Globe’s F&A source of internet hoax?

In the Globe & Mail‘s September 4 Facts & Arguments piece, Winnipeg English teacher Sharon Melnicer describes an assignment she gave her Grade 12 students in the late 1990s. The assignment was a “tandem story,” where two students pair up and take turns writing paragraphs to build a cooperative story. Her F&A essay includes one of the student submissions as an example of the assignment’s success.

Interestingly enough, the same text appears almost verbatim at Snopes.com, accompanied by the following description:

“The Writing Assignment” first appeared on the Internet in February 1997, when it poppped up in the newsgroup rec.humor, having gotten there from a joke list. Though it’s passed around as a “true story,” we should simply accept it for what it is — a wonderful piece of creative writing.

Facts & Arguments editor Moira Dann says in an e-mail (reprinted here with permission) that Melnicer claims she did not plagiarize the story:

The essay writer, Sharon Melnicer, tells me she first presented this article at a province-wide workshop for Manitoba English teachers in 1997. She says she had found the idea (‘Writing a Tandem Story’) as explained in the essay, in a professional journal. The first part of a sample tandem story (the “Outer Space” theme) as well as the teacher’s instructions for students were provided in the article. Ms. Melnicer says she tried it out with Grade XI and XlI students, as her essay describes, then wrote up what happened and presented it at the workshop.

Copies of that paper were distributed to the 50 or so participants who attended. Nothing further happened regarding publication of the piece until she picked it up again after retiring, did some revisions, and submitted it to F&A.

Ms. Melnicer says she knows plagiarism is a serious offence, and not one she would commit. I have no reason to doubt her.

Moira Dann
Editor
Facts&Arguments

Sharon Melnicer also forwarded us the following letter, addressed to blogger Steve at Fagstein.com:

Dear Steve,
To quote you, “I’ve read a couple of other stories she’s written and none are obviously plagiarized from other sources. I find it hard to believe a seasoned freelancer would throw her career away over a Globe Facts & Arguments piece.”

I want to vehemently assure you, Steve, that you’re absolutely right about that.

The unexpected visciousness and number of personal attacks regarding my original essay, “The English Assignment”, which appeared in the Globe & Mail’s ‘F&A’ on September 4, 2007, left me reeling. I attempted to put things right with Snopes.com but, in the meantime, a few other bloggers (eg. Fagstein, Muddy Hill Post, ObStination) launched their poisonous arrows on the ‘Net and some individuals directly e-mailed me with their venom. I replied to all of them and haven’t heard from them again but, admittedly, the experience has left me shaken.

What a lot of people who negatively responded didn’t recognise, or failed to understand, was that I taught at a very large vocational high school with a highly developed, innovative Computer Technology Programme and a modern Computer Lab that had an inventory of 100’s of computers, available to the the Computer students themselves, of course, but also available to the Academic students (approx. 50 per academic subject area). I took full advantage of those computers in several ways in the context of my English programme, and that is why the assignment could be done via e-mail with such ease. Apart from that, most public librairies in Winnipeg had desk-top computers in 1997 and PC’s were NOT a rarity in my students’ homes within my school division, the largest in the city.

For the record, the following response went out from “Facts and Arguments” Editor, Moira Dann, to individual readers who took issue with my article:

Dear F&A reader,

Thank you for your e-mail re the essay of Sept. 5.

The essay writer, Sharon Melnicer, tells me she  first presented this article at a province-wide workshop for Manitoba English teachers in 1997. She says she  had found the idea (‘Writing  a Tandem Story’) as explained in the essay, in a professional journal. The first part of a sample tandem story (the “Outer Space” theme) as well as the teacher’s instructions for students were provided in the article. Ms. Melnicer says she tried it out with  Grade XI and XlI students, as her essay describes, then wrote up what happened and presented it at the workshop. Copies of that  paper were distributed to the 50 or so participants who attended. Nothing further happened  regarding publication of the piece until she picked it up again after retiring, did some revisions, and submitted it to F&A.

Ms Melnicer says she knows plagiarism is a serious offence, and not one she would commit. I have no reason to doubt her.

Moira Dann
Editor
Facts&Arguments

I had no occasion to go looking online for an article that resembled mine until readers/bloggers responded to say a clone had been posted. There was no reason to think the piece was anywhere else, apart from those people I had shared it with at the workshop I ran, and/or in my own file cabinet. Once I realized that a clone existed, I contacted the Snopes people to put it right.

I’m hoping, Steve, that you and other bloggers who posted so publicly and negatively on the Internet will “put it right” when they read my words today.

Respectfully,
Sharon Melnicer

UPDATE: Snopes.com has since changed their description in response to Sharon Melnicer’s objections.

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