Friday, May 21, 2010

Where's The Beef?

San Francisco State University Department of English
In a recent study conducted by my English 114 class we surveyed forty four students on the San Francisco State University campus with questions concerning who they were, why they were here and if they had ever plagiarized. Of the forty four students we surveyed, half of them had plagiarized in some fashion. This is odd considering that since their impressionable youth students have been convinced that of all the academic misdemeanors to commit, plagiarism is the most sinister. Pride, sloth, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and plagiarism are the sins that grant you a one way ticket to hell. So why is one out of every two of these bright, young, able-bodied San Francisco State University students buying their papers, writing essays for others, and cutting and pasting to their hearts content? More importantly what is all of this dabble in the dark arts of fraud doing for their academic writing? What is learned from the stealing the language, thoughts, and writing of others? Indeed, how to properly deceive your English professor. Professors are always complaining that with every new batch of students they receive the quality and quantity of writing is on a slow but steady decline. What do they expect when students no longer need to write their own assignments when perfect papers are sitting pretty on the shelves of paper mills? To learn to write properly one must first put in the effort to write so that their writing may be heightened through the revision of their professors. Consider the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges (2003), they state in their report The Neglected “R”, “If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else.” (Page 9). They are expressing the fact that the only way to learn to write essays, like anything, is through practice. We write the essay using our innovation to answer a prompt or develop an idea, we hand in the essay praying that our personal style and unique train of thought will be seen as a revelation and a voice of the ages, then we receive our essays with a grade and a set of revisions to be altered and internalized, adding to our understanding of what is needed to turn our humble thoughts into a bullet-proof composition containing bulletproof language and thought. Why, the very verb, essay, means to try! (Thank you Mrs. Fama) How will we learn if we don’t try? Students aren’t hurting anyone but themselves when they duck out of assignments by plagiarizing. Now to keep these kids from academic atrophy we need a plan of action in order to get the essay back on top. We know the symptoms. We know the outcomes. Is it a cure to this plagiarism epidemic that we need? Well now I can’t help you with that, however I do have a form of prevention. And after all it was Henry Bretton who said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What we need most is to cut the snake off at the head and repair the causes of all of this fraud, therefore reducing its use on our campus.
Susan Bloom, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and author of My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, has delved extensively into the world of student behavior and its relation to academic standards. Recently on Radio Boston, an informative radio station covering all things new and relevant in Boston, host Meghna Chakrabarti invited Prof. Blum to a discussion concerning a plagiarism case uncovered at Harvard University. Prof. Blum explained why plagiarism has begun to spread and is practiced by even the highest of scholars. She talks about the mentality of students today and their conditions to get ahead. Prof. Blum (2010) states “They are willing to go through any hoops, or to go through the motions to pretend to write a paper that the teacher wants even if they couldn’t care less about it. This isn’t really what education is for.” So, to meet the standards of their professors, students are willing to do anything, even cut a few corners through, say, plagiarism. Who could blame them? It’s quick, it’s easy, and obviously rather safe since half of these students have plagiarized in some form and yet still attend the University. However, Prof. Blum is making another very important statement. We students are willing to “pretend” to interested and satiate the needs of the professors knowing all the while that if they were to write how we really felt on the topic they would not compete in this increasingly cut-throat world of academics. Instead they put their personal interests, their personal motivations, aside and settle to the task at hand which is receiving the highest grade on the driest essay they can by jesting their interest in the subject matter for the grade they desire. Susan Blum, again, talks about this increasingly popular type of student in her book My Word!, “To the extent that students share the values of the performance self, they are more likely to regard both cheating and intertextual plagiarism as valid strategies, to juggle outward appearances and behavior to fit others’ expectations, and to incorporate texts casually in all aspects of their self-expression” (Page 61). This performance self, this jester, she speaks of is the self that knows what it wants, be it a prestigious degree, the name quality of a prestigious college under their belt, or simply an A-grade in their English class, and is willing to do whatever is take to achieve what it wants even fake an essay with plagiarism.
But then why the plagiarism? Why are these obviously highly intelligent and success-hungry students lowering themselves to fraud and misrepresentation? Prof. Blum in her My Word! interviews a student concerning her motivations to cheat and plagiarize. The student states that because of personal ethics and conscience she would never take these easy ways out however she certainly spills the beans on her friend’s academic indiscretions. She quotes her friend as saying, “‘Why put in the time on something I don’t care about?’ and so she just cheats…. every opportunity she gets… “ (Page 114). Eureka! Plagiarism has spread like wild fire on the serene pastures of academic thought because students simply aren’t interested in what they are writing about anymore. This is the cause of all the fraud; this is the problem we need corrected. If students aren’t interested in what they are writing, the prompts that they are asked to consider, they will take any measures we can to get out of writing them. If our case of plagiarism stems from a lack of motivation in writing our prescribed essays and our case of plagiarism is leading to an incidence of declination in the quality of our academic writing, then the only remedy for this plagiarism ailment would be a proper intervention. This intervention would be a reformation of the topics given to students that would entice and inspire. You cannot fathom the quiet, compact jubilations we students feel when we receive an essay prompt that utilizes our interests or wealth of knowledge. Give me the prompt, “Analyze the television show America’s Next Top Model and its connections with racism and false image” I would quickly run home, brush up on recent episodes of this popular television show, and scrawl an essay that would make anyone believe that Tyra is a pretty-faced, fascist tyrant! I would want to write this essay, I would be excited about the topic, and I would be happy to scribble my spin on something that I know about. Give me the prompt, “Should the penny be abolished from American currency altogether” … now that essay is just begging to be plagiarized! Who in their right mind would ever want to analyze or investigate this topic? Who gives a fig if they abolish pennies? Hell, I throw them in the garbage sometimes. The message is that if you want to keep students from the copy and paste buttons give them neuron stimulating, thought inspiring, excitingly meditative meat that they can really chew on. Give them essay prompts that they would never in a million years want to plagiarize because they are so excited about writing it themselves. My prevention is a redirection in what we see as a proper essay prompt. Give a student a topic for which they are excited about explaining or interpreting, one that they want to write, and you will receive an original paper full of interesting, thought-provoked insight. Give a student a topic concerning generic questions and cut and dry academic fluff and they may wait until the night before it is due to write it, they may write it passively not really caring how awful the writing is or how boring the ideas are, hell they may even plagiarize just to get out of writing this narrow essay answering a narrow prompt. In order to write an essay and receive the tools needed to write a sufficient essay we have to start writing essays and to start writing essays we have to first start with an interesting subject of which to write. Now, professors I understand that the modern student has many interests and to cater to them all would be an insurmountable task, however the greatest resources for understanding what is a interesting prompt and what isn’t is sitting right there in your classrooms. Use the students to realize which composition topics will produce colorful, authentic, electrifying essays, essays that the students were motivated to write, and which ones will produce dry, often plagiarized essays. One idea that I have seen in many successful writing courses would be to have a catalog of different topics on which to write. When you allow the student to choose what they are writing about the power is put in their hands and more often than not they will be interested in the topic they choose. Another suggestion, ask the students what they are interested in writing about open your mind to juicy topics such as racism, sexism, religion, topics that get the blood flowing to the old noodle. Then when you have received the plethora of subjects, of which I’m sure these students would be more than happy to propose, select the ones with the greatest association to the planned subject matter and allow the students to choose from this smaller more refined list. Teachers, as a rule of thumb never assign a writing a prompt that you would not indeed be truly, genuinely interested in writing yourself. Because topics are relevant there is no need for them to be painstakingly trivial or esoteric.
Deans know, professors know, even students know that the essays we are birthing these days on college campuses are dangerously malnourished and severely underweight. Part of the problem is that students, given generic and tedious essay prompts, are simply no longer interested in writing their essays, often plagiarizing to get them done quickly and high-scoring. Here in lies the real problem, plagiarism is allowing the students to free fall back into the frozen pits of artless, unsophisticated writing, the pits from which we so desperately strive to ascend and extinguish in college. In order to prevent all of these dooms-day events give us students the flints to start our fires by exciting our craniums with absorbing subject matter and thought inspiring prompts. Only then will we be excited to write the essays we need to compete and learn the tools we need to flourish and evolve into the great writers we are here to be.
Magrath, P., & Ackerman, A., Branch, T., Bristow, C., Shade, L., Elliott, J.,…Williams, R. (2003). The Neglected “R”. San Francisco: The College Board.
Chakrabarti, M. (Host). (2010, May 18). A Culture of Plagiarism, Fraud in Academia [Radio Broadcast Episode]. ln Ragusea (Producer) Radio Boston. Boston: Boston’s News Source.
Blum, S. (2009). My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Cornell University Press: New York.

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