Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Conventions: Plagiarism, How do you teach it?

This isn't just another post saying, "You know that plagiarism stuff? Don't do it." I'd be happy if you take this lesson to heart, but if you've ever been tempted or sometimes are tempted to plagiarize, then I'd like you to read the following post. In it, you'll get to lean over my shoulder as I interact with colleagues and struggle with the problem of teaching plagiarism in a way which would make sense to students who are balancing demands for grades, future success, too many demands on their time, and a natural, human temptation to take an easy path.

Any insights you can offer me would be welcome. In reading the post, I want you to notice how much thought I've put into the issue. Why? Because part of learning to use sources is learning the limitations of such use. This is a difficult issue to get students thinking about. More, in an era of digital publishing and the beginning of one of ubiquitous access to information, I suspect our attitudes to who owns ideas will change. They did during the last major shift in how knowledge was dissimulated and consumed, that is, the era of print publication. This shift will have major impact on how society is structured, and the movement between difference structures for society is often a violent time when essential freedoms can be lost.

Let me know what you think:

I remember being stunned when visiting the library at UVA and seeing a student add to the stack of soft drinks one they'd just taken from the Coke machine. It turned out the machine was malfunctioning and intermittently giving out an extra Coke, and the students wouldn't take it, hence, the stack. After hearing about UVA's honor code, talking to a professor, and visiting with a librarian, I began to notice book bags left unattended and bikes left unlocked as folks played Frisbee. I've always wondered if it was the rather draconian honor code, students who had rarely wanted, a quiet pride in being part of such a community, learned behavior, or some complicated combination. If learned behavior, I'd sure like to be part of teaching it. The question is, "how?"
As I've watched colleagues struggle with plagiarism, I've often wondered if I am somehow missing the signs and how I would handle the problem. I've heard a lot about electronic means of checking for plagiarism, and I've long had moral and pedagogical issues with the process. Of course, I have similar issues with police check points and the check points in government offices and at airports. It bothers me that we're at a point in the noble experiment when we value liberty so little and security so much we'll accept authority assuming guilt and checking our persons and our possessions for violations. It bothers me that I have to empty by bags or get dressed after being searched by an agent of my government. I don't want those with whom I share the social contract to value their personal security more than our shared personal freedoms. It somehow smacks of cowardice. On the other hand, in New Mexico, I found myself wondering how many lives were saved by the check points which would catch drunk drivers and if the loss of freedom was worth the price. This last is one of the questions I continue to struggle with in terms of checking everyone's work for plagarism via electronic means.
The pedagogy of setting up a relationship with students based on assumed guilt of a few concerns me. To teach well, I need to trust my students, and they need to trust me. Equally important, they need to know they can trust the fact I'll read their work with rhetorical charity. How careful students are to make sure they're doing *exactly* what I want says a lot about the kinds of relationships they've shared with some of their teachers. It bugs many students when I answer the how-long-do-you-want-this question with, "As long as it needs to be to meet the needs of your audience and achieve your purpose." They don't trust such a vague answer--an answer which requires them to think about audience and purpose beyond the professor=audience and the grade=purpose rhetorical rubric. They suspect the chance I'm offering to be what it is, a chance to make a mistake, and they've somehow gotten the notion that making mistakes in front of teachers becomes, not a chance to learn or teach, but a chance for the teacher to assert authority and penalize. The student's desire to meet the expectations of the professor, however, also indicates a belief that success is tied to satisfying authority, and it's hard to argue that, to some degree, the belief is true. My desire, however, is to produce students who expect author(ity) and their selves as authors to prove themselves by acting for the shared good. I want them to suspect those who don't or can't.
I've never used it, but I like the idea of students signing their work along with a promise they haven't, to their best knowledge, plagiarized. Such a signature is an assertion of their authority to make a claim with real consequences in the public sphere. In short, it's the act of a rhetorical agent--a citizen--in a democracy. It shows their words and those of others matter and can and should be made their own. I don't like the solution of submitting to an electronic plagiarism checker everyone's texts, but I haven't thought the issue through or researched it enough to have a stance beyond my own uneasiness.
What I do want students to understand is that words and ideas have value, especially in a capitalistic democracy. I want them to value their own words, and I want them to value and recognize the work others have put into their thought and words, just as I recognize and reward my students for their thought and words.


Jason Williams said...

I have had previous classes that used to check for plagiarism. While I generally accepted the accuracy of the website, I do sometimes have my doubts about those sytems.

I think part of this doubt comes from the idea that plagiarism sometimes mean different things to different people. For instance, taking a part of another person's document or website should be fine as long as you indicate to readers that this information is from another source. This is why I think using something like Wikipedia for research should be fine because there are references to the information presented in the articles.

So, real plagiarism means taking ideas and quotes from another person's work without indicating in any way that the information is not from the writer.

So, those are my own thoughts about the subject.

Steve Brandon said...

From the point of view of the law, plagiarism is stealing. What you're taking is credit for someone's work without acknowledging your debt to them.

Plagiarism can also be a form of fraud. Think of the ethics of taking your friend's car and using it to impress a date, and you've got a good handle of the ethics of plagiarism. You wouldn't like that guy, and you wouldn't want to be that guy.

Having said the above there are degrees of plagiarism. A colleague is currently talking about a student who interspersed sentences from another's writing and changed a few of the words. This is plagiarism, as the intent was there to take another's ideas and make them out to be their own.

Sometimes, however, you'll use an idea and not remember it as being that you read ten years ago. Someone else may recognize the source, and you'll be called on plagiarism; but, the intent to deceive and profit from the deception isn't there, so what you've done isn't plagiarism. There's another exception. If a piece of knowledge or idea is general knowledge, then it isn't and can't be taken.

Even if you don't plagiarize and make a simple mistake like that above, it's still a serious matter. Your most valuable rhetorical asset is your reputation. It can take years to build up a good reputation in a discourse community, and a good reputation can help you in any number of ethos appeals and literally prove priceless. Such ethos in a community will get you forgiven for a host of the mistakes that, being human, we all make. However, you can loose or, at the least, endanger that good reputation with a single act of blatant deceit.

The best idea is: when in doubt, cite.

As the saying goes, "the game is not worth the prize."

Steve Brandon said...

Ah, the Wikipedia question. Let me begin by saying, I use it, and it's a good source for starting research on fairly broad questions or for general questions which don't *have* to be right. I rarely use it alone, just as I rarely use the internet alone. Read: when an answer needs to be right, cross check it between several sources.

The problem many in the academy have with Wikipedia is they don't get the fact that Wikipedia is based on the same thing on which all research sources are based, namely, the informed opinion and judgement of the flawed human animal. It upsets some that those writing have agendas of their own. Of course, this never happens in the academy. (Please note the sacrasm.) It upsets some that those writing don't have the credentials to prove they are experts. It upsets some that what is said on Wikipedia isn't vetted by those with credentials given by the academy.

What many don't realize is that there's a marketplace for ideas just as there's a marketplace for other comodities. Academics often adopt the stance that they are above such mundane concerns as the give and take of the market place. In society, bad ideas will be identified, that is, if they are dangerous enough, if there's reward in such identification, or if there's self-worth to be gained.

The real question, however, isn't if Wikipedia is a good source or not, it's if you should use it and, if so, when. As always, the answer is, "It depends on the rhetorical situation." If you're writing for an academic audience, that is, a discouse coummity who doesn't accept Wikipedia as a valid source, then in almost all situations, you should conform to the expectations (the conventions) of your audience. Think of such a view of sources as an ethos appeal. One of these conventions of most in the academy is to reject Wikipedia as a valuable source.

In short, you use the sources your audience values. In the academy, the valued sources are those produced by, well, the academy. This means academic journal articles, books produced by academic presses, and the publications of academic and professional associations. More recent sources are always valued more than less recent. These sources are trusted because the best of them have teams of editors and readers who act as a collective jury as to the value of an article or book. These folks are respected experts. The academy has developed this means of vetting the ideas which they palce into circulation over decades. Wikipedia, which might prove a better model, has only been around years.


Jason Williams said...

Thanks for that clarification about plagiarism, Steve. I try to remember to cite when needed. This was an important point in a few of my game design-specific courses. Whenever we talked about games, we had to cite them. Again, thank you for responding!