Monday, September 29, 2014

What Am I Missing Here?

At the two-minute mark of this video, Rebecca Howard begins to tell a story about a student plagiarism case she was involved in with a second-year Chinese student. The student had cut and pasted significant passages from a source that she did not cite properly. When confronted with it, the student acknowledged the problem, said she was aware of the plagiarism policy, knew it was cheating, and did it anyway "hoping she wouldn't get caught", because she would have been unable to express the necessary ideas in her own words. Howard, apologizing (it seems to me) for the severity of the plagiarism rules (the lack of "leeway"), informed the student that she would get an F in the course, "And that was the end of that."

While the case seems cut and dried to me, Howard presents it as a very difficult conundrum. "I will never forget [it]," she says. I, however, don't understand what it was that made the case so difficult. A student who was unable to do the assignment, and therefore unable to demonstrate that she had learned the content of the course, chose to pass off someone else's demonstration of the skills under examination as her own. She was caught. And this led to a failing grade for an assignment that presumably would have gotten a perfectly respectable grade if the plagiarism had not been noticed. In that case, she would have graduated with a certified ability to do something she could not do, or understand something she could not understand. This is plagiarism in its most ordinary form—neither exceptionally brazen nor forgivably minor. And the student was punished to my mind somewhat mercifully. (I hope at least that some sort of record of the reason for the F remains in the university's records.)

It's true that universities who let students into degree programs that they don't have the basic writing skills to pass are doing those students a disservice. But its the admissions office, not the writing center, that has a problem here. There's the old adage, "Your lack of planning is not my emergency." We need to come up with something similar here. Your lack of admission standards is not my teachable moment, perhaps.

As always, I mean it when I say I'm looking for more eyes on this issue. This re-evaluation of plagiarism seems very wrongheaded to me and it puzzles me that writing instructors are leading the charge.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree, neither an ethical conundrum nor something that should be treated lightly. Plagiarism remains plagiarism. One can adjust the punishment depending on severity, repeat offenders, ignorance etc. but the deed itself is ethically wrong, against most honor codes etc. Troubling to see that this is not the consensus?!

randallwestgren.net said...

I believe the easiest part of the patchwriting phenomenon to understand is why writing instructors are leading the charge. Professor Howard is caught between a herd of high-value (i.e. full-tuition and fees paid) students who have negligible communication skills in the language of instruction and the administration and governing board of her university who actively seek these students to balance the budget. And the rhetoric instructors, writing coaches, and ESL instructors are “letting down” the university AND these students when they cannot ameliorate their English language within the bounds of the US curricula. I suspect the pressure on persons like Professor Howard is immense, as they are caught between the professoriate’s understanding of plagiarism as a failure of academic principle and the wishful thinking of the administrators and international students in the admission decision.

So, these writing instructors plow through post-modern analyses of copyright and discover it is a post-colonial legal issue that can be ignored because of its brevity within the human timeline. Thus, we can support the use of patchwriting, since an author’s words are really not their property. Those words belong to all of us, including students who do not understand them. (This is what I gleaned from reading the books and articles you cited in the 22 September blog post. Nonetheless, I noticed that all those books seemed to be protected by copyright…) While the proponents of patchwriting hold it up as a transitory phase in learning how to write, cynics (like me) see it as a way to keep the valuable, but academically at-risk, university students from being recognized as failures.

Thomas said...

Yes, Howard goes on to talk about how her own university is "aggressively recruiting non-native speakers for the tuition dollars." I think you are right that the writing instructors, and the foreign students themselves for that matter, are caught between the academic principles of the professors and the wishful thinking of the administrators. If patchwriting becomes an accepted style (and unfortunately I can already point to specific academic literatures where it seems to be) it constitutes a compromise that allows people who are unable to write competent academic prose to succeed academically, first as students and thereafter as professors. Worrisome.

Jonathan said...

Strange that she does not see the problem as one of someone who is simply not qualified for the course, rather than a problem about plagiarism. Suppose I had to cheat at calculus because I couldn't even do basic algebra.

Charles Nelson said...

Just a brief note that isn't taking sides but is providing some background information.

Someone whose first language is not English likely has a vocabulary that is about 1/4, perhaps 1/3, the size of a native speaker's. Naturally, a lack of vocabulary (and cultural differences of style and writing conventions) make it more than just a little difficult to paraphrase.

Thomas said...

That's very true. But overcoming that difficulty by copy-pasting someone else's mastery of the use of that vocabulary doesn't demonstrate understanding of the material.

I've been trying to come up with analogies. Like someone with one hand going to the conservatory to learn how to play piano. She can of course impress with the one hand she's got, but we can't accept some sort of fakery that makes her sound like she's got two, when she takes the Well-tempered Clavier test.

Ideally, someone would tell her to find some other art to excel at.

In the case we're discussing, to be sure, the handicap is not permanent. But that's where the admission standards become important.

Suppose she said she would be able to complete the assignment in Chinese. Unfortunately, her teacher can't grade it. So we'd have to get it translated. Okay, if the university has an official translator, we're now getting close to being able to demonstrate that she masters the content...

...except, she could now have plagiarised the Chinese original and we have no way to know. See, that's the problem. We can only grade what is presumably her own performance. And that's why her language skills should have disqualified her from entry, or predestine her for low grades.

There's simply no way around my basic epistemological point that knowing something in academia is, crucially, also the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph with some facility.

Charles Nelson said...

I've had ESL students who have failed first-year composition (some more than once) and yet had better than a B average in their major courses, such as science or accounting. For these students, one course in writing is serving as a gatekeeper to getting their degree in a field in which they do well or even excel. It's not clear to me that "language skills should have disqualified [these individuals] from entry." Thus, it seems to me that, in some fields, it's definitely not the case that "the ability to compose a coherent paragraph" is necessary to show that someone knows their major.

From another perspective, there are many ESL students in our universities who are the children of immigrants. With a degree, they can work in their community, if they wish, and give back to their community.

By this, I'm not saying that plagiarism should be condoned, but I think we need to consider that there are other factors involved that also merit thought.

Thomas said...

I suppose we can imagine university programs that don't include mastery of writing, or even competence in English, as a requirement for getting a degree. Just math, say. In such cases, it would perhaps be a mistake to subject them to the completely arbitrary requirement of a composition course.

But I would argue that even in science and accounting, a university degree certifies a demonstrated ability to reflect critically on epistemological and ethical matters. The only way to test that ability is in the prose of the student. The B-student in science will fail not just the freshman comp course but also the philosophy of science requirement if she can't write. The student in accounting will, likewise, fail the (hopefully) required business ethics course. Freshman comp, done right, will equip them for those very necessary courses.

Once we have decided that some of their competences are literary ones (or can only be demonstrated through a literary performance) we must also disallow plagiarism in assignments. If we allow the students to patchwrite, we are allowing them to fake a competence they don't have.

Thomas said...

PS. Your point about the use of universities as gate-keepers for immigrants into gainful employment is well taken. It indicates a pressure similar to the one Randall notes above, i.e., an extrinsic explanation for what is going on. To me, it shows that we're using our universities for a something they shouldn't be used for. As long as we agree that this use degrades both knowledge and writing, we agree. And any acceptance or tolerance or sympathy for patchwriters is a symptom of this degradation.

Presskorn said...

There something pangrammatical about "Your lack of admission standards is not my teachable moment."... Standards are to knowledge what moments are to power?

Thomas said...

As Randall points out, this is definitely about how political institutions shape our scientific intuitions. Hopefully what I do can toughen those intuitions up a little so they can resist the pressures.

That said (and with apologies to those who find this a little "inside Basbøll") I don't think I've ever put "moments" on one side of the knowledge/power distinction. I normally talk of "seeing" (knowledge side) and "doing" (power side) as "moments" of experience, there are moments of clarity (in philosophy, science, knowledge) and moments of intensity (in poetry, politics, power). This is probably because moments are joints in (articulations of) time and space.

There might be something in the juxtaposition of standards and lessons, however: teachers are to knowledge what standard-bearers are to power.

Charles Nelson said...

For me, another complicating factor is the situational nature of plagiarism. Brian Martin in his article "Plagiarism: a misplaced emphasis" gives a list of practices that he calls institutionalized plagiarism: ghostwriting, political speechwriting, honorary authorship (people whose name is listed as an author on a document but contribute little to the research or writing of the paper), and bureaucratic documents (i.e, "junior workers" write documents signed by their seniors).

Some other examples of accepted plagiarism are textbooks that don’t cite their sources; boilerplate language, such as that of lawyers; and dictionaries that freely copy one another (just check the definition of “plagiarism” in different dictionaries). According to Richard Posner in his “A Little Book on Plagiarism,” textbooks and boilerplate language aren’t considered plagiarism in part because no one cares.

Jonathan said...

I'm sure my students in Spanish courses have fewer vocabulary words (in Spanish) than university students in Spain. But I don't allow patch writing / plagiarism there either. The language is part of what they are developing. I'd think you'd want your university graduates to have English language skills commensurate with a university graduate. Especially since the international trend now is EMI.

Thomas said...

@Charles: Thanks for the link. My own view is that the fundamental crime of plagiarism in academia is not that it steals from the source but that it misleads the reader. I'll read Martin's article more closely later, but this view seems to go well with the critique of institutionalised plagiarism. What plagiarism does is to undermine the presumption that when we read a text we are coming into contact with the thoughts of a autonomous, authentic, human mind. I abhor textbooks in principle because they can't be read that way. They bring you into contact with the "mind" of a hive. Anything written by ghosts or by committees is like that.

@Jonathan: You bring up an interesting point. Maybe it's precisely because English is becoming more of a universal "medium" than a particular "language" that we treat incompetence differently than we would in Spanish or French or German (or Chinese for that matter). But your point about Spanish should of course be applied to English (in comp classes) too. This is what Howard seems to be missing.


Charles Nelson said...

@Jonathan: I might want my ESL students "have English language skills commensurate with a university graduate," but that's simply not close to being possible. I'm reminded of Ulla Connor, a leading international scholar in contrastive rhetoric and professor of English at Indiana University, who stated in her book Contrastive Rhetoric that although she had received her doctorate in the U.S. and had taught in the U.S. for 20 years, she still “tends to use [articles and prepositions] inappropriately” (p. 4).

Jonathan said...

You are moving the goal posts here from a limited vocabulary (a very correctable thing, though it may take some time) to minor glitches in preposition use. I know non-native speakers with an immense English vocabulary, probably larger than that of the average native speaker undergraduate. Presumably one studies in the US (among other reasons) to learn English. It is sad that you think it impossible for them to learn enough English to communicate effectively in writing when they graduate from college!

Charles Nelson said...

I was focusing on your word "commensurate," which I took to be nativelike fluency, and I used her as an example because it shows the length of time for a nonnative speaker to acquire nativelike fluency—even for a nonnative speaker whose career deals with language.

So, yes, they can learn enough English to communicate effectively upon graduation, but based on my own experience (and I've been teaching ESL students for more than 20 years), if by "commensurate with" you mean nativelike fluency, then only a few have reached that goal.

Charles Nelson said...

I thought I'd Google for articles on plagiarism and came up with a few interesting ones (and there are many more):

China's Plagiarism Problem.

Plagiarism Plague Hinders China's Scientific Ambition

Is there such a thing as Asian plagiarism?

Thomas said...

@Charles: I think Jonathan's point is precisely that mastery of "academic English" is not the same thing as "native-like fluency". When academics complain that their students "can't write a coherent paragraph" (or even a well-formed sentence) they are not saying that their students aren't native speakers. Many of them are native speakers and terrible writers. Many are non-native speakers but are competent academic writers, even if they get their prepositions wrong sometimes. Academic English is in many ways easier to learn than any given native idiom, which (we have to remember) is always a local dialect.

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said...

Thanks Thomas. I used the word "commensurate" to mean "not exactly the same, but proportional in some sense." If I had meant "exactly the same level of English proficiency as a native English speaker who is also an excellent writer," then I would have said that. A college graduate should be able to paraphrase academic material in her own words in English, without patchwriting, and have a vocabulary sufficient to do so. There will be variations of ability among natives and non-natives in this respect.

One way we know a student is not patchwriting is if sh/e writing in a more simplistic way, with a reduced vocabulary perhaps. We can see that as a lack of adequacy, but it will be an honest lack of adequacy that can be addressed.

Thomas said...

Yes, the problem with normalising patchwriting is that it's dishonest inadequacy. I like that way of putting it. There's no teachable moment in it until you discover that the passage in question was patchwritten. Honest work has all the occasions for teaching on its surface. That's why the only thing to say to a patchwriter is, "You're not allowed to do that." It makes teaching harder.

(I remember offering to correct a Danish PhD student's English once, i.e., go through it and point out his errors. I sent it back to him -- a bit angrily -- when I realised it was a Google translation of his Danish draft. He was just asking me to polish it for publication.)

Charles Nelson said...

I jumped too quickly. I see what both of you are saying about "commensurate" now, and I do agree.