Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Written under a penname, My Freshman Year details the results of anthropologist Cathy Small going undercover and enrolling as a student at her university in 2002-2003. The impetus of the study came from her discovery that “After more than fifteen years of university teaching, I found that students had become increasingly confusing to me” (2). What she found isn’t particularly surprising: Students studied about an average of two hours per day (that includes reading, writing, researching—i.e., everything) (33), students worked jobs more often than in the past in order to pay for school and for other items (33), students rarely read for class unless the reading assignment had a direct bearing on their grades (43; 137-38), and most students rarely took advantage of co-curricular activities (much of which is a waste given the university resources that go into it) (47). Some of her discoveries were less predictable though. She learned that suite-style dorms are preferred by students for privacy reasons because, unlike previous generations, today’s students rarely shared rooms with siblings while growing up (52). Communal spaces in dorms and elsewhere on campus were underutilized because students preferred their own individual spaces, a trend bolstered by most of them having considerable material resources even in their dormrooms (53-54). In fact, Small found that in contrast to the rhetoric coming from her university about the importance of community and diversity, students tended to self-segregate themselves into individual networks of friends, most quite homogenous (57). As a result, international students were often baffled by the self-absorption and ignorance of American students (89). Alas, college didn’t seem to change such matters for the majority of students, as most class discussion was superficial (95), and academic matters were not the central focus of college life (100). Surprisingly, given these findings, Small suggests in the book that the best way a faculty member can deal with today’s students is compassion (135). Reflecting on how higher education took this path, with a special focus on the drop of taxpayer support for higher education and the consequent rise of tuition and other more corporate revenue streams, she writes: “It is easy to see how some aspects of contemporary student culture were formed. To reduce running debt even higher, most students must now work and go to school at the same time, which has the added corollary of compressing their academic activities into ever smaller time slots. To repay their debts, students are anticipating the need for immediate and lucrative employment after college, so they choose both ‘practical’ and ‘well-paying’ fields of study, resulting in the decline of majors such as philosophy, history, and English literature. The majors for which there have been the largest proportional increases in degrees conferred since 1980 include business, computer science, parks and recreation, protective services, and the health professions. These degree choices, in turn, funnel new budgetary allocations to these same departments and programs, one of many feedback processes that closes the loop between the paths of students and the direction of universities” (151). In short, an institution once devoted to the life of the mind now resembles a vocational high school. Overall, Small’s analysis of college student culture is thought-provoking, and seems to apply to students beyond large public universities. I can see much of the student behavior she describes at Ursuline. The question is what do we do about it? It’s clear that students are not getting as much out of college as they could, but much of that result is shaped by cultural and economic forces beyond the students. Do we dumb down the curriculum even further? Do we resist the forces that encourage students not to prepare for classes? Or do we attempt to hold the line of academic rigor? I suspect we’ll do all three a bit here and there and muddle through as best we can. As Small’s fellow students know, sometimes one can’t avoid a hard course. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

APA Update Update

The latest news is that the American Psychological Association will replace any sixth editions of the style manual, if they are one of the error-filled ones from the first printing. Please click here for details. Act soon though as it is a limited offer, which expires shortly!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eisner, Caroline, and Martha Vicinus, eds. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age

Eisner, Caroline, and Martha Vicinus, eds. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

This anthology of essays addresses the growing concern about plagiarism in our computer-networked age. I have read it, as with the other books on plagiarism that I have read lately, in hopes of gleaning some practical advice on how to prevent and eliminate plagiarism in college courses, and the text does offer some useful advice, which I will discuss later. However, the authors often go beyond the walls of the classroom to consider issues of originality in academic publishing, courts of law, and, even, public sculpture, among other topics, all of which are very interesting, but not tremendously useful given my purpose in reading the text. Nevertheless, the editors suggest in the introduction that all these factors are connected, as they write, “It is no accident that public debates about plagiarism have coincided with efforts to limit access to copyrighted material” (1). In other words, the ease at which material can be duplicated today via computers has exposed holes in our previous conceptions of the ownership of ideas and their expressions, and we are attempting to deal with such issues. For college instructors specifically, these issues often boil down to the question of, as the editors ask, “How do we conserve and inculcate a tradition of ethical research and writing standards, while acknowledging and taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by new technologies?” Indeed. Alas, the volume is very good at raising such good questions, but not terribly good at answering them, perhaps because the issues are quite complex, as the authors of the essays often point out. Despite all that, the book holds a tremendous amount of value for the college instructor. Anna Berggren’s essay, “Do Thesis Statements Short-Circuit Originality in Students’ Writing?” is extremely thought-provoking. She traces the history of the thesis statement in writing instruction, and argues that it only became prominent after World War II when college enrollment increased and neophyte writing instructors hired to handle the influx of students needed an easier and faster way to evaluate writing (58-59). She suggests that rather than organizing thinking, the thesis statement may limit the creativity and originality of students. I don’t know that I agree, but the essay will certainly make one reflect over the pedagogical value of demanding thesis statements in student writing. Perhaps some students do turn to plagiarism because they don’t value the writing assignment or the purported learning that it is supposed to generate if everything has to be distilled down to a sentence or two; a more fluid structure might incur more enthusiasm in students. Another interesting idea is supplied by Kim Walden and Alan Peacock in “Economies of Plagiarism: The i-Map and Issues of Ownership in Information Gathering.” They suggest that students document the stages of their thinking in a research project, and share the document with the instructor along the research journey. This method would certainly cut down on the cases of plagiarism where a student, due to procrastination usually, turns to an online essay site or whatnot the night before an assignment is due. Though Walden and Peacock have a specific type of document in mind with their i-Map, the same result could likely be achieved with a journal, blog, or other means. Similarly, in “Plagiarism, a Turnitin Trial, and an Experience of Cultural Disorientation,” Lisa Emerson notes that holding individual conferences with students lowered instances of plagiarism (186-87). Stefan Sanders even explains in his essay “Academic Plagiarism and the Limits of Theft” how he was able to develop a student’s writing after she was caught plagiarizing. When the student was under threat of expulsion, she suddenly took writing seriously. The description of the experience makes for an interesting case study. Finally, Lynn Z. Bloom suggests that if teachers were more original with their assignments, then students would be more original as well. In “Insider Writing: Plagiarism-Proof Assignments,” she states, “In the final analysis, avoiding plagiarism is fundamentally a secondary concern for teachers, whose efforts are better spent inventing writing assignments that are original, intellectually demanding, participatory—the essence of insider writing” (216). She defines insider writing as writing where students are invested as “engaged participants rather than as alien outsiders whose understanding comes through what others—sometimes centuries of others—have had to say on the subject” (210). While you probably won’t be able to copy the specific assignments she describes since they likely won’t fit your courses--and anyway that would be plagiarism if you didn’t credit her, right?—she asks us to emulate the spirit of her approach and come up with creative assignments of our own. The book is available through OhioLINK.