Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Plagiarism? Pshaw.

I do NOT need another Best Practices Memo topic, but the Engage discussion going on currently about plagiarism-- mostly about "how to catch it so the students can be disciplined"-- seems so wrong-headed and against all our theories! (Except maybe behaviorism -- punishing "wrong action"-- but even behaviorism doesn't just randomly punish confusion.) I think a more positive approach would be to help students learn to use sources better, and oh, by the way, also avoid plagiarism. It's really like eating rather than smoking. Smoking is just bad for you, so it's a good thing to avoid. But you can't avoid eating, like you can't avoid using sources in an academic paper. The thing is to eat RIGHT, and that you might have to be trained in (me, I'd eat wrong at every opportunity left to my own devices). Similarly, students are expected to use sources in their writing and research, and it's not enough to tell them, "Use sources. Avoid plagiarizing said sources." We have to tell them HOW. We're teachers. This is something that can be taught.

Universities might work on more coordinated definitions of "plagiarism," because this isn't quite like "armed robbery," easy to define. My sister went to a school with an "honor code," where with every assignment they had to write and sign that they had not "given nor received help" in this assignment. Well, that really doesn't work much anymore, when we expect students to brainstorm together, to ask for help in class, to visit the tutoring centers. We want them to learn to seek out and evaluate help from others, don't we? Well, then that "connectivism" shouldn't be regarded as an academic crime.

Except for the egregious cases (lifting a whole article and passing it off as your own), plagiarism is usually a matter of missing attribution and overuse of sources. Most students don't actually want to plagiarize, and on the one hand, we're stressing they need to use X number of sources, and other the other hand, "Don't use too many sources too closely." This is a teachable moment. Why is what this student did running afoul of the plagiarism rules? What could he/she have done differently to stay within the rules? Working with the student's own paper, we could be showing how this use of a source could have been done "legally," how this quote could have been better as a paraphrase, how the student's own ideas could form the topic sentences, and the sources used only as support... these are part of the writing tasks, and can be taught and learned just like any other writing task.
But I think we need to distinguish between "pure plagiarism," where there's a clear intent to pass off someone else's writing as your own, and the confused type, where the student is trying to use sources and does it badly. 20 years of teaching writing and writing center work tells me-- MOST students use sources badly at first, but they can be taught to do better.

The first thing I think is to make sure that the paper is structured around the student's ideas, rather than sources, which could mean that the student do an outline or a draft BEFORE reading much in the sources-- sketching out the issues within this topic and focusing on ideas, and only then starting the research. That's sort of heretical, but I think a student who starts with a basic sketch of "this is what I want to explore or analyze, and here are the parts" is then positioned to use sources the way they should be used-- as support for the student's points.

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