Thursday, 16 January 2014

Academic Spring is Cancelled.

By and large I like and respect my students. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and appear in class with very different aims and motivations. Some are quiet, some are loud. Some are very committed, others less so. Some find what we do easy, other struggle. Some enjoy it, others less so (and not necessarily because they find it difficult or easy). I get glimpses into their lives and I presume they get insights into mine. Whether we're amused or horrified most, I couldn't say.

Because we're a relatively democratic institution, and most of the students are local, I see them around a lot. They call in to my office just to say hello, or they serve me fine ales and pork scratchings in the pubs. I even meet (scare) their children when we meet on the street.

Basically - there isn't a gulf between most of us teachers and most of the students, though this is of course my perception. Perhaps loads of them are terrified and rush for the exits whenever I walk into their pub. Perhaps they spit in my food. Let's not think about that. Ideally, however, they get the idea that we're relatively normal people to whose lives and profession they can and should aspire. I don't like the idea that we're aliens from another planet landed to tease, look down upon or baffle the restless natives.

And yet… it's the start of the year and my hackles are raised already. I've been back in the office for just over ten days. I've met a lot of the students who've been working on essays and really enjoyed chatting to them outside the classroom environment. I'm looking forward to being back in the classroom and catching up with the others. I'm refreshed and ready to go… or I was until today. I'm marking a set of essays about ethics. Most of them are OK to good, or not good enough but the product of honest effort. However, a small minority are simply stolen goods. Some are cut-and-pasted from the internet, others show signs of attempts to disguise their origins. A few essays have clearly been worked on: their sources are legitimate academic work and I just don't understand why the authors don't add quotation marks, stick in a footnote and get full credit for research rather than try to pass it off as their own work by changing a few words.

We expect a degree of plagiarism these days. The motivations are much-debated. Some people are lazy. Others panic. Some are motivated by the acquisition of a degree certificate and have no desire to learn anything along the way. Some come from cultures in which the reproduction of other thinkers' material is seen as legitimate. We make considerable efforts to explain that plagiarism offends the intellectual community, isn't educationally productive and is morally wrong. And yet still they do it. I guess it's particularly galling at this time every year because it's always these essays on this subject. Anyone who plagiarises work about ethics either has no sense of irony or a highly-developed sense of humour. I always hope that after 15 weeks of talking about the philosophical frameworks which inform our decisions about what's right and wrong, they might be a little more self-conscious about stealing other people's work and claiming it as their own. And I'm always proved wrong.

Update: edited because the local excuse for a newspaper is sniffing around trying to make this general piece into a news story. 

What's additionally annoying is that plagiarised work takes an age to deal with. You read it. Then you note the bits that don't sound right. Then you look for them. First on the web. Then on Turnitin. Then in the course texts and others which sound right. Then you have to print out the sources and annotate them and the essay. Is there any point to all this? If I thought that I could induce an epiphany or even a moment of shame, I'd say yes. It happens sometimes, but you'd be surprised how often the same names appear on the Naughty List time after time. An honest essay is a breeze in comparison: some comments on the good bits and the weaker elements, a few lines on how the student did and how s/he can do better next time and you're done. I always hope that the honest students aren't watching cheats prosper or escape relatively unscathed, and that I can bring them some pleasure by talking to them seriously about their deserved successes and progress, whether its slow and gradual or triumphant.

I should make a confession at this point. No, I've never plagiarised. But I could if I wanted to: I took part in some research into plagiarism tactics. We all had to take a paragraph from a text and alter it until it conveyed the exact same ideas while seeming like original work. I did so well that the researcher congratulated me on my skills!

I do wish I could get further than two weeks into the year before I have to deploy my spider-suspicion though. I like my students. Why must a minority…

or the longer version:


Mandinka said...

Dear PV,

I really enjoy your blog and have been following it for a few months. The photos and clips are superb too, so many thanks. I also work at a university and have a lot of sympathy over the problem of dealing with plagiarism. I dream of being able to set a completely plagiaproof essay. I notice you say:

And yet still they do it. I guess it's particularly galling at this time every year because it's always these essays on this subject.

Of course I am absolutely NOT excusing the plagiarists,but I think there can be a problem setting essays over the winter break. Students are often in sore need of a rest,but Christmas/ New Year brings financial and family pressure, and at the start of January, suddenly, in what they expected to be a spacious amount of time, they are expected to work on an assignment on their own without teachers/ peers/ library facilities always being readily available for support. I wonder if this is why you always feel there is a problem at this time of year.
Is there any chance that you can change the type of assignment to an controlled writing task/oral presentation?

By the way my desk looks worse than yours :)

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Mandinka. Thanks for your comment. I agree that working on essays over Christmas is pretty onerous - but as it happens these essays were submitted just before the break!

Mandinka said...

In that case, I'm revising my 'benefit of the doubt' stance! Hang 'em high, the lazy swindling b@£&@*%s.

Callum said...

"We all had to take a paragraph from a text and alter it until it conveyed the exact same ideas while seeming like original work"

Maybe schools are the problem; when I was at school we were taught how to do this and were told that it wasn't plagiarism.

Rob said...

I agree that schools have some responsibility here - I have had conversations with students who seem genuinely shocked that copying huge chunks of wikipedia is wrong. The other thing is - don't you get rid of serial offenders? We have a sliding scale of penalties, with the ultimate being deregistration.

Alan said...

Just wondering if you have any particular "other culture" in mind. When I was lecturing, I remember a decidedly awkward exam board where we were all looking sideways at one another in embarrassment while talking about plagiarism, until the distinguished scholar who was external examiner said, "You can't say it, but I can: it's the Greeks." A Greek himself, he was conscious of a problem in Greek academic culture about this.

organic cheeseboard said...

It's all about effort, innit. Students, especially at first-year level, aren't really clued up as to what consittues a good or a bad piece of analysis or criticism. At school they are spoonfed 'good' criticism in the best case scenario, or at worst, weaker students are legitimately told to find any old opinion, anywhere, and this will get them marks - and it's true.

as a result their skills at identifying good and bad criticism are still quite weak on entering higher education. The good ones go and do the work - reading essays - following our reading lists - and working out what good and bad academic writing is.

But the lazier ones just google the essay question. And why not? it's how they get information on anything else. From there, copying and pasting is so bloody easy that I'm surprised more students don't do it. Some instances of plagiarism I've flagged up have genuinely been because a student simply forgot that bits of 'research' they'd copied weren't their original ideas.

What's weirdest is when they try to cite these things properly without noticing that they're citing the essays of other undergraduates, or even high-schoolers...

What's most infuriating is that certain schools of educaitonal through at my insitution are coming close to endorsing this practice, claiming that we might be failing students for not understanding how they access information...!