No, it's not plagiarism…

Turned my grades in yesterday (vegging out today, tomorrow all-day workshop on Gen Ed reform). The Registrar changed the submission cut-off from 9am to 1pm. She’s German (and not Bavarian), so this was a significant concession. It helped me a lot. It’s much different to stay up all night leisurely rather than frantically.

In my World History sections I asked the students to do something pretty hard for their final papers, as usual – synthesis. We spent the semester working our way through a series of documents ranging from Assia Djebar’s fictional account of growing up in colonial Algeria to Adam Smith and the Communist Manifesto, using ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ as our rubrics. The students wrote papers on both, and their task for the final paper was to use specific examples to analyze how structure and agency relate to ‘freedom’, using both readings from the course texts and some outside research as sources. We did brainstorm this quite a bit in class.

I did not have a dogmatic answer in mind, so a variety of answers did well based on how thoughtfully conceived and well supported they were. Most of the students figured out that agency isn’t quite the same thing as freedom, in part because we discussed at length how structures can be either/both constraining and enabling. In a familiar way, the worser papers asserted that freedom is complicated and a matter of perspective (you’ll get a D or maybe a low C for stating what should be the obvious after a whole semester of focused investigation), while the better papers dug down into cases to show how agency was constrained and enabled in particular historical contexts and/or theoretical concepts. And the best demonstrated that what counted as freedom had to be specified depending on contexts and concepts.

We also talked quite a bit about establishing rhetorical credibility and about the authority of sources, so even the marginal students were pretty well inoculated against plagiarism. But I did get two papers that properly cited essays found at commercial plagiarism websites as outside sources. I laughed and laughed.

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17 Comments

  1. Why is citing comments from amazon.com bad? As a social anthropologist, I can understand why members of the professoriate, whose professional standing, promotions, etc., depend in part on being cited would be disturbed by failure to cite “real professionals.” On the other hand, citing as simply a matter of indicating sources would seem to apply to amazon.com as much as to any other source. One might argue that a citation from a professional’s book or journal article is likely to be more reliable; but to me this looks like an opportunity to teach the art of evaluating sources more than it does an academic crime.

  2. Carl: “In a familiar way, the worser papers asserted that freedom is complicated and a matter of perspective (you’ll get a D or maybe a low C for stating what should be the obvious after a whole semester of focused investigation), while the better papers dug down into cases to show how agency was constrained and enabled in particular historical contexts and/or theoretical concepts. And the best demonstrated that what counted as freedom had to be specified depending on contexts and concepts.”

    Kvond: How interesting. So the student who believed that freedom was simply a question of Will simply was left without a space within which to express themselves? How constraining…

  3. Nice, Kvond, I like that irony too. Actually, because of the way History as a discipline works, students do have space to write triumph of the Will papers if they frame them as explorations of the thinking of historical figures. In fact, the point of a good History paper as such is never to say what you believe, but to understand the beliefs (etc.) of the past. (This can be a very difficult discipline for students to grasp.) I gave the students so inclined Adam Smith on purpose, although they had to navigate very carefully around both his own nuances and the counterdiscourses of Marx, the Sadler Report, gender, religion, French colonialism and so on.

    Susurro, yes, that’s exactly what they did. One of them even framed the citation as coming from a paper that itself cited authoritative sources! Well alright then! As John says, not a crime but an opportunity to talk further about the credibility of sources.

    I think Ira is correct here that we’re working against a lifetime of training, which now includes a culture of microcommentary (Facebook, Amazon, texting, Twitter, bloggery), in which the charisma of the person is the only authority and etiquettes of interaction revolve, as in feudal courts, around personal honor, offendability, and deference. The idea of a more rationally grounded authority is at odds with both this consumerist entitlement and the pop-culture version of the civil rights agenda of enabling everyone’s ‘voice’. Oddly enough, most students understand that mere opinion deserves little respect, but they settle for it because they don’t know how to do or recognize better. Good work for us to do there.

  4. Carl: “I gave the students so inclined Adam Smith on purpose, although they had to navigate very carefully around both his own nuances and the counterdiscourses of Marx, the Sadler Report, gender, religion, French colonialism and so on.”

    Kvond: I still sense that you had a distinct, philosophical conception of freedom that you were putting forth, and that the very framework of the acceptable responses enforced this. This philosophical notion perhaps is endemic to the discipline of history (the study of contraints as factors, perhaps), or perhaps it is personal. I just found it interesting that in examples that you offered which were meant to demonstrate the full dynamic range affordable to students, they could only answer if they adopted a particular view of freedom (one I happen to largely endorse, by the way). Perhaps something more than ironic. I’m not really criticizing the paper project, rather, making something implicit, explicit.

  5. every year I hand out a sheet called “evaluating sources” and do a unit on how to write, cite, and research. As many note, it is an uphill battle in this particular age but I do think there is a difference between citing facebook opinions as facebook opinions and citing them as the sole source upon which you have based or back up your argument. My concern is not so much gatekeeping (ie these intellectuals are legitimate and these are not) but more about understanding sources and intellectual production. When someone says “joe69 on twitter argued ‘this book is crap & so is everything in it’ I realized that I couldn’t write this paper b/c the book assigned wasn’t worth reading” that’s not quite the same as saying “the culture of literary critique has moved out of the libraries and on to the internet. As Joe69 says . . .” is it?

  6. I wonder how many of us have ever done something like this. Courtesy of Herbert Rotfeld and AdForum.

    ——

    From: Herbert Jack Rotfeld

    Class is over. Some of you have graduated and moved on. Yet I hope everyone who gets this message will read it.

    This is only being sent to a handful of people from the class.

    We had a good class this past term. Almost every day, students went beyond my “script” as interesting questions were asked about the situations posed. Many times there were questions I had not encountered before. New approaches to problems were raised as others in the room were helped to develop new insights. And you are being sent this message one of the handful of primary people responsible: the class leaders of discussion; the students whose perspicacious approach to basic course materials increased what everyone else in the room learned on any given day. If you faded out, or seemed to mentally drift away for a day or three, I asked what was wrong or where your mind had traveled, since the difference in class would be felt. As the semester moved on, others in the class would pick up your line, or maybe follow your inspiration to get more involved.

    That was where you were the key: you were involved and, by your example, others were, too, though not as often, not as consistent, not as strong.

    As students talk to each other, they comment on what might have been learned from various courses or faculty. But the unspoken truth is that the quality of a course is really under the control of the students present. A bunch of quiet, passive note takers who are concentrating on transcribing all of the alleged wisdom from the instructor results in a lesser course than one where a vocally strong handful of people lead, assess and criticize. Without you, I could have trended toward more straight lecture. Without you, I might have trotted out more of those “so 1980s” old videos to fill empty time. Without you, your classmates would have learned less from the course. That is the real reason why larger classes are poorer learning environments, since the class size discourages involvement. And with an involved class, more people do their best work.

    This is not about grades, which is irrelevant on what I say here. Nor is it about what you learned, since only you can truly answer that. This is not about what you could or would say to me about the class. And truth be told, this is the first time I have ever written a message like this to any past member of a class.

    This message is about what I say to you: thank you.

    You helped make it an interesting course.

    And I hope that I may have many others like you in the future.

    hjr

  7. John, I like Herb’s letter a lot; I regularly conclude class meetings by thanking the students for a stimulating discussion, so I know just what he means. (I could, and probably should say the same things about how a blog works.) I do see Owen’s point – the letter has some of the look and feel of a defensive compensation, sort of like the big bouquet of flowers and effusive praise on Mother’s Day for the Mom you’ve ignored all year. (Hi, Mom!) In this case I’m more inclined to see a real mensch having an affection attack. Pedagogically, though, would a note like this be necessary if discussion was the norm in his classes and he had developed strategies for eliciting and encouraging it all along? Perhaps this is the fascinating trace of an old-school lecturer learning some new tricks; and/or perhaps I can learn from his thoroughness.

    I take your point to be about how important involving students in the ethic and the process of the class is to developing their responsibility as educated people? I would agree completely that there has to be a sense of active, productive involvement in the community of knowledge before its categories, codes and facilities start to even matter (except as dead, dreary rules), let alone make sense.

  8. Susurro @ 10, I think you really nailed the essential distinction. (And “joe69” is an inspired observation.) Our legitimate interest really is not gatekeeping; there’s some authority in even the most humble source, and even celebrated peer-reviewed research monographs turn out to have crap in them. But that doesn’t mean it’s all good / all bad. Critically framing the exact authority of sources in relation to questions, contexts, perspectives and an orienting spectrum of other sources is the fundamental skill that can get lost in academics’ rulesy fretting about plagiarism and google research.

    Your formulation makes me think it might actually be a good exercise to have students write successive drafts of a paper on some popular topic based on successively more ‘official’ kinds of sources, from Amazon commentary, popular blogs, academic blogs, proprietary websites; newspapers, popular journals, professional journals, through research monographs; with the final paper a synthesis of what can be learned at the different scales. [In fact, I think now I know how I’m going to teach the senior research seminar in the Fall. Any thoughts about opportunities / pitfalls along these lines?]

  9. Kvond, you’re right. The purpose of the class is really to make the reciprocal implicit explicit. Their own freedom comes as they navigate their lives with maps showing both the open waters and the reefs.

    I notice I’m drawn to the navigation metaphor in this discussion, which again suggests that you are right.

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