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.