This talk was composed for the Qatar Teaching and Learning Forum, on the topic of “Encouraging Student Authenticity in Writing.” I was part of a panel responding to recent articles about contract cheating. Full disclosure: I self-plagiarized a few sentences from one of my own articles.

I always feel a little guilty on the first day of class. I talk about my plagiarism policy, but the plagiarism policy on my syllabus is sandwiched between two paragraphs which were straight up copy-pasted from my institution’s policies. 

I’ve conducted a study on plagiarism in conference abstracts. You want to know who most often plagiarize conference abstracts? Maybe graduate students, some of whom are just now learning advanced disciplinary conventions and citation methods? It would be kind of understandable. No, it’s FULL PROFESSORS who ring up the high scores on Turnitin, most often because they self-plagiarize their own work and submit it as a new paper. They should know better, right? 

So I’d like to note that we could have gathered today for an alternative panel on Encouraging Authenticity in PROFESSOR writing. 

But we are here to talk about students, so I will note that one of my first principles of encouraging authenticity is to point out when it is perfectly ok, even preferable, to NOT be authentic. I teach technical writing, and to my knowledge, Qatar Petroleum does not want its new engineers running around putting all of their policies “in the student’s own words.” They want graduates to use what we call boilerplate text – text that you use verbatim; unauthentic text. 

Deborah Brandt studied workers who are ‘ghostwriters’ – people who, as part of their work, write speeches, policies, letters, reports, and other documents that are never acknowledged as the author of their work, much like the author or authors who wrote the policies on my syllabus. She concludes that “when it comes to writing, people’s expressive voices seem inevitably tangled with interests and liabilities of the organizations that employ them – and often cannot be comfortably extricated even off the job” (p. 164). In simpler terms, ghostwriters were proud of their words, even as those words were credited to others. They took great care in blending their individual voice with the voice of their employer. 

If we aim to prepare our students for work in the neoliberal corporate world – and we are remiss if we don’t acknowledge the reality that academia is largely such a world – we need to prepare students to be ghostwriters. 

What I think is important here is not to demonize these practices. As I hope I’ve pointed out, we as faculty members are implicated in and participate in practices that we don’t necessarily want to see in our students. What this looks like in my classroom is that when I analyze texts with my students, we talk about how, in the words of Leslie Seawright, documents in both the workplace and academia “accrue power for writers and readers, and […] are used for ideological purposes as well” (96). I show them chains of writing – what once was an email to me becomes part of my email back, and then that becomes an abstract that I submit to an editor, who provides feedback that shapes my first draft and on and on. I think it was Bakhtin who said something about how our mouths are full of other people’s words, but I couldn’t find that quotation when I googled it, so maybe I misremember it. 

Some technological tools for academic integrity are used for ideological purposes as well, and that’s why I won’t use Turnitin. Although it bills itself as a plagiarism prevention service, Turnitin, as a text-matching software, cannot distinguish between properly cited quotations and plagiarism (Purdy, 2005), nor can it detect if another writer has been paid to write the submission, and it does not often flag patchwriting, or when the writer changes a few words in a quoted phrase. Essentially, it can’t do more than a professor who Googles a few phrases here and there. Turnitin’s internet database, more than 45 billion webpages, is roughly the same size as that of popular search engines, over 49 billion webpages, which are free for any internet user (Turnitin, 2016; de Kunder, 2016). Turnitin uses this database to sell themselves to universities; however, this database has a large population of student writers who did not provide informed consent – their professors required them to submit their original work to a company that then makes money off of the students’ intellectual labor. 

My biggest problem is that Turnitin and programs like that is that students are presumed guilty before they are proven innocent – well, maybe innocent with 15% guiltiness. 

Some of you may have been thinking earlier, “Well, I have much higher goals for my students than to be the next cog in the corporate machine – writing is for expression of ideas and exploring what it means to be human!” Well, I agree with you, too, and this is where my second principle of encouraging authenticity comes in. I can refuse to adopt practices of the police state and start with the premise that writing in university needs to be meaningful to students. 

The authors of The Meaningful Writing Projectoffer compelling evidence that the kind of writing that sticks with students – across all disciplines – are assigned by faculty who encourage student agency, engagement, and transfer of learning. Meaningful writing assignments, they observe, invite students to

  • Tap into the power of personal connection 
  • See what they’re writing as applicable, relevant, real world, and connected to their future selves 
  • Immerse themselves in what they’re thinking, writing, and researching, including engagement in processes of writing (p. 108-109). 

This week, what that looks like in my first-year writing course is that students are emailing me their ORQs – original research questions – that they will then use as a basis for a series of interview questions (another small assignment that will be recorded in their research journals). They will ask these interview questions and write up their findings in a report, which I will see probably 2-7 drafts of, depending on the student and how much they want an A. 

Designing meaningful assignments and scaffolding them into shorter, manageable but also somewhat challenging stages helps my students see how they can do writing that seems out of their league. I want my students to be like ghostwriters: confident that they can tackle ANY writing assignment that comes their way, whether at university or in the workplace. 

I gave this speech at the 2018 Best Writing launch party in 2018, where we celebrated the newest edition called “Stories We Live By.”

Since this year’s theme for Best Writingis “Stories We Live By,” I thought I’d tell you one of my stories that has led me to be here.

When I was growing up, I loved spending time with my grandparents at their farm. I especially loved being with my grandmother, who seemed to know how to do everything – milk cows, gather hidden chicken eggs, grow plants from a single leaf. I adored her and wanted to be like her. 

Until one day, when I saw the grocery list she had made. Almost every word was misspelled. “Carrot” was spelled “carot,” “bread” was spelled “bred.” These were simple words that even I at 8 years old knew how to spell. I was crushed that my hero couldn’t write well, and I made fun of her errors.

My grandmother stands in the woods with her leg on the stump. She looks confident.
My grandmother Martha Foote

What I didn’t know then was that the misspelled words on that grocery list was a source of shame for my grandmother. She didn’t go to school after 4thgrade and never graduated from elementary school, much less a university like the one we stand in today. She was married at 13 and had three children by sixteen – the same year her husband died. 

The story I live by is that no one else should ever have to be ashamed of their writing like my grandmother was. I am here at university because she couldn’t be, and because she would have wanted me to appreciate the many gifts – including the gifts of multi-literacies – that every individual has.

We need stories to live by. Stories explain why we exist here on Earth or why we attend TAMUQ. Stories remind us of what kind of person we want to be, and they tell us what we are like at our worst. 

I encourage you to listen to the following student authors for the ways in which they tell us truths about each individual human spirit. These are volunteers who are speaking to you tonight, people who are answering a higher call than a professor assigning an essay. 

They are telling you the stories that we live by. 

One of the most common questions I get asked about living in the Middle East is, “How can you feel safe over there?” Violence unjustly perpetrated against Palestine and ISIS’s attacks on minority groups,  are the most recent examples of What Is Wrong With the World Today. Pictures of protesters in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain grace the front pages of many newspapers, often with the word “terror” in the headline.

In some ways, I am a little more fearful than I was when I lived in the US. I have to educate myself about different norms of labor laws, censorship, and the policing of women’s bodies. I worry about saying the wrong thing or doing something that could be interpreted in a way I can’t predict. I do not have rights that I had in the U.S., and trust me, I no longer take those for granted.

On the other hand, sometimes I forget to lock my door at night and I still sleep peacefully. I leave expensive items in my car and don’t have to hide them from view. I don’t worry that a policeman will turn a gun on me because I’m Black or that my government and media will slander me after I’m dead. As a woman, I feel safe walking city streets at night.

I’m not saying that the authoritarian surveillance system is something that I’m ok with, or that everything is as sunny in Qatar as it seems. What I understand now is having to convince international students in the US that they lived in a safe place. Of course this country is safe, I would say. We have an entire department devoted to Homeland Security, for crying out loud.

Well, except for that area of town at night. Well, be sure to say “yes, ma’am” or “no, sir” to cops when they pull you over. Well, only if you bring a friend with you. Well, maybe if you lived somewhere else, but that kind of thing doesn’t happen here.


Every Friday morning, I watch a group of workers play cricket in an empty construction lot. In Doha, the sunrise pierces through the darkest of curtains at a truly ungodly hour, and I can’t sleep. I stumble into the kitchen, punch the buttons on the coffeepot, and sip my coffee while I contemplate my plans for the day. Should I call a friend for brunch? Go shopping at a mall? Which mall haven’t I visited in awhile? What about the souq or a road trip out of the city? Or should I curl up on the couch and binge-watch a TV show? Maybe I could pull out my laptop and do some work – surely there’s a deadline bearing down on me.

The workers must have woken before dawn in order to get to my part of town while the heat is still bearable – around 90F during the summer, and that’s nothing compared to how hot it will be by the afternoon.  Once, I saw them line up neatly in a row as if to number off and create new teams, but usually they’ve already started a match by the time my coffee is ready. Each man’s swing of the bat sets the other players in motion. The dust kicks up as a worker sprints across the lot, racing towards (from?) a tiny speck of a cricket ball. I can’t hear their shouts from where I stand, but several wave their arms enthusiastically. Even as the temperature inches upwards in the heat of midday, the match doesn’t lose any intensity.

I don’t see the end of these games, when the men board a bus back to their crowded camps, eat some dal and rice around the communal cookfire, rest in preparation for the six-day work week, and probably relive some key plays of the day’s match. I’ve finished my coffee and have chosen how I’ll spend my weekend. I have no idea how you play cricket, and I doubt I’ll ever really understand.



On a recent phone call with my grandmother, I mentioned the swimming pool on the 29th floor of my building. Mamaw was reminded of a hotel in New Orleans she once visited, which had a pool on the roof, “and that was in the 40s. Heaven knows what they can do now.”

Traveling to New Orleans from Atlanta with only her friends from the bank must have been such a daring adventure for her in the 1940s. They didn’t bring any male chaperones – no fathers, no brothers, no husbands – in an age where young women traveling without men was strongly frowned upon, if not unheard of in more conservative circles. They flirted with cute strangers and drank hurricanes. (Years later, she would drink one sip of eggnog and proclaim, “No more! Ah’m dizzy and I want to drive to Publix in the morning!” I can’t help but speculate on what a tall hurricane would have done to her.)

Mamaw and her friends went all over New Orleans, including Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, Canal Street – all of the landmarks that would become famous as the setting for A Streetcar Named DesireNew Orleans jazz experienced a revival in the 1940s, and even though her tastes ran more towards Johnny Cash, she must have been impressed by the way jazz lamented the loss of a decaying, idealized South while promoting a certain kind of sunny optimism and perseverance. (If you don’t know what I mean, try listening to this.)

When I was a little girl, I remember a relative telling me not to be jealous of Mamaw’s treatment of my younger brother, because she had only raised boys and didn’t understand girls very well. But now, I know that her feelings towards me and my sister were more complicated than that.

Especially as we grew older, she must have seen how Kristin and I stepped out into the world much like she did in 1940s New Orleans: brave but wary, daring ourselves into doing things we were afraid of. I think she saw herself in us, versions of herself that didn’t have to abide by the gender-strict rules of the mid-20th century South. Mamaw had experienced just enough of life outside her family home in Chattanooga to let her know what exciting things were out there.


Mamaw passed away yesterday at 88 years old. She went to Young Harris College, raised two boys, toured Washington, D.C., played the Florida lottery religiously, watched NASCAR races like God himself was going to show up in the 184th lap, said “Hells bells” in public when she wasn’t supposed to, and collected enough birds, butterflies, orchids, and Elvis figurines to populate a beautiful, if somewhat strangely decorated, village. She hated to cook, but would have made me my favorite spaghetti dish every hour on the hour if that is what I would have wanted. 

In short, after her adventure in 1940s New Orleans, she found adventures in the everyday tasks of woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and proud redneck. She would say “I’m just a hick from the sticks” when she was asked to try something new, but we all knew that was only part of the truth. 

Names have been changed to disguise the Worst Girl Scout Camper Ever.

Susie was angry, upset, frustrated, weepy, and homesick. That week, there was an unusually low number of campers, and I had only 8 kids in my unit. With three other counselors, I thought this would be one easy week. What I didn’t know is that Susie would be enough for a whole camp full of experienced counselors to handle.

She didn’t want to do anything, she lashed out in frustration, she cried constantly, she annoyed and antagonized her cabinmates. She talked back to me, she ignored or disobeyed camp rules, she belittled me and the other counselors and campers. Susie was the camper from hell and she intuitively knew how to push my buttons. After a couple days of this, I tried to get other counselors and the camp director involved, and she didn’t respond very well to them either. I resolved to keep trying to find someone who could talk to Susie and find the right balance between listening to her concerns and urging her towards some kind of activity.

I tried to be sympathetic. I reminded myself that everyone, including myself, got homesickness, and that once Susie found an activity she could enjoy, she would feel better and stop lashing out at anyone and everyone within a 30-mile radius. I imagined what I was like at eight, and I pictured what Susie’s home life must be like, based on our conversations. I attempted to empathize when she fought with the other kids and groused about the counselors and camp life in general.

But it wasn’t working. I hated Susie and I hated what she was doing. She was making my life miserable, and I am not a person who secretly enjoys misery. She was throwing her whole unit, including me, out of whack, and I resigned myself to not being able to help Susie, my snot-faced, grouchy pre-teen problem.

I had just given up on her when she walked past me on the trail (without a buddy, of course) and asked me to put a postcard to her mother in the mail. Normally, I’d tell the girls to do it for themselves, but I wanted to avoid a fight and I was on my way to the dining hall anyway, so I said fine. Normally, I wouldn’t read a kid’s mail (privacy and tampering with mail and all), but I was out of answers regarding Susie’s problems and wanted to know if something she wrote could give me some insight. Frankly, I also wondered what the world’s unhappiest kid would tell her mother about our camp. Even happykids complained about the lack of air conditioning, their confiscated cell phones, and their aversion to the gunk at the bottom of the lake. What would Susie’s letter say: “the disgusting gunk at the bottom of the lake is the best part of this godforsaken place”?

It said that she loved camp, although she had some issues with the quality of the food and the horseback lessons. (Susie claimed to be an accomplished rider, and she felt that walking her horse around the arena was beneath her.) She enjoyed spending time with her friends. She missed her baby brother. She said she didn’t like any of the counselors, and I remember this part word for word, “except for Amy because she is my friend.”

Susie’s story is a helpful reminder to me that when we teach, we don’t know the full story. Sure, I can diagnose a reading comprehension problem a mile away, but I have no way of knowing all of the literacy experiences that led you to choose that sentence from that source to paraphrase in that way for this particular paper. To teach is to always be confronting the unknown, to be out of patience, good humor, sympathy, and resourcefulness in the face of a Susie.

Living and working in Qatar heightens these tensions of communicating with those we cannot fully understand. As anyone who has tried to order food can tell you, just because we all speak English doesn’t mean we’re talking in the same language.

But what this experience has done for me is that it has made me more comfortable with being the one who doesn’t understand. With Susie, I pushed and pushed to make meaning of her situation, to comprehend what was going on in her mind, and to find “solutions” to her “problems.” Now, I’d have infinitely more sympathy, but not because she was homesick or because she was the spawn of Satan. I would have sympathy because I am in the same boat in many ways, facing new challenges and feeling inadequate to understand what they are, much less meet them.

Last spring, I must have looked incredibly pitiful. Typically, it would take me 10 minutes – maybe less, if I hurried – to walk from my apartment to the university campus. With full blown psoriatic arthritis, the trip was considerably longer and more arduous: as much as 45 minutes from start to finish. I can remember several times where someone I didn’t know pulled over their car and offered me a ride up the hill to work. Sometimes I would have to stop and catch my breath as the waves of pain threatened to overwhelm me. Eventually, instead of walking less than a mile, I started driving my car to work.

I knew that my students noticed; one or more would jump up and help every time I started to pass out papers to the class. My colleagues thoughtfully took the elevator with me and gave me rides home. Friends scheduled meetings in my office or in places I could walk to (well, limp to) easily. My rambunctious sixth-graders would run back and check on me if I took too long to get out to the creek outside their school.

I didn’t mind explaining to everyone the reason for my problems. “I have psoriatic arthritis” is an easy enough sentence to say. It’s much harder to come to terms with what that sentence means or how (whether you want it to or not) it defines your entire life.

I don’t write about my experiences with arthritis to portray myself as a saint. In fact, a lot of the time I was anything but saintly – angry at myself, at Art (as I called my condition), at the world, at the cruelty of genetic diseases. I write about my situation because I see healthcare in Qatar through its lens.

All of that being said, I notice two major differences between my doctor visits in the US and in Qatar.

First, seeing a doctor is incredibly convenient in Qatar. In the US, it took me three months to see a rheumatologist – all while I was in agonizing pain, as noted above. In Qatar, I called on a Sunday and had an appointment by Wednesday. A couple of weeks ago, I went up to the hospital on a Saturday at 8:00 without an appointment. By 8:15, I was talking to the doctor. Another time, I went up to my employer’s health clinic planning on asking them to recommend a dermatologist. In 20 minutes, I was talking to one.

For someone who doesn’t have a debilitating condition, this situation is pretty nifty. For someone like me, this situation minimizes my chronic pain, which is worth far more to me than I can tell you. I can’t be a productive worker or, indeed, a functioning human being, without prescription medication.

The second difference is that doctors in Qatar are much less likely to have extensive conversations with you about your health and your life. In the US, my doctors (particularly the rheumatologist I mentioned above) were very good at talking with me about not only my symptoms, but also the way my health affected my everyday life. In Qatar, the doctor visits are more purpose-driven: I come in with a medication or treatment in mind, I ask my doctor for it, he or she gives it to me.

Early in the stages of my disease, I felt confused and unmoored; my body was responding to the world in ways it never had before. Everything was out of my control. I could read the Wikipedia pages and the clinical trials of the prescription drugs whose names were being bandied about, but what mattered most to me is that someone would take the time to talk to me and answer the (sometimes very stupid) questions I had – questions that weren’t always about medicine or about my disease, but ME.

I can’t quite articulate what I think about these differences, nor can I give anyone a clear answer about which healthcare system is best. (Well, I could, but I freely admit that such a post would be less evidence-based and probably offend a few of my faithful readers.) What I do understand, after living four months overseas, is how important it is that a healthcare system be structured to listen to and validate the suffering (no matter how large or small) of its patients. Neither system gets it completely right, and if my experiences are representative, perhaps they could both learn from each other.

This morning I met a man in the elevator on his way out to work. “Been to the gym, eh?” he said, noting my workout clothes and water bottle, which were a sharp contract to his suit, tie, and rolling briefcase. “It’s nice to have a little relaxation before the absolute — unimaginable — frustrating — chaos of the day.” He punched at the buttons of his Blackberry almost gleefully for emphasis.

At first, I thought clearly this man has never been fat if he thinks going to the gym at 6 in the morning is relaxing.

But on further reflection, his statement made me think about how work – more specifically, labor – is a complicated issue for everyone here.

On the one hand, his job is probably pretty demanding. Lots of money to handle, lots of important decisions to make, lots of pressure on him to succeed. On the other, one of the most striking things that a visitor would notice in Qatar is the number of people who do jobs that in the US are completed by machines (or that you are expected to handle by yourself) . On an average day, I greet the following people:

  1. The reception staff in the lobby of my apartment building who are busy finding taxis for some residents, requesting maintenance for others, and watching Bollywood movies when there’s a little downtime.
  2. At least one or two policemen who are directing traffic at roundabouts because the signals cannot handle the amount of traffic in an efficient manner.
  3. The security staff in Education City who wave me through the gate.
  4. The security staff in TAMUQ who see that I’m wearing my ID and tell me good morning.
  5. During the day, at least 5-10 hospitality workers (male and female) who make coffee, stock the office fridges with water and cokes, and clean the break rooms periodically.
  6. The man at the petrol station who pumps my gas for me and cleans my windshield.
  7. The man waiting outside my building (sometimes inside, where he is watching the Bollywood movie) who runs over to the gate and lets me in to my building’s basement garage.

This list does not include the nameless millions who work tirelessly behind the scenes repairing roads, building the chaos guy’s workplace, maintaining luxury apartments, and in general making Doha work.

Building Doha

Compared to Qatar, class in the US is more subtle. There isn’t a “family day” that excludes workers (mostly bachelors or living here without their families) from public places like the mall. There aren’t housemaid outfits that you can buy at the grocery store to make sure others can tell the difference between a maid and the family she serves. There isn’t an immigration building for domestic workers and another for professionals. We don’t often look at the White House and say, “That was built by enslaved people” because we don’t see those laborers anymore. It’s easier to say, as I’ve heard some of my students say, that the US is a classless society.

Is it easier to understand the depth of your privilege when you are forced to look it in the eye every day? Do we see the cost and effort of equality more clearly when the “chaos” of our workday is juxtaposed against a different kind of chaos – economic, cultural, social, and moral – which implicates us in a system that devalues others’ work?

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I’m glad that I’m learning to ask them.

You may be wondering why I’m not posting everyday about the culture shock of living in the Middle East after being raised in the US, about the cognitive dissonance of occupying a place of privilege while hundreds of thousands of laborers exist in a poverty I can’t even begin to comprehend, about the ways in which my ideas about feminism are evolving as I, a white woman, receive different treatment from men from different cultures and as I come to hear from others about what it means to cover your body and sometimes your face (but not always your voice and your mind) in public spaces. 

In Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind, the authors emphasize the importance of listening to women’s development, understanding, and knowledge. Women in many different stages of development, they observe, come to orient themselves to the world around them through listening to others. Western culture doesn’t always value listening; for example, we often ask our students to adopt a position on an issue that they may not be fully informed about – we push others towards argumentative engagement with source material and towards a critical, almost adversarial, self that is presented in writing. 

At this stage of my life, I find that I have less to say about my experiences in Qatar and more to listen to about others’ experiences here and elsewhere. 

I listen to my taxi driver tell me about living near the India-Pakistan border. “You don’t want to go there, ma’am,” he tells me. “It’s a terrible thing. Very scary and unsafe.”

I listen to my coworkers’ love for and frustration with the student population. “I can’t tell if they don’t care of if they can’t understand,” one says. Another refers to the American universities here as the “colonialization of the natives,” and everyone at the table nods. 

I listen to the laborers from Cameroon who walk with me to the grocery store. “We want to go to America,” they tell me once they find out I’m from the US. “We hear there are more opportunities for black people there.”

I listen and read more than I write these days, but I’m pretty ok with that.