We’re not really looking for originality
There was a period over at Incertus where I wrote long, blistering posts on Stanley Fish’s columns. I put in work, took them apart (to one degree or another) and got fairly worked up over them. I stopped when it became clear that it wasn’t worth it–I was getting way too agitated–and since then I’ve had a mostly hands-off policy towards him.
I’m responding to today’s piece mostly because it’s about plagiarism in the classroom, and because I think Fish is missing the point when he compares the rules of originality to the rules of golf as arcane and known to only a small group of people, unimportant to the world at large. And I think he misses it because he’s working under a different definition of “originality” than most people in my position–that is, lower level faculty who teach first and second year students–work with.
I think it’s best (I say this after having deleted a half-dozen beginnings to this paragraph) if I talk a little about what my job actually is. At this level of teaching, my job is to get my students to produce arguments and back those arguments up with evidence. I’m not asking for brilliant insight at this point, though if I get it, I’m excited. I’m asking for them to show they can think logically, that they understand the basics of argument, that they can show how they came to a position on an essay or poem or play. I’m asking them to show their work, in short.
Now, does this mean that the work they show is going to be original in some larger sense? Of course not. Very often I get multiple papers which follow the same basic thought patterns, the same arguments, the same points of evidence and analysis that I covered in class discussion. But those papers are original in the sense that the student put them together rather than cutting and pasting them from another source.
In a way, it’s like being in algebra or trig class. Getting the correct answer isn’t enough–you have to show how you got there. The difference in analyzing literature is that there are often multiple “correct answers,” but showing how you got to that answer is just as important, and a student who’s googled the subject and cut & pasted their “answer” hasn’t shown their work because they haven’t done the work. They can’t get to the point where they can argue over issues originality in authorship like Fish and others do if they don’t learn how to make an argument first.
I was talking to Amy about this a couple of minutes ago and she pointed out another aspect to this. Very often–the majority of times in both our experiences–students cheat to cover up illiteracy or sub-literacy. We make our students read aloud in class, and it becomes very clear very quickly who’s having problems. And it’s unlikely that a student who reads poorly can write well, so when said student turns in a paper which uses “affect” and “effect” in the same sentence and uses them correctly, alarm bells go off. (Amy had one of those.) And when it’s not a cover for sub-literacy, then it’s pretty clear there’s an intent to deceive, to pass off someone else’s work as their own. Sometimes it’s laziness, sometimes it’s arrogance–the latter are the most fun to bust–but the reason we do it is still the same. We’re teaching our students to make arguments, and if they don’t, they fail.
The rules really aren’t arcane, nor is plagiarism “an insider’s obsession,” at least not at this level of education. They’re a gate, and we’re the gatekeepers. (Does that make us all into Sigourney Weaver?)