Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Virtual Education, part the Xth; in which the plagairists make themselves known

My online summer class has started (overlapping with my mid-semester-start Spring class - yipes!). This class is the usual U.S. history survey class that pretty much every college student in a public institution must take, so the students are usually freshmen or early in their college careers. In these classes, you often get an idea of what high school students are absorbing both at school and from their own culture (for lack of better word).

Already, a couple of teachers and I have discovered a few plagairists. Remember, this is an online course, so writing is a huge component, which opens the door wide for this sort of behavior. The type of plagairism that is going on, however, is rather interesting. The student copies paragraphs from a web page, maybe tweaking a sentence or two, then gives the citation at the end of their work. Since they are pointing you to the place that they plagairized, they are either the stupidest plagairists in the world, or they honestly do not understand that what they are doing is wrong.

One of my fellow teachers (really, it isn't me!) confronted her naughty student, and the student was actually shocked that s/he was being accused of plagairism. I give the student the benefit of the doubt, not just because I'm a sucker, but because s/he went to great lengths to tell how s/he got the article from which s/he copied, the process of including the information from the article into hir paper, and how s/he cited the article at the end of her paper. Again, the fact that s/he cited the very thing that s/he plagairized makes me think that s/he was, if not innocent, ignorant of hir crime.

The university requires all of the students in our classes to take a little online orientation and quiz regarding plagairism. All of the courses with a writing component require the exercise, so the students end up taking it repeatedly and sometimes more than once in the same sememster. The thing that they all say that they learn from the exercise is that they have to cite their sources.

What I think is happening is that they understand that "copying is bad" and that "citation is good." What they do not understand is that you cannot remedy copying by adding a citation. In other words, they do not understand the concept of "quoting," in which you use another author's words, in quotation marks and with citations, to illustrate your own original thought. This leads to a deeper problem.

Somewhere -- I think on the Book Critic's Circle blog, but I'm not sure where so I'm going to paraphrase someone out there without citing them -- someone commented that they think the biggest problem with some of these young plagairists is precisely their youth and their lack of familiarity with the written word. They have no real ideas of their own yet, and no practice or skill at articulating the ones that they do have. When they come across a well-stated concept they think, "that's exactly what I would have said." Because it was what they would have said, if they could have, they think that they are safe in appropriating the text without citation or without quoting but with the citation in the bibliography. In fact, in the past, I have had students who plagairized from our textbooks; and, when confronted, they would tell me, "but how can there be any other way to say this? There aren't any other words!"

My own little plagairist, who cited hir sources, has not taken hir quiz (I have adopted the non-gender specific pronouns here -- those aren't typos!). S/He responded to questions with direct cuttings and pastings from websites, which she cited in full. S/He wasn't hiding anything. S/He just failed to either do the reading for the week, or doesn't trust hir own ability to take what s/he read and condense it into paragraphs that respond to the questions. I explained to hir the problem, and am giving hir a second chance to try again (and keeping an eagle-eye on hir for the rest of the semester).

I think that these younger students see so much unfiltered, unedited, unmonitored information traded so freely in their lives, and that they are so uncritical about the ways that they receive that information -- right down to the words that express it -- that they really do not comprehend some of the basic concepts of originality and verbal expression. My student, for example, may have thought that hir role was to deliver the answers to the questions -- the information that I asked for -- to me. S/he may not have understood that s/he was supposed to engage hir own thought in the process of delivering that information. The class, to hir, is a scavenger hunt for information, not a means of learning how to think about that information and express hir understanding of that information in hir own words.

I don't have any solutions, nor anything to blame. I know that I am going to have to come up with better questions, designed to force them to use their own ideas and words either through the explicit, debate-style questions or through the first-person style questions. I am going to have to circumvent their understanding of communication.


Joyce Hanson said...

Psst. Clio. "Plagiarize" is spelled with an "ia," not an "ai." (I just looked it up.) But anyway, considering how clearly you elucidate your students' muddled thinking, at the start of the course when you give them that plagiarism quiz, can you also talk to them about how to properly use quotations? I know you're not teaching English grammar, but it's probably true that they haven't had much practice in written expression and just don't know any better. And while you're at it, can you tell them that quotes should be used sparingly and only to illustrate a point they've already made in their own words?

Clio Bluestocking said...

Hey Joyce! I NEVER spell that damn word correctly! I should be embarassed!

That's actually a good idea. I would love to give them a little talk about quoting, but right now I'm teaching online, so it's a bit difficult. I'm thinking of doing some sort of online PowerPoint thing about writing papers, acceptable sources, the difference between primary and secondary sources, where to find the proper sources, and -- of course -- quoting! I just don't want to bore them -- PowerPoint always elicits groans that can be heard 'round the world.

As I'm learning, it doesn't matter if I'm an English teacher or not, everyone can use a little help in the writing department.

Also, some are actually amazed that they are supposed to take the essay skills they learn in freshman English into their other classes -- they seem either to think they are cheating or that those skill were only for that class. It's kinda cute, but also cool, to see their eyes light up when they ask "you mean write like in English?" and I say "yes." They are always so relieved.

shrinkykitten said...

When I taught a research methods class, I gave a plagiarism quiz (because I tried to lobby for my department to do one like your college does - but it hasn't been supported). One thing I had them do was take a passage I had written and summarize it and cite properly. One thing I liked about that was that it ensured they knew how to summarize (I gave them a lengthy handout on it in advance for them to study for the quiz). Several of them told me afterwards it was helpful because they realized they'd been doing it wrong all along. Part of why I wanted my department to have a quiz for all students was so that we could dispense with this issue of students saying, "I didn't know!" Plagiarism was a huge issue, and profs tended to not ever do anything about it. So students really learned they could get away with it.

I had a student once plagiarize a book (this was at my undergrad which was a very good school) and she claimed that because she was *only* an undergrad, it was ridiculous to expect her to come up with her own thoughts. Yet it seemed to me that wsa exactly the purpose of education.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Oh, heavens! Save them from their own thoughts!

Hi Shrinky! That is a great idea! I've just finished a little presentation on why they have to write so much, so the quiz will be my next project.


Unless noted otherwise, copyright for all written content held by Clio Bluestocking.