Monday, August 2, 2010

"Unwilling to engage the writing process"

Here's something I don't miss from my perfessin' days:

Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.

But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

I was lucky; I got out of the biz before Yahoo!, before Google, before Wikipedia. It was easier to spot plagiarism, and -- since plagiarism was at the time merely less work than actual authorship, not ridiculously less work, as it has become now -- it was easier to discourage too.

The NYTimes article raises several different forms of the issue. If a commercial writer wants to get away with it, with fatuous shrug-offs like "there's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity," that's between her and her publisher, and between her and her readers. (Having just finished the excruciatingly dull Arthur C. Clarke's "3001: The Final Odyssey," in which the author blithely recycles brief descriptions, paragraphs, and entire chapters from the earlier books in the series, I'm feeling more jaded than usual on that subject right now. Perhaps it's not that there's no such thing as originality, just that for some people there's no need for it.)

But in education, it's different, or at least it still was at the time. When I assigned papers on classical rhetoric, or persuasion and the media, it wasn't because I had a need to know about, say, what Aristotle would have said about the strategies of political influence in Bruce Springsteen videos. It was because I needed to know if the students understood the course material, and one of the best tests of such understanding is the student's ability to restate it in their own words (and their ability to choose apt cases for analysis). You can no more answer that question by turning in a cut-and-paste pastiche of internet sources than you can show what you've learned in a cooking class by ordering a pizza.

Although I did get a perverse chuckle about the dim student who simply wanted to learn how to switch font color. You'll see.

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