While I have two posts chock-a-block full of stunning insights and thoughtful interventions into modern theory (not to mention the controversy — oh, the controversy!) simmering on my mental back burner, until they reach maturity I thought I’d pass on Alex Halavais’ instructive epistle to students everywhere, How to Cheat Good (via BoingBoing), a list of 8 rules students looking to cheat successfully really ought to follow. I’ve had students break a good number of these rules, much to their dismay and my entertainment, and I agree with Halavais that if students would just get smarter about how they cheat, the world would be a better place: they’d pass, our egos would be stroked (’cause we’d think we taught something), and the college community would turn into a decent semblance of a functioning society rather than something out of John Adair’s picture of the post-War pueblos.*
I hate it when I catch a student cheating. I mean, I kinda relish it, but I hate it, too, becuase it means I have to be a dick. I resent cheaters for making me have to be a dick. That said, I am not one to shirk my responsibilities: when being a dick is called for, a dick I shall be. And when the dick-being-ness is all over, I’ve got a solid little nugget of amusement to cradle to my metaphorical chest, to nourish me and help me grow as a teacher.
I’ve had some great cheater-catching moments. The student athlete who had just received a sports scholarship at some big sports school, pending his performance that semester, who confronted with his caughtness, exclaimed “Dammit, my roommate swore he’d written that himself!” I gave him all the sympathy I could muster for his situation — I mean, he’d clearly been swindled! Or the look on the face of the student who copied her paper from her home country’s cultural attache’s website, a printout of which I handed her, as she flailed about for some way out of the situation she’d put herself into. I should mention that this student had called me the night before the paper was due to ask me what the assignment was, and then handed me a stunning 700-year historical survey easily 3 times the assigned length — if it had had anything to do with the class, I might have been impressed! So here’s what she said (more or less):
STUDENT: I swear I didn’t copy it. I have all the books I used at home, and my notes — I can bring them into class next week and show you!
ME: Um, are you saying that you researched this paper carefully and just happened to use the exact same words and phrases that this website, which you hold in your hand, used?
STUDENT: Oh, I guess not.
A couple years ago a student handed me a paper that just seemed too good. It turned out to have been compiled from 6 different Internet sources. I printed them out, and went through and highlighted every plagiarized passage with a different color highlighter for each source. Bits and pieces of each were scattered throughout the paper, seamlessly, with not a single original word added by the student — truly a masterpiece of collage worthy of Burroughs or Tzara. My first plagiarist was not nearly so creative: incapable of writing a coherent English sentence (he may well have done fine in his native language) his Big Paper read like something straight out of the Times. OK, so it was straight out of the Times. Another student answered a question along the lines of “What is anthropology?” with a selection of facts culled from New Zealand’s government’s careers website — including the average salary, in NZ$, an anthropologist could be expected to make. I suppose we should add a rule to Halavais’ list: Don’t make your professor experience feelings of inadequacy about his salary. Makes us surly.
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy tweaking my assignments to make plagiarism as unlikely as possible, so incidents are getting rarer and rarer. But last semester I had my crowning glory as a catcher of plagiarism. I’m reading this paper, and it’s so good, I’m stunned. I feel so proud; I’m actually thinking “wow, this student gets me!” At the risk of sounding immodest, the paper was so good and so spot-on about what anthropology is all about that it was like I had written it myself.
Of course I had written it myself — it came straight off of my Intro website. Not only was it plagiarism, but a violation of my Creative Commons “Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike” license — no attribution!
Now, most students, caught plagiarising, disappear never to be seen or heard from again. After a couple of unsuccessful efforts at getting the school to take disciplinary action against my plagiarists (apparently having both a photocopy of the student’s paper and a printout of the site they’d copied it from does not constitute sufficent evidence in my neck of the woods), I’ve had to rely on the awesome power of the “zero for the assignment”, which usually works. But I actually have had a couple of students weather their zeros and finish the class, and pass. I admire them, a little — and examine their further assignments with incredible diligence. I could just fail them — that’s an option I have, regardless of whether the administration will take further action — but I figure, it’s just possible that an odd student here and there might actually learn something from getting caught, and as a teacher, I encourage that sort of thing.
Now, some of you wags out there are going to defend plagiarism. It’s silly and you know you’re wrong, but you’ll chime in here to say something like “why punish students for using the resources available to them?” or “you’re upholding an ancient copyright regime — information wants to be free!” or “Sheesh, Dustin, you’re a postmodernist, surely you don’t buy into all this ‘author’ bullshit?!” What you’re forgetting is that I’m trying to teach my students something! You think I make them write more than I would have thought humanly possible because I enjoy reading, at this point, some 300 introductory-level disquisitions on kinship and its role in structuring human societies? Writing is fundamental (just ask Derrida) — writing is learning. Cutting-and-pasting isn’t learning — at least, not college learning. It’s like Legos™ — yes, you can build a semblance (a simulacrum, if you will) of a castle or a spaceship or a taxi, but knowing how to put Legos™ together does not teach you architecture or aerospace engineering or industrial design. It does teach motor skills, which is great — but a) I assume basic motor skills are already learned at the college level (most of my students can juggle stoned without dropping their beer) and b) motor skills aren’t particularly relevant to my class. If I wanted to test motor skills, there’d be a performance section on the exam.
No, see, what I want to test is a student’s ability to use the material we’ve covered in class. Just like your shop teacher gave you that lecture on bandsaw safety and then made you build a bird feeder. The bandsaw is scary. But even your 8th-grade shop teacher knew that him telling you how to use the bandsaw wasn’t quite the same as you knowing how to use the bandsaw. If you had to lose a finger or two on the road to achievement, so be it. Writing papers is like that — it’s scary to dive in and use the material covered in a class, but the lectures and readings aren’t nearly enough to instill real proficiency. And if you have to lose a finger or two along the way…
Anyway, this post isn’t really about why plagiarism is bad, I just wanted to forestall the inevitable cranks who feel compelled to defend it. I know, in my heart of hearts, I haven’t done that successfully, but I thought I’d give it a try, for appearance’s sake. This post is really about bagging on your students. It’s a time-honored tradition (and we anthros are all about tradition). So, at the count of three, feel free to share your favorite plagiarism stories. Or, if you must, your Theory of Why Plagiarism Isn’t Really All That Bad™. Just try to keep the hand-wringing about how we teachers all really suck or students would learn something and they wouldn’t have to plagiarise to a minimum, ok buddy?
One… Two… THREE!
* – We had returned to the atmosphere of anxiety that pervades life in the pueblo and touches all within its reach. [This basic Pueblo characteristic is] communicated in many ways — by rumors, whisperings, suspicion, envy, secretiveness, and in silent watchful demeanor… (1960. “A Pueblo GI”. In In the Company of Man. Joseph B Casagrande, ed. New York: Harper Torchbooks. P. 503.)