Just how widespread is plagiarism, anyway?

There was an article by Kelly Heyboer of the Newhouse News Service in the Ann Arbor News August 28, 2003 (page A4) about trends in plagiarism, with an alarming headline that “Poll: Nearly 40% of college students admit to copying text off Internet.” This article (and there are similar ones out there, of course) cites a survey from Donald McCabe of 18,000 anonymous students, and the article says the study reached conclusions like:

* “Thirty-eight percent of undergraduates say they engaged in one or more instances of “cut-and-paste” plagiarism in the past year.”


* “Forty percent of undergraduates admitted to lifting parts of books and other written sources for their papers.”

Pretty alarming stuff. But is it really that bad? Even this article notes that the “Researchers are careful not to blame the Internet for the cheating rate. If students did not have computers, they would find some other way to cheat, McCabe said.”

Another curious feature of this article is that it doesn’t provide very clear information about this McCabe study– as in when it took place, where the results were published, and so forth. When I tried to do a quick search for it on the Internet, I turned up empty. So in a curious way, it’s arguable that this article about plagiarism is a form of, well, plagiarism.

I just don’t think plagiarism is as big of a deal as a lot of professors seem to think it is; at least it hasn’t been as big of a deal for me. First off, even the McCabe study (if read from a different point of view) suggests that the trends in plagiarism have been pretty steady for at least 30 years– this according to this module I found for ideas about teaching basic writing written by a couple of folks I know and/or work with.

Second, there are even some folks who suggest that the occurrences plagiarism is actually declining. This article from the free part of the The Chronicle of Higher Education argues (basically) that online plagiarism isn’t as wide spread as been reported and “hyped” in the media.

Third and most important to me, plagiarism can be prevented or reduced easily enough by making assignments that are difficult to plagiarize. I mean, if an instructor gives a lazy writing assignment like “write an essay about Shakespeare,” they are most certainly going to get a lazy student cutting and pasting something from the Internet. If, on the other hand, an instructor gives an assignment that demands some evidence of pre-writing and examples of citations and if the assignment is tailored to the specific demands of the class, then plagiarism becomes just about as much work as actually doing the work. And when all is said and done, I think students would rather do their own work.

English 317 at U of M (aka "How to be Gay") Makes Right Wingers Freak Out

I swear, I’m not making this up:

As reported in the Ann Arbor News on August 21, 2003, Michigan state representative Jack Hoogendyk has put forth a bill in the legislature which would amend the state constitution requiring “public universities each year to submit class lists to the Legislature with detailed descriptions,” allow the legislature to stop the “teaching of any class at a publicly funded university,” and to allow the legislature to deny funding to universities that ignore this rule. What has brought about Hoogendyk’s wrath? Well, according to the Ann Arbor News, there is a list of courses, including those offered at EMU; but the real course that has Hoogendyk upset is called “How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.”

Obviously, there are all kinds of basic “freedom of speech” problems with this legislation. Hoogendyk’s plans are extreme, facisitic, and dictatorial. Anyone who believes in any sense of academic freedom needs to take this assult seriously and needs to vigorously fight such laws. As the Provost at U of M put it, academic freedom has been central to development of universities and we need to protect “the bedrock foundation of the free and open exchange of ideas.”

But beyond this basic response, Hoogendyk’s fight against this “gay course” strikes me as being pretty goofy. First off, one of the things that surprised me is that when I did a search for this story with Google’s news search, all of the hits I got (except for an article in something called Gay Financial Network) were from very conservative sources. It has to make me wonder what is it about homosexuality that works people on the right wing so much? What are they afraid of?

Second, obviously a lot of the controversy has to do with the title of the course. The professor teaching the course was unavailable for comment this summer, but he said in a previous story about the course (he got himself in the news a couple years ago for the same reasons) that the “initiation” of the course title isn’t to encourage people to become gay, but rather to talk about what it means to be gay. Really, it sounds like the course isn’t that different from a lot being offered across the country nowadays. Some of the material that students read/discuss includes things like Oscar Wilde, various movies and music, and such. I’m sure they’ll be watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Pretty routine stuff, really.

So what I’m saying is the professor teaching this course is trying to be intentionally provocative and even irritating to the right wing and attract attention to the course. I don’t know how I feel about that, frankly. I guess whenever you teach a course and you are trying to get students to take it, you need to title the course in a way that makes it sound interesting, perhaps even more interesting than it really is. But I also have to wonder if it is really necessary to give a course a title that is intentionally going to piss people off.

But the third thing is this: don’t legislators think, just for about fifteen minutes or so, before they go through the process and use valuable resources to propose such stupid laws? Is Hoogendyk so unfamilar with the way that universities and colleges work that he thinks it would even be possible to review such courses? The Ann Arbor News said there are 2,000 undergrad courses at the U of M. I believe there are 10 public universities in Michigan, so we’re talking about (give or take) 10,000 different courses. How could the legislature possibly review these courses? And I can tell you as a professor that some times (too many times, frankly), you don’t really know where a course is going to go until after the course is underway. So, what would they do about that? What would they do about one of my mundanely titled courses that turns controversial after a group of students decides to to a project on gay marriage or whatever.

Think about the logisitics of this for a few more minutes and it will make your head numb.

EMU PDU Web Site Up and Running

EMU’s Professors for a Democratic Union is a grass roots group of faculty at EMU that came about after the group of us resigned from our chapter’s union’s executive committee. I wrote about this a bit in my “old” official blog, but in the nutshell, I was elected as a member-at-large as part of a “slate” of candidates to change the way the union is run. We couldn’t do it and we were in danger of being taken down with the irresponsible folks running things, so we decided we’d better get out while we could.

Ultimately, the result was this group, which now has a web site at http://www.emu-pdu.org. We’re organizing with a policy platform, we’re putting forward a new slate of candidates (and this time, we’re going to run enough candidates to make sure we win this thing), and we’re pursing legal action as necessary. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the EMU faculty union web site isn’t working right now and hasn’t been for a couple of days.

Back from Black(out)

I posted a message about what the blackout of 2003 meant to me on my unofficial blog space, in case someone who comes across this space is actually interested. Interestingly, my office server, krause.emich.edu, only went down while the power was out. On the other hand, the university supported servers, including the one that host this site, were down until about 36 hours after the power came back on in Ypsilanti. Hmmm…

The Late Great Father Ong

I just learned from the techrhet mailing list that Father Walter J. Ong died yesterday at the age of 90. Here is a link to the obituary/press release released by the school where Ong worked, St. Louis’ Washington University. Ong’s Orality and Literacy was pretty important to me as a grad student, as it was for just about everyone else I know in the computers and writing community, and his writing still confuses, enlightens, and enrages students of mine every semester. Rest in peace.

A New Blog is Blogging

Or dawning or whatever. I’m in the process of switching my official blog space to a site supported with blogger. I had a heck of a time getting the archive function to work because of a series of things I wasn’t doing correctly, and I still need to add some more links and iron some other things out. But I think this is going to work.

Why blogger? Why not keep using what I was using which was supported by a product called flipsource? Well, while it did work for me reasonably well, it seemed a bit buggy and limiting to me. And when I ran into problems with it, my very limited knowledge of any sort of “real” computer language became crippling. I had some good stuff on that old blog, so I intend to maintain a link to it, like this one right here.

Why not try something more fancy, like moveable type? See above– while I know it isn’t rocket science, but I don’t have time right now to figure out how to moveable type works. The other reason is server space issues. The server I’m using for this blog (and the one I intend to slowly but surly move most of my web work to), http://people.emich.edu, doesn’t allow users like me to do cgi scripts and other fancy stuff for security and support reasons, or so I am told.

And once blogger started supporting sftp (also something that people.emich.edu requires), I figured it was time to make the switch. Blogger is powerful enough software for my moderately low-tech needs, and it is the software I have been using with my students. Hey, blogger is as common as Starbucks or McDonalds, but I like how their software works, especially after they updated it recently. And I like Starbucks coffee and McDonalds cheeseburgers too, especially if there is no good local alternative.