The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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‘The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me’

Here’s an interesting dialogue between two characters: Teach and Cheat. One’s a philosophy professor; the other writes students’ term papers for a fee.

Teach: Yes, but it is a red flag to me that there is plagiarism elsewhere in the paper. The second one is grammatical. In those cases I was alerted to plagiarism by the sudden appearance, in a paper that is otherwise a morass of grammatical errors, of a series of flawless sentences with complicated structures. The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me. As is the use—and often misuse—of specialized jargon or technical language that I’ve not discussed with them in class. Then I type those sentences into Google, and they all wind up being smoking-gun cases of plagiarism. My favorite case this semester was plagiarism within plagiarism. When I informed this student that I suspected her paper was plagiarized, she said to me, “I got my paper from one of the students who was in your class last semester. How was I to know that she had plagiarized?” Which indicated to me, along with a number of the other email responses I got from students, that many of them don’t even know what plagiarism is.

Cheat: I don’t disagree. But not knowing what plagiarism is isn’t really the problem. It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days. When students plagiarize, there’s an implicit recognition that “I’m just doing this for the grade.” That’s why they do it. And that’s the way that the majority of students look at the university, and have been for some time now. At my college, the frats had rooms full of file cabinets full of plagiarized papers. Plagiarism is old news. It’s really not just that plagiarism is getting easier to do, with the Internet. The problem is now that the grade doesn’t even get you the job.

You understand where this is going: it’s not even about plagiarism and term papers… it’s about the framework and future of college itself.

But, P.S., thinking about plagiarizing a term paper—even now, so many years removed from college—makes me physically ill. Seriously: a sick little stir in my stomach. But it has more to do with self-conception than core values. The idea of putting my name above somebody else’s words is just… like… inconceivable. The whole point of having a brain (and maybe, having a life) is that my name goes above my words and my words aren’t like anyone else’s words. This was true even back in college, when I thought I was going to be a scientist or an economist, not a journalist or a writer. So for a person like me (and I suspect there are many of you among the Snarkmatrix) plagiarism is way more than just cheating. It’s self-abnegation.


Sean Loiselle says…

Interesting to consider self-abnegation/plagiarism in terms of “fair use” and the Kind of Bloop fiasco going around. And the “Everything is a Remix” series. There’s a gradient there, but I don’t think most of us could pinpoint precisely where we cease feeling comfortable with it.

Do you think Led Zeppelin felt like they abnegated their artistic expression by lifting so freely from others’ works? Do you feel like they abnegated something?

To another point, I think most students already feel like their responsibility is solely to synthesize information presented by the teacher — the papers they create already borrow liberally and directly from their sources. They just reprocess the information in their own language without adding originality or a greater context. Is copying and pasting so much different than gaming the answer you believe “the teacher wants?”

Leslie Healey says…

Ditto on the self-concept for me. I also find my high school students satisfied with knowing about something- be it a story, an equation, a historical event, a poem-instead of knowing it for themselves. They will spend almost as much time on spark notes as it would take to devour a good book. They suck the joy right out of experience, simply because school has taught them that the grade is paramount. We have taught them to be good learners. Some of them are surprised that I have maintained my love of reading and writing (English teacher).

Agree. Too much focus on destination instead of journey. The grade is the goal, rather than the process of absorbing info and coming up with our own thoughts and conclusions (learning!).

pansypotter says…

I don’t even like to plagiarise myself! Hate copying even my own words rather than trying to create something afresh . . .

That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have phrased it quite that way, but I was also nauseated by the idea. I had so much pride in my writing and my ability to write a paper in college. How could anyone else write the paper I could write? In retrospect that pride was perhaps a bit misplaced and somewhat laughable, but it was very real. I think that, even if I did not have that pride, the values thing would certainly stand in the way, but since we know that it’s basically impossible to systematically instill values in people, perhaps instilling such pride in people would be a more scalable deterrent.

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