Monday, November 2, 2009

The “P” Word

I hate plagiarism. Hate it. Don’t like the word. Don’t like how it sounds. Don’t like spelling it. Hate it. And I particularly hate when people ask me to come and talk to their students about plagiarism or how to avoid plagiarism. I don’t like having that word associated with our writing center. Why this visceral reaction?

First, the concept of plagiarism is messy. It is a word used imprecisely. It means the act of cheating or stealing (and those are perfectly accurate and usable words, so let’s call those forms of plagiarism what they are). It also means not documenting your sources correctly which covers a range of “sins” from not documenting your sources at all to forgetting to include the publisher in your reference list. It seems nonsensical to me that we have a word that means both an active deception and a lack of training.

I’m also irritated by the approach many people take to plagiarism. I’m often asked to present to students on how to avoid plagiarism. This seems counter-intuitive to me. It’s like asking someone not to think about purple frogs. As soon as you say it, all anyone can think about is purple frogs. How absurd! Let’s focus on discussing proper documentation procedures and advocating academic integrity (which, I should point out, many individuals and groups on campus do).

Another reason for my visceral reaction has to do with the writing center. Our center is a place where students need to feel safe. They need to trust that they can come to our center and make mistakes and not have to pay an academic price for those mistakes. My stance is that the cheating form of plagiarism hasn’t occurred until a paper is turned in for credit. Up until then, students can turn back. At our writing center, we’re very careful how to approach these situations. When our consultants see text that looks like it comes from a source other than the writer and that text isn’t documented, they begin to discuss proper documentation procedures. (By the way, for those students reading this: it’s a lot easier to pick out plagiarized material than you might think.)

Finally, it really irritates me how pedantic some people are about documentation. They seem to want to claim plagiarism or at the very least drop the grading hammer any time a comma is out of place in the reference list or a date is missing from an APA in-text citation. Most of the worst sticklers are people who aren’t even that knowledgeable about the style they’ve required.

So imagine my reaction when the American Psychological Association (APA) released its 6th edition of their Publication Manual complete with numerous errors of just the type likely to set off pedantic professors. Most of the errors were cosmetic, but several were substantive and have caused genuine confusion and concern for students. The APA’s subsequent refusal to issue more than web updates seemed to fly in the face of the rigor they try to impose with their standards. After all, if errors don’t really matter to the APA, why should we care? Finally, however, the APA has relented and agreed to reprint the edition with corrections.

In an article discussing this fiasco in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I found a sister from another mother in the person of Barbara Fister, academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College. As quoted in the article, Fister asserts that plagiarism pedants should “stop spending hours trying to correct student work using new style manuals as unfamiliar to them as to their students and go play with the baby or take a walk instead." Hooray! According to the article, Fister believes “being correct [in the minutiae of style] is not that important, but that understanding the rhetorical reasons for bringing good sources into your argument is.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

All of this coincides with the recent announcement of a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) book discussion group set to meet on February 3 to discuss Susan Blum’s latest book, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. I’ve signed up for the group and received my complimentary copy of the book. If you’re a member of the Wright State University community, you can too. Contact the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at 775-4522 to reserve a spot at the discussion and to arrange for your free copy of the book. I’ll be blogging my reactions to the book in this space as I read it. Please read along with me and share your comments here.


Anonymous said...

David, You seem very well qualified to direct this writing center. I like your comments on the nature of plagiarism. How were you selected to direct this center and how do you select your peer tutors? I would assume both you and they have had successful experience in the teaching or tutoring of composition.

David said...

Thank you, Anonymous. While my post was written with some purposeful hyperbole, there is no doubt that plagiarism is a troublesome subject in higher ed.

The hiring process at Wright State University is a highly regulated process. Still, like anywhere else, the simple answer to your question is that I applied in response to a job posting, was interviewed, and subsequently hired for the position.

Our peer consultants are Wright State students from across the curriculum, both graduates and undergraduates. Our consultants must achieve high grades in their composition classes, meet certain GPA requirements, take a grammar test, and submit several short essays. Those who qualify are generally asked to come in for an interview. Those who are hired receive initial and ongoing training as well.

Thanks for your interest in our blog. We look forward to more comments from you and our other readers.