US academic’s marking comments spark race row

Hispanic student accuses professor of cultural insensitivity over allegations she must have plagiarised work by using the word ‘hence’

October 31, 2016
A stack of papers to mark and a cup of coffee
Source: iStock

An exchange between a professor and a student has set off a nationwide discussion in the US over the assumptions faculty members bring to interactions with minority students.

Tiffany Martínez, who studies at Suffolk University, in Boston, Massachusetts, shared her story in a blog post “Academia, Love Me Back that went viral last week. 

In the post, she described how a professor (whom she did not name) was handing back papers (in this case a literature review) and told her that “this is not your language”.

At the top of the paper, the professor asked her to indicate where she had used “cut and paste”. 

And in an example of language that the instructor assumed could not have come from Ms Martínez, the instructor circled the word “hence” and wrote, “This is not your word,” with “not” underlined twice.

Ms Martínez wrote that she had not used anyone else’s words, but that she felt humiliated and filled with self-doubt by the professor’s reaction, which Martínez attributed to stereotypes about the words that a Latina student would use.

The professor’s “blue pen was the catalyst that opened an ocean of self-doubt that I worked so hard to destroy. In front of my peers, I was criticized by a person who had the academic position I aimed to acquire. I am hurting because my professor assumed that the only way I could produce content as good as this was to ‘cut and paste’. I am hurting because for a brief moment I believed them,” Ms Martínez wrote.

“I am tired and I am exhausted,” she added. 

“On one hand, this experience solidifies my desire to keep going and earn a PhD but on the other it is a confirmation of how I always knew others saw me. I am so emotional about this paper because in the phrase ‘this is not your word’, I look down at a blue-inked reflection of how I see myself when I am most suspicious of my own success,” she wrote.

“The grade on my paper was not a letter, but two words: ‘needs work’. And it’s true. I am going to graduate in May and enter a grad[uate] program that will probably not have many people who look like me [it it]. The entire field of academia is broken and erases the narratives of people like me. We all have work to do to fix the lack of diversity and understanding among marginalized communities. We all have work to do. Academia needs work.”

In her desire to earn a PhD, Ms Martínez is not a typical undergraduate. And as she outlines in the blog post, she has had considerable success already. She is a McNair Scholar (a federal programme designed to help disadvantaged undergraduates prepare for doctoral education), she has published an article in a peer-reviewed journal and she has made presentations at conferences in Miami, San Diego and San Francisco.

“I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University,” she wrote.

“I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls’ empowerment program and craft a 30-page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first-generation college student, first-generation US citizen and aspiring professor, I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award [that] I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced content that is of high calibre.”

On social media, Ms Martínez has received considerable support – with many minority students and academics describing similar experiences.

One commenter on Ms Martínez’s blog post said that a professor accused her – in front of a class – of plagiarising (and gave her a C grade) because she used the word “unscathed” in a paper. The woman said that she then defined the word and used it in a sentence and challenged the professor to give her an A. He did, but the commenter said that she has “mixed emotions” about the experience.

Many have been posting comments urging Ms Martínez to become a faculty member. One woman wrote that she has faced similar experiences but today has two master’s degrees and is working on a doctorate. “Hold on to your dreams and remember no one can take away your destiny. Latina and proud. Future Dr in the house. You have a journey that awaits,” the woman wrote.

Suffolk University informed all their students and faculty members that it was looking into the situation involving Ms Martínez.

In an email to all students and faculty members (that did not name Ms Martínez), Dr Marisa J. Kelly, the acting president, and Dr Sebastián Royo, the acting provost, wrote that they were aware that “one of our undergraduate students posted a blog entry that was widely shared expressing anguish about the way a faculty member commented on an assignment”.

Dr Kelly and Dr Royo added, “We have policies and procedures in place to respond to and investigate matters such as this one and we are following those procedures.”

“We need to respect the privacy of both the student and the faculty member in order to ensure that these concerns are addressed in a swift and fair manner...But let us be clear: Suffolk University is deeply committed to fostering an inclusive environment.”

“Every student and every member of our community should feel respected. We need to pay attention to both the intention behind our words and actions and the way in which those words and actions are experienced. As a community we are not perfect and we make mistakes as an institution and as individuals.”

This is a version of an article that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed

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