Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On Plagiarism and Selfhood

Way back when I taught my first college courses while still in graduate school, the internet was only just starting to become a significant part of our lives. In fact, I made it all the way through the Ph.D. before the change really happened, meaning I was part of the very last group of dissertation writers who didn’t have the web as a significant resource.

In other words, if I wanted to follow some avenue of inquiry relevant to my topic, I couldn’t type a few keywords in a box and be swiftly delivered answers to questions and sources to consult. That’s not to say there weren’t any resources online for me then (the mid-to-late 1990s). But they were quite limited, usually only providing some general direction for my journeys back into “the stacks” at the library where I spent countless hours (years, actually) tracking down leads, gathering evidence, and supporting the four-hundred-page-plus argument I ended up making about 17th- and 18th- century British literature.

For undergrads, the early web provided a lot of tempting “short cuts” when it came to essay writing, including a few very popular and notorious “paper mill”-type sites that provided ready made three-to-five page compositions for download, sometimes for purchase. Students could find plenty of other sites enticing them to cut-and-paste their way through an assignment, and unsurprisingly more than a few from that era gave in to the temptation.

Teachers had to adapt to the new technology, and so very early on in my teaching I had to make a special effort with students to address both what plagiarism was and how to avoid it, with the penalty for being guilty of plagiarism being severe -- zero credit for the assignment for a first offense, and a failing grade for the course for a second. (That said, many colleges and universities have honor codes that make even greater punishments necessary for plagiarism, including even being expelled.)

Also, as I explained to my students then, when it came to plagiarism -- i.e., presenting someone else’s words and/or thoughts as if they were your own, without attribution -- intention didn’t affect how it would be handled. Whether you meant to plagiarize or not, you still got the penalty.

Therefore it was critical for students to learn both how to use sources effectively and how to cite properly. In fact, over time, I came to view this very skill as the most important one students learned in college, and the one that distinguished college-level writing (or “academic” writing) from pretty much every other kind of writing they had been asked to do before.

I’ll never forget one of the first instances of plagiarism I encountered from a student. I believe the essay was about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It was about halfway through the semester, and the essay had been submitted by a young woman whom I had already come to regard as one of the brighter ones in the class. She participated actively in class discussions, had done well on quizzes, and was clearly thoughtful and articulate.

The essay she had handed in, though, was much too sophisticated in its approach to have been written by an undergrad, and a quick check online revealed it had been lifted entirely from a website. I asked the student to meet me in the office I was able to use that semester -- I was kind of “office-sitting” for a faculty member away on a sabbatical -- in order to discuss her essay.

After she arrived, I told her there was a problem with her paper, doing so in a way that gave her an obvious opening to go ahead and confess what she’d done. When she didn’t, I eventually pulled out a printout of the web page and her essay, setting them down side by side on the end of the desk. It wasn’t overly dramatic -- I wasn’t acting like a triumphant attorney catching a defendant having made a guilt-confirming contradiction. In fact, while I can’t remember exactly what I said, I remember being very careful not to seem too accusatory or upset.

I just wanted to give the student a chance to admit what she’d done so we could move past it. Whether she confessed or not, she wouldn’t be getting credit for the assignment, and I wanted it to be very clear how important it was for her not to make the same mistake again.

What do you think happened next? I remember having spent some effort thinking ahead of time of a couple of possible responses the student might have. But the one she gave I did not expect in the least.

She didn’t confess. She didn’t make excuses. She denied it. Over and over.

Eventually her voice began to falter and a few tears even showed, but she kept right on professing her innocence. She had no idea how it came to be that the thousand or so words of her essay were identical and in the exact sequence as the ones appearing on a website she claimed never to have seen before. It was an incredible coincidence, sure, but she had no explanation for it.

I don’t remember much else about the episode, other than the fact that after the student received zero credit for that assignment, all of the subsequent essays she turned in were all very obviously her own. The meeting was a learning experience for me, too, and would affect how I would approach the issue going forward.

Of course, I’m reminded of all this thanks to the brouhaha this week over Melania Trump’s speech on Monday at the Republican National Convention and its frankly incredible inclusion of passages (some verbatim) from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In particular, the initial denials and rationalizations put forth by various party representatives made me think back to my student and her refusal to admit any wrongdoing.

We have a belated explanation of it all today from a speechwriter who likely has successfully scapegoated herself into causing the embarrassment to fade away for the Republicans. I was kind of incensed, though, by all of the excuse-making beforehand, including Chris Christie’s asinine defense it wasn’t plagiarism since most of the speech was original.

To be specific, Christie was asked on NBC’s Today show on Tuesday whether or not the speech was an example of plagiarism. “No,” he responded, “not when 93 percent of the speech is completely different from Michelle Obama’s speech.”

As a teacher, I detest this statement. It’s a bit like defending the player who cheats on only a small number of hands in a poker tournament, playing the other 93% on the square. It’s nonsense. It also helps further the idea that when a person speaks in public or writes for an audience, being clear about sources and claims about the originality of your ideas isn’t that big of a deal.

This might seem like a small issue, but to me it’s much broader and potentially damaging. When I teach students how to write, I’m teaching them also about taking responsibility for what they say when entering public discourse. How they must be able to stand behind everything they communicate, including giving clear, unambiguous credit when borrowing ideas or words from others. Christie and others this week have been suggesting that taking responsibility for what we say is not important -- that we can be selective about when and where we have to stand behind our words, abandoning such responsibility if needed.

I realize that Christie himself wholly operates within the poisoned context of political discourse in which the idea of being held to account for one’s words is laughable. Like many other politicians, Christie only occasionally has demonstrated such a sense of responsibility for what he says, and in fact over the last year has frequently contradicted himself so blatantly so as to confirm he has less concern than most politicians in this regard.

If you are my student, when I’m reading your paper about Heart of Darkness I want to know what you think of the book and what it means. I don’t want to hear what others think about it, and I sure don’t want you to share what others think about it as if those words and ideas are your own. That’s more important to me even than the thoughtfulness or depth of insight you have to share.

Plagiarism is a mean-sounding word. It almost seems rude. And maybe for a certain segment of the population, it sounds like something that should only concern eggheads and bookworms -- people who have spent too much time in libraries or classrooms and not enough in the real world.

But consider this. Stealing another’s ideas and words and presenting them as one’s own is obviously harmful to the uncredited source. But it’s much more harmful to the person doing the stealing. It’s a denial of self, an admission that a person has decided it is better to pass off someone else’s point of view as that person’s own.

Sure, the internet has confused things for many. It’s hard to know what is real, what’s being fabricated, and who is cutting-and-pasting. The idea of “authorship” has gotten complicated and perhaps even become less meaningful to many, what with so much borrowing and so little attribution happening everywhere we look.

Even so, don’t plagiarize. Even a little bit. Or maybe the recommendation would be more effective if I put it another way.

Don’t give up yourself.

Image: “PlaGiaRisM,” Digital Rebel. CC BY 2.0.

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Blogger Memphis MOJO said...

Well said.

7/21/2016 11:18 AM  
Blogger Nolan Dalla said...

Outstanding article.... The aftermath of the Melania Trump fallout was more disturbing seeing seemingly smart and engaged leaders of intellect dismissing the seriousness of this lapse. Let's call plagiarism what is truly is -- THEFT.

7/21/2016 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Followed your blog for a long time- I couldn't agree with you more. Plagiarism is worse for the person doing it, and it's made even worse for those people when they get away with it, so they think it is acceptable behavior.

Also, your description of human behavior when caught in a lie is spot on- people will deny it forever because they can't begin to believe how they could do that because their very self-image is on trial.

Think Lance Armstrong, Putin, even Trump, lol. If they admitted to the lie, their very self-being would internally explode.

Great blog post!

7/22/2016 12:40 PM  
Blogger norm said...

I see the problem as that you are of the opinion that a "Teacher" and a politician should be addressing ethics in the same manner. The politician (as well as those underlings) does not adhere to the same ethics. Yes I am referring to the Reps and Dems.
Both are parties of "Catch me if you Can" in the truth department.

7/22/2016 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well and thoughtfully articulated, Shamus.

7/31/2016 12:36 PM  

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