November 16, 2010

Grand Theft Caught-o

Since my midterms are happily turned in, I know it’s time to brace for the inevitable: grading aforementioned Best Professor in the World’s undergrad midterms.

You may or may not recall my previous rant about this class’ first turned-in assignment.  For the record, this is the same class, just a bit further into the semester and two assignments the wiser.

The midterm is an open-ended paper of at least 1,500 words.  The only requirements are that it be about some work discussed in class (at this point, the major works they’ve read are Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, The Country Wife, and (my favorite) Gulliver’s Travels), and that it be an argumentative/analytic paper rather than an evaluative paper.  Essentially, the students’ task boils down to this: chose a work discussed in class, make an argument about it, and support that argument with textual analysis for about six double-spaced type-written pages.

I am not so far from my undergrad days that I don’t remember doing this.  The first time a professor asked me to write a paper without some kind of prompt, I panicked.  “But… how am I going to know if I’m doing the right thing?  How am I sure that it’s correct?  I can’t tell how to get an A without you showing me what to write about!”  The ownership of thought is a daunting possibility.  Suddenly, and without warning, an entire world of criticism opens before the student.  It’s a world with paths, but no roads.  A world with tracks, but few trails.  A world where you can easily get distracted and lost and wander off into somewhere you’ve never been and didn’t intend to go without your “help me I’m lost” whistle or flashlight and it’s getting dark and who knows when the ranger will be by to rescue you?

So I sympathize with the plight of the undergrad.  Especially the undergrad who isn’t necessarily an English major and took this class to fulfill some gen ed requirement.

The papers, on the whole, aren’t stellar but they’re mostly passable.  One or two are even excellent.  What really bothers me is my reaction to these excellent ones.

Imagine this scene, if you will.  You’re stretched out on your floor with a nice French press full of tea and all your grading documentation in front of you.  You’ve been at this for an hour and a half now.  You average about a paper every half hour, but can really only do about two hours at a clip without pausing to recollect your thoughts.  You’re coming to the end of your allotted pre-brain-bleed time.  The papers you have read, so far, are barely intelligible.  There is a thread of genius within them, but sometimes it is so far diluted that it’s hard to say whether it’s accidental or purposeful.  You’re tired.  Your eyes are starting to bleed.  And you come upon a paper.  It shows… promise.  It is miraculously coherent, well-formulated, logically sound, and in short does everything this paper should do.

What, dear reader, is your reaction?

….I’m sad to say that mine is to google strategic sentences in the paper to make sure that the student didn’t kife it. 

At first, this seemed totally natural.  Something stands out, it’s unusual, double-check it.  Catching plagiarism is part of my job, and the only way to catch plagiarism is to cross-check things which seem… out of place.  But what does it say about me that every solid, well-written paper so far has seemed out of place?  Is this due diligence or paranoia?  Should I be concerned about students’ practices, or my own attitudes?

On the one hand, such suspicion may, in fact, catch a cheater someday.  And without it, there is no way that cheater would be caught.  On the other, am I somehow implicitly violating a trust this student has in his reader?  Even though he has never met me, even though he may not even be aware that there is a grader reviewing his work rather than the Professor, is there some compact between us that I, as a more experienced academe, will take him at his word?  Do I have a responsibility to him to be accepting of his excellent work, or do I have a responsibility to the academy to root out those who steal?  To google or not to google, that is the question.

I think that part of what has me so far on edge is how easy it would be to steal a paper for this open-ended assignment.  When a student responds to an essay prompt, he has to at least be clever about his theft.  He has to mask it in the disguise of pertinence and relevance.  Here, all he has to do is look up these well-known works of literature online and copy and paste at his whim.  No tact involved.  Clean, smooth, simple.

A second piece of what is going on here is a deeply-rooted attitude instilled in me by my own undergraduate institution.  At NYU, the first day of every class the professor would pass out a syllabus, do a roll call, and go over course expectations.  There would, inevitably, be a twenty-minute diatribe about plagiarism.  What constitutes plagiarism, how plagiarism will ALWAYS be detected and (most importantly) how plagiarism will always be punished.  NYU has (or at least had) a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism.  If they catch you, you get the boot.  And my professors were very serious about this rule.

In a way, it was like a reign of terror.  Rather than instilling in us a sense of ethics or morals, they filled us with utter fear and dread of consequences.  Am I alone in thinking that this is somewhat backwards?  If a student fails to cheat because he is afraid of getting caught rather than any moral qualms about cheating, it achieves the desired result but not with any real durable foundation.  Do the ends justify the means?

And now, since I have been told my entire academic life that PLAGIARISM IS EVIL AND YOU WILL ALWAYS BE CAUGHT IF YOU STEAL, am I experiencing performance anxiety?  If I fail to catch a cheater, I fail at being an efficient grader.  I have failed the system.  And this student, since he is living in the same terror that I was, will realize that it’s all a smoke screen, a vicious lie.  He won’t be smote by the hand of god if he fails to cite a source.  There won’t be a lightning bolt that comes down out of the sky leaving him a smoldering pile of ash because he nabbed his paper from the internet.  He’ll get his grade and realize that cheating pays.  And the integrity of the system will be ruined!  RUINED!  Because I failed it!  I am the weakest link, goodbye!

I guess what it really comes down to is that the way I was raised is utterly wrong.  The reign of terror must end.  There has to be a better way of dealing with cheaters than fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  Most importantly, fear does not teach values, only consequences.  Consequences do not make better people out of our students, only more obedient parrot-talking drones.


Monique said...

And then there was that time that I was 18 and in English 101 and I did a paper on Kafka. I thought I would save some time and turn in my senior year English paper from high school, which was a B from Sister Julie, so definitely A material from anybody else.

And I was called into the professor's office and berated for almost an hour about ethics and theft. He offered me a "deal", take a D and no one would ever hear about it, or go to the review board and lose my spot on the Student Senate and later live in a box on the street because nobody would ever employ a plaigarist.

Now, mind you, that paper was all mine (if over a year old). I wrote it myself. But, I was a kid and scared of the officialness of it all, so I took the D. There were no intrawebs then (coz I'm that old), so he was accusing me of either buying someone else's paper the hard way or copying passages out of books.

Everyone has times they wish they could back and do over. I would like to go back and make him cite some specific examples and prove his suspicions. He couldn't have done it.

Not really a good contribution to your musings, but eh, everybody likes a good war story, right?


Rob Archer said...

According to most research (especially around the death penalty), it's not the fear of punishment that prevents crimes, but the fear of getting caught. So even if the punishment were "standing up in front of the class as a plagiarist", but people always got caught, it would still be a very effective deterrent.

As to whether people avoid plagiarism because of moral qualms or fear of getting caught, from a social perspective, people avoid "immoral" things because of feelings of shame or guilt at the society catching them, so I feel it really amounts to the same thing.

But that's just my $.02