Friday, December 30, 2005

Plagiarism and Politics

When I first started teaching, I was shocked by the quality of my students' writing. Most graduate students in the humanities are. It was obvious when students who struggled as writers all semester long suddenly turned in perfect prose complete with references to the work of Derrida and Karl Marx. The plagiarism or other types of cheating were so obvious in these papers, and in a writing-intensive class of twenty, relatively easy to correct. Upon receiving a paper like that, I would haul the student into my office and ask them to explain the paper to me in greater detail. If the student couldn't (I had one kid a couple of years ago who couldn't even define the words he'd used in "his" paper) it was obvious that he or she had gotten another person to write it for them or had copied it from somewhere. Another surefire way to catch plagiarism is that often the plagiarized essays don't actually answer the question you've aksed.
Ahh...those were the days. Now, in the age of the internet, the cheating is harder to catch because students find papers that are badly written enough to be "average" student work, and it's also harder to know your students' "regular" writing style when you have about 200 of them a semester. Students who might not have gone to a fraternity in search of a paper in the past can now easily download a paper from the internet.
The idealistic educators who talk about how important it is to teach citation, sourcing, and to assign projects with multiple drafts of an essay (all of which the superteacher must read and comment upon) in order to avoid plagiarism by teaching creatively don't take into account the kinds of teaching loads that those of us in community colleges and high schools often have. Of course, plagiarism is probably most serious in high school, where students are often NOT learning the essential writing skills that will make it less necessary for them to plagiarize out of desperation in college. The reason they're NOT learning how to write has less to do with lazy teachers than with workloads that are not designed for teaching writing or critical thinking.
This is all a prelude to a confession. Yes, I admit it, I use the evil, plagiarism police website, "," which has been denounced as wicked by many students and progressive educators. As this reviewer from Bedford St. Martins puts it, Turnitin's strategy of creating a database of student papers against which it checks other papers might amount to the theft of the students' intellectual property, even if the actual papers are password protected and can't be viewed by people outside the class (including teachers). Instead, sections that match will show up highlighted, but the author's name is not there. The critics make a good case, because it's clear that the people who run turnitin are out to make money. This isn't a non-profit service. Moreover, having students turn their papers into turnitin tends to "assume" guilt.
On the other hand, I must say that the ease of plagiarism in the age of google and electronic term-paper databases such as "cheathouse" and "" makes it hard to resist a similarly easy tool like "turnitin." While a plagiarized paper is usually obvious, finding its source can take hours that you don't have in your day. At some point you begin to feel obsessive and crazy when trying to catch a cheater. Are you surprised to hear that when confronted with plagiarism, students will deny it? Something about those particular students who are brazen enough to copy an entire paper from somewhere else...they're also willing to lie about it even when caught red-handed. I have a favorite story I tell about this. Last year I had a student who turned in a completely incoherent copied-and-pasted essay for her take-home final. I found the original sources (several different essays on different topics, none of which even remotely agreed with each other) using "," and told her, she actually said that she "gave the exam to my friend to do, and I didn't know that she would do that."
No, I am not joking.

Moreover, if you look at the websites above, you'll see the entitlement of many of today's consumer-oriented college students, and you may perhaps come to understand the maddening experience of trying to reach a student who really doesn't give a shit about all the things you're trying to teach: synthesizing material, analytical thinking, personal reactions to historical tragedies ... whatever. They'd rather be playing with their X-boxes. Oh sorry, they'd rather be using school as a fast-track to a career in computer programming.
The whole argument FOR cheating and against "turnitin" from people on slashdot and other programmers all seems to relate to a contempt for liberal arts education itself. As far as these guys are concerned, the humanities in general are a useless pursuit and that they should not have been forced into writing essays on literature in high school and college in the first place. For those who would say that it's the teacher's fault if students plagiarize, because they're forcing the students into "boring" pursuits and that these history and English teachers represent the "man" in contrast to the anti-establishment engineering and computer teachers??? I say, "fie!" You are just spewing a bunch of "cultural elite" bullshit that you plagiarised from Dan Quayle and George Bush Sr. Being able to copy code might get you a job, but it won't help you figure out when you're being lied to if you're not able to parse people's rhetoric.
Despite my defense of my police tactics, I don't know if I'll continue to use turnitin in the future. Even when I do, I think there is considerable flexibility in using turnitin. As many of turnitin's critics note, the database searcher will highlight any text at all that's duplicated elsewhere. If students include quotations in their paper, even properly cited ones, they show up. The only time I have ever fully relied on turnitin to "catch" a student was when the entire paper, or a very substantial portion of it was copied from elsewhere without attribution. Before the advent of turniton, I used to "google" strings of text from such papers and was able to find the sources after perhaps an hour's work, but it's much easier to have turnitin do that instead. And for those of you on the left, students don't plagiarize because they're the wretched of the earth. You can be just as nice as pie to some students - who are not special, sacred people, but flawed and complicated people like the rest of us - and they will still cheat.
Really, is finding a quick route to catching people who use a quick route to doing their homework so WRONG?


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Anonymous said...

I too like your commentary here. It's discouraging to realize just how many students nowadays are stupidly cheating themselves by "cheating." This may sound like a terribly trite observation, but the decision to plagarize an assigned paper is ultimately a decision not to think. Not doing your own writing means that you are not learning how to think, how to analyze problems and organize questions -- and it's a seriouos deprivation, which the student exeriences without even knowing it. From your remarks it's evident just how incredibly frustrating it is for you as a teacher. You've got a very tough job, and you really care about it. Çourage!

Anonymous said...

They need to r=write or else they will see a dark future

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