Let’s Plagiarize!

I’m stealing an idea from The Happy Tutor here (though I can’t find the comment where he originally suggested it — help me with the cite, Phil?), and I hope it might make for a nice introduction to our first-year writing documented essay / research paper assignment.

Some background: as many writing teachers know, the documented essay on the topic of the student’s choosing (i.e., figure out what you want to write about, research it at the library, and support your argument with library sources) is often the easiest essay to plagiarize. In some syllabi, such a writing assignment is often placed unfortunately close to midterm exams, or — worse yet — at the end of the semester, offering stressed and desperate students yet more incentive to find ways to minimize their work. And yet it’s a genre that students need to learn if they’re to succeed academically.

Here’s one way to start. I ask students to read a couple brief sets of articles from a variety of rhetorical perspectives on a topic of of interest — topics this semester were school violence and standardized assessment — and talk about them as (Burkean) conversations. So they juxtapose Charlton Heston’s Denver NRA address with Gloria Steinem’s “Supremacy Crimes” with an article from an abnormal psychology journal on school violence in the context of Columbine, and evaluate the stances and rhetorical strategies of the articles; what gets said, who says it, and what’s not said. Then, the mission I ask them to undertake is to enter a conversation of their choosing, and to use library research to productively extend that conversation. Discussion of possible topics and angles follows, along with students’ preliminary writing charting the parameters of the already-existing discourse on the topic.

Here’s where it gets fun: after students’ small groups put some thoughts up on the board, we read through the Writing Program’s Statement on Plagiarism out loud, and discuss it, making sure everything’s clear about the policy.

And then I hold a plagiarism contest. I give students exactly five minutes to plagiarize their chosen topics as a wholly stolen essay using Google. (Yes, this is a computer lab assignment, but easily transferred to homework.) The assignment works like this: you’ve got five minutes to steal the first draft of your essay. Using Google, find and steal the three URLs (or, if you’re good, more) and copy and paste the relevant section of the document after the URL. Paste them all together into something that looks like a semi-logical sequence. Save your plagiarized first draft when I call time. For the last portion of class, perhaps twenty minutes or so, I ask students to massage what they plagiarized into semi-coherent essays, though those essays are obviously still not of their own composition.

In the following day’s class, I’ll ask them to revisit their pseudo-plagiarized texts, compose statements of how their own perspectives go beyond that of the texts, and work on using their own ideas and examples as transitions between the portions of supposed plagiarism, as well as putting together subordinating and connecting conjunctions for quotations. And from that, they’ve got the beginnings of an essay, as soon as they put in the citations, from which we’ll begin a discussion of academic originality.

What do you think?

What happens if you demand that students do the work of plagiarism up front, and then self-consciously foreground it?

Let’s Plagiarize!

15 thoughts on “Let’s Plagiarize!

  • November 1, 2005 at 7:43 am

    believe it or not, I ‘ve been thinking along the same lines–how to devise an assignment where plagiarizing deliberately is part of the plan. I think that this is great–you’re beginning with the “plagiarized” text and then working towards a coherent essay. It brings the concept down to a common sense, workable level, rather than leaving it in a place of mystification. Brilliant, as the Guiness Beer ads would say.

  • November 1, 2005 at 8:04 am

    Please consider bringing in a librarian on this game. Librarians know the best sources to plagiarize, after all. 🙂

  • November 1, 2005 at 6:53 pm

    Nice. I used to do the same kind of thing with those damn logical fallacies–one of my first assignments for an argument unit was to write a short essay using as many of the fallacies as they could fit into a short space. Same kind of strategy–get them to see that the “wrong” thing to do lives on the same spectrum as the “right” things, and then talk about (a) how little they actually differ from one another and (b) what are the strategies that make that difference…

  • November 2, 2005 at 4:04 am

    One of the topics at the Serious Games Summit I just attended in DC was the concept of cheating in game. Do gamers only cheat in games when they are bored, so that in-game cheating is a sign of a poorly designed educational experience? Is the game the whole point of the experience, or is it learning? If the student uses a cheat sheet while playing the game, aren’t they still completing the in-game tasks? If the game motivates the learner to refer to sources, and those sources help the learner complete the objectives, isn’t that fine?

    The answer, of course, depends on what you’re assessing.

    Your exercise seems brilliantly designed to demonstrate that you’re aware that it takes little time or energy to plagiarize a paper of the internet, and if you get them to discuss what the key elements are in a cut-and-paste Google hack job, that will at the very least let a student who might be tempted by plagiarism to be exposed to the fact that the tell-tale evidence of plagiarism is obvious to those who are trained to look for it. Not only will your students be trained, but they will train you!

    I have a similar “create a horrible website” exercise, that follows along the same lines. I hadn’t thought of adapting that idea to composition.

  • November 2, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    I like this a lot, Mike. Almost (but not quite) makes me wish I were still teaching. I will, however, pass it on to my lovely better half, who has to face this stuff frequently in her accelerated-pace-adult-working-students-who-have-to-take-humanities-classes teaching.

  • November 2, 2005 at 9:41 pm

    Thanks, Mike, for taking up the idea and making it real. How do students respond? To they feel transgressive and sly? Exhilerated? Seems to me you are teaching a valuable skill. Research is recycling and going beyond prior work. What else is the format for doing a dissertation? It just comes down to giving others credit for what they have done. And thank you for the link.

    My wife teaches English composition in high school, and she may adopt this as an assignment too.

  • November 4, 2005 at 12:14 am

    Thanks, all, for the feedback. I’ve posted a follow-up describing in more detail how it all worked — and, I gotta say, it all worked fairly well. Collin, Dennis, I’m very much with both of you on the thoughts you offer about the lines between learning the assignment and doing the assignment, and on the self-awareness that it takes to follow certain conventions, and the way it came out this time is the most comfortable I’ve felt with it yet. And, Tutor, there was a bit of transgressive glee, but I hope as well an awareness of the recycling and going-beyond moment to which you point.

  • November 4, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Hi Mike,
    I LOVE this. I am wondering also if part of what you do afterwards is deal with the nature of the googled sources. It’s not just that students are ripping off online sources, but that they don’t always have the critical approach to what google spits out. OTOH, there’s some darned fine stuff on google if they do choose and then use it appropriately.

    I see that your follow-up involves library work. But do you address the nature of the sources plagiarized in the first step as being potentially part of the problem?

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • November 4, 2005 at 9:29 pm

    Hey, VC, thanks. As I incompletely hinted here, students made some judgments about the sorts of sources the sample student essay cited, so yes there was some evaluation going on, and a lot of it came out in classroom discussion as well in terms of judging the appropriatness of certain sources for the audience addressed. But, yes, it’s definitely important, and we’ll be following up on the homework questions about the nature of sources next week.

  • November 14, 2005 at 9:45 pm

    That’s a great idea. I wish someone had tried that with my college English classes. I was unfamiliar with the concept of plagiarism before attending university (just by virtue of going to school in Pakistan where we’re encouraged to produce work by copying it from places), and something like this would have been incredibly useful. You’re particularly right about how students tend to plagiarise not because they’re incapable of doing the work, but because they’re stressed out and want to produce everything on time, as well as they possibly can, even if that means appropriating what has been done by other people. Personally, I blame the focus on grades and achievement over actual learning (wasn’t that nice and overly simplistic?).

  • December 1, 2005 at 9:41 pm

    I’ve done something along these lines at the sentence level, first encouraging students to appropriate language from source texts and then leading them to understand the text by learning how to write about it without appropriating language. I love the idea of doing this on the more global scale of whole chunks of text.

  • December 4, 2005 at 10:07 pm

    I like the assignment mike. I think I’ll give it a try, though we are all but done for the year and I’ll probably forget before it’s time. Still, I’m on a quater system, so I’ll have at least two times to give it a go, or two times to forget to do it because I’m swamped. Cheers!


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  • April 9, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    I like this idea and am passing it on.

    I do a similar exercise with beginning academic writers in which I have them write a paper about Cheating – taking whatever tack they like. I read them first a personl paper in which I defend cheating (in computerized card games, in my case). It helps open the discussion about why cheating occurs.

    Most student scheat out of desperation or fear – being honest about that helps us to change it.

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