Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why I Don’t Worry about Plagiarism

The EdWeek story on the anti-plagiarism service Turnitin.com discusses how concerns over plagiarism and cheating cause conflicts between students’ rights and teachers’ strategies in the writing classroom. We expect the texts students turn in to be original. Students should be the authors and owners of whatever compositions they submit. Yet anti-plagiarism services take away that ownership.

It’s not just the legal problem of services like Turnitin.com. It’s a deeper pedagogical problem when we ask students to take ownership of their work and then deny them ultimate authority over that work.

Preventing PlagiarismLike Laura Hennessey DeSena, author of NCTE’s Preventing Plagiarism: Tips and Techniques, I believe that the best way to avoid plagiarism is to focus on strong writing pedagogy. When students are engaged in the writing process and share their work from inspiration to polished copy, plagiarism problems disappear. Practices such as these can help eliminate any worries about plagiarism and cheating:

  • Encourage students to choose topics that matter to them. When students want to know more about a topic, their research is authentic and meaningful.

  • Ask students to share their drafts (all of them, from jotted notes to sloppy copy to published submissions) in class and in conferences. When everyone in the class sees texts from beginning to end, students’ work is obvious and open.

  • Have students write and revise drafts in class. Writer’s workshop models not only produce stronger student writing but also focus on authentic student writing. When you see students writing, you don’t question where student writing comes from.

  • Invite students to share their process and the thinking behind their compositions. When students show how they move from outside resources to specific references in their own work, they identify their sources and open the door to discussion on any questions about formatting and citations.

Perhaps it seems simplistic, but the real solution to plagiarism from my perspective isn’t having (or forcing) students to turn in their work to a faceless clearinghouse. It’s asking students to turn in drafts and journals and snippets of their work throughout the inquiry process.


Russ said...

The problem can be phrased another way: we need to get rid of the "turn in" part of "turnitin." What happens to student writing should be that it gets read, and matters: what happens in fact, way too much of the time, is that it gets "turned in." I always think of the image of sod.

As long as student writing serves the sole purpose of being a medium by which students are evaluated (it's "turned in" so we can do that), students aren't going to see it as real. We can "encourage" students to "choose topics that matter to them" all we want, but they have to matter to a reader too. And you don't "turn things in" to a reader. You turn them in to "the teacher as examiner."

Anonymous said...

The difficulty in this debate is that plagiarism may be the only time an English teacher might actually take a stand on anything. We are otherwise so taken by post-modern concepts of constructing our realities, process vs. product, and other amoral perspectives on reality. We abandon authority constantly, and hope our students will somehow want to engage with reality on their own when unreality surrounds them otherwise, from parents who want to be teenagers, to a complete lack of three-dimensional reality in their entertainment. What is real to them? How do they get pushed out of a narcissistic, consequential reality? We hope to nuance them into an understanding of plagiarism and a consideration of the intellectual property of others when academic work has no value to them at all - when the world has no value to them at all. The real challenge is not plagiarism in any case, it is an actual connection with reality.

Anonymous said...

I agree that allowing students to choose topics that matter to them is an important step in eliminating plagiarism. However, there are times when we may want students to write about an assigned topic, perhaps related to a novel we are studying. A problem with this, however, is that some teachers rely on standard questions that have been written about time and time again. For example, when reading To Kill a Mockingbird, an obvious essay topic is "Write about the symbolism of the mockingbird." Rather than asking students to write about these same tired topics (for which there are a myriad of papers to steal/buy/copy from the Internet), we as teachers should strive to create original writing opportunities. For those who insist on using a topic such as the mockingbird example above, why not use this as an in-class writing activity or essay question on a test? Then plagiarism is no longer an issue.

Anonymous said...

It's important that we keep in mind the difference between intentional and unintentional plagiarism. My writing classroom utilizes process, sharing, workshop, and topic choice very effectively--I have not had a single student this year or last who willfully plagiarized (that is, purchased or copied significant portions of a paper). However, we cannot NOT talk about it in class, as there will still be problems with documentation and paraphrasing. Students are more motivated to pay attention to citations when we discuss intellectual property and plagiarism than they are when they think citations were invented by cruel teachers.

Scott said...

I teach at a community college in California and I've found that students usually plagiarize for a few reasons. One, they panic. Sometimes it's because I produced unclear or too difficult prompt, or I didn't take enough time to help them get a start on an idea, or they managed their time badly. Second, they have gotten away with it before, so they do it again. Three, students are truly ignorant about quoting and paraphrasing.

Solid pedagogy sets the stage for student success. As I've grown as a teacher, I've found that students plagiarize less.

The fact that from early on students are trained to write for a grade is a problem. Take for instance the dreaded Five-Paragraph essay. This is a form that is taught to be graded, not to be read. This is a philosophical reality that is ingrained in students. If no one is really reading, I mean really reading, the damn thing, then we perpetuate and enforce the idea that we, or anyone, is not really listening. If we are not listening (interpreted by students as "caring") then why should they care to care about their thoughts, about trying to communicate those thoughts, about taking time to create, risk or explore an idea and present it to a reader?

We teach strict essay form at the expense of our students' intellectual development. Students need principles (and strategies for employing those principles) not rigid forms that reinforce an empty, fleshless, mode of writing that rewards facile rhetorical moves rather than risk, guts, nerve, verve.

What are the principles? I teach student the following, sort of a manifesto in the manner of the Futurists:
1. You gotta care, you gotta be curious. If you don't care, if you aren't curious about anything (topics or writing well) you can't pass my class, much less write a damn essay. I can ferret out b.s. in a minute. If I get a paper that shows zero effort you get a zero grade.
2. You gotta write recursively. If you don't go back over your writing, whether in the moment or over the course of weeks, you're not writing. Writing is not speaking. Speaking is not writing. Writing well is hard. Sorry.
3. You gotta "unpack" your ideas. We can't read your mind. Writing well is hard. Sorry.
4. You gotta modify your sentences. This helps you "unpack" your ideas. What comes first, complexity of thought or syntactic maturity? I don't care. We work at both. I teach you how to use sophisticated modification structures to unpack your ideas.
5. You gotta organize your ideas. When you write recursively (go back, go back, go back) you need to think about how you impact your reader. You may have great ideas, but if they are unorganized nobody will be able to follow them.
6. You gotta read actively, you gotta read a lot. Strong writers build up a "schema" of essays, strategies, ideas that they rely upon when presented with new writing situations. This is creative, not a strict formula of forms that will work in every situation. If you can't commit to reading, you can't write well.

So those are the principles I'm working with. I don't mean to imply that I don't work with form, but I guide students into discovering the form and choices of great essayists, encouraging them to build up a schema of such forms and choices. Real forms, real choices, that have an effect on the reader, not a grader.

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