Thursday, January 4, 2007

Do they think we are stupid?

A nice article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jonathan Malesic, a new professor who just encountered his first plagiarism: How Dumb Do They Think We Are?

Do they think we're stupid? If they're going to plagiarize, why can't they at least do it in a way that acknowledges that their audience is intelligent? Don't they know what the big framed diplomas on our walls mean?

I think that student plagiarists are often poor plagiarists because they don't realize that it's even possible to be a savvy reader, that it's possible to read a text that has been cobbled together from multiple sources and determine where one source's contribution ends and another's begins. Those students don't pay attention to diction, syntax, or tone when they read, so they can't possibly imagine that someone else might.

The author learns to calm down and not see the plagiarisms as a personal insult, but as an attempt by a narrow-minded student to do something they think is science. His observation:

The paradox of plagiarism is that in order to be really good at it, you need precisely the reading and writing skills that ought to render plagiarism unnecessary.

is exactly right. Once you can write well enough to hide a plagiarism, you can write well enough to be on your own, so you don't need to plagiarize. However, he insists that a plagiarist cannot be a student. I have come to see most plagiarism as cries for help - they have no earthly idea how to write, so they pretend to write by using other people's words. We have to teach them to write, and to write across the curriculum! I make my computing students submit programming exercises with a process description in complete sentences to get them used to formulating what they are thinking in words.

Maybe every program should have a course in writing, even the engineering ones.

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