Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blum, Susan D. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture

Blum, Susan D. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. Print.

Blum, an anthropologist, bases her examination of plagiarism on today’s campuses upon interviews with and observations of students. As with most examiners of plagiarism, she argues that the issue is more complex than commonly understood, and spends a portion of the book exploring the history of citation practices, intellectual property, and plagiarism. Through this review, she suggests that, despite the current hysteria over plagiarism, it may not be a larger problem today than it has always been. However, given increasing collaboration in education (think of the many group projects students do at Ursuline) and the ready availability of texts of all sorts through the Internet, students’ attitudes towards citation and individual ownership of ideas may have undergone a profound shift from that of the previous generations who make up the faculty. In fact, Blum finds that “Today’s college students have been groomed to be successful, clever, and above all calculating: ‘Will this look good on my resume?’” (102). In short, they may have mastered the art of rhetoric so well in their ability to provide audiences with what they desire that what Blum terms “the performance self” has erased any authentic notion of self underneath it. Blum argues that as a result such students may not view writing as “the expression of a singular personal essence” (89), and so plagiarism would just be viewed as a means to an end. As long as it brings results about, then any moral component is irrelevant. As such, Blum suggests that honor codes as a means of preventing plagiarism will be unlikely to be effective. However she doesn’t suggest that a generation of sociopaths has been created; instead, she examines other factors of today’s culture that may also encourage plagiarism. One factor she finds is that the academic component of college is not central to students, who instead focus their college experience on co-curricular activities, internships/work, and partying. She writes, “For students who don’t care about the content of courses, or who only go through the motions of learning, plagiarism and cheating are strategies like any others, aimed at producing the best outcome (high grades) without impinging on what they really want to do with their time—socializing and relaxing” (124). Faculty who read the book will likely be shocked at how little students study, and even more shocked at how little this lack of studying seems to affect their grade point averages. Blum suggests that while we may want to blame plagiarism on the faults of individual students, the culture in which they were raised is also at fault, whether it be the higher cost of college (which Blum traces to the growth of administration) leading to greater pressure to succeed at any cost, the practice of student evaluation affecting faculty grading (i.e., faculty succeed by pleasing students, and not necessarily educating them), or parents loading students up with habits of taking on too many extracurricular activities in order to impress others and not because students are actually interested in them. And, though Blum, on pages 177-78, provides a variety of recommendations to lessen acts of plagiarism by students, she really can only suggest that the individual instructor teach “the genre requirements of academic writing” so students understand the importance of citation in academic culture (169), and that the larger culture needs to “lower the water table and return the youth of our society to drier, calmer ground, where they can hop, skip, and jump rather than cut, paste, and graduate” (180). Ultimately, Blum seems to trace the plagiarism plague not to a lack of education on the part of the students, but to the fact that they have learned all too well a larger lesson from a society that in the past decade has praised with money and other “honors” those who faked evidence to start a war, stole votes to win an election, made up accounting figures to pump up a company’s stock price, and cheated to win a Super Bowl: Any means is acceptable as long as you succeed. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Anson, Chris M. “We Never Wanted to Be Cops: Plagiarism, Institutional Paranoia, and Shared Responsibility”

Anson, Chris M. “We Never Wanted to Be Cops: Plagiarism, Institutional Paranoia, and Shared Responsibility.” Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies. Ed. Rebecca Moore Howard and Amy E. Robillard. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook/Heinemann, 2008. 140-57. Print.

Recently, I read two collections of essays on plagiarism, Who Owns This Text?: Plagiarism, Authorship and Disciplinary Cultures and Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies, in hopes of finding ways to minimize or even eliminate plagiarism on campus. Unfortunately, both books seem more intent on problematizing plagiarism than on offering practical solutions for how to negate or deal with it. Frankly, plagiarism is enough of a problem already, as students short circuit their own learning by representing the work of others as their own, so some of the scholarship offered in the books may come across as puzzling to the instructor frustrated by another case of plagiarism in a course, and looking for a solution to the problem. Though some of the essays in the volumes raised interesting points as to why students plagiarized, how definitions of plagiarism vary from discipline to discipline, and other matters, the only essay I can recommend entirely to instructors looking for suggestions on how to eliminate, or, at least, minimize plagiarism is “We Never Wanted to Be Cops: Plagiarism, Institutional Paranoia, and Shared Responsibility,” by Chris M. Anson. In the essay, Anson presents practical advice for how instructors can prevent plagiarism in their classes. He notes that if instructors keep the focus on educational goals and student learning, then plagiarism will decline in their classrooms. Critiquing traditional methods of instruction and plagiarism management, Anson argues for a more student-centered pedagogy. He writes, “A ‘solution’ to plagiarism that focuses primarily on policy, detection, and punishment does nothing to advance our presumed mission, which is education” (140). Anson realizes that such approaches look backwards, by which point plagiarism either will or will not be a problem, but do nothing to prevent its development beyond attempting to scare students into not trying it lest they be caught, even if many of them don’t understand what it is exactly that they would be guilty of doing. In fact, approaches such as assigning a piece of writing, providing no support to students writing it (instead of, for example, encouraging them to utilize the writing process or breaking down the writing into aspects and then dealing with them in class), and then collecting the writing at the end of the semester will often inadvertently teach students that the product is all that matters, and, thanks to the Internet, a vast amount of readymade products is available for the student to utilize. As Anson points out, “In the pursuit of learning, students have lightning-fast access to vast storehouses of information, increasingly rich and interconnected. Yet this information also comes to the computer virtually unscreened and unevaluated, making the Internet like a huge flea market where good finds are hidden among large quantities of junk” (141). Not only do students need assistance in determining the value of the information available for research purposes, but they also need assistance in developing their own voices among the electronic babble. To offer such assistance, at least as far as integrating sources into student writing, Anson, drawing on the pedagogical theories of John Biggs, suggests that instructors “might set up activities in the classroom in which students wrestle with challenging passages and learn how to incorporate them into their own texts or paraphrase them so as not to quote them directly, but still cite their source” (145). Furthermore, Anson advises that using more informal writing assignments might also help students learn as well as minimize plagiarism. He states, “. . . writing assignments can be relatively informal, focusing mostly on the concepts, ideas, readings, data, or other information in a course instead of the formal characteristics of the writing; or they can be longer, more formal, and more extended, with higher stakes for the nature and quality of the text. The longer and more formal the assignment, and the higher its stakes, the greater the teacher’s responsibility to support its development through, for example, the practice of certain intellectual and analytical skills and processes and through work on multiple drafts” (147). Helpfully, Anson lists some examples of both low stakes and high stakes assignments (150-52). Dealing with plagiarism can be frustrating for all involved, so if we, as instructors, can do anything beforehand while designing assignments to get students to understand the educational meaning behind them so that students will be less likely to plagiarize while completing them, then such efforts will likely be well-rewarded with fewer plagiarism investigations afterwards and students who have learned rather than have merely pretended to learn. The book is available through OhioLINK.