Posts tagged ‘credibility’

January 12, 2009

How to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments

by Carl Dyke

A short, droll post by Kathy at Edge of the West concerning an instance of the “plagiarism-industrial complex” has, as is the wont of that site, produced a lively and interesting discussion in the commentary. Much of it concerns the merits of the commercial plagiarism-detection services, including their helplessness to detect truly “artisanal” plagiarism. If you’re willing/able to pay enough to have someone else do boutique work for you, and you’re careful never to submit any of your own work for damning comparison, that will probably work for you. Getting other people to do your work for you being the chief advantage of wealth, after all.

(Sad/amusing aside: a number of us suspect one of our best students of the past decade of ghosting papers — not for money but as a favor for friends. Oddly enough, this special critter was a compulsive perfectionist and almost never turned in its own work no matter what inducements we tried — and we became pretty creative — so if we’re right, we only got to enjoy its gifts at an odd second-hand.)

I’ve made a couple of brief comments there about why I don’t use the plagiarism police. For one thing, I think inconveniencing and anxietizing the honorable to intercept the dishonorable is an ugly way to live. For another, on (quixotic) foucauldian grounds that participating in the creation of docile bodies through the installation and extension of surveillance regimes is profoundly self-defeating. But my main reason I’ve only been able to sketch there, and want to elaborate here: I don’t use the plagiarism police because my assignments are functionally plagiarism-proof.

Howzat? There are a couple of key strategies that I’ll get to in a second, but let’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.

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.