Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Plagiarism, Process, and the Point

This exchange from The New Inquiry has been wending its way around the intertubes of late. (Thanks to @colinized on twitter for flagging it for me.) It’s a dialogue between “Teach,” an adjunct professor of philosophy, and “Cheat,” a term-paper-writer-for-hire. It’s surprisingly thoughtful in its consideration of the motivations behind plagiarism and the ways that faculty deal with it.

The discussion boils down to a sigh. The students don’t see the relevance of what they’re assigned to write about, so they see the requirement as merely arbitrary. Given an arbitrary hurdle to a credential they need for a middle-class life, they find a way around it. The instructor admits that there’s considerably more plagiarism in the class than he bothers to bust, drawing the line only at the most egregious cases. “Cheat” points out, too, that the adjunct’s own marginal standing in his own workplace is a sign that the institution itself doesn’t take his work seriously, and suggests that, at some level, students are picking up on that.

But the showstopper for me was this statement by Cheat: It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days.

To his credit, “Teach” notes that plagiarism pre-dated the web; the web just makes it easier.

The whole thing makes me fidgety, and not only as an administrator.

(The administrator in me bristles at the frontier justice style of enforcement that “Teach” embraces, if only by default. When enforcement depends on mood, “disparate impact” is almost a foregone conclusion. At that point, hellooo lawsuit. Better to have a uniform process.)

It’s true that there’s typically little direct relation between the content of a philosophy paper and the day-to-day tasks on most jobs. (From Hannah and Her Sisters: “How do I know the meaning of life? I don’t even know how the can opener works!”) But it’s not about the content. And that’s why Cheat is trivially right and colossally wrong.

The point of philosophy papers isn’t the content; it’s the process. It’s the work that goes into coming to grips with difficult questions in a rigorous way.

While the exact questions addressed in that paper may never come up again in the student’s life, the process of wrestling with a difficult question almost certainly will. The point of teaching philosophy is to give students the chance to practice those skills in the relative safety of the academic environment.

Students who outsource their papers short-circuit the entire enterprise, and not only for themselves. To the extent that they go undetected, or unpunished, they raise the cost of experimentation for the honest students. They blow the curve, thereby discouraging honest students from going out on risky limbs. That’s why I’m absolutely old-school when it comes to policing plagiarism. It cuts to the heart of the academic enterprise. Put differently: if we academics don’t take writing seriously, why should anybody else?

The argument about adjunct status strikes me as similarly misplaced. It mistakes compensation for the nature of the task at hand. The task at hand is to teach philosophy. Doing that well requires taking the class seriously, and conveying to the students why they should take it seriously. If you’re unwilling to do that, for whatever reason, don’t teach the class.

The cynicism underlying the piece is based on the conceit that the entire educational enterprise is a sham, an elaborate euphemism for crass instrumentalism. The cynic says that the way to ‘win’ in that setting is to cut to the chase first. If it’s all about the Benjamins, then he who gets to the Benjamins first wins. But that doesn’t leave you anywhere to go. Okay, education is bullshit and you got paid. Now what?

No. I don’t buy for a minute the argument that the internet has rendered individual writing irrelevant. If anything, I’d go the other way with it. The internet has enabled incredible flows of information, opinion, and argument. Making sense of those flows requires highly developed critical reading and thinking skills. What makes classes -- as opposed to websites or twitter feeds -- useful is that they offer the increasingly rare chance to slow down and focus on one thing.

I had a professor once who said that there are two philosophies of teaching: you can cover, or you can uncover. In the age of rampant information, I see the “covering” function as less relevant, and the “uncovering” function as far more. But students aren’t going to learn to uncover what’s going on in an argument unless they spend serious time engaging with them. And that means forgetting about copy-and-paste for a while and actually doing the work. I won’t get fit by paying someone to exercise for me; I won’t get smarter by paying someone to think for me. Sometimes you have to do it yourself. And some students need that pointed out. That was true before the web, and it’s just as true now.

if colleges did some real studies on plagiarism, i bet they could pinpoint where most of it occurs, and the demographics that are highly prone to misconduct.

but if the analysis is performed, and clear, concise results are obtained, could the faculty pull the trigger and start profiling students (profile in a sense of 'a physics major who is in a fraternity is X% likely to plagiarize an English paper, so let's check his work with more scrutiny...)?

students are just mirroring 'the real world.' how many bosses put their names on the hard work of those below them? how many coworkers try to piggyback on the obvious rockstars in their workplace in order to achieve success?

how many people lie on their timecard ? ~100%. how many sales people inflate their numbers? ~100%. how many companies inflate their sales, market share, profit...? ~100%. how many companies use computer code that isn't theirs? ~100%.

our local U has a licensing agreement with a local company, where the local company gets to reap any benefits of papers & science developed by a certain dep't. profs do the math, and then the U turns around and gives a company carte blanch permission to sell the math, which makes the execs at the company millions of dollars, all while the profs have to watch from the sidelines (& taxpayers pay for the work). and we harp on kids for paying $10 for someone to write their paper?

in the end, nothing happens to these people in the real world. we like to believe 'what goes around comes around', but we all know people who have lied and cheated their way to the top, and they are doing fine. we all know people who do absolutely nothing; whose hardest work is their constant attempts to be regularly seen with the best performers/workers (performing by association). can we really blame 18 year olds for emulating 40 year olds? can we blame them for piggybacking on others hard work, or for trying to buy their way to success?
how many people lie on their timecard ? ~100%

Um - depends on where you work. If we catch non-exempt employee cheating on their timecard in my current workplace (highly unionized and all) they will be fired. Period. You can also get tossed out for consistently missing punches, arriving 1-2 minutes late and calling in sick too much. It is very hard to fire people in my current environment but these kinds of activities are easy to document and act upon.

I hate plagiarism - was one of my favorite tools as an instructor, both as a precheck for students who honestly didn't understand what plagiarism was and for those so stupid that they tried to cheat in obvious ways. But I'll be the first to admit that it was hard to catch some students with enough evidence to meet the requirements of our due process. I also think that in some cultures, there's more of a "if I can get away with it, it can't be wrong" mentality. also, at my school there were twice as many men caught cheating as women (but that might have been because our science and engineering departments were merciless in their efforts to detect and track down cheating).
I'm fortunate; my students write lab reports, not papers, and I can easily show them the relevance of being able to write a coherent report to writing that will be required of them in their jobs. They understand that I am more likely to be helpful in developing this skill than a future boss will.

I pity English teachers, though. I have seen my colleagues half crying, half laughing at some of the stupid things some students will try just to get through the hoop.
As an adjunct English Composition instructor, I tell my students, "I want you to know how to write a researched paper well and be so familiar with the correct way to cite that you will never face a writing assignment the rest of your college career with the attitude of 'how do I do that?'. Knowing you can write correctly gives you confidence in any future class or job where you have to organize ideas, opinions or information."

I take their ideas and organization of their papers seriously; thus, they do too. I tell them I want to discuss at least one paper with each of them during the semester. They don't know when I will ask about a paper.

I want to know why they chose to organize the paper the way they did. Why did they choose to go to the Internet rather than a book for certain information? I ask those kinds of questions to see how adept they are in finding information and why they choose what they do.

I think if a student has gone to the effort to think through what he/she is advocating in a paper, he/she deserves to discuss the ideas presented with a real live person, not just receive comments on his/her paper. Sometimes a student finds out that what he/she thought he/she said isn't interpreted by the reader (me)the same way. That can lead to some real thinking on the student's part about being aware of his/her audience.

I think that is the way to get them excited about writing good papers - live discussion of their ideas. Too bad most students don't get paper discussion opportunities until graduate school unless they have friends who are evergreen majors.

I think since my students know I am serious about their being able to write well and correctly, many of them become serious about their writings too.

I have no idea if it cuts down on possible plagiarism or not, but I hope it does.

Its not just English teachers who have this problem. I've been in labs where students faked or copied data. I've had students turn in incorrect answers to homework problems and complain "why did you mark this wrong, I copied this answer from the solutions manual."
At my CC, probably > 50% of the students are from other countries. In many of these countries, what we call cheating here is labeled "helping". It's definitely a culture shock for these students.
EngProf, I'm glad you have time to have individual conversations with students. I don't. I have way too many students (and consequently fewer writing assignments).

The reason enforcement depends on mood is that enforcement is a giant pain for the professor, and doesn't really harm the student at my school. I only prosecute the most egregious cases because each plagiarism report takes at least 3 hours of my time, including meetings, documenting the plagiarism, and a 5-page form that must be sent to 4 people. Then it "goes on their record" that they cheated, and then nothing happens to the student.

So yeah, if enforcement wasn't such a pain then I would smack them down. Even individualized assignments, turning in rough drafts and outlines doesn't completely cure the problem. Mostly I despair, and wish for brighter students.
I suppose it depends in part on what you assume the purpose of education is.
If you assume people go to school to learn, you are probably more likely to subscribe to the "they're only cheating themselves" mindset.
There's basically no point to cheating, unless perhaps if you are doing so entirely so that you can spend more time on something else. If a student, at 18 years old, honestly believes that their life will be more worthwhile if they cheat on their philosophy essay so they can spend more time doing the mathematics (for which their output will be judged at a very young age), can I tell them, with certainty, they are wrong? Especially if they do actually go back and study philosophy at 30 when they have more life experience under their belt and it means much more to them?
In this context, the problem is with a system of education that is structured wrongly for this student, not with the student's choices within the system. If we didn't require general education, or we would fund people for just studying what they wanted to study, or whatever, you wouldn't see cheating.

On the other hand, if you assume people go to school to become credentialed, and that comparative evaluation of learning is both meaningful and important, then cheating is undermining the structure of society, albeit perhaps less dramatically than, say, insider trading or faulty derivatives where the entire stock market and thus the economy is at stake.
I think Cheat's point is that while many of the components of evaluating students make sense individually, together they create a credentialing system that is not rewarding the correct things. The problem is with the student's choices, sure, but also with the system.

I tend to doubt the ability of teachers to accurately evaluate knowledge gained. Part of that comes from growing up with standardized multiple guess bubble tests. They are lousy instruments. But essays are incredibly subjective, and when profs have a zillion of them... it starts to get pretty silly. I don't know that testing is bad; it can encourage people to study more than they otherwise would, but I wouldn't go so far as to say testing accurately measures what we say it measures. It measures how well you conform to expectations.
Cheat says "It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days."

Only unfortunate for Cheat, if it meant that Cheat would have to pay back fees charged to the student or lose business in the end, but that assumes a fact not in evidence. I only see evidence that one instructor is cracking down (reporting the case rather than just giving a zero). Besides, the odds are that a crack down on the most common forms of plagiarism would be good for Cheat's business.

If the university was cracking down, it would supply something more than a computer with a search engine to its professors, and insist by policy that all papers be submitted that way. Something like TurnItIn would catch self plagiarism every time, before the paper was even submitted.

Further, I would argue that increasing plagiarism is a sign that the actual product sold by the college (the credential) is increasing in value. What has declined is student perception that true value rests in the education rather than the diploma. This may indeed be based on reality, but, if so, it is the reality created by the business world -- not that of the university -- even if professors could do a better job teaching what DD wrote about the value of learning how to sell an argument.

But it could also be because recent HS grads have never heard why a certain fraction of college grads are under-employed or unemployed. Perhaps those who think they aren't getting the job they deserve are the ones who didn't retain anything from semester to semester, somehow thinking that they can use Google on a smart phone while standing in front of a room making a sales pitch. That would make an interesting study.
I picked on one statement that DD singled out, but there is another that might be more important.

Cheat also says "the grades will determine where you go, ... law school or med school ... [or] to get that job"

They will determine where you start, not whether you last or if you finish. You can't afford to hire your own law clerk when you are a law clerk, or get someone else to do surgery for you when you are a resident, or pay someone to develop a marketing plan for you when you are only being paid the going rate for doing that job and have to pay taxes and live on it.

That kid who paid $1000 a month to have Cheat take all of his classes, on top of paying tuition, has another source of income that is likely unearned.

But I also take exception to Dean Dad questioning that Teach's approach of only looking into cases where there is probable cause. If you want every paper scrutinized, you need to supply the relevant technology to every one of your instructors.
"What has declined is student perception that true value rests in the education rather than the diploma. "
I don't know...
"I can't give you brains, but I can give you a diploma" (Wizard of Oz, 1939)
Couldn't it be a simpler explanation that cheating is easier than ever?
Always assuming plagiarism *is* actually increasing...
There's so much to love in the original exchange, where to start? My favourite moment is this: "The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me." Oh my, is this what we've all been reduced to?

Mostly students make bad choices on their own, but sometimes I wonder if we have a hand in this one. What do we do when "in their own words" means "awful, just awful"? What kind of feedback and grade do they get for this effort? The advice and support we give weaker writers at this point may in some cases point to the decisions they'll make as the writing curve gets steeper. Just a thought.
I just received an email on behalf of a doctoral student who needs help writing a dissertation. She wants help "transforming paragraphs making their sentences 'flow' in English." My response:

Having taught at a university in a former Soviet country, I know that the cultural distinction between "help or peer review" and "academic dishonesty or plagiarism" is quite different from what American English teachers would prefer. I also know this happens all the time, especially in the science and business schools, but doesn't a doctoral dissertation & degree from an American university imply that the recipient has a certain fluency with written English? Shouldn't it?
Proofreading is one thing, but "transforming paragraphs making their sentences 'flow' in English" seems more a request for a ghost writer (to put it politely) than a copy editor/proofreader. Will the "editor" also be able to claim a PhD based on her contribution to the dissertation?
I would suggest that this doctoral student save her money, visit a campus writing center and learn to write better for herself. Otherwise, she will be applying for jobs based in part on her dissertation-writing skills, jobs where it may quickly become obvious that her English-writing skills are weak, if not fraudulent. Or does she plan to hire a ghost writer for the rest of her career?

One can't live a lie forever. It's easier to just learn than to spend the rest of your life a cheat and a fraud.
As an adjunct who teaches eight courses in English a term, I don't give a shit about plagiarism and in fact am happy to see it because it makes grading the damn papers easier.

If they want me to care, they have to pay me more.
Just a note on Barefoot Doctoral's comment... I sometimes feel like I am the only one who hears things like "why did you mark this wrong, I copied this answer from the solutions manual." Thanks for posting your comment. It feels better to know that others in the science and math fields are getting these same idiotic statements from the students as I am.
I'm not sure why adjunctification is inevitable but cheating is bad.

If the point is that the people who do the work don't get paid, then why is it bad that people who don't do the work get paid? Seems like everyone already agreed before the class even got started that work and pay are not supposed to be related.

Simply put, the argument that the adjunct is exploited is the end of the discussion. Once the university is willing to pay starvation wages and has explicitly stated that poor instruction is acceptable if that is the price of those poor wages, then the university has destroyed its own brand, not to mention credibility.

As always, if you want to teach well as your hobby, that's great. But understand: the people you work for don't care. Otherwise, they'd be willing to compensate you more for a well-taught class than a poorly-taught one, and we all know that isn't true. In fact, the opposite is true; if you teach your classes to low standards and give inflated grades, you get higher evals and get hired again.

Anyways, universities should be honest and prosecute plagiarism for the children and working class, but not bother for scions of the wealthy.

(Amusingly, my captcha is "failit.")
I like DD's characterization of writing a philosophy paper as a process rather than an answer. I always wanted to begin an Intro to Philosophy class by pointing out that they are all there to find answers to deep questions. Then I would tell them the answers: God does not exist, we have free will, and the meaning of life is to develop connections to others. Of course, they would protest, and I would ask what it says about the task of philosophy that they desire answers but are utterly unwilling to accept them from someone else (even an authority).
If I went into a philosophy class and a prof said that, I wouldn't protest so much as walk out saying "I already know those answers, guess I don't need your class. Duh."
I'm an adjunct with a Ph.D. and I work for one of the paper writing companies to supplement my income. I work on a freelance basis and I only write essays on subjects about which I have some knowledge. Typically, I can write an "A" level, 4 to 5 page essay in about an hour. And for that essay, I'm paid around $60.

I write two essays per week, which works out to $480 a month. However, the company I work for has a bonus system in place, so I actually end up making around $600 a month. And $600 is about my monthly take-home pay per course as an adjunct. So when all is said and done, I view this as picking up an extra class each semester, except this one only requires two-hours per week, has no prep, and no grading. Nice.

You can lecture me all you want about the ethics, or lack of ethics associated with what I do. Feel free. I don't care. From my standpoint, I've simply found a way to put my Ph.D. to good use as a way to generate much needed income. Of course, were I paid what my tenured and tenure track brethren are paid for doing the exact same work I do as an adjunct instructor, I wouldn't need to do this bit of side work. But unfortunately, that's not reality anymore. And bills need to be paid.
I tell my students about Joe Biden (married to a community college English professor) plagiarizing in law school (five pages, word for word). The moral of the story is that if they want to be president, they shouldn't plagiarize.
The positive contribution women have made in business world is welcome to all except those who are full of envy with their heads buried in the sand.
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