Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"My Word!": Intro and Chapter 1

So I've made my way through the Introduction and the first chapter of Susan Blum's My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. It's difficult to organize my response to what I have read so far.

On the one hand, Blum raises interesting and important questions and ideas about plagiarism and how we treat it in the academic and professional worlds. On the other hand, all she's really accomplished to this point is to note that there is a difference between cheating and improper documentation and to assert that we need to understand plagiarism better.

That's a good start, I suppose. After all, I'm only 28 pages into a book that tackles a very difficult issue. I am moved to comment about two specific bits here in the early going -- one each about cheating and poor citation.

Blum points out the growth in articles about plagiarism in the past ten years or so and says, "Many see this increase as evidence of a crisis; others see it as evidence of moral panic" (21). She soon makes it pretty clear that she is one of the latter by giving an interesting history of pervasive cheating for more than a millenium in imperial China.

Her point is not, of course, to pick on the Chinese or to justify cheating by American students. Rather, her story illustrates that given sufficiently high stakes, just about anyone is prone to stacking the odds in their favor, especially if the odds seem slim to begin with. While I'm not sure where she is going to take this idea, I'm intrigued by the implications it has on academia given our culture's growing awareness of the value of education (especially the economic value of it) and our insistence on providing "access" at almost any cost.

Her story also points out the futility of trying to stop such cheating, so clearly this is an issue that we'll need to apply some ingenuity to. (On a side note, her story also has interesting analogs to attempts by our growing security state to make us all "safe." I'll leave you to read her story and make of it what you will.)

Blum also shares some insights from Rebecca Moore Howard on what Howard calls "patchworking" (26-27). Patchworking, according to Howard, is the process by which novice academic writers re-work material from a source by changing its grammatical structure, word order, and word choice and then present the newly composed text as if their own.

Most academic faculty would view this as a form of plagiarism, but Howard sees it as an important step in a student's learning process. I agree.

The further we are from understanding, the more we have to rely on what some people call our "monkey brain." That is, in order to learn, we must first immitate. I have the great joy of watching my not-quite-two-year-old niece going through this process now.

My niece, you see, has a cat which she has learned, through imitation, to call "kitty." Of course, she isn't very sophisticated about language or animals yet so while she can correctly identify a kitty at 100 paces, she also identifies any four-legged and furry creature as a kitty. Luckily for her, she's very young and very cute so no one really cares that she doesn't know what she's talking about most of the time because, well, we expect it. We know it will be some time before she has catalogued enough furry, four-legged creatures to begin asking, "What's that?" when she encounters, say, a horse.

College students don't get the same pass as my niece. (Quick aside: In retrospect, isn't one of the most depressing moments in our lives the day people stop cheering because we can tie our shoes? Expectations go up so fast, don't they?)

We're often quite harsh about students who should have been taught something -- or so we still suppose -- but who either haven't been taught it or haven't learned it. We complain that our students don't intuitively understand our arcane documentation "standards" -- as Blum points out, standards that are anything but consistent or, in fact, actually standardized -- and then hold them accountable for knowing a whole host of assumed arcana that is never actually documented by the standardizing bodies (or, all too often, the faculty holding them accountable for it).

This is misplaced anger if ever there was such a thing. Shouldn't we be holding their previous teachers accountable? Or perhaps teaching them what we want them to do? Many of us do just that, but as Blum reveals, the standards applied to students are often not so uniformly applied to people at our own level of academic accomplishment.

In any case, Howard's point is that students need to pass through this imitative stage on their way to deeper understanding. This seems manifestly true. As we accrue knowledge about a subject, we are better able to make connections between and among various facts and even make intuitive leaps in our understanding of the subject. Our ability to navigate the subtler regions of a subject increases as we learn more. Once enough pieces are fit together, we can proceed without imitation and begin to create on our own.

There is much left to read, but it already seems clear that part of our challenge is going be meeting (with limited time) students where they are and guiding them to the place of academic understanding we'd like them to occupy with regard to source use. Perhaps we need to jetison some of our old assumptions in the process and learn a new process even as we seek to introduce our students to new territory.


Anonymous said...

It has always seemed unfair to me that misunderstanding the various, often obtuse citation systems used in academics--a technical failure-- can often be construed as cheating, an ethical failure.

Consider the number of international and nontraditional college students who received their primary education in a distant time or place and have little experience with such systems. Their experience using citation guidelines must be terrifying, since they have been so ferociously warned about the consequences of failing to document something appropriately.

David said...

You make a great point, Anonymous, about the struggles that students from different cultures have when attempting to document correctly.

I do believe that most faculty understand and are careful to delineate the differences between documentation errors and true academic perfidy. That said, there is usually still some sort of penalty for not documenting correctly.

What bothers me most about this is when it happens in the context of a class where no effort is made to actually teach the documentation style. I often hear students say, "my teacher wants me to use APA style." Upon closer questioning or examination of the syllabus, it becomes clear that the teacher is, in fact, asking for some subset of a style or hybrid version of it. This is fine if the specifics are clearly spelled out, but when students are just referred to a manual and left to make choices on their own and then punished for not making the correct guess, that's a problem.

I suspect that this problem seems larger than it really is. I think few faculty members are that cavalier. We hear from the students who are confused and frustrated and not the ones who "get it." This skews the perception that faculty aren't taking the time to explain when, in most cases, they are.

Students share some of the "blame" here too. I too often encounter students who have made no attempt to undertsand the style or even open the style guide. It's a skill that takes time and patience to acquire -- time and patience that students don't have or lack the desire to invest.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous from Anonymous:I would hazard a guess that most cases actually deemed by instructors to be "cheating" do not result from misplaced commas but from the willful purchase of papers, the essay written by "my buddy" who happens to be a better writer than I, or the willful disregard of the instructor's specific directions on how to cite. Yes, some citation systems are obtuse, and the current APA Style Sheet is a disgrace, but most of us are not so petty as to make an academic integrity case out of a misplaced comma.

David: Patching is what the olden days we called paraphrasing and it is a disservice to students to lead them to believe that such material can be left uncited.

David said...


I don't think Howard, Blum, or I are suggesting that we should lead students to believe that they don't need to document their paraphrased sources. I think the point that we, or I at least, were/was trying to make is that we should be aware that it is quite possible that this "technique" is a phase in the learning process and not necessarily a nefarious attempt to deceive us.

I think this is one of the issues that makes providing students with an opportunity for commentary on drafts and for making revisions so important. That provides the teaching moment before a final, graded copy is evaluated.

Mary Lou said...

I've read only the first 40 pages of Susan Blum's book and I am pleased with how she is challenging my assumptions about plagiarism. I have a question that some folks may consider heretical. Why, with today's word processing software, should anyone learn a specific citation style? I know that online citation formatters are often incorrect, but I think it is just a matter of a very short time before people will have access to very reliable citation formatting. Why waste time and energy "learning" MLA or APA?