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.