Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Plagiarism and Incentive

Read this in an interesting New York Times article on growing amounts of plagiarism in American universities:
A University of Notre Dame anthropologist, Susan D. Blum, disturbed by the high rates of reported plagiarism, set out to understand how students view authorship and the written word, or “texts” in Ms. Blum’s academic language.

She conducted her ethnographic research among 234 Notre Dame undergraduates. “Today’s students stand at the crossroads of a new way of conceiving texts and the people who create them and who quote them,” she wrote last year in the book “My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture,” published by Cornell University Press.

Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs.

In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.
I find these remarks rather fascinating in that they trace a pattern through all areas of modern culture. Could we really be losing our desire for originality in general?

Perhaps, but I think Blum misses the essential structural problems that have led to this trend in American schools.

I tend to see the issues with American education in practical, economic terms. What Americans need to understand is what kind of system we have created, and how the pressures of that system will inevitably lead to more plagiarism, less originality, and less desire to achieve the Enlightenment of ideal of individual creative thought. The Internet may be a huge catalyst for this change, but the basic structures have been in place for years.

What we have is a system in which the following ideas are taken for granted:
  1. Everyone deserves the same chance at a good education.
  2. All good jobs require four years of college education.
  3. The sooner you can finish college and start working, the better.
  4. Being a "well-rounded" and super-involved student is much better for finding jobs than being a bookworm or nerd.
Now let's talk about the natural, and inevitable, effects of these ideas, when they are taken for granted by the whole society:
  1. Price inflation: The price of education must go up. This is in fact what we have seen for years now, and it's amazing that people still marvel at it. Yet this is a very predictable result of the incontrovertible law of supply and demand.
  2. Utilitarianism: The vast majority of students will not see the pursuit of truth as the primary reason to go to college and participate in academics. They will see it, rather, as a means to a good job in the future. That this is the case seems self-evident, but I'd be happy to find some source to back me up on this.
  3. Trade-offs: When education is really about reaching economic goals, students do whatever will help them reach those goals. If teachers hold the line on things like plagiarism, that will make some difference, but it won't be the final word. Students will inevitably have to compromise between many different priorities.
  4. Grade inflation: It's not just the idea that everyone deserves a chance. It's also simple economics. If grades matter to their economic well-being, then students will do whatever it takes to get higher grades. If they find that certain strategies other than actually learning more are working to get them grades, these strategies will flourish. It is infinitely more difficult for teachers to universally maintain rigorous standards than it is for students to come up with new ways of getting good grades. Grade inflation, under this system, is as inevitable as price inflation.
What does any of this have to do with plagiarism? Far too many people are under the impression that plagiarism is a sign of moral degradation and/or laziness among students. It is neither. I find it extremely hard to believe that entire generations are actually very different from one another in moral character. A friend once told me that some of the oldest writings we have from human civilizations include words lamenting the moral decline of younger generations. The belief that one generation is worse than the previous is as old as time; yet it is probably never true.

No, plagiarism is not a sign of moral degradation or laziness. It is actually the inevitable result of students trying their best to do what they've been told they must. They must go to college, they must do more than they can possibly do well in order to get the most out of college, they must get good grades, they must develop good relationships and networking skills, and they must find some way to balance all of these imperatives. Desire for free, original thought may be what drives the professor at the chalk board, but the students in their classroom are driven by much more practical concerns.

This, by the way, is a source for a lot of confusion in education over the issue of how to actually teach subjects to modern students. We see that students are motivated by practical concerns, so we think that the solution is to try to make learning more "hands on." We insist on finding ways to make everything from mathematics to philosophy more "practical." But this is to fundamentally mistake students' motivations for learning style. Of course different methods of teaching are always important for different students. But it is not as if an entire generation of students has become more "hands-on" than ever before (unless you just mean they know how to use a computer). It just means that an entire generation has become more interested in education as a tool for success and not as a path for intellectual growth.

Another point worth mentioning is that original thought may be genuinely more difficult than ever to produce. Think about it. If there are more kids in college and more information available than ever before, isn't it possible that there is less room for meaningful originality? It's not at all surprising to me that someone would say, as was quoted in the article, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Young people must surely feel this way after realizing that any good thing they ever thought has already been said before, and any original thing they ever thought is crap. (This blog post, for instance, probably falls into one of those two categories.) It's easy to become cynical.

As long as our system remains in place just the way it is, I suspect that plagiarism will become more and more common, and students will come to accept it more and more from their peers. It will not help to simply be appalled at it. I find it staggering the way professors in the academy can look at the situation we have with an air of self-righteousness. Do professional educators seriously not understand how the business of education works?

1 comment:

  1. cool thoughts. if only it were academically sound to reference really random blogposts in graduate seminar papers...


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