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On The Rewards of Plagiarism

Like most of my beleaguered colleagues, I don’t have much else going on in my life these days other than marking essays. Generally speaking, I’d rather test electrical sockets with a wet finger, but there is, when I put my shoulder to it, much to learn from my students and the evolving practice of their evaluation. It is, for the most part, a C+ world, but its limitations have once again revealed more to me than its successes have.

I have learned I can give my full attention to five essays in an hour before it becomes physiologically essential to take a break. It’s true I’m more or less blind, and therefore I listen to the essays as recited by my super-fantastic computer text-to-voice program, yet despite my active ear in marking, I’ve noticed the process continues to encourage a strange phantom pain in my eyes, perhaps something like the ghostly aches that haunt amputees. The pain in my eyes is curious because I am not reading with them. It’s clear the source of the pain isn’t in me straining to see the computer screen, but I’m beginning to suspect the phenomena has something to do with me straining to see a world that is crumpled up somewhere on the other side of spectacularly peculiar first-year university sentences. To imagine this effect, wear somebody else’s prescription and wander aimlessly around Ikea for an afternoon. It might be described as an effectively low-grade form of temporary agnosia. I peer through sentences with generic shape and colour, something like the world you know, but something not quite like it. It’s hard work trying to find the meaning and intention in that kind of writing, rescue it for a student, and then explain how to get at it for themselves. But that’s the work, and it’s good work when you can get it.

Yesterday I stepped out of my cubby-hole office for a break and caught a weary hello from a passing colleague. We chatted for a few minutes in her office and she confessed she was feeling dispirited by the whole business. her particular complaint had to do with plagiarism and the internet. What she resented was having to police the purchase and cribbing of essays from internet sites. For many instructors, more time and energy is spent finding essays on the internet than time and energy spent responding to the legitimately authored papers. Selling essays on the net is quite an advanced business, too. And given the technical expertise demonstrated by most of my literature classes, I’m continually astonished the Internet survives as a viable medium. There are always a few cybergeeks I can chum around with during the breaks, but most of my students don’t know how to use the spell check on their word processors or how to save to a floppy disk, whatever that is. Yet, despite this absence of practical techno-knowledge, what they do know is every possible source on the net to grab paragraphs, purchase essay outlines, swap essays and so on. Or maybe I have this wrong. What I consider the practical knowledge they should possess is actually an antiquated fetish of a cranky DIY instructor. Sometimes I am given to worry that they might be showing me what the real practical skills are.

Finding the purchased essay on the net is the time consuming part of the job, but spotting them is a cakewalk. As my colleague noted, it is as easy to spot those purchased essays as it is to purchase them. They are either too stylistically advanced, the vocabulary is too specialized, or the subjects and modes of thinking are too alien to the particular classroom discourse. One of the great ironies is that the companies that make the essays for sale on the net also market the policing systems for internet essay purchases, the systems accessed by universities for a steep membership fee. Here’s how the scam works.

Let’s say Joe Student buys one of four thousand available essays about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and submits it to me. Being an attentive instructor who doesn’t overextend his marking abilities, my spider-sense begins to tingle. If my college has coughed up the membership fee, I can now submit the essay online to a policing system which will comb all the essay-for-sale databases on the net, the ones owned by the same parent company that owns the policing system. The sale and conviction services are all one and the same. The sites that sell the essays will take them through the back door and let that instructor know if the essay at some point went out the front door. It is a fully enclosed cat-and-mouse, keystone-cops plagiarism monopoly.

At least my colleague and I share a sense of humour about the absurdity of this problem. The fact is, there’s little else we can do, or want to do, but laugh. So the policing goes on, no matter how funny the hypercapitalism proves to be. The question remains, though, how to get students to compose their own work and see the value in doing so. And this has had some peculiar side-effects. For instance, some of us are chipping away at the western literary canon because of the widely available stockpile of adequate and utterly bland university level essays about those works. We are not subverting the canon for the reasons we were taught in graduate school, challenging the canonization of texts because of some political or theoretical understanding proposed about the canon as an exclusionary construct blah blah blah. Instead, we’ve given up on those squeaky-clean motives and tossed Conrad in the recycling bin because the internet is making him a teaching liability and making somebody, somebody other than the English teachers, a lucrative little industry.

The lesson I want my students to learn is that they need to develop an understanding of their language, how it works, how it uses them, and the various kinds of expressions we’ve made with it in literary forms. I want them, in short, to read and to write. But what they are teaching me is a different lesson, and one many of us are not learning because we are to busy policing the net.

The shift from teaching citizens knowledge to teaching workers skills has introduced other tacit curriculi. For example, the corporate college and university system is teaching students, by offering a means into the professional marketplace, the value in getting things done efficiently. Plagiarism is a good thing, in that lesson, because it is a savvy use of resources, a cost-effective time saver and it gets the job done in a timely, labour-saving manner. Why reproduce what is already done? Didn’t you know there are already four thousand essays about Conrad on the net?

So, in some respects, I can’t blame them for their resourcefulness when plagiarism is in keeping with the logic and values expressed by the very institutions they are attending. This doesn’t discount the social and aesthetic value in learning to be a competent practitioner of the language. What this tells me is that something at the very heart of the post-secondary system is confused and irrational. When I read memos from administration and press releases from the Ministry of Education, the old problem clearly remains. It’s hard to see the strange and crumpled world on the other side of those sentences, too.

1237 w. November 5, 2002

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Ryan Knighton

Ryan Knighton lives in Vancouver, teaches at a college in North Vancouver, and peers at the world with a strange but distinctive focus. He just signed a whopping book contract based on a series of pieces that appeared on this site, and his publisher made us erase them.

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