An email on the CAJ listserv pointed me to a Globe & Mail Facts and Arguments piece called “The English Assignment“. It’s by freelancer Sharon Melnicer of Winnipeg, who’s written for dozens of publications.
The story is about an assignment she says was handed to students in her class in the 1990s to have them write a story together, each alternatively writing a paragraph. The result is a story that radically changes direction in each paragraph as the two writers attempt to wrestle control from each other, and it eventually degenerates into profane name-calling.
The problem: This story has been circulating around the Internet for a decade. That story has the names changed (including the name of the teacher who assigned it), but the story is otherwise exactly the same.
The way I see it, there are three explanations for this:
- Sharon Melnicer is the original source of the Internet legend, and the names were changed before the story was disseminated online. I find this unlikely because the Globe story says students were supposed to communicate exclusively via email, and email simply wasn’t in widespread use in 1997. (UPDATE: The Snopes page has been updated to reflect Melnicer’s claim as the source of the story, based exclusively on the article.)
- Sharon Melnicer’s students read the story on the Internet and decided to plagiarize it. That doesn’t really make sense either (and would you send your teacher profanity like that if you wanted her to grade the story and forget about it?). But if true, she should have caught it and certainly not given these students full marks.
- Sharon Melnicer’s students never submitted this story, and she simply rewrote one she found online claiming it happened to her. 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’ve emailed Ms. Melnicer to ask her about the story. I’ll update this post when I hear back from her.
I’m sure it’s all just a misunderstanding.
UPDATE: The Globe apparently is saying it’s #1, and that she just sat on the story for 10 years after presenting it at a workshop for teachers in 1997. Plausible, but still strange.
UPDATE: Her response:
Yes, it is indeed a coincidence and not one I’m very pleased with. This is the fourth time I have “met myself” on the Internet after penning and submitting an original piece. I didn’t realize my essay had been posted on <snopes.com> until it was published in ‘Facts & Arguments’ on Tuesday and generated a response like yours.
The following response to your comment is being given to readers like you who wonder why they’ve seen the piece before and how it’s come to be so widely circulated.
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 XII 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.
I think what I find hard to believe (besides the fact that a colleague found this in a 1996 post) is that every version that circulated used an American teacher and the same names for the students – *except* the version Melnicer wrote. Wouldn’t someone who copied her story (assuming that’s the way it went around the net” have used a Canadian university, or the same names as she did?
I wrote to the editor, and was given the same story. If Melnicer IS the originator, I am surprised that the Globe didn’t run some sort of explanation with the story – if you caught it, and I caught it, I’m sure many many more people must have caught it (like the editorial staff at the Globe?)
Very strange, indeed. As you’ve pointed out, email was not widespread in 1997 – must have been an extremely well-funded high school for such an activity.
I’ll keep quiet about the same old boring battle of the sexes bulls**t – this kind of crap doesn’t need to be printed in a respected publication. (Or, used-to-be-respected publication…)
Melnicer claims to have presented this at a conference in 1997, but apparently can’t remember the date, or find the original presentation (which presumably would have the date on it.)
According to these posts Google Groups:
the story had been posted several months before Jul 30th, 1997 and one person claims to have read it ten or fifteen times prior to this date.
Now maybe Melnicer presented it in early 1997, or maybe she messed up the year, and meant she presented it in 1996. But given that her version has different names than every other version I’ve found, and given her window of opportunity for publishing prior to the earliest publication on the Internet isn’t very large, and given that she wants us to believe that a)high school students had widespread access to email in 1997 (in fact, all the students in her class had access to email in 1997) and b)high school students were likely to use profanity in emails they knew their teacher would read, I think she’s lying.
It would be easy for her to prove, of course – just bring out the original presentation with a date in or prior to early 1997.
I first encountered “Sharon Melnicer’s” tandem essay at least 15 years ago when I was a graduate student in California. A group of us used it in a workshop to discuss how to deal with gender stereotyping in the classroom. Given that she knew the thing had been circulating on the internet, at the very least she should have made some sort of ackowledgement of the essay’s apocryphal status in the essay she submitted to the _Globe_. That she chose not to indicates, again at the very least, that her relation to the story’s origin is disingenuous at best.
I’m familiar with a version of the story which was circulated about five
years ago. Something I immediately noticed when I read the Globe and Mail
article was the inclusion of the reference to chai (a reference that
wasn’t there in the version I was familiar with). Now, as far as I know,
chai has only recently become popular, so it seems unlikely that a
reference would have appeared in the original version and then been
dropped later on.
A second problem appears in what looks like a partial ‘Canadianizing’ of the story. Why
would the story begin with a reference to (an obviously American) Congress
and then include a reference to the (Canadian) Prime Minister, when the
widely circulated version uses the much more consistent reference to the
If indeed the author “first presented this article at a province-wide workshop for Manitoba English teachers in 1997”, perhaps someone could validate that claim? Was the story published then?
And on a different tack, how any self-respecting English teacher could give “top marks” for this work when the objective was to build respect for others’ opinions is beyond me. Good thing she wasn’t teaching logic.