To be followed by “Academic Program Review: The Musical”

From Inside Higher Ed from last week, “Tenure, the Movie,” which aims to be a movie about the tenure process. Some people smarter than me and/or ones interested in taking this more seriously comment in the piece. I presume this will be a comedy, and I am smelling straight to video….

Recap of Friday’s plagiarism talks

I went to a spiel/mini-symposium/keynote speech deal over at the University of Michigan on Friday that was kind of a recap of a conference they had there about plagiarism last year, and also a celebration for the book Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. An interesting afternoon, and as an aside, it is one of those things that makes me think about living in the long shadow cast by the University of Michigan. Most people (including some of the out-of-towners who were at this thing) are surprised to learn that EMU is only about 10 miles away from U of M, though, as my visit to the pristine and beautiful Angell Hall reminded me for the millionth time, U of M and EMU are worlds apart. But the upside of living right next to U of M is events like this come up every once in a while, not to mention all the other cool stuff in Ann Arbor and on campus, the libraries, etc., etc.

Anyway, the speeches were from Linda “on the home team” Adler-Kassner, Rebecca Moore Howard, and Chris Anson. The three of them have a chapter is in this book, too. Linda AK’s talk was about and she pointed out something that I guess is kind of obvious once you start looking but something I had not thought of before: just about everything you see about plagiarism in the popular press seems to come from these people at That’s kind of like everything about the overblown dangers of drinking and driving coming out from Budweiser or something. It’s a nasty business to be sure, but you’ve got to hand it to John Barrie and these other people: they’ve been incredibly able to convince folks that a) plagiarism is this horrific plague on the educational process, and b) is the solution. And they’ve done all this with essentially no expertise on the matter.

Rebecca Howard’s talk was mostly about a research project she’s working on called “The Engaged Reading Project,” which is a fairly complicated and detailed analysis of how students are using/misusing sources. One of the things she pointed out as part of her talk was some of the ways in which doesn’t work when it comes to “catching” things less than 40-some-odd characters, and what Turnitin really is is a “copy detection” system, which is not the same thing as plagiarism. I appreciated this because while all of the ethical and other problems with plagiarism detection schemes are of course important, it frankly annoys me to no end that these people are making millions of dollars off of a product that fosters bad teaching and, just to top it off, it doesn’t really work that well.

Anyway, most of what Howard did was talk about how her research is trying to approach the problem from the opposite direction, to find out what it is that students are doing with their sources, etc. I think a lot of what she was talking about is that students who are misusing sources and doing a sort of “patch writing” are just not that engaged in the reading and the assignment. So in that sense, plagiarism (but not really plagiarism, more like not using sources well and/or not according to the rules) really is a learning problem and not a policing problem.

Chris Anson talked about a couple of examples of plagiarism– or not really plagiarism so much as “borrowed writing”– that occur all the time in the “real world.” One was in the Army, where it is (apparently) common for officers to copy each others’ memos without attribution in order to relay a message to the troops. Mike at vitia had a series of posts which start here about this in November that sort of address this kind of thing. But for me the more interesting example was when he was talking about how there’s all this language on the web that people “borrow” from each other all the time. The example Anson had that stuck with me was the kind of language that a number of different web sites use about how to drive in the snow and ice. For example, if you do a Google search for these two sentences–

Use your brakes cautiously. Abrupt braking can cause brake lock-up and cause you to lose steering control.

— (as I did if you follow the link), you’ll see lots of web sites use either the exact language or something pretty close to it in describing icy driving. Now, is this plagiarism? Hell if I know. I mean, it seems to me there are only so many ways you can uniquely word something like “use your brakes cautiously,” which maybe gets into some territory about what counts as “common knowledge” of something that doesn’t need to be cited, or some kind of language that cannot be copyrighted or owned per se, like most recipes.

At the end of the day, and I think this was Linda’s main point, “plagiarism” is a problem that really is a stand-in for lots of other problems and fears we have about the (mis)education of youth. Plagiarism is a hot topic again as a result of technology, but is it actually a “problem” because students can so easily just “copy and paste” stuff from the web, or is it really a problem because this technology throws such an enormous wrench into concepts of ownership, knowledge, access, collaboration, connections, etc. It’d be interesting to find out if there were previous plagiarism scares with the development of previous technologies, like the dangers of the typewriter making writing so much easier to copy.

Anyway, great and thoughtful stuff. I bought the book and I hope to use it a bit next year when I teach about plagiarism again in 516.

Self Publishing with Word Clay

I found this via a Facebook ad: Word Clay, a self publishing service with a pretty snazzy-looking interface. And I like the name, Word Clay.

Of course, vanity press er, self published books are worth pretty much diddly-squat in academia and such, but this site and my recent trip to the new Borders (which features a sort of self publishing station in the techno-geek area) makes me wonder: has some marketing study decided that self publishing is the next big thing in the age of the Internets?

Turnitin’s less than cool tactics (and another reason to read those notes sent home from school)

From the blog Framed comes this entry, “Don’t Turnitin: Annotated Bibliography:”

Late last year, the company (Turnitin) attempted to induce high school students–minors, mostly–to assent to a new and draconian user agreement by clicking through a document that appeared when one logged in to Turnitin. Turnitin attempted to induce students to agree to its terms without even notifying the school district or the parents of children in the school. This step caused the school to temporarily suspend the service.

Now, however, the school has sent home a form for parents to sign authorizing their children to click through and assent to the Turnitin contract. Unfortunately, the school did not tell parents anything about the content of the agreement they were supposed to authorize their children to assent to.

The blogger in question, James Trumm, also includes a handy bibliography that sums up the problems of Turnitin. But these tactics are pretty dang low if you ask me.

Remembering Joseph Williams

I heard via the WPA-L mailing list that Joseph Williams, the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (and a series of textbooks based on this) passed away over the weekend. In never knew the man, but the book is one I’ve been using for a number of years in English 328, the undergraduate course I teach very frequently here. It’s just an excellent book, probably the best academic book I know about how to “write well” in an academic/clear/correct sort of way. Besides just offering really solid advice, I like it because it’s not even remotely simple and because it runs circles around Strunk and White’s famous little book. And that was his purpose, too. Right there on page one, Williams begins with a less than veiled dig at S&W’s “do and don’t” list of a book:

This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to “Omit Needless Words” or “Be Clear.” Telling me to “Be clear” is like telling me to “Hit the ball squarely.” I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.

Oh, Snap! Right freakin’ on, Prof. Williams, right on.

And that’s just what he does in 200 rich (and admittedly sometimes difficult) pages, wrapping up in a “grammar” chapter where, to explain supposedly “incorrect” uses of English (e.g., never begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” use “between” with two, “among” with more, split infinitives, etc.), he uses examples from other grammar books and the like where they break the rules. Right on again.

Anyway, I don’t know a whole lot about the man beyond this (and a few other) books and a few posts to the WPA-L mailing list. But if his attitude and wit is anywhere close to what it is in this book, I’ll bet he was a fun guy to know. He apparently died in his sleep from (as of yet) unknown causes, which I think is the way that most of us would like to go out of this world. So Joe, rest in peace, and thanks for helping out both me and my students (or is that my students and I?) learn a lot more about writing, style, clarity, and grace.

Just what are those Wikipedia people talking about?

Alex Halavais and Derek Lackaff have an article out that seems relevant in light of recent comments and recent teaching: “An Analysis of Topical Coverage in Wikipedia.” Here’s the abstract:

Many have questioned the reliability and accuracy of Wikipedia. Here a different issue, but one closely related: how broad is the coverage of Wikipedia? Differences in the interests and attention of Wikipedia’s editors mean that some areas, in the traditional sciences, for example, are better covered than others. Two approaches to measuring this coverage are presented. The first maps the distribution of topics on Wikipedia to the distribution of books published. The second compares the distribution of topics in three established, field-specific academic encyclopedias to the articles found in Wikipedia. Unlike the top-down construction of traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia’s topical coverage is driven by the interests of its users, and as a result, the reliability and completeness of Wikipedia is likely to be different depending on the subject-area of the article.

This sounds pretty good albeit not that surprising.

Isn’t “Open Source” academic publishing kind of a moot point?

As I finish up sorting through my RSS feed, I have to note posts from Alex, Jeff, and (via Jeff) Anne regarding Dana Boyd’s call for academics to boycott closed/”locked down” journals. It’s all kind of interesting in an, um, academic way; but is this dust-up really all that relevant?

Boyd seems to be kinda steamed because her article in the journal Convergence is not just “out there” on the Internets for one and all to grab for free/as an open source document. Without getting into the pros and cons of all this (though I think I agree with the general sentiment of folks I link to above, that while open source is a good idea, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to boycott journals that haven’t gone that route), I guess I am just having a hard time getting too excited one way or the other about this. Yes, I can’t get Boyd’s article directly from the Internets. But we also have this old-timey academic technology called “the library,” and from there, I am sure I will be able to access this article, either electronically or, if EMU doesn’t subscribe to Convergence, via inter-library loan. The last time I got an article via interlibrary loan, they emailed it to me as a PDF. So while this might not be as open and as easy if it were “just there” on the web and while the EMU library probably doesn’t do this for people coming in off the street (though they might, actually), it’s still pretty quick and open and accessible if you ask me.

One of the things that most of these (kind of, but not really) closed access journals get you is paper, and paper, as I discuss in this section of version 2.0 of my article “Where Do I List This on My CV?” can matter. Granted, these closed (but again, not really) journals don’t have the reach of stuff that’s just up on the ‘net; on the other hand, paper doesn’t just disappear, which is something I experienced with the first version of this piece.

Besides, if Boyd (or anyone else) wants to put up an academic article that they wrote up on the web, well, go ahead. Anne makes a point of saying that she has written this into contracts for things that she’s published. That’s probably the legal and proper way of doing things, but I don’t think that’s even necessary. As I wrote in this article (also in the section I quote above), plenty of scholars in my field just put things up on the web– Carolyn Miller, Michael Day, most of the people in my blogroll, etc. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I intend to make links to PDF versions of stuff I published that came out in closed journals available under the “Scholarship/CV” tab. If some academic publisher wants to email me and tell me to take it down, then I will. But really, is that going to happen?

The opposite of what I think

I’ve got to get a move-on here because I’ve got to clean up after our faux Mardi Gras party we had last night (pictures and a post about that later). But I wanted to post something about the last couple weeks of wiki-centric stuff around here, culminating in a couple lectures featuring Larry Sanger and Marshall Poe.

Just to back up a bit:

Marshall Poe is the McAndless visiting scholar at EMU this year. This is an endowment that was set up many years ago to bring in various visiting professors for a term; a couple years ago, this is how we got Scott McCloud to be on campus and do so much stuff with our classes. Poe’s approach has been to bring in others, presumably the people that he worked with/interviewed for his forthcoming book on Wikipedia, to come in and give talks and such. There are a couple more scheduled through the term.

This week, it was Sanger, who spoke along with Poe Thursday night and Friday morning at this little symposium thing we had here. Basically, Sanger spoke mostly about his new project, Citizendium, which he sees as a sort of anecdote to the anarchy and chaos of Wikipedia, a place where articles are written by people who use their real names and are then vetted by real experts, and a place where everyone has discussions in professional and polite tones.

I have to say there are few things that Sanger said that I agree with.

One of the things that framed my own preconceived notions about Sanger was Poe’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Hive,” which is a history of Wikipedia. In the story, Sanger is depicted as a guy who came up with much of what was Wikipedia (at least in the early days), who was victimized by/a participant in some ugly flame-wars, and who was more or less tossed out of the Wikipedia universe just as it started taking off. So I knew that he had reasons to be bitter and defensive. But the extent to which this came across in his two speeches was rather striking. Sanger seems like a pretty angry guy.

I don’t think Wikipedia (or YouTube or Digg, both of which Sanger and Poe mentioned frequently) are as chaotic and lawless as they suggest, and it seems to me that model of many eyeballs has served Wikipedia surprisingly well in terms of it accuracy. Citizendium (and btw, an unsolicited piece of advice: change the name to something that folks can easily pronounce) aims to be a better online encyclopedia, but even if that were possible, why? What’s the goal? All encyclopedias– Britannica, Wikipedia, Citizendium– are, by definition, summaries which are inevitably “watered down,” which frequently gloss over controversial details, and which are often enough wrong. I encourage my students to use Wikipedia as a place to get started, though I don’t allow them to reference it as a source in an academic research project. But I wouldn’t allow them to reference Britannica or Citizendium either. So even if Sanger is making a better mousetrap/encyclopedia (and that’s an “if,” of course), it’s difficult for me to understand the point.

In the end, I think what was most interesting about Sanger’s speeches and point of view is that it is so very very different from mine and, as far as I can tell, most of my colleagues. Sanger is a Philosopher with a capital P and out of the same mold as Plato. He’s an academic (of a sort) who, based on his training and world view, has no problem at all with an epistemology that assumes Neutrality is possible, that Knowledge is “out there” and, that the goal of philosophy is to objectively approach and understand that Knowledge. The best way to get to that Knowledge is to ask a Philosopher, which is someone who has Wisdom (and, in these days, Credentials) and can thus provide the answer.

Rhetoric has traditionally been described as the opposite of Philosophy, and given that Sanger and I (and probably most of my colleagues in the English department) begin with completely different world views about what (K)knowledge is and how we get there, I just don’t get where he’s coming from at all. Sanger would probably feel the same way about me.

At some point on Thursday night, Sanger made one of those “off-the-cuff” comments that really has stuck with me: he said he imagined Citizendium as being kind of like those old county fairs, where article writers would be like the farmers presenting their wares and the academic experts would be like the judges picking the winners. Well, this– and the call for politeness and decorum and order that came up again and again– just struck me as nostalgia. And like most things that are based on nostalgia– the genre of the western, for example– it is a longing for a more perfect past that never actually existed in the first place. In that sense, I think that Citizendium is a beautiful and futile dream.