Seven years in an attic


I will pick up on Rob’s last post and add some thoughts…but first a story:

Once upon a time I served as a teaching assistant for U.S. History 1.  The faculty member assigned Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Students thought it was boring (so did I), and the faculty member didn’t do a very good job integrating the text into the class or inviting the students to do any real analysis of their own. Long story short, students were required to write an essay, I had to grade 99+ papers that sucked out loud. Can’t recall the exact assignment students were given but it was some vague topic along these lines: Describe Harriet’s life and make some argument about X, Y and Z and do it all in 2-3 pages. Students didn’t get the book beyond the “slavery=bad” point which they all knew already.

The next year the same professor taught U.S. History 1 again but didn’t use Incidents, this time she used Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  I happened to bump into the TA assigned to the class that semester and she told me she was having a heck of a time grading the class essays on slavery.  I sympathized.  “You know,” she said, “I have one paper and I just can’t figure out what the student is talking about. He keeps mentioning how Harriet Beecher Stowe spent seven years hiding in an attic and watching her kids through a crack.”  I laughed, but it wasn’t funny.  The student had simply gotten a paper written the previous year (when I was the TA) about Harriet Jacobs (pseudonym in the book is Linda Brent) and turned it in.  Harriet Jacobs….Harriet Beecher Stowe….slave woman named Harriet….escape….gotta be the same, right?

It is a funny story but it is also pretty sad.  He was monumentally lazy and a bit of a dimwit. He paid so little attention to the class that he couldn’t even cover his tracks well. Dimwit failed the class, he would have failed anyway, even if he had been a bit more on the ball and copied a paper on the right book. I don’t know if the faculty member pursued this beyond giving Dimwit an “F” in the class (which he was going to get anyway).  Dimwit learned nothing from this experience and neither did Dimwit’s girlfriend/boyfriend/sibling/friend who gave him the paper to begin with.

My thoughts about plagiarism are similar to those of anthropologist Susan D. Blum.  Like Blum, I think we are often focused on the wrong things when we discuss plagiarism.  I have never met two academics who agree on what constitutes plagiarism. I wrote an encyclopedia chapter last month and part of the instructions from the editor noted that we authors should cite our sources as there were “numerous instances of plagiarism” in the last edited volume she did.  Keep in mind, those authors were not undergrads, they were practicing academics.

“Passing off work as your own without giving credit” doesn’t do it for me…and I dare say it doesn’t do it for most undergrads either. That is not a thorough enough explanation for me and I can’t connect that vague phrasing to life outside the walls of the academy. What does plagiarism mean?

Susan D. Blum offers a number of ways to think about plagiarism that move the conversation is a more useful direction. The thing I like so much about her approach is that she studies undergraduates and their thoughts on plagiarism from an anthropological perspective.  She studies the subjects (students) in their natural setting and asks them what they think constitutes plagarism, why it happens and whether or not it is a big deal.  Has anyone ever actually HAD a conversation with students about plagiarism?  You might be surprised by how LITTLE your students understand on this topic.  You can not assume that the vague definition I included above makes sense to students. I really encourage you to check out her book: My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture or read a short article she wrote in the Chronicle here.

In the rest of my post I want to touch briefly on a few of her points that resonate with me.

Blum observes that institutions and academic culture approach plagiarism in one of two ways: as a sin or a crime.  If it is a sin then the plagiarist has violated some mysterious institutional code of ethics that all students are bound to uphold–but never read. These codes come in handbook form, are handed out at orientation and, like the terms and conditions of any web service, are promptly forgotten.  I think students are inherently nice, good, trustworthy, caring, humans who don’t want to “violate” some abstract code.  They give it lip service but really, is it that big a deal to violate a code? If plagiarism is more akin to a crime we have a slightly different story. In this scenario the language we use emphasizes consequences, punishments and products like Turnitin which produces, as Blum says, an “originality report.” So what, a paper that is 92% original is ok but 86% original and you go to the dean’s office? How can anything be 100% original? Should that even be the goal of assignments? Whether sin or crime I think most students haven’t a clue what plagiarism actually is and they don’t really care because we don’t do a good job telling them why they should care.  Academics focus on the end of the mess: catching the plagiarist, proving he or she committed the sin/crime and punishing the violator.  How about we focus on the beginning, before problems arise?

Blum also notes that that which we call “academic integrity” is not something students understand well. I agree with this wholeheartedly. We tell students that they must maintain academic integrity but we don’t do a good job telling them what this is.  If one values academic integrity then the problems inherent in plagiarism should be self evident…right? I’m not sure we should be assuming students will figure this out.  The time to figure this out should not be on the way to the dean’s office.  Who’s job is it to make these points clear to students? It is mine and yours.  In the same way it is my responsibility and your responsibility to ensure quality content, appropriate assessments and reasonable expectations, it is also our job to ensure that we talk openly and frankly about integrity, ethics, empathy etc.  This is daunting, this will take up class time,  you might have to skip the populists or something else later in the semester if you devote a whole lesson to the topics I suggest here but so what? These are life lessons. This is critical thinking at its finest. How do you explain academic integrity to a college freshman who is still trying to figure out what it means to even be an adult? How do you explain to him/her what the boundaries of your discipline are, what comprises the knowledge-base, the conventions, the rules? Well, that is probably a topic for another day.

The final piece of Blum’s argument that I will mention here is that “rules about intellectual property are in flux.” Another topic that could occupy an entire blog post.  This is an important piece of the plagiarism story. The rules of intellectual property are, have been, and always will be in flux. This has nothing to do with Wikipedia (which I love by the way). This has to do with a world of connectivity where everything is grounded in sharing and manipulation of information.  Nothing new in that by itself but the immediacy and the scale are very new.  Blum writes that “our notion of the originality of utterance as the product of the unique, isolated, authentic self had its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. Students today have been immersed in a culture that revels in trying on different personae and sharing freely. There is no inviolable connection between words and the self that produces them. Students are not wedded to the integrity of their own writing and do not necessarily assume that others are either.” What does a plagiarism conversation look like if Blum is right and these are our students?

Again I really encourage you to check out some of her ideas (and there are many others who write on this topic).  Plagiarism makes us (instructors) feel bad and then mad.  There is a certain sense of satisfaction in finding that phrase about epistemology right there in page 2 of Google search results.  Everyone needs to be held accountable for sins and crimes but we must do a better job of creating an environment where the gravity of plagiarism is explained well.  I had an English professor tell my undergrad Intro to Writing class that plagiarism was the same as kidnapping someone’s child. It isn’t. Making this kind of equation is distracting and misleading.  This taught me, a college freshman, nothing.

A final note….Do you footnote your syllabus? I do.  I borrow syllabus ideas and lecture ideas from all over the place. I also give away my lectures and notes frequently.  I share all my stuff….lectures, presentations, powerpoints, bibliographies.  I send people anything they ask for and I have no problem doing it. Others do/ did it for me.  I don’t expect, want or need credit. I live in a world of sharing (and I suspect you, and our students do too). We need to live in a world of integrity where the power of sharing is recognized as a positive…it is our job to teach students how the two coexist.

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One thought on “Seven years in an attic

  1. Pingback: Ctrl V Redux: Relating to Digital Natives « Stillwater Historians

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