If students cannot find the answers but must make the answers, they are less apt to pass off others’ ideas as their own. The secret is to pose or ask students to pose questions or problems and decisions which have never been adequately answered. —Jamie McKenzie —The New Plagiarism: Seven Antidotes to Prevent Highway Robbery in an Electronic Age (From Now On)
This article, from 1998, was prophetic. It argues that the “find out about X” assignments that used to require a lot of reading and persistence are today so trivial, and so many of these answers are already posted online, that we do our students a disservice and encourage them to cheat. If they realize it’s busywork, and that their teachers themselves couldn’t be bothered to come up with a challenging assignment, then how can we possibly expect them to become intellectually invested in it?
I try to impress upon my freshmen the fact that in high school, they were often rewarded for producing, on demand, the answers that were already printed in the back of the book or in the teacher’s guides. (I always contextualize my statements about high school by observing that high school teachers have to teach a lot more students, and that they have more disciplinary problems, so I don’t want to sound as if I’m slamming high school teachers.) But one day, they may have to speak at a city council meeting and present a reasoned argument for why a new road bypass should take route A (the one that does not destroy their house) instead of route B; or, one day their spouse might convert to a religion that they personally find morally reprehensible; or, they might be told that, due to a budget cut, they will have to write up a report that recommends which one of their three equally-competent assistants should be fired. A liberal arts degree is supposed to give students practice exposing themselves to new ideas and making sense of the world through multiple and varied viewpoints.
Even in upper-level courses, I find students — some of whom are in the ed school — asking me, “What do you want me to write?” as if I already have memorized the one and only correct answer to “Is Willy Loman a Tragic Hero?” or “How Personally Culpable was Torvald for Nora’s Plight?”