I Guess It’s My Turn To Rant on Plagiarism

Historiann posted her rant this morning on this annoying New York Times article on plagiarism. So, I guess it’s my turn, as one who busts plagiarizers every term in every section I teach (the record is still as one student plagiarizing FOUR times in my course and denying having done it every time).

Says the article:

“It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Professors who have studied plagiarism do not try to excuse it — many are champions of academic honesty on their campuses — but rather try to understand why it is so widespread.”

With all due respect, this is not rocket science and one does not need to invoke some web 2.0 version of the death of the author to figure it out. And no, copying and pasting from a variety of sources without citing is not some new form of pastiche and creative writing. It’s cheating:

“That theory does not wash with Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana University, who said that relaxing plagiarism standards “does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness.””

Thank you. This sounds more like it:

“In the view of Ms. Wilensky, whose writing skills earned her the role of informal editor of other students’ papers in her freshman dorm, plagiarism has nothing to do with trendy academic theories.

The main reason it occurs, she said, is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.

“If you’re taught how to closely read sources and synthesize them into your own original argument in middle and high school, you’re not going to be tempted to plagiarize in college, and you certainly won’t do so unknowingly,” she said.”

Let me add something here.

Should we really be surprised by all this? Lack of critical and writing skill and high levels of cheating? Seriously, since the 1980s, education policy has focused on testing and corporatization of the system (both trends have to do with union busting, period). Both trends are massive failure: it does not make education better or cheaper.

At the same time, we have seen state retrenchment and lower funding and the restructuring of colleges and universities: these organizations became more top heavy, filled with administrators and managers full of ideas from the business world, only always 20 years after said ideas emerged. Colleges and universities filled up with adjunct faculty teaching out of the trunk of their cars as the number of tenure-track position dwindled.

This was accompanied with the redefinition of education as job training and every discipline was required to justify its existence in terms of job market data and employment prospects. Hence mushroomed the vocational certificates and degrees as acceptable substitutes to the general education degrees. In this context, traditional liberal arts disciplines are seen as either cash cows for other more capital-intensive programs or as just annoying useless programs with no market value, that can be safely ignored in institutional priorities while administrators shovel money, new buildings and other perks at star vocational programs (in the health care field, for instance) that they then use for publicity.

Final piece of the puzzle, the emergence of the for-profit colleges and universities, promising a quick and profitable education (training) in high profile fields.

How does this relate to plagiarism? Well:

1. Students come to college having already absorbed this corporate ideology of education as job training and skills acquisition.

2. Having to take general education classes is therefore a chore for a lot of them, something to get out of the way as quickly as possible before getting to the real stuff. Not only have these classes no value for them but they might require actual work (beyond multiple-choice tests) such as writing papers: value and effort don’t match.

3. Since these classes are perceived as having no value as far as the job market is concerned, some students will put in the minimum effort into them, so, their first reflex once given a written assignment will be to Google it, grab the first bunch of links that come up and go from there.

4. The sanctions for plagiarizing are relatively mild. My four-times cheater was put on academic probation even though I was not the first professor to bust her.

Oh, and how do we know that plagiarism is endemic? Because the so-called net generation / Millenials are NOT tech- / web-savvy. They cheat badly and visibly. And we now have tools to detect it. But getting away with it every once in a while makes it worthwhile in terms of ROI.

In the case of my school, I would add that plagiarism increased when we switched to a quarter-based calendar (3 quarters per academic year) to a semester-based one (2 semesters per academic year). This means students have to take more classes  (4 or 5 per semester, rather than 3 per quarter) during a term. Many of them have jobs (college is expensive, believe it or not) and family obligations.

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