“Trying to find the right answer at any cost.”

I’ve written a lot about secondary and inner-city education lately, since that’s what my summer employment entails, and a lot of it concerns a lot of emotionally difficult stuff.  And I haven’t even gotten to the truly infuriating qualities of the organization itself, which, among other things, include rampant nepotism, cronyism, and deep-seated insecurities about power that lead to sabotage of coworkers or employees, backstabbing, and termination over asserting an opinion that differs from those of managing staff.   That’s a multi-part series for another day.  Right now, though, I want to bring it back to higher education, specifically an issue that plagues college writing classrooms: plagiarism.

I’ve been lax about keeping up with academic news what with the stress of dealing with the kids, the higher-ups, and standing a foot away when a tire blew out and everyone on the block, including me, froze, thinking it was a gunshot.  I’m flippant about it in public but when I’m at home I brood.

The other day I tried to swap brooding for news-reading, and found this article about student plagiarism sitting in my university email inbox.  In a nutshell, Brent Staples discusses the increasing need for professors to police papers, the seemingly widely-held student belief that plagiarism is “no big deal” (Staples), and the fact that plagiarism is largely viewed as an ethical issue when the real issue is that repetitive cheating, such “cut-and-paste” writing, hinders student learning and leads to greater attrition of understanding.  Staples unfortunately doesn’t get into the ramifications of the cut-and-paste writing trend, but he does make the interesting observation that students “have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them.  When many young people think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought.  They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet” (Staples).

This lines up with many of my own observations about what I’ll call “the culture of collaging,” the apparent student belief that cutting and pasting is a valid form of writing.  Despite knowing the definition of plagiarism, my students tend to distinguish between it and collaging, which they see themselves as doing.  “I can’t say it better,” they say, “I’m still creating something,” or, my favorite, “People borrow all the time online; it’s no big deal.”  Whatever the reason, they genuinely perceive collaging not only as a legitimate form of expression but also as legitimately comprising their own ideas, even though they neither came up with these ideas on their own nor expressed them in their own words.

While there are multiple issues here—and only a few of them ethical—I’m going to boil them down to what I view as two primary underpinnings of the collagist mentality.  One is the effect of cyberculture on students’ relationship to learning, research, and the written word.  The other is the notion that collaging other people’s words and ideas, taken verbatim from various sources, is an act of creation similar to writing out your own ideas in your own words.  I think it’s important to examine the cyberculture factor first, as it impinges on the latter notion as well.

As teachers, we know that each generation of students is more wired than the last.  During spring semester, I polled my class and found that only a few had clear memories of being without the Internet, and many had never had to write a paper without Google Books or Google Scholar.  A high school senior I worked with had collaged her entire essay from sources culled from Google Books.  I’ve had several college students cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, eNotes, and Spark Notes, without so much as changing the formatting.  Students copy whole passages from print books, Google Books, and scholarly articles taken from online databases like Project Muse or EBSCO.  Some of them know they’re plagiarizing.  But some of them have difficulty understanding why it’s wrong.  I’m thinking particularly of the story of a student who failed a class for plagiarizing and wrote a letter to the dean, explaining that he paid for the paper he was accused of plagiarizing and that therefore it was his property.  Of course the grade wasn’t changed.  My reaction to this story was something along the lines of “Seriously?” but it seems to speak to the collagist mentality: that intellectual property is, well, no longer seen as property.

This is probably due (at least in part) to the existence of the Internet, which is, at best, an abyss of free, public information.  Information is constantly being exchanged on chat forums and answer boards, displayed on user-generated sites like Wikipedia and Wikias, and appropriated on our own websites, in our IM chats and emails.  You can’t look at anything on the Internet without being barraged by information, visually, verbally, relevant, irrelevant, interesting, dull.  Perhaps most significantly, this info free-for-all seems to have shifted the traditional research model toward a “point-and-click” paradigm, where we click selectively on what we want to see and ignore what we think is unnecessary.  In turn, all this pointing and clicking seems to have redefined general knowledge; where it used to encompass a set of facts that everybody should know, it now has been stretched to include esoteric information that the Internet has made obvious.  (My students might not have known why we went to war in Vietnam, but they were all in agreement about the “horribleness” of the woman who gave birth in a Port-a-Potty, courtesy of Stupid Celebrity Gossip.)

In fact, the Internet is our go-to resource for anything we don’t know.  And perhaps it is because they know they have that resource right at their fingertips (literally, since most of them have smartphones) that students don’t retain the “uninteresting” information that used to comprise general knowledge, such as key dates, capital cities, the names of presidents and other global leaders.  I don’t doubt that students are learning while on the Internet, but it’s self-serving, point-and-click learning, where they can single out exactly what they want to know at the cost of everything else.  I’ve had students express relief at not having to hit the stacks and scour book after book for information that’s relevant to their papers.  Instead, they told me, they just Google Books or Google Scholar the word or phrase they want support for, and boom—the search returns the exact page on which the phrase appears.  No need to look at the pages before and after, let alone the whole chapter, let alone the whole book.

I think—and I realize I’m entering the land of generalization and speculation—but I think the way we research impinges not only on what we write but also on the way we write.  I find it significant that the meandering point-and-click experience of information prioritizes the search for knowledge over the acquisition of it: in short, keep clicking every time a link that seems relevant to your paper pops up, until you turn up the appropriate hit or run out of links to click.  Whereas skimming a book requires basic understanding of the connections a given author draws in his or her argument, point-and-clicking requires only that you know what you’re looking for, resulting in learning that is extremely myopic.  Students miss out on the reasoning skills being modeled in the sources they’re using; they miss out on facts that might be more relevant but worded less obviously; and, most obviously, they miss out on context that clarifies the information they’re lifting and as a result may be unable to fully explain its significance.  All of this suggests that the Pritchard axiom is hard at work.

In short, Internet research is often not about learning; it is about successfully finding what you’re looking for.  This affects the way we write in that papers produced by this research paradigm are likely to resemble pieces of information cobbled together, whether copied or not.  Perhaps the copying occurs when students find themselves unable to provide context for the information they’re using, or explain it further, since point-and-clicking only gave them the information and not a deeper understanding of it.  That is, the way we have learned to process information is reflected in the way we present information to others.  Maybe.  Just maybe.

I’d say more here but I want to return to this subject when my thoughts are more fully formed.  At the moment I’m just trying to wrap my brain around this, and I certainly haven’t done any research of my own.  But I think what I’ve suggested seems like a distinct possibility.  That said, I do want to qualify some things I’ve said before I move on: 1) I am not damning Google Books or Google Scholar but am simply saying that students should skim them as they would print resources, rather than clicking “Find” and typing in their terms; and 2) clearly not all students fall into this category.  Many plagiarize knowingly.  I’m simply speculating about those collagists who think their so-called craft is legitimate.

So, we finally arrive at the question: How does the shifted research paradigm lead to collagist mentality?  I’m going to attempt to address this concisely (ha ha) here.  Again, I am speculating and generalizing and am aware of that.  Consider this a rough draft for a more developed, nuanced essay on plagiarism and cyberculture in the future.  Also, it’s getting late and I’m hungry.  But here is a jumbled paragraph of my initial thoughts.

For one, with a fundamental lack of understanding of authors’ reasoning in various articles, the student may be unable to paraphrase or write transitions of his/her own to bring different sources into conversation with one another.  Therefore, they collage.  Or they are so used to other forms of collaging that are acceptable on the Internet, such as status updates and AMVs, whether they are creating or perusing them, that they don’t think twice when collaging spills over into their own work.  Or the presentation of an Internet source, such as a reputable blog, may seem so informal that the idea of free and public information seems to still apply.  Or they apply the general knowledge rule to information gleaned from sites they visit constantly, because to them it seems obvious and they forget that others may not know.  Or, the source may voice an opinion that the student agrees with entirely and because they think they might blog about it in the same language, they think it’s all right to collage it.  Or they don’t see a name attached to the source and think that they are free to lift it for their own work.  (After all, these words line up with their opinions and say exactly what they want to say.)  Or they treat the Internet as they would spoken conversation, since it’s a tool for communication as much as it is a research tool; and as in spoken conversation, where we don’t usually credit the original narrator of a story we’re retelling, Internet information commerce doesn’t demand a citation.

I swore I was going somewhere with this, but I’m starving, so I’ll have to revisit this topic, and the idea that students see collaging as a legitimate act of creation, in a later post.  I view plagiarism as plagiarism, regardless of why students believe their particular version of it is legitimate.  As Staples states, “this is not just a matter of personal style or generational expression.  It’s a question of whether we can preserve the methods through which education at its best teaches people to think critically and originally” (Staples).  Besides just being curious about where this mentality comes from, I wonder if discussing it in its own terms would help students better understand the importance of originality and critical reasoning skills in essay writing.

To end on an instructive note, this post seems to model drafting pretty well: I start off strong, state what I want to talk about, and slowly begin to lose focus as I get bogged down in too many ideas and no real research.  Not to mention the fact that my jumbled paragraph of ideas seems like a great model of what to do when you want to stop writing but are afraid you’ll forget what you wanted to talk about.

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2 thoughts on ““Trying to find the right answer at any cost.”

  1. Kate says:

    Vy! So I found your blog via Facebook, and you’re hitting into my special area of nerdiness–bibliometrics. What I find fascinating and alarming about your perspective is that it’s a perspective becoming increasingly pervasive in scientific research NOW; though for cross purposes. More content is published in peer reviewed journals, but the proportion of quotes and citations have ballooned, half lives of journals are shrinking as non-digital journals fall out of intellectual orbit, and on the whole the research suffers. Maybe collaging and plagiarism isn’t present yet, but…intellectual disingenuousness, for lack of a better word, that’s at (I perceive) the heart of your thesis, is alive and increasing.

    Also, I will damn Google Scholar and Books. Freely! Often!

    And we should chat sometime, it’s been a while.

    • Fascinating and alarming… I couldn’t agree more. And I like “intellectual disingenuousness” as a term; it seems to encompass exactly what I’m trying to talk about.

      I want this to stop. As a teacher and as a creative/academic writer. People are publishing plagiarized books, news articles, and in scientific research as you say, and in my college writing classroom, quoting is out of control. I’ve actually demanded that students don’t use any quotes for their first 3 out of 5 essays, until I got caught and was told not to do that (this was at a former institution; I’m sure you can guess why I left).

      I’ll have to read up on my bibliometrics before I continue on this topic some other day. I guess it helps me as a teacher to write about this stuff, wonder about, and try to trace its origins so that I can nip in the bud when I get them as freshmen. While I do think a lot of it is intentional and maybe due only to laziness, I also believe that many of the kids I get have no idea they’re doing something that is hurting their own learning. It’s the “what my teacher wants” problem, especially in high school: support everything with a quote. Don’t bother figuring out what the quote means, and don’t paraphrase. If I had the stamina and willpower to teach high school, man. They’d fire me in a day for changing the whole curriculum.

      I want to think more about collaging as it pertains to quoting as well… hopefully before fall semester begins. Thanks for commenting–you raise good points. And we are overdue for chatting… perhaps we can talk some weekend, when I’m recovering from my 9th graders?

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