I stole the idea for this post

More accusations of academic plagiarism have been circulating, nowadays about Stephen Ambrose. He also apparently lied about his access to President Eisenhower. Oh, and I stole this from UD–check out a set of UD’s posts about recent cases. Not to mention this recent kerfluffle. There are websites devoted to this problem.

Now, plagiarism can be reduced: this study suggests that simply spending some class time on it helps. The fault of course rests on the plagiarist, but we need to teach: there is a difference between deliberate copying and accidental plagiarism–the latter can in part depend on learning the actual mechanics of citing a source, or when one needs to be cited. (My advice here, which I try to cultivate in as many ways as possible in my classes, is to cite it for yourself, not the professor. You might need to back and find it later: can you? Work to escape the conception of an essay as an instrument of discipline which you write for your professor, and think of it as work you do for yourself, to learn.)

Turnitin is a help. But it’s not a perfect remedy, and it doesn’t address the causes of the disease. It’s a bit like drug testing for athletes: it’ll skim off egregious or straightforward problems–the fools, and the panicked–but there are ways to mask cheating. I’ve found plagiarism in papers flagged “green” by Turnitin that turn out to contain unattributed text cut and pasted from the web. Turnitin can also miss papers that contain more thoroughly re-worded ideas. To catch this latter problem, one method is to put a few questionable sentences into Google without quotation marks around them. Here’s another method which I want to figure out how to use. Maybe we should run politician’s speeches through it. In any event Turnitin only a first line of defense, and provides no offense to stop the problem before it happens, except for the possibility of punishment.

Any professor who has been teaching for more than a decade can say clearly that the web has intensified this problem. Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that plagiarism creates a pernicious rot at the core of an education. First, students deprive themselves of the difficultly gained pleasure of developing their own ideas. Second, while ideas are very shareable, they have origins which citations allow us to track down down and verify: plagiarism denotes either a profound naivete about the trustworthiness of some bit of print, or a lack of concern about its veracity or verifiability, or both. Here is a list of professional reasons.

What are its causes today? In terms of language history its increasing prevalence seems to be a marker of changes in literate practices. (There are other approaches to considering it). Observing students writing on computers in labs, or on their own laptops, I can see that they often have several windows open at once: not just the word processor, but also the web–especially Facebook, Wikipedia, Google, and e-mail. They often flip back and forth, reading one and using it in another–pasting a link into Facebook, or using Wikipedia in a paper. (I will ban laptops in classrooms from now on because of the distraction here).

It’s an old concern: this is a process that begins with the move from orality to literacy. Plato complains about in the Phaedrus about writing “because [learners] will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” This intensifies with the movement to later scribal culture and print, when more complex tools–indices, concordances, chapter headings, card catalogs, etc.–were developed to allow access to the number of long texts which were published at a quicker rate than memories could digest them. Digitization allows more: more text (blogs, for instance), and more powerful tools to access them: tagging, search-engine algorithms, Amazon-like associations between books, full text searches on Google Books, Spotlight hard-drive searching. Digital access means that learning can be more externalized. “Thinking” comes more and more over time to mean exploiting external access, not synthesizing knowledge in one’s head. This, again, implies a trust of whatever sources you discover.

So–what can this tell us about pedagogy, since fighting it is pointless? How can we go on the offense? We certainly need to teach the ethical and pedagogical implications of plagiarism, and the physical process of citation. But more than that, we need to adjust our pedagogy to new means of using and deploying knowledge. We must teach judgment. We need to be aware of and teach appropriate means of access to multiple kinds of sources, to allow for cross-checking; we need to teach “information literacy”–the ability to judge the trustworthiness of a source; and we need to make rewriting a part of assignments so that the development of an idea is built into assessment. Anything else?

Caught students have said to me “well don’t fail me; can I stay in the class to learn from my mistake?” The question indicates to me how much the student has already missed the point. Am I being to hard here? I dunno. I feel like I’m being easy; where I went as a undergrad, plagiarism could you kicked out of school–students were in charge of assessing this. Since the definition and the implications are clearly stated on my syllabi and in class, and citation is a topic we cover extensively, and rewriting is often a pattern of work, ignorance dies as an excuse. Is not plagiarism, at that point, already a choice to opt out of learning, from mistakes or otherwise? What else is there to do?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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