Plagiarism-proofed essay assignments: update

by CarlD

From a recent post at Edge of the West comes this comment from an artisanal plagiarism entrepreneur:

I used to work for a service that wrote custom papers for students. We advertised on Google AdWords (terms like Hamlet essay were successful, but judging by the lack of advertising on these search terms now, I wonder if Google banned them?), through flyers on college campuses, and through word of mouth. We got A LOT of repeat business as well.

In case you’re curious, our most common customer type was older students (generally with jobs and families) who had gone back to school and felt they “didn’t have time” to do their papers. Second most common were undergrads for whom money was clearly not an issue – we charged $200+ for a five page paper, as much as $500 for a rush job, and kids in this category would usually order well ahead of time and not complain about the price. Third most common were students that were clearly in over their head in a particular course. They tended to feel most conflicted about purchasing the paper, and also tended to be most stressed about the price.

So far as the actual papers we produced, your best bet for identifying them would have been by a shift in writing quality or tone. The papers were all original, and the writers were actually competent. We tended to write papers with a very simple structure…the first thesis that came to mind, followed by 3-5 major supporting points and a conclusion. People who came back to us generally said they’d gotten an A or a B. Our savviest customers would ask for the same writer to do all of their assignments for a semester, and some of them told us they went in and added typos because they thought it made the paper more believable.

As Buster argues in the commentary, “the only reliable way of solving the plagiarism problem is at the point of assignment-creation and building relationships in the classroom/lecture hall,” although as post author SEK notes they’re harder to practice for online and other cattle-call educational formats. Anyhoo, here for new readers’ convenience are my earlier thoughts on the subject. Note that there are several strategies here that would intercept or at least complicate the above procedure:

[L]et’s start with an ethos. You have to be loyal to students learning, not to covering content. It’s not impossible to do both, but starting with the second tends to fubar the first. And you have to give up the idea that there is essential content every student must master. Standardization of content outcomes is the single greatest stimulus and enabler of plagiarism there is. What you’ve got to want is for students to learn critical uptake, thinking and production skills in relation to content, where the skills are essential and the content is contingent. If you’re stuck with essential content, you’re stuck with some plagiarism. Take a moment to make sure there’s no way to get unstuck. I’ll wait.

OK. The first thing to notice is that shifting your loyalty to students learning (note: ’students’ learning’ is a different subject) changes the moral environment of the classroom. Why? Because now what you care about is each student, not the material; which, if you communicate this properly and consistently, creates a social psychology of reciprocal obligation among you. It’s just much harder to cheat on someone who cares about you than someone who’s using you as a means to other ends (reproduction of content outcomes). There’s nothing magical or foolproof about this, however, so if you stop here as some of the more touchy-feely teacher ed. fads do you’ll still get plenty of plagiarism; maybe more, once they figure out what a lightweight you are. Furthermore, although it’s good and right to care about the students as whole people, it’s essential to care specifically about their development as thinkers and doers, which means they don’t get to derail the process or skate to passing grades just by dropping by your office to chat about the weather or tearing up over their abusive childhood.

As thinkers and doers students in my experience are a pretty mixed bunch. The ones who already have some critical uptake, thinking and production skills are rarely the plagiarizers, especially once you get them on the hook by caring about them. They can do the work cheaper and better themselves without plagiarizing. So once you’re caring about students learning and you get the moral environment sorted out so they care back, plagiarism becomes obviously something the ones who do it are driven to by missing elements in the necessary skillset. The task then becomes filling in those skills. Essays shift subtly from being a ritually formalized way to test content knowledge to being part of a longer process to develop practical intellectual capabilities. (It helps a lot to ’sell’ those skills. All but the geekiest of them, who will become us later, think the various specific contents of the humanities are useless, they’re right, and trying to argue otherwise is counterproductively delegitimating.) This process orientation means among other things that for students at all but the elitest schools there will probably have to be lots of explicit instruction on how to write papers as a way to organize and communicate thought, including not just rules and recipes but rationales; peer reviewing of drafts (I do both intro paragraph and full draft); and a rewrite option, at least for the first paper until they get their chops together.

Classroom time has to make the same subtle shift. There are probably a lot of ways to do that. What works for me is to teach content through skills. So for example in World History I might want to cover some modern African history in relation to the Atlantic complex. Let’s say the skill we’re working on today is reading critically, and we happen to be doing that this time around using a 16th-century letter from the King of Kongo to the King of Portugal. This letter is a pretty subtle little piece of work, with a lot of information to be gleaned about culture and politics in Kongo; activities and attitudes of Portuguese merchants there; early phases of the slave trade; and so on. Of course we’ll need to crack the textbook to fill in some context to better understand what the Portuguese were doing on the coast of Africa, why they were welcomed by the Kings of the Kongo in the first place, what the slaves might have been needed for, etc.

Small groups and competitive/cooperative reporting are good ways to get most of the students involved and invested in the process of puzzling it all out. Classroom work has to be personal and recursive, including for example lots of interaction with the groups during their investigations and pauses to allow students who don’t know answers to find them or think them through, so that each student develops a personal class voice and habit of analysis that carries over to written work. Reasons and foundations always have to be specified, by them and us. Expectations should start high and get higher, so there’s always something of value to be accomplished for every student to be proud of. It’s a lot easier to convey the importance of scholarly apparatus to respect and communicate other people’s authority when the students are in touch with their own. I’ve done this directly with classes as large as fifty, by the way, and with discussion sections for classes in the hundreds.

And still all this is not enough to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments, although it’s a pretty good start. To knock out the last lingering vestiges of moral depravity, bad habit and performance anxiety, the last line of defense is to make it harder and riskier to plagiarize effectively than to write the paper straight. Here’s one way to do that with actual pedagogical value: design essay assignments that are unique to each class, its discussions and resources.

The simplest trick is to require students to write source-supported essays, to use only the course texts as sources, and to use more than one. By ‘require’ I mean if they don’t do it, they fail. This has the pedagogical value of forcing them to: engage with good sources you selected on purpose; mine available sources thoroughly rather than skipping around superficially; crosscheck sources rather than taking one at face value; synthesize information into their own analysis rather than just doing stock book reports; and appreciate the difference between mere opinion and informed opinion. All of these skills are supported by the reading work in class. By the way, this doesn’t help much if you don’t mix up your course texts. Publishers’ text ‘n’ source suites are a nice convenience for lazy teachers and plagiarizers alike, as is keeping the same texts and topics year after year. And stay away from stereotypical topics and sources. The easiest and most tempting paper in the world to plagiarize is yet another reaction paper on famous poem/article/book/event X. When you can google your topic and the first hit is a plagiarism site, maybe it’s time for a rethink. [For a droll instance of this syndrome see here.]

The idea is to make it vanishingly unlikely that they’ll find any mass market boilerplate that adequately addresses your assignment. Here’s an example of such an assignment: “Using only the course texts for evidence, analyze the relation of agency to happiness in rural Ming China,” where the course texts are a primary source reader from one publisher and a world history text from another. (Research comes later in the term once skills and habits are better, but course texts are always required.) What would it take to plagiarize this? Most of the standard strategies – cutting and pasting generic information on China, e.g. – would result in an incoherent, nonresponsive paper that would fail on its own merit without getting into plagiarism detection. Furthermore, they’d fail without regular and accurate citation of the course texts. (I usually get about a third with this error, innocent or otherwise, in the first batch of papers. I don’t even read papers with epic fails, I just hand them back to be fixed. Obviously you have to know, communicate, and enforce your standards for this to work.)

OK, here we are at the end of this post and I have to confess, it’s still not impossible to plagiarize under all these conditions. Easy, in fact, for the resolute scallawag. Here’s how. As mentioned above, they can pay an artisanal plagiarizer big bucks for completely customized papers. At least three of them, in my classes, which would only be prohibitive for really rich scoundrels if all my colleagues were also plagiarism-proofing their assignments. Or if the determined rabscallion wants to save that bling for beer, they could scour the ‘nets for snippets of information about agency and happiness in Ming China, stitch them together with topically-relevant analysis, then invent plausible citations to the course texts. To do that, all it would take is to understand the assignment and its rationale, properly identify relevant information, produce focused and coherent analysis, and know the course texts well enough to target the fake cites effectively. And at that point they might as well write the A paper those skills indicate they’re capable of writing.


20 Comments to “Plagiarism-proofed essay assignments: update”

  1. Perhaps the plagiarism “problem” would expire if we stopped thinking of “originality” in such an narrow way. Everyone knows, from reading Harman, and also really from having written papers, paper writing essentially is information organizing. In my view the entire “write something original” concept behind plagiarism is better thought of “organize that in a more original/interesting way”. Perhaps a cue can be taken from the blogged world (with a sensitivity to the information format youth is soaked in). In the past information (quotes, references, arguments) was something you had to dig out of the library. A written paper’s “originality” very often was an expression of well-earned library skills, borrowing, grafting (or even in some cases being inspired by) arguments found elsewhere, and then patching it all together so it was in some sense seamless (throwing in a few conjectural, (one might even say “speculative”) statements. Now information is everywhere. At the flick of a wrist you can have at it. I wonder if the plagiarist difficulty would be resolved to something better if the task were more organizational and presentational. Find all the relevant quotes, material, etc. and put them all together so that they form a pretty, comprehensive picture. The “originality” is in the assemblage. Could it not be that instead of trying to get them to “think” (originally…”think originally” is redundant) from the start, trick them into thinking merely at the organizational level, by seeking, harvesting, matching, presenting. The very presentational capacities of organization, are those of argument making.

    It seems to me that the pressing for “original” thought (and looking to see where the claim to originality is false), is what leads to all sorts of skills in deception (self deception, and otherwise). Most non-plagiarist papers which claim to be original are some of the least original papers ever written, adding to the endless, and almost never read more than once, text-producing empire.

  2. “I wonder if the plagiarist difficulty would be resolved to something better if the task were more organizational and presentational. Find all the relevant quotes, material, etc. and put them all together so that they form a pretty, comprehensive picture. The “originality” is in the assemblage.”

    Kvond, this is a great point. I don’t really emphasize originality so much as logic, support and credibility, which are all rhetorical virtues first and foremost. It’s absolutely about (re)configuration and assembly. At my level (no grad students) I’m thinking about it almost entirely in terms of the technical phase of apprenticeship, where what they’re learning is the craft competence that underpins effective creativity later on. It’s like in art where people look at abstracts and say ‘my kid could fingerpaint that’, and there had bloody well better be a whole range of embedded technical competences available to the artist to refute that claim.

    I love the idea of tricking them into thinking. That’s exactly right, or at least it’s what I do.

  3. Hmm. Well, it seems we are in agreement in some principle. But whereas you would have:

    “The simplest trick is to require students to write source-supported essays, to use only the course texts as sources, and to use more than one. By ‘require’ I mean if they don’t do it, they fail. This has the pedagogical value of forcing them to: engage with good sources you selected on purpose; mine available sources thoroughly rather than skipping around superficially; crosscheck sources rather than taking one at face value;”

    …which for me is the rather classical way of *forcing* thinking (restricting parameters such that creativity flows in a very contrained way), I would rather imagine at least a parallel, and equally valued project of let’s say,

    Providing a topic question and use Google (and all the “bad” sources) to compile as thorough a support base for a particular position. Something more of a collage of materials, assembled and linked, clustered around a position. Think powerpoint. Quote “x”, photos of y, quote “z”, with no over arching logical conclusion, no actual argument, letting the composition speak in interelation, the pictorial force of the rhetoric working implicitly. For instance those that might not be able to do the “logic” part of the first assignment readily, might really excell at the “logic” of compilation, reduction and presentation. (I’ve always wondered what would happen if students were required to included at least one illustration in their essays, a photo, a stick figure drawing, a diagram, something away from the Logos.) Anyways, that’s my thought on this.

    I value the classical rhetorical “good source” mining techniques, but these were designed by libraries of very few books. Thinking is done in a very different way. Instead “underpinning” creativity, I suppose I am of the regard that creativity is already underpinned, and at the very fountain of thinking in the first place. Of course if there was a profound need for “a whole range of embedded technical competences” in order to turn a white canvas with a red square into a “master piece” I suppose there wouldn’t be much need for the kinds of training that university spends its time embedding. I just question how much “good source” mining is genuine thinking (or even the foundation of genuine thinking), and suspect that there are other ways. It just turns out a whole lot of ventriloquist, parroting of source material. As they get to grad school they have learned the private lingos, and have experted themselves in disguising other people’s thoughts as their (original) own. Does such a pedagogy (embedded) actually produce very interesting thoughts? People who have gone through it have produced interesting thoughts, but often it seems the case that this is in spite of their training, rather than because of it.

    I do not say this directly counter to your thoughts or practice. Just as a non-systematized response to them.

  4. Almost everything I’ve read about creativity points to the need to oscillate between two moments: brainstorming, when the censor is turned off and associations flow where they will, and editing, when structure is imposed, evidence tested and presentation cleaned up. In Kvond and Carl’s contributions I see emphasis on one or the other. Perhaps the real issue is how best to achieve a proper balance. In the “Google it” world of overabundant and easily accessible (dis) information, neither side gets done very well. If too much effort is expended on filtering and editing incoming information, insufficient time is allowed for the open-ended daydreaming that brainstorming requires. Alternatively, the diversity and volume of the incoming flow shuts down brainstorming as the brain defends itself against overflow or hares off on tracks suggested by erroneous input. Finally, I would add a third element, the willingness to embrace risk without which brainstorming degrades into nothing more than input reshuffling. By embracing risk, I mean the willingness to imagine alternatives not present in the input, to select one, and to edit as needed to support and defend it.

  5. John,

    I like your thoughts here. The question is, if indeed there are two parts, (or three), is there a pedagogy that invokes the parts other than those most traditionally associated with university instruction. I wonder to myself, How many pictorial minds have been left out, and have experienced extreme incompetence, when it comes to determinatively Logo-centric “good source” data mining. Thankfully we live in an age when picture and word are coming together in ways never before imagined, and perhaps our education structures should come to reflect that.

  6. Kvond, thanks for the strokes. Much appreciated.

    When I was teaching graduate seminars in marketing in Japan, the scheme I developed required the students to (1) select a product or service for which they would role-play the brand manager, (2) produce a series of presentations on the classic four Ps (product, pricing, placement promotion), and, the final assignment,(3) identify the single most pressing issue confronting their product or service in the coming year and prepare a strategy to deal with it. I made it clear from the start that to make a B was easy; simply do a competent job of (1) and (2). An A, however, would depend on (3), because here is where, in the real world of business, the sheep are separated from the goats. Those who take serious risks, putting themselves on the line by identifying real issues and proposing real solutions, are the ones who make serious money. Those who can only gather, organize and regurgitate information never get anywhere and are easily dispensed with.

    The business framing of this scheme was, of course, made possible by the course in question being a marketing course with a strongly practical flavor. I have often wondered, though, if something similar might be done in courses on other topics. The student’s selection of the topic means that they start with something they are interested in. The series of short presentations (papers?) based on gathering and organizing information gives them multiple opportunities to learn and practice basic skills. The big sheeps-and-goats project at the end is the challenge that spurs creativity in those who rise to the challenge.

    Could this work outside a business frame?

  7. “Could this work outside a business frame?”

    I hope so, because this is exactly how I’m teaching the capstone senior seminar this semester. Where, incidentally, we’ve started by looking at scholarly journal articles as examples of practice, trying to unpack ethnographically, so to speak, what the authors are up to and why.

    Interestingly, several of the students selected the essays they wanted to analyze based on the presence of images and graphics. I used this as an occasion to ask them Kvond’s question about what might change if every assignment was required to include at least one illustration. They liked the idea but I got the sense that I’d have to ‘force’ or trick them into that kind of a-logic practice just as much as I do the Logos. And this goes back to the common observation that the first hurdle toward a more creative yet rigorous teaching/learning practice is the unlearning of long years of habituation to a basically authoritarian inculcative pedagogical practice, or its equally destructive mirror trap, wifty romantic ‘facilitative’ teaching.

    I would never be one to argue for the supreme value of Logos. But it’s a good set of tools to have in the box, indeed the right tools for certain kinds of common jobs, so I won’t apologize or fret for biting off this little corner of the skilling of competent adults as my special competence.

  8. Carl: ” But it’s a good set of tools to have in the box, indeed the right tools for certain kinds of common jobs, so I won’t apologize or fret for biting off this little corner of the skilling of competent adults as my special competence.”

    Kvond: A fundamental part of the “rhetorical tool box” is the figure of speech. I don’t see it as defnitively a-logical to use images to convince or illustrate. And the fact of the matter is that it is probably the case that some people simply think in images, and images might facilitate bridgepoints to otherwise called “real” reasoning. Some students might have a very hard time picking images. Some a rather easier time of it.

    But I thank you for passing the idea onto your students.

  9. For sure, Kvond. All of the senses are involved in the best conversations (and the worst). It’s a shame we can’t smell each other on the ‘net, but we make do. It all goes into thinking. I agree with you here, I hope.

    And my point is not to deny that there are asymmetrical native distributions of aptitudes. I’m married to an artist, after all. Nor do I think everyone has to be able to do everything. I just don’t accept native aptitude as destiny, and if what I’m teaching is logocentric thinking, not as the ultimate in thought but as one tool among others, I expect if I do it right most students will be able to improve at it like with any other skill.

  10. Carl: “…and if what I’m teaching is logocentric thinking, not as the ultimate in thought but as one tool among others, I expect if I do it right most students will be able to improve at it like with any other skill.”

    Kvond: I think to myself of mathematics, which presents perhaps the purest form (by analogy) of your argument of simply “skills taught”. You want to teach the forming of arguments to be something like the addition of numbers, it seems. Everyone should be able to do so. My point is that argumentation is not quite like mathematics. It is not simply a skill (and when it is regarded as a skill it is the lessor for it). Instead, arguments are imaginations (and not just syllogisms), and as we gain from the knowledge of teaching mathematics some people are less good at it than others. My worry is that as long as we think that paper-writing is closer to mathematical skill, and less like picture making story telling, those that are more pictorial will have LESS access to those skills.

    I am quite fortunate to be very imagistic, and also rather abstract in my thinking. As you know my blog is rather highly illustrated. As a personal experience I have found that the inclusion of illustrations actually changes my thought. (The realization came when I first started posting old papers when I first put up my blog. As a selected images for my writings, the photos actually changed the content and force of what I had already written.)

    What I suspect that if we are to treat argument formation as a primary skill that most people would be better off having (and I do have some doubts about that as a universal), the aquisition of the skill may be eased, and even enhanced, through the stimulation of OTHER parts of the brain. If logocentric thinking is not to be the “ultimate in thought” then I suspect it would be better taught as synthetic with other modes of thinking. The very aesthetic form of the white page and the black print (of which Derrida has made much) IS an aesthetic form, and not simply a neutral value grade for the presentation of one skill among others. Blake illustrates his poems, just imagine if Marx illustrated his Capital. Would it be a different work?

    Just my thoughts of course.

  11. “If logocentric thinking is not to be the “ultimate in thought” then I suspect it would be better taught as synthetic with other modes of thinking.”

    Yeah. I think this too. You have no idea (or maybe you do) how far away from the ordinary practice of university teaching this is. I mean, in my ordinary daily professional life I am surrounded by people who think that teaching the basics of normative grammar is the right thing for college professors to be doing.

    In that context I do what I can to biggen up ‘the box’ that I then try to teach the willing students to think outside of. I throw all sorts of stuff at them, on the fly, reading and reacting, anything to kick in a different level of cognitive commitment. Images might be in there, among many other things. (I use myself as an image most regularly.)

    I have way less of an agenda than most teachers I know, and more. I don’t care much what or how students end up thinking, but it’s fundamentally important to me that they think more and better at the end of the class than they did at the beginning.

  12. I’m not really criticizing you, but simply opening up the idea under principles that it seems that we share.

  13. I get it, Kvond, and I appreciate it. You do inspire me. Think about my responses this way. You’re telling me how cool it would be to build green Ferraris, and I agree. But I’m trying to teach people who ride horses to see the value of internal combustion. And I’m pretty sympathetic with horse-riding, too.

    I’m really enjoying NP’s recent post at Rough Theory on the varieties of incompetence; it and its links might be interesting to you in this context.

  14. I suppose where we differ is that I see the cognitive, argument generating processes of word and image NOT as something esoteric or impractical as “green Ferraris” (or rotating flying saucers that can break the speed of light for that matter), but rather as core and essential for the understanding of just what argument is, and how it achieves its ends (both in the critical sense, and the process sense).

    In the criticial sense if indeed actual images were employed (in some exercises) one might get much better at locating the buried or implicit images in the metaphors and analogies used in text. A hidden and powerful mode of critique is to look for the metaphor where there appears there is none. And in parallel, it is the best advisement to pick the right metaphor and think about why it is right. This is intimately related to the processes that would be engaged in picking illustrations, in fact the one would point to the other.

    In terms of process, I have already explained.

    The image picking simply makes explicit what is already going on.

    These are the theoretical issues. But then there is the real world social issue. Far from being a “green Ferrari” (nice image) word and image synthesis have become par for the course. In the buisness world (a world of arguments) pointpoint is EVERYWHERE. The entire information world is no longer a text world, but a text/image world, a world of colorful Ferraris. And as part of this, blogs are becoming Ferrari’s too.

    Both in theory and in real world application (apart from the University, old-world citadel of restrictive practices), one had better learn to think…richly.

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.

  15. These are all good points. I’ll just qualify that it’s easy, much too easy to overestimate the actual level of skill and thought that technical affordances actually create. You’re right that Powerpoint is everywhere; and everywhere it is used badly, very very badly, in exactly the same way that many lecturers are bad and many seminar leaders are bad and flashy blogs are often bad. But again I know we agree that mere technical facility is no substitute for quality.

  16. And think how wonderful blogs and Powerpoints would be if people had had you as a teacher teaching them how to write tight, firm, clear essays, in concert with image.

  17. Getting students to keep up a blog that leads into an essay assignment, would make it much harder to fake.

  18. Yeah I agree, that is a cool idea. I’ve been tossing something like that around, maybe running a multiauthor blog for each course, even setting up Ning sites for every course, ever since the Wesch wind blew through our corner of the blogosphere. What holds me up is that this is a solution where I’m not sure there’s a problem. My classes are already highly interactive and flexible in facetime, so I don’t need to reach for the internet to achieve learning community. And we already do lots of recursive brainstorming, researching and drafting in class. I’m not quite at the point of thinking that running a blog is a more comprehensive and/or useful cognitive achievement than writing a “tight, firm, clear” essay, but it’s a thought I’m open to.

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