|Some words from Prince of Networks (Graham Harman) that have been on my mind
I thought I'd move here a lively conversation that has unfolded on Facebook about undergraduate papers, plagiarism, and widely available internet sources, especially Spark Notes.
On Saturday I was discussing via email and then by phone yet another case of potential plagiarism in my my "Myths of Britain" class. One of my TAs had sent me a paper about which she harbored suspicions. At a quick glance I noticed a line containing information that the student could not have obtained from my lecture or from the introduction to the translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight we are using. A quick Google search of Spark Notes revealed its source, though the student had changed each word to a synonym. A deeper read of her paper suggested that she had worked with the sections on chivalry and theology as part of her argument. She cited no sources. My first reaction was to scream. Yes, I screamed, and it was loud enough that the rest of the family ran to the study. "Another plagiarism case, eh?" They know me too well, my family. I pity them for having to live with me.
I am frustrated. This semester sets a record for academic integrity violations in "Myths of Britain," despite the fact that I spoke to my students repeatedly about the dangers of "accidental" plagiarism as well as the the necessity of citing sources. "Myths of Britain" is an introductory level course that requires not a research paper but a strong argument built on textual evidence. The syllabus contains this admonition:
Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind will be treated as a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at http://www.gwu.edu/~ntegrity. The best way to avoid “accidental” plagiarism: do not speak to or look towards others during the reading quiz; do not use the internet for this class, except when specifically told to do so.
I read them this paragraph the first day, and I then repeated twice during the semester what constitutes plagiarism. I warned of the perils of using Wikipedia and Spark Notes to jump start your own paper ... and yet what this frequent mention of dangers seems to have accomplished is to have advertised using the internet for research. This semester has yielded a bumper crop of academic integrity violations (four so far, with two more likely, in a course with ninety students).
Out of frustration I posted this status update on FB: "So exactly how many students think they can raid Spark Notes for their ideas and not be brought up on academic integrity violations?" Twenty-five comments later, friends have wondered:
- Is plagiarism on the rise, or has it simply become easier to spot?
- Are students having a harder time coming up with arguments (as well as other fundamental writing skills), spurring them to seek "inspiration"?
- Isn't telling students not to use the internet useless, since most of them can't really think without googling something first?
- Shouldn't we acknowledge how technology has changed writing, making it in some ways akin to sampling? That is, might what we are calling cheating actually be an emergent and soon to dominate mode of writing?
- Is high school to blame? Writing courses? Have we failed to teach students the skills for which we are penalizing them for not possessing? (ie, is this not about ethics at all?)