Saturday, 10 March 2018

No.57 - Plagiarism: A lecture on a blight

"But Prof, I plagiarised so ACCURATELY!"
Three weeks into the first university term and already we are encountering the first cases of plagiarism in students’ work. It is the most infuriating blight on our academic and pedagogical life. I know I won’t have a chance physically to lecture our students at length about this mushrooming problem, so here is a written version of what I want to tell them.

Sources and motives
Why? Why do some of you – you students –  resort to plagiarism as a way through your academic work (and it is not only our literary studies)? I have characterised plagiarism as the blight, a disease, but in some ways it is a symptom of deeper undercurrents.  Seldom is it a matter of real malice or sneaky intent, though it happens.
More common I guess is uncertainty and fear. Insecurity in the face of a daunting task: all the assignments we give you are likely to feel daunting, precisely because it is our job to stretch your minds. That can be scary. It is especially prevalent in a society that is increasingly losing the reading habit: plagiarism goes along with an increasing reluctance by students, even at third-year level, to sit down and read longer works of literature. It’s understandable that you sometimes cope with this insecurity by leaning too heavily on someone else you think knows better: an internet site, a friend, a former student.
Fear of losing marks: schools have taught you to be obsessed with marks, rather than with the learning process itself.
Fear of failure: you are afraid that if you fail something you will be thought of as a ‘bad person’, and it feels easier and safer to plagiarise – to offer up something you feel will please the marker, regardless of whose work it actually is. This seems especially acute in our narcissistic times of Twitter and Instagram and selfies, in which one’s public profile and popularity ratings have become central to notions of self-worth. Save face at all costs seems to be the watchword. 
Last-minute desperation: you have, as usual, left doing your assignment until midnight before hand-in day, and you suddenly find you don’t quite understand what to do – and you resort to some ghastly internet site to help you out; you cut and paste some paragraphs which seem appropriate, add a few of your own hasty comments, and whack it in.

So the reasons are many and mixed. In every possible way, however, plagiarism is BAD STRATEGY.  Here’s why.

"But Prof, my girlfriend wrote it, and she's BRILLIANT!"
My main objections are pedagogical rather than legalistic.

Conditions of trust
The teaching-learning situation and process, for me, is not a matter of power-over, lecturer versus student.  We are here to help you get better at certain skills and knowledges we know to be useful to you in the world of your future, and to help you evaluate your progress. It is a mutual journey of discovery and advancement. It is not a competition between us. We progress assignment by assignment. These are not the be-all and end-all of life or learning, and they are not about who you are.  We evaluate your work; we do not judge you.  The teaching-learning situation, while obviously not equal in every respect, is nevertheless dependent on conditions of trust. You trust us lecturers to train you up to a requisite level of knowledge and skill; we trust you to do the work to the best of your ability, so that we can truly help you improve.

Plagiarism fatally compromises that condition of trust.

First and foremost, I have to trust that the work you are handing in is really your own.  Anything other than this is utterly useless. Put yourself in my shoes, as your marker-evaluator. I spend some time annotating your script, trying to point out aspects for praise and improvement – only to discover that in fact what I’ve been correcting are not even your mistakes. And what is the point of that? I have learned nothing about your abilities; you have rendered me powerless to help you. I don’t care what level you’re at, what the source and nature of your successes and errors. I care only to see you improve from wherever you are. Plagiarism makes this impossible.

Skill up!
Say we have assigned the simple task to summarise a chapter from the novel Nervous Conditions. You decide to take the easy route and just copy out a summary off SparkNotes or whatever. You have just deliberately prevented yourself  learning how to summarise.  And guess what: a little further along you will be asked to do it again – and you will be as clueless as before. Maybe you somehow survive your whole university degree failing to learn how to summarise – then you are practicing law, or business, or journalism, and your boss demands a summary of some big document yesterday –and guess what, you can’t do it. Guess what: you’re fired.
It’s a bit like watching a game of cricket on TV, and then trying to pretend you can bat like Hashim Amla.  It’s not merely dishonest: it’s self-deceiving. Obviously, learning a sporting or practical skill means getting out on the actual field or the actual workshop and start practicing, doing it over and over, honing the muscles and the techniques, making mistakes, over and over until you get it right most of the time. Why would you think mental and academic skills are any different? Why, in effect, by plagiarising, would you deliberately deprive yourself  of the opportunity to hone these skills?

Conditions of slavery
I ask you: do you valorise slavery, or freedom? Being a follower, or an innovator? Being stuck, or being dynamic?  Being regarded as a parasite, or a useful citizen? Pathetic, or strong? Cowardly, or robust? I’ve yet to meet anyone who opts for the first in each of those pairs. Yet that is precisely what plagiarism condemns you to. You slavishly follow others’ ideas rather than your own; you lose control of your own life and development; you stay trapped in the same unskilled spot you began in. No one is ever going to praise you for that.

Is lying clever?
Some plagiarists evidently think they have outwitted the system, and that this is rather clever. Some obviously even spend a considerable amount of time and effort first finding something to plagiarise, then trying to cover it over. Some pile lie on lie in order to avoid facing the fact of having been caught.  This is just pathetic and sad. A few get away with it, and feel terribly smug. Sure, it’s a skill of a sort – but isn’t one that will get you very far. Unless you’re going into politics, maybe. Lord knows governments everywhere are chock-a-block with people who have lied their way to positions of influence for which they are not skilled – but only at enormous cost to others, and inestimable damage to the well-being of society. Shame on you if such venal creeps are your role models. You may develop a superficial, manipulative skill of jimmying the system – but what will you do when confronted by a problem which can’t be solved by evasion and copying?

The ultimate insult
Can you imagine a lecturer, turning up for work every day, lecturing, tutoring, marking, trying to help you – then the plagiarist comes along, basically saying, I don’t give a toss for what you are trying to teach me, I choose to ignore it, subvert it, demean it. Plagiarism is also an insult to the intelligence of your tutors, who are trained to pick up exactly when a text rings false – and some plagiarism is so obvious as to appear profoundly stupid. Most galling of all it is an insult to your own intelligence – are you not the intellectual elite of the country, just by being here? Yet you choose to insult the discipline you signed up to study, the university itself, and all the people (ultimately the taxpayers) who are forking out millions to keep you here. Take responsibility for your life, and for its impact on everyone around you.

"You mean I actually have to READ the thing???"
Crime and punishment
Finally, plagiarism is deemed a crime – both at university and in the wider world.  In one ugly and notorious case, one South African university leader was belatedly found to have plagiarised his PhD from a Rhodes University MA thesis. He was of course fired on the spot.
So what’s needed, should you be tempted to plagiarise, is a serious change in attitude. For every assignment in our department, you sign a declaration stating that you understand what plagiarism is, and that you are not committing. This is in the nature of a legally-binding contract. If you sign it in bad faith, either not knowing what plagiarism is or knowingly plagiarising, you are committing a legal offence. Though we try to be understanding and generous on a first offence, thereafter the university has every right to take action against you, including excluding you altogether. Don’t even think about risking that.

What may be required is a serious change in attitude.

Place your self-esteem in the right place.  Your sense of self-worth is pretty fragile if it’s based only on lies and ‘saving face’. Rather it should be based on actual achievement – which means doing the job, working through shortfalls, feeling your mental muscles develop. As a teacher, nothing is more satisfying to me than seeing a student puzzling something out, working at it until the lights come on – fantastic.

We are all ignorant and unskilled in all sorts of ways. This is not a humiliation, just the recognition of a reality. We need first to recognise the limits on our knowledge and skills. That feeling, “Oh, I don’t know that,” or “I don’t know how to do this”, is not an attack on your being; it is where you start from. Not making that recognition condemns you to remain stuck exactly where you are. That condition of necessary humility before the vastness of knowledge and possibility doesn’t leave us. Not ever. Get used to it.

There’s no doubt that making the step from recognition of our limitations to doing something about it takes courage. You have to sort of swallow, put your shoulders back, and say, “I am going to deal with this, I am not going to run away.”  It means putting in some extra hours; or seeking out a tutor for assistance; asking questions. This is in the nature of learning. Just do it. Plagiarism is a form of cowardice. It is a bigger kind of failure than the failure to earn three marks.

It is also in the nature of learning that few if any skills come naturally or immediately. They accumulate gradually, with much practice and patience required. Old bad habits of writing and thinking take time to conquer and improve upon. Often it will feel like you are treading water despite hard work. You just have to keep at it. Plagiarism is a tempting way to ease the pressure, but in the long term it just makes it worse.

Negotiate the grey areas.
One grey area is knowing how much discussion with classmates eventuates in plagiarism. Many cases of plagiarism involve commonality between two or more students’ assignments; the excuse is often that discussion with a friend “inadvertently” results in certain phrases are repeated. The excuse is usually bull: plagiarism that is detected will by definition involve much more than just the odd phrase, more entire paragraphs, even a whole essay. Discussion of course is not a bad thing – but make sure that collaboration ends there. Write your essay on your own, for yourself. 
A second grey area is between “research” and plagiarism. Many schools seem to regard  cutting-and-pasting material off the internet as “research” – in the academic context a disastrous technique.  Hence students battle to distinguish between using secondary sources fruitfully, and being dependent on those sources’ ideas to the point of plagiarism. This, too, takes experience to get right. When in doubt, acknowledge and reference your sources fully. At most, use them sparingly. Never cut and paste.

Don’t take short-cuts.
Never use a secondary source – especially the student-help sites like SparkNotes and GradeSaver – as a short-cut. They are often misleading anyway, their interpretations no more valid than yours.  What we are after is your thinking about the primary text; declining to revel in the wonders of the original novel or poem or play, refusing to explore it for yourself, is both feeble and self-defeating. Nothing is more disappointing or galling to your teacher than to get a garbled and inauthentic mishmash of already poorly-expressed secondary sources, instead of your response. Your time and energy should be spent reading the primary text, making your own notes, your own summaries, your own character sketches, not subverting your individuality by burying yourself under others’ opinions.

"So I changed all the 'ands' to 'buts'; that's my argument..."
Be critical. Studying literature involves appreciating original artistry, and offering critical commentary on form and content alike. It also involves critically assessing others’ arguments or perspectives on the primary texts. If you consider a secondary source, take an independent and critical view of it, and build that critique into your own writing.

The double mantra through all of this is: BE HONEST, THINK INDEPENDENTLY.


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