrier for entry; the admissions process involves ensuring you are literate enough to write a check to UCLA.  And if you can write a check that doesn't bounce, you're in.  The main reason people go into the program is either to bolster their professional credentials or to change their career path.  (I, for example, have a degree in biology.)  So there's a pretty wide spectrum of skill and talent within the program.  Some writing is artful, lovely, and insightful.  Other writing is... well, not.

I bet you can guess which one I'm going to talk about here!

Specifically, this week I'll be talking about a lovely lady by the name of Amanda.  I haven't changed her name for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Early on in the class it became apparent that Amanda believed in a lot of what I would call "woo-woo bullshit."  The structure of the class was such that we were supposed to write a single, long-form article (10,000 to 12,000 words) over the course of the semester, going through multiple drafts that were edited and improved upon based on instructor and peer feedback.

When the class began, there were over a dozen bright-eyed and bushy-tailed "writers" eager to get into it.  Until they realized what a slog writing can be.  One by one, they dropped off, unable to keep up with the rigorous demands of the class.  By the end, only three of us remained.

One of the other students wrote about her experiences living abroad in the United Arab Emirates as a Black women from Georgia, and the Black ex-pat community that exists there.  Her article was illuminating, culturally relevant, timely, and included eloquent scene descriptions.

Then there was Amanda.

Back at the beginning of the class, we'd been asked to pitch three ideas.  Most people's ideas were understandably self-focused.  Hey, they say to write what you know.  It's fine to be your own protagonist.  Though I should note that this class was literary JOURNALISM and so, ideally, the articles we pitched were meant to be non-fiction pieces that were well-researched and could be backed by independent third-party sources.

Amanda's idea was "the power of sound."  I say "idea" and not "story" because that's really all it was.  It wasn't a question to be answered or a person, place, or thing to be examined.  Amanda explained that she had recently "discovered" the "healing power" of sound and wanted to write an article on it.

Our first homework assignment was to go do some work "in the field."  Most people opted for an interview.  Amanda went to a concert.  (She described weeping at the beauty of Beethoven.  It was gag-worthy.)

But I don't want to bore you with her trite bullshit so I'll just say that here's a link if you want to read six pages of absolute garbage.

Now, I had already explained at the beginning of the class that my background was scientific and I saw myself going into science-related journalism.  I tried to keep an open mind and to treat Amanda like what she was: an inexperienced student working hard to improve her writing.  To wit, I dutifully read through every version of her article, titled, "Power of Sound," or more appropriately, "POS."  I corrected the ample grammatical and formatting errors with what I hoped would be easy-to-understand explanations.  (For example, "it's" means "it is."  If you're not sure whether to use its or it's, just replace "its" with "it is" and see if the sentence still makes sense.)

But Amanda's issues ran much, much deeper than merely misusing the English language....

So deep that sound itself could not heal them.

The First Red Flag

In the first draft she submitted, Amanda included a passage in which she went to see a shaman about making a drum.

The particular style that resonates the most to Daithi, is that of sound healing, using the drum beat. I asked Daithi to share with me exactly how healing happens from the drum itself. He explains, “The heart beats at 190-220 beats a minute, ( while in the trance state of drum journey) this is sort of like a drum beat.” he tells me, his while he holds one of his handmade drums on his lap, tapping the front of the Water Buffalo skin with his fingers. “After about 15 minutes of this drumbeat, your pineal gland starts to decalcify and open.” This is what happens when enter the Shamanic journey through playing the drum for another, or even for yourself.

In my review, I pointed out that the human heart beats at about 60-80 bpm.  Her shaman seemed to be having a heart attack.

Artist's depiction

There are plenty of ways to correct this.  The quote, I mean, not the heart attack.

She could simply leave out the quote.  She could, as an aside, state, "The human heart actually beats closer to 80 beats per minute, but I understood what he meant."  She could contact the shaman to ask for clarification.

What she did was to thank me and then edit her submission to correct it.

The thing about direct quotes is that you cannot change them. Horrified, I replied again on the student forum, to explain that she can't just alter a direct quote.  (She could, of course, put the correct information in brackets, but that's what we journalists call a pro-gamer move, and I did not think she was ready for it.)  I explained that altering quotes is basically making stuff up and it's a big journalism no-no.

In the final draft, the quote contained the original error without explanation or comment.

Throughout the editing process, I tried to find polite ways to explain to Amanda that her "article" bordered on unreadable.  She was throwing out jargon like "Once my chakras lined up I felt my third eye open," and I kept saying, over and over, that to me, a skeptic, such rhetoric was a big turn-off that undermined the credibility of her "reporting."  The instructor, likewise, advised her to include more background information, definitions, and so on, adding that she should try to craft an article that appealed to a "broader" (ie, less insane) audience.

And that's how I came to find a much darker side to Amanda's incompetence...

The Discovery

We had been asked to review the final version of each other's papers.  At the end of the class there were only three of us.  Amanda had submitted no peer reviews for anyone else.  That was fine by me; I doubted she could teach me much.  But I was committed to getting an A, even if it meant slogging through pages upon pages of new age bullshit, so I dutifully went through and edited her final paper.  (This is the one I linked above.  Yes, that's the "final" version.  You might note it's only 3,000 words, far below the assignment requirement.)

The whole thing was so asinine and awful that, naturally, I had to read it to my husband. After all, "misery loves company." My favorite passages to hate came from Amanda's crystal healing session:
  • “The essence is filled with the vibrational signature of the plants and crystals.” The essence she refers to is a 2oz cobalt blue glass bottle with a dropper top. The brand is “Star Essences, Rainbow Frequency Drop.” I open the bottle and gently squeeze four drops down my throat."
    • Wait, WHAT IS IT?! She just ingested it?? Is that safe??
  • She thanks the spirit guides, guardian angels and ascended masters that have joined the session. The music slows and then stops, and Katie draws the curtains of the room that now has heated up again with yummy energies of sound. “Please take your time, I allow extra time at the end of the class so that you may integrate the energies.” she whispers. There peace in the room is like a cloud blanket of calm that has touched everyone there. With hands in prayer and a soulful gaze, I graciously thank her for the healing.
    • What a bunch of narcissistic bullshit. This soulful bitch is jacking off her own chakras at this point.  If angels and "ascended masters" existed, they would have better things to do than hang out in a Santa Monica yoga studio with a bunch of middle-aged white women who are tripping balls.
  • Katie announces that these are “Medical grade chromotherapy” lights. Chromotherapy is the use of the visible spectrum, or color light, to heal the physical, mental and spiritual energy imbalance. Each light, like a grid, is about 12 inches in diameter. As I look overhead I notice that each square represents a color of the rainbow.
    • There is no such thing as "medical-grade chromotherapy lights." Also, how does each square "represent" a color of the rainbow? I think Amanda means the lights are rainbows. I don't know; I think she's had too much good kush to know what the hell is even going on here.
 It's hard to really encapsulate the extent of how bad it was.  Sloppy grammar, sloppy spelling, sloppy formatting, and bizarre content with questionable ties to reality, all of it with a highly subjective and distinctively not-journalistic sheen.  All in all, it was just bad.  But it was about to get worse.

Andrew was the one to catch it.

On the very first page, Amanda states: "there is hope for achieving a happier more serene, and healthy existence if sound also is something that we can look at in a different, more naturopathic way (naturopathic medicine is a form of alternative medicine that employs an array of pseudoscientific practices branded as "natural", "non-invasive", and as promoting "self-healing". The ideology and methods of naturopathy are based on vitalism and folk medicine, rather than evidence-based medicine.)"

Both of us cracked up; her definition of "naturopathy" had just undermined everything else she had said.  We were left wondering if she even understood the words "pseudo-scientific" or "evidence-based." 

But the longer we mulled over the passage, the more and more obvious the tone shift was.  No way Amanda had written that sentence, which was one of the few lucid pieces of her entire three-page trainwreck.  We had already guessed that she must have looked up the definition (at the instructor's request) and regurgitated it without thinking much about what it meant, but it never occurred to us that she might have simply copied it.
Turns out, "Amanda's" definition for naturopathy is the word-for-word definition on the Wikipedia page.  It's literally the first two sentences.

Conflicted, I hopped onto the student forum and pointed this out, explaining that if you take an entire sentence without re-writing it in your own words, or attributing it, then it is plagiarism.

But the longer I thought about it, the more it bothered me.  If Amanda had simply copied and pasted the passage from Wikipedia, all of the formatting would have come with it, such as hyperlinks and ᶠᵒᵒᵗⁿᵒᵗᵉˢ.  And it was clear that Amanda didn't give a rat's chakra about formatting.  Had she dutifully typed out the definition herself?  No; it was clear she was lazy and the lack of typos implied she had directly lifted it.

 Oh shit you guys.

The conclusion I reached was that she must have knowingly copied the passage and then removed formatting to pass it off as her own.  The action was deliberate.

I ended up spending all night Googling passages that felt off, and running her paper through several plagiarism checkers.  And I found multiple passages.

The Reveal

A good way of determining if Amanda was copying or not was this.  Any passage that contained any information that seemed objective was probably copied.  Any passage that contained long, direct quotes was probably copied, because Amanda had already demonstrated that "direct quotes" meant nothing to her.

Here's some of what I found.

The passage on 12-century Tibetian singing bowls was taken from this site.  Of course Amanda wouldn't use such phrases as "12th-century Tibetian" to describe a bowl.  Funnily enough, I had asked her in every draft to cite the "2016 study."  Now I know why she couldn't.  The original site doesn't cite the study, either.  (In my research I did find a study that disproves that shamanic drumming does anything special, at least objectively.)

The passage that had Katie "talking" about how healing works was lifted from her website.  The "interview" was completely imagined.  (Of course Amanda probably has no idea what "neuroplasticity" is.)  The part about the bowl being made of 99.992% crushed quartz seemed oddly specific, and what do you know, a search led me to a Facebook event page that had been copied.  (Of course Amanda probably has no idea what "endocrine" is.)

Even the definition of chromotherapy lights was lifted.

About a third of the paper had been copied, verbatim, from websites, and it was shockingly easy to discover which ones and where they had come from.

She didn't even try.

I went back to the student forum and explained that, after noticing the lines from Wikipedia had been copied, I ran the whole paper through a plagiarism checker.  I then listed each passage and a link to the website it had been taken from.

The only commentary I offered of my own was, "I am furious and disgusted.  This is not only an insult to the art of journalism, but to me personally, as well as the other students who have spent time and energy this quarter reviewing "your" work and trying to help you improve "your" writing."

I messaged the instructor and informed him of what I had found, and that it was documented on the forum.

The Aftermath

Amanda responded!  I will admit I had hoped she would chime in, like a back-pedaling, dishonest, sneaky, 99.992% crushed quartz singing bowl.

Her reply was neither soulful nor gracious.  She stated that she didn't know better; she was brand-new to journalism and was taking the class on a wing and a prayer, and it was just a mistake by an amateur.  Regrettably, I do not have a screen-shot nor a transcript, because the forum was locked and made private very shortly after this.  Unlike Amanda, I don't invent quotes, so I can only paraphrase what was a long and abstract reply that spent a lot of time philosophizing on how we should all "be kinder" to each other and that, in this crazy mixed-up world of ours, it costs nothing to be nice, and why wasn't I being nice?

 Amanda's depiction of my peer reviews.

She concluded her monologue by saying something to the effect of, "People make mistakes and they aren't perfect, and I hope that when your child makes a mistake you will be more understanding."

I said, "This was not a child's mistake, and bringing my unborn child into this is an inappropriate personal remark.  This conversation is about one thing: your plagiarism.  If you have ever heard the word before, then you know what it is, that it's wrong, and that you did it.  I have nothing more to say on the subject; you need to discuss it with the instructor."

Two days after this all went down, the instructor messaged me thusly: "Thanks for the heads up. I will check the forum. Since she just wrote asking to withdraw, she must see what's coming.  ...I don't think she followed a single note that I gave her. She may not even have read them."

He reported her to the school's administration.

Four days later, I received an e-mail from him.  "The plot thickens: Amanda filed a harassment complaint against you but after I directed the authorities to your exchange, you were exonerated. Not that you were in any danger but with how upside down academia has become, you never know."

Not only was Amanda's complaint tossed, but so was she.  Amanda was removed from the program.

It seems to me like if there's one takeaway here, it's that healing crystals and drums don't work.  They failed to make Amanda a better person, at least.  Her "soulful graciousness" evaporated the second she was caught being dishonest.  She should ask for her money back.

I e-mailed the instructor to ask for a copy of the harassment complaint because I desperately wanted to see how she framed it.  Having someone catch you plagiarizing is a "you" problem, in my opinion.  Did she say that I wasn't "nice" enough?  I was about as nice as a person can be, considering what a disgustingly dishonest and morally reprehensible thing plagiarism is.  I did use the words "furious" and "disgusted" to describe my reaction, but aside from that, there was nothing subjective in my comments whatsoever.  If Amanda's harassment complaint looked anything like her final paper, I bet it was a total shitshow.

Unfortunately, the instructor never got back to me.  For weeks now, my grade has been "pending."  It was my understanding that I had gotten an A, but suddenly I wasn't so sure.

I got paranoid, wondering whether or not the whole debacle had affected me personally.  Could my involvement in the drama have somehow invalidated the class for me?  Finally, taking a deep breath to steady my third eye and taking a few drops of Mystery Tincture That's Probably Toilet Water, I e-mailed the administration.

I didn't get an A, after all.  I got an A+.

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