Topics: Plagiarism, Writing, Jonathan Lethem Pages: 7 (2542 words) Published: January 22, 2014
It's come to this: Writing professors are so desperate for new ways to teach undergraduates about academic integrity that they are assigning them to plagiarize. That's what Kate Hagopian, an instructor in the first-year writing program at North Carolina State University, does. For one assignment, she gives her students a short writing passage and then a prompt for a standard student short essay. She asks her students to turn in two versions. In one they are told that they must plagiarize. In the second, they are told not to. The prior night, the students were given an online tutorial on plagiarism and Hagopian said she has become skeptical that having the students "parrot back what we've told them" accomplishes anything. Her hope is that this unusual assignment might change that. After the students turn in their two responses to the essay prompt, Hagopian shares some with the class. Not surprisingly, the students do know how to plagiarize -- but were uncomfortable admitting as much. Hagopian said that the assignment is always greeted with "uncomfortable laughter" as the students must pretend that they never would have thought of plagiarizing on their own. Given the right to do so, they turn in essays with many direct quotes without attribution. Of course in their essays that are supposed to be done without plagiarism, she still finds problems -- not so much with passages repeated verbatim, but with paraphrasing or using syntax in ways that were so similar to the original that they required attribution. When she started giving the assignment, she sort of hoped, Hagopian said, to see students turn in "nuanced tricky demonstrations" of plagiarism, but she mostly gets garden variety copying. But what she is doing is having detailed conversations with her students about what is and isn't plagiarism -- and by turning everyone into a plagiarist (at least temporarily), she makes the conversation something that can take place openly. "Students know I am listening," she said. And by having the conversation in this way -- as opposed to reading the riot act -- she said she is demonstrating that all plagiarism is not the same, whether in technique, motivation or level of sophistication. There is a difference between "deliberate fraud" and "failed apprenticeship," she said. Hagopian's approach was among many described at various sessions last week at the annual meeting of the Conference of College Composition and Communication, in New Orleans. Writing instructors -- especially those tasked with teaching freshmen -- are very much on the front lines of the war against plagiarism. As much as other faculty members, they resent plagiarism by their students -- and in fact several of the talks featured frank discussion of how betrayed writing instructors feel when someone turns in plagiarized work. That anger does motivate some to use the software that detects plagiarism as part of an effort to scare students and weed out plagiarists, and there was some discussion along those lines. But by and large, the instructors at the meeting said that they didn't have any confidence that these services were attacking the roots of the problem or finding all of the plagiarism. Several people quipped that if the software really detected all plagiarism, plenty of campuses would be unable to hold classes, what with all of the sessions needed for academic integrity boards. While there was a group therapy element to some of the discussions, there was also a strong focus on trying new solutions. Freshmen writing instructors after all don't have the option available to other faculty members of just blaming the problem on the failures of those who teach first-year comp. What to do? New books being displayed in the exhibit hall included several trying to shift the plagiarism debate beyond a matter of pure enforcement. Among them were Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age, just published by the University of Michigan (and...
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