Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another Example

Rebecca Howard's concept of patchwriting is introduced early in Susan Blum's My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009). Under the heading "Encouraging Plagiarism 'Patchwriting'", Blum quotes Howard's description of how she realised that academic norms against plagiarism were inhibiting student learning. "Patchwriting was for them—as it is for us all—a primary means of understanding difficult texts, of expanding one's lexical, stylistic, and conceptual repertoires, of finding and trying out new voices in which to speak" (Howard, quoted by Blum, p. 26-27). I'd really prefer Howard speak for herself here ("as it is for us all"?)* but the point is that she does have broad support in the community of writing instructors. "She urges a permissive rather than punitive stance with regard to student learning," Blum reports (p. 27). "Many in composition studies have now been persuaded of the rightness of her position."

Blum, too, seems to have been persuaded. In her conclusion she tells her own anecdote about a case of plagiarism. She presents it as a "hard" problem and puts a great deal of the blame on herself. Recall how profoundly Howard's experience affected her: "Fifteen years later [it's] still sitting with me. [It's] a moment I don't feel comfortable with at all" (5:00). But unlike Howard, who felt she was forced by rigid guidelines to give a student an F, Blum (informed by Howard's work) chose pedagogy over punishment. I think "permissive" is the right word, but here, again, I'd really like to hear what my readers think.

Blum discovered that a student had copied an entire paragraph verbatim without quotation marks (unfortunately she doesn't state clearly whether the source was cited or not) and the assignment was strangely alienated from itself in other ways. "Only peripherally did it even begin to mention [the assigned topic], and then not in any terms or ideas that the course had covered. There were strange phrases and odd old sources cited" (Blum, p. 174). The student offered the following explanation: "I've been working thirty hours straight and threw the paper together. I often collect quotations to use in my paper and I must have forgotten to put quotation marks around it" (p. 174-5). Blum interprets the student's explanation in terms of her theory of "the performance self" (on which more in the next post): "[The student] had copied pieces, uncredited, from other sources; she was uncertain about how to denote even those sources she did cite; and she wished only to turn something in, complete her performance, and get some sleep and then go home for Christmas" (p. 175).

What baffles me here is why this is a pedagogical conundrum. The student's work exhibits a complete lack of mastery, both of course content and study skills. She has terrible work habits, does not do careful scholarship, and this results in a text that is, not just partly plagiarised, but doesn't even really answer the assigned question. Nonetheless, Blum gives the student another chance. The violation was reported to the provost, and she would get only half the grade on the resubmitted assignment. She was given four days to rewrite it, and the result was disappointing: a light rewrite that also contained plagiarised material.

Unbelievably, Blum gave her a third chance! She assigned additional reading on avoiding plagiarism, told her to read the assignment one more time, and then to start over. "The third version was unimpressive but clearly original." Now, here's what she wants us to take away from the example:

[I]t demonstrates how hard a problem this presented. Here was a student at a highly selective university. She was a senior, planning to go to graduate school. We had already met to go over the penalties for plagiarism. And yet she did it again.

Blum now engages in some soul-searching ("I failed to convey the needed information") and then some reflections about how difficult, how time-consuming it is to deal with such cases.

And that's really my point. The reason to punish students who cheat, rather than letting them pretend they just have something to learn, is that there is no time to worry about student intention and motivation. If you don't take your studies very seriously you can make mistakes that can get you kicked out of school even if you didn't cheat very consciously. That threat is what lets the teacher get down to the business of teaching. It doesn't mean she should spend her time "policing" plagiarism; it just means that when she does run into it, it doesn't require further teaching. There's certainly nothing to suggest that exactly this student deserved all that extra care and attention from her professor. It's a simple administrative matter, or, in mild cases, a straightforward grading issue. Give the low grade, explain why, and move on.

One last thing. I hope I'm not the only one that raised an eyebrow at that "Here was a student..." bit. Are all those who get in to "a highly selective university" just destined to succeed, so that it's the university's fault if they fail? (That's not a simple rhetorical question by the way. Keep that tuition issue in mind.) But more importantly: this student wants to go to grad school?!?!? And her teacher wants to do everything she can, bending over backwards, to make that dream come true? If that student did out-compete someone for a graduate placement ... well, that's where we'd have the real travesty of justice, don't you think?

*To be fair, she sometimes cites empirical work to support this. But as far as I can tell it would let her say only "as it is for one third of us". That issue is worth a separate post.


Anonymous said...

I am compelled by your “not a simple rhetorical question”. I see a gulf between what you wish from student writing – evidence of mastery – and what the patchwriting mavens wish from student writing – avoiding evidence of plagiarism. Your wish engenders a positive outcome from education and the trained capacity to write in a scholarly fashion. The patchwriting mavens wish is for a nonnegative outcome, that is, not being expelled for intellectual dishonesty. Between these two outcomes is a mixed portfolio of high quality students capable of written expression and low quality students whose inability to write is glossed over so as to earn course marks that falsely indicate success.

I rebel against the idea that admission to the (selective) university precludes de-selection due to the failure to learn to demonstrate mastery. Where this affects the students I teach is (a) if a professor gives the same marks to effectively illiterate students that they give to students who can demonstrate mastery through their written and oral communication and/or (b) when a professor assigns significant group work, knowing that the capable students will stay up for two days editing the terrible contributions submitted by group members who are incapable (and expunging the plagiarized passages). During a soul-crushing term as a department head, I could not convince a professor to overturn a failing mark for a group of students that she awarded because a serial plagiarizer removed the other members’ citations from their presentation to conform to her own misunderstanding of scholarly discourse. The failing grade cot one student a cum laude designation at graduation and cost another admission to a postgraduate program. This seems more unjust than failing a plagiarizer.

Thomas said...

Yes, that qualification was inspired by your comment to the previous post. I think you're right about the difference between our visions of what the outcome is supposed to be. I get the sense in Howard and Blum's work that we're supposed to be helping everyone "get through" university, as if its something that's been dumped on students unfairly. A burden. A hurdle to overcome. We have to get back to the idea that a university education has real, positive value, like you say.

On a more practical note, perhaps we should distinguish between work of the kind that I discuss in this post, which is both plagiarised and of low quality (it sounds to me like if it had been original it should not have gotten more than a C) and work that is, on the surface, of high quality (A or B) but turns out to be plagiarised. Low quality work with a lot of patchwriting may just be incompetent and deserves just to fail. But someone who carefully patches an essay together to make it look very articulate and coherent but is, in fact, just a series of uncredited quotations is doing something that perhaps requires disciplinary action.

It's certainly strange that a teacher would spend this much effort getting a student through who (especially after deducting 50%) isn't likely to get more than a D. Just give her the F and let her go home for Christmas, right? Who knows what was going on her life that made her unable to pay attention to her school work.