How Dumb Do They Think We Are?

I no longer see cases of blatant plagiarism as personal insults. They are, instead, the pathetic bleats of students who think they know enough — maybe all there really is to know — about how to read and think and write.

The paradox of plagiarism is that in order to be really good at it, you need precisely the reading and writing skills that ought to render plagiarism unnecessary. —Jonathan MalesicHow Dumb Do They Think We Are? (Chronicle of Higher Education)

4 thoughts on “How Dumb Do They Think We Are?

  1. Stuart, I certainly understand about the push/pull between “teaching content” and “doing writing workshops.” As an English faculty member, of course I’m biased, but since good communication skills are so important to business, there are certainly some excellent strategies for teaching content through writing. For instance, you could have students explain a difficult concept to a co-worker via a memo, or you could write an e-mail in the persona of a technically uncertain older executive, and have the students carefully (but tactfully) point out the mistakes in the older worker’s understanding of a concept.

    If you drive a wedge between writing and content, then more students will be tempted to plagiarize because they will always see the arcane rules of grammar and mechanics as barriers between them and the grade they feel they deserve because they’ve memorized all the vocabulary words and they’ve skimmed the chapter subheads.

  2. My experience has been that one of thirty students plagiarizes in a typical class. I give fair warning, and a small amount of instruction on how to avoid plagiarism, but inevitably someone still turns in unoriginal work.

    I teach business courses and feel no great obligation to turn the class into a writing seminar instead of teaching the knowledge and skills that my students’ future employers expect them to have.

  3. Hmm. An interesting article, but very one-sided. I’d guess that the author has not been a student in an unfamiliar subject for a while.

    Missing from the article are many of the key reasons for plagiarism: time pressure and conflicting demands; incomprehensible assignments; lecturers who baldly blurt from textbooks, other teachers’ notes, and photocopied articles without adding any personal input; institutional practices which appear to rely on secrecy and punishment rather than a utilitarian understanding of the value of doing the work; a “real world” of media which hardly ever cites sources, and so on.

    All this strikes close to home with me, as I was once accused of plagiarism because a tutor found a website with similar content to a paper I wrote. What the college in question failed to grasp was that the site and material were also written by me, and mostly after submission of the paper while waiting for a response from the tutor.

    After much reflection I now routinely place on the web all assignments and coursework that I produce. The key point is that by sharing it on the “lightnet” it is available both to students and to teachers. I know my work is offered as class examples in several colleges – any student plagiarising it would be spotted immediately. Pretending that such material does not exist is simply not a valid strategy.

    The one point of value I do see in Malesic’s article is a recognition of the lack of knowledge, skill and understanding of the practical issues of plagiarism in the students. Rather than merely railing against it, though, perhaps as an educator he should approach the problem using teaching methods. If his classes were to include (for example) class tasks and group work where the aim was to both produce and discover increasingly convincing plagiarised work, maybe his students might gain a deeper understanding, beyond a patronising “Plagiarism is bad. Don’t do it.”

    Dennis, as a writing teacher, do you work with your students on these practical aspects of plagiarism, or do you rely on the failing “it’s naughty” approach lamented by Malesic?

  4. I would agree, Frank, that if a particular assignment or class attracts a lot of plagiarized papers, then a good teacher should revise the assignment accordingly.

    I try never to put a student in the situation where they realize “If I bomb this one assignment I will fail, but if I figure out a way to get credit without doing the work, I will pass.”

    When I teach a lit class, I have students submit a one- or two-page “presubmission report” in which the student stakes out an intellectual area for an upcoming paper. The presubmission is supposed to have a thesis, direct quotes from the literary work(s), and direct quotes from the academic works. Despite all the warnings and tap-dancing I can do, some students always cite Time Magazine or Crazy Joe’s Rockin’ Shakespeare Site or Mrs. Beasley’s Fourth-Grade Class Project. But they do it at an early stage of the writing process, when they still have time to recover and demonstrate their ability to do it accurately.

    A student who makes an honest mistake on the presubmission, but who is still willing to learn, can revise and resubmit without penalty. I won’t accept a full paper until I’ve had a chance to discuss the presubmission with a student.

    I do think, Frank, that it seems a lot easier than it is to do that kind of work. Every time I let the class revise, I have to be careful to write grades with detailed explanations of what went wrong and how to fix it. That takes three or four times as long as it would take just to write the grade on the paper and record it. Then, when students do submit their revision, I have to re-read their old paper to see how much they actually changed. So if I read the presubmission report, a rough draft, and a final draft, that’s a ton of reading and evaluating.

    I’m not complaining about doing that. I feel my students get all the help they need in order to excel, and it’s obvious to me which students are choosing not to do the revisions. It does take a lot of time — time that I am expected to put into my students, since I am at a teaching institution. If I were under pressure to publish a book every other year in order to keep my job, I might have a different attitude. (I got a great education at a large public research school, where the professors were paid to be brilliant and to publish, not to have personal relationships with undergraduates. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying my undergraduate teachers were impersonal or bad, I just mean that their job involved doing one-on-one teaching with grad students, so they didn’t have so much time to nurture undergrads… if I’d had a problem with that, I’d have gone to a small liberal arts college, like the one I’m teaching in now.)

    Nothing is stopping a student from buying a paper, writing up a presubmission report based on that paper, and turning it in, but just as Malesic points out, the student who can successfully read a purchased paper, identify the thesis and supporting evidence, and analyze the argument in order to put its essence into a one-page summary already has the skills to do well in the class. And indeed, I have had upper-level English majors pad out a too-short paper by grabbing several pages from a published source, but there are generally other trouble signs, too. (Not doing the readings, missing class, etc.)

    Early in my basic comp class, I did have an in-class activity in which I asked students to plagiarize so we could test out the kinds of things that will catch. Later in the same class, I played a Larry Lessig slideshow about the remix culture, and encouraged my students to find something on the internet and remix it into something that was their own. The students then had to discuss what it was that they did, and how the tools of digital culture enabled them to use their creativity to make something new out of what they had found.

    I regularly have my students blog their ideas, and although I don’t ask them to post their full drafts online, some do stitch together their rough drafts based on their blog entries.

    I’ve got to cut this off for now…

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