Monthly Archives: September 2006

The Plagiarist as Pokémon

pokemon beastie The ongoing debate surrounding TurnItIn and other plagiarism detection services (PDSs) has taken some interesting turns. Sharon Gerald has smart insights and suggestions about how teachers might deploy such services in their classrooms, to which I can only say: go, read, now. But I’m particularly interested when Clancy suggests that “the anti-PDS arguments… don’t address the underlying principles enough,” and I agree with her that we need to talk about those underlying principles more — but those principles are also why I disagree with the way she casts the debate. So, to sort this out (and I’m sure she’ll correct me if I’m misrepresenting her position), for Clancy the foundational question seems to be: if plagiarism must be detected in order to prevent it, how do we construct the work of the composition course in order to facilitate that detection and prevention?

pokemon beastie In Clancy’s words, “What exactly do you do at the moment of encounter with that paper that you’re 99.9% sure is plagiarized?” According to Clancy, in the past, such certainty came from the “intuition” of professors. First point of disagreement: it’s not “intuition” at all; it’s the instructor’s familiarity with previous drafts and strong engagement with the students’ style, which — in my experience — develops very early in the FYC semester. In other words, what Clancy calls “intuition” is a product of the way the contemporary composition course is constructed (or, OK, at least my composition course). So in that sense, the moment of detection has already happened, by virtue of the way we teach. It sounds to me like Clancy’s actually asking for verification, for which she offers five methods, four of which I use: Googling, talking to the student, requiring a paper trail, and requiring multiple drafts. (I agree that the ethics interview and “originality report” are obnoxiously didactic and sanctimonious.) Clancy says talking to the student can make the student angry, to which I’d reply: not necessarily, especially if you say to the student something like, “I notice your style and tone changed markedly in this paper. Can you tell me about your writerly decisions regarding audience? What sources and positions are you drawing from here?”

pokemon beastie More confusing to me is Clancy’s assertion that asking students to show their “paper trails” — their notes as well as their drafts — fosters an attitude that students are guilty until proven innocent. I don’t see how this can be so: making those trails visible and helping students to see that essays don’t spring fully formed from the foreheads of their authors is, for me, part of the processual work of the composition classroom. But then I see what Clancy’s saying: she’s assuming that showing the paper trail is done in service of plagiarism detection. It’s a similar case with Clancy’s assertion about submitting multiple drafts and “sources to compare the drafts to” in order to detect plagiarism: if one understands, rather, that writing gets produced in class, that the work of the writing class is writing, then those drafts are produced as an organic function of the course, as in-class material product (and, OK, evidence) of its valuable intellectual labor. And the instructor doesn’t have to “micromanage” at all — my students produce generative writing in class, respond to one another and revise, and so when I see the final document with all the evidence of textual work that preceded it, I spend the most time with their one-page reflective letters where they describe to me what changed and what didn’t, where they got stuck and un-stuck, what strategies they used, and why. Ultimately, I think Clancy runs into trouble when she sees that sloppy, recursive writerly process as serving plagiarism detection and prevention, rather than seeing the avoidance of plagiarism emerging organically from the processes that good writers use.

pokemon beastie And that perspectival shift is precisely my problem with TurnItIn: the enactment of an argument about how to best use PDSs performs an epistemological shift that causes us to privilege plagiarism prevention as the overriding goal, and to see all other aspects of composing as serving that end. TurnItIn privileges the appropriative moment and positions plagiarizers as Pokémon, telling composition teachers, “Gotta catch ‘em all!” So criminalized, they must all be caught and punished. Of course, this language (consider Clancy’s use of “burden of proof”) is perfectly in line with the popular media rhetoric on plagiarism pointed out by Rebecca Moore Howard; language that constructs plagiarism as the ultimate “deadly sin” punishable by the “academic death penalty.” Such a language of criminality and the privileging of property rights obscures the way that writers work, cite, collaborate, argue, and respond to one another. But see, there are two impulses in Pokémon: the accumulative impulse (“Gotta catch ‘em all!”) but also the give-and-take engagement of playing one card against another, one Pokémon against another, the pleasure in the way that texts and writers engage another. My problems with TurnItIn are that the ideological blinkers it offers show us only one value for writing — and, further, that it indicates to students that it’s perfectly acceptable for one party to appropriate that value while another party is criminalized for performing the same appropriation.

pokemon beastie I’ll whisper here my dark and unspeakable secret: dear reader, I won’t lose sleep if I fail to catch and punish every single wicked, evil plagiarist. Sure, I notice the odd changes of voice and style, and every time I’ve noticed such shifts (every semester save one since 1998), I’ve confirmed that there was indeed a problem, and followed up on it. But if The Doomful Specter of Academic Plagiarism called me before him to pass judgment upon my pedagogy and told me that I’d been found wanting — told me that a student had, heaven forbid, Gotten Over — I’d be like, “Well, OK. So?” Does that in some way invalidate my entire pedagogy? Does that show what a jacked-up terrible instructor I am? Does that show that said student learned nothing from the course and thereby offer a reason why we must use machines to hunt down and mercilessly exterminate the relentlessly proliferative scourge of plagiarism committed by the lazy and amoral students populating our courses?

pokemon beastie Well, here’s a thought. A while back, writing teachers were cheered by the arrival of a technological solution to the relentlessly proliferative scourge of spelling errors committed by the lazy and illiterate students populating their courses. Today, there’s a substantial body of empirical evidence pointing to the radical increase in homonym and wrong word errors in student writing following the rise in popularity of spelling checkers in word processing applications. So tell me: what kind of increase in ethical errors might we imagine seeing in student writing, if we were to pass along to machines the apparently overly onerous task of actually paying attention to how our students write?

Monuments

In some ways, I may have it easier than instructors at other institutions when it comes to the question of plagiarism: here, our plagiarism policy is graven in stone.

Literally.

Here, plagiarism as a violation of the honor code becomes a matter of who one is, a performance of identity, as the intersection of an economic interaction (the appropriation of someone else’s written labor) with the affectual response to experience (that dreadful desperate sensation of feeling overwhelmed by work combined with the moral nausea at thinking of betraying ideals).

Which is why I’m so interested that my hometown newspaper has picked up the recent and ongoing discussion of how appropriate technological and profit-based responses are to such matters. One wishes those who have picked up the Post story or responded to its branches in other venues (I won’t link to the ugly, bigoted, redneck parochial crap that the Wichita Eagle allows to remain on its site) might have first read Rebecca Moore Howard’s insightful and compelling rhetorical analyses of our ongoing discussion of plagiarism. One wishes those who have picked up the Post story might have consulted folks with some expertise on the topic of writing, writing instruction, and plagiarism — but of course, as Howard points out, the issue of plagiarism is all too easily argumentatively reduced to judgments of instructors good versus students bad, students steal versus scholars borrow, neutral technology versus ethical decisions.

Take, for example, Platypus Matt’s repeated assertions in the Kairosnews threads (I know Matt, and I like Matt, and I figure he knows that here I’m not dissing but disagreeing) that “the victim” in cases of plagiarism is “the teacher.” Student bad, teacher good, innocence violated by rapacity. But how is the teacher “the victim” of plagiarism? How has the teacher lost or been injured? Matt quite explicitly dismisses the notion of the value of student work, and instead clearly constructs plagiarism as a concern of authority and pride: the student pulled one over on the teacher. The only way in which I could agree with such a perspective would be by asserting that I expect to always be in a position of knowledge and experience superior to that of my students — and that’s an assertion I’ll never make. Matt’s arguments seem to me to evacuate student writing of its implicit value as work.

Yet, at the same time, I’m very much inclined to agree with Matt’s strong critique of the discursive equation of writing to property. Writing isn’t scarce and solely owned intellectual capital, as Matt rightly points out: it’s in fact, a complicated amalgam of productive and distributive processes. Writing is produced by a complex interaction of social relations, labor, and technology; so, too, do those same factors of technology, labor, and social relations interact in profoundly complex ways to distribute writing. In both the production and the distribution of writing, we see information as necessarily constructed by human labor, and therein lies our concern with its appropriation.

The problem that I see is that TurnItIn.com performs precisely that same appropriation while simultaneously uglifying our relationships with our students. TurnItIn.com is an inherently suspicious technology of surveillance, sending to our students the message that none of them are sufficiently trustworthy in our eyes. I suppose I could be accused of having the luxury of that big stone monument and everything that goes along with it to rest my indulgence upon — but I’ve felt the same at other institutions, as well. More importantly, though, TurnItIn.com appropriates the value of student writing for the sake of its own profits, while at the same time criminalizing students for the very same practice. In other words, TurnItIn.com stands as a monument of staggering hypocrisy — and that’s not a monument I’m going to erect in my classroom.

Cliché in the Classroom

It’s always the one section that gets me. This semester, as with any semester, the students on their own have their idiosyncratically varying degrees of earnestness, wittiness, cynicism, engagement, playfulness, and what-have-you — but I’ve got one FYC section in particular that, when you get them together in the classroom, just hits that critical mass and they play off one another and crack wise all class long. And they clearly know I like it — this is the same section that called my bluff on the morse code thing — so there’s a comedic undercurrent just waiting to bubble over from the moment class starts.

Today, we were doing peer editing, with a little added mini-lesson at the start of class about proofreading for cliché. I made the usual points about cliché often serving as an act of linguistic belonging, as not-necessarily-empty signification of shared values and vocabulary, and so as necessarily contextual, but much of the purpose was to engage with some of the tired Army phrases they’ve been relying upon to excess: “squared away,” “drive to succeed,” “dedicated leader of character,” “drive on,” “rise to the challenge,” and of course “hooah” stand as prominent examples. We came up with some obvious examples of clichés from celebrities and politicians — “That’s hot,” “Stay the course” — and then I asked for volunteers to offer some of their own.

Silence.

Teacherly coaxing on my part.

Continued silence.

More coaxing. More silence. Expression of mild frustration on my part. Finally, from me: “C’mon. What’s wrong? Can’t you come up with anything?”

First cadet: “I think the cat’s got their tongue, sir.”

Second cadet: “I agree, sir. You’re kinda opening up a whole big can of worms here.”

I mean, they’re good. And they kept it up, too, lading the ongoing discussion with all sorts of clichés, Army and otherwise. I think part of the point I was supposed to get was an indication of resistance; of them saying, in effect, “Look, Mr. Civilian Professor, we’ve just spent three months acclimating to this discourse community and learning its terms of value, and now you want to come in and mess with that?” I’m imagining some sort of archetypal version of the student hypothesized in David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” come to life, striding off the page and flipping all of academia two raised middle fingers.

Responding to Error

When one writes, revises, and edits, attention to error comes last. Is that a truth upon which today’s writing teachers might agree?

Some of my new colleagues have expressed surprise when I’ve asserted that error comes last. They’ve been startled by my revelation that I carefully avoid marking problems with spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage when I respond to early drafts. They assert that students’ sloppy inattention to writing’s mechanical concerns will alienate readers far more quickly than problematic logic or infelicitous organization — and on that point, they’re probably right.

But I argue that mechanics come last as a matter of writerly efficiency: it makes no sense to correct every instance of the passive voice in a thesis paragraph when the logic of that thesis paragraph needs to be overhauled anyway. Students have a limited amount of time to devote to their assignments (even moreso in the case of my overscheduled cadets, who start their days at 5:20 in the morning), and if given a choice between correcting a comma splice and reworking an example for specificity, they’ll choose the simpler task.

Some folks, however, aren’t interested in thinking about writerly efficiency. Errors, as in Ben Yagoda’s obnoxious September 8 Chronicle piece, are “Deadly Sins” that demonstrate to some teachers the vile and debased nature of their students’ lazy and corrupt writerly souls. When Yagoda attempts to establish his ethos by declaring that he has “been teaching college writing since 1992,” I’m saddened that so many students have been subjected since 1992 to the instruction of someone who clearly has not even a passing acquaintance with composition’s scholarship on error.

I’d be curious to hear how Yagoda might respond to the now-canonical Joseph Williams article on “The Phenomenology of Error” (CCC 32.2, May 1981), Richard Haswell’s “Minimal Marking” (CE 45.6, October 1983), or Connors and Lunsford’s “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing” (CCC 39.4, December 1988). I’ve shared these pieces of scholarship and their range of perspectives with my new colleagues, and there’s been some interesting discussion. And at my new institution, we’re blessed with an abundance of technological resources, so this recent Crooked Timber post by Harry Brighouse caught my eye.

Brighouse declares his love for a Microsoft Word feature that I absolutely loathe: the green underlines of the grammar checker. For me, Word’s grammar checker is so often wrong that I’ve turned it off, and in the past I’ve also urged students to turn it off when they’re doing early-draft writing because of the anxiety effect: how can I effectively and efficiently generate ideas when I’m worrying about whether my next sentence will get a little green underline? My other reason for turning off the grammar checker is that it’s a device to which students can turn in the final stages of writing that seems like a nice subsitute for putting in the effort of proofreading and copyediting: if the machine will do it for you, why learn to do it yourself? (There’s some sort of corollary here in the apparent increase of homonym errors that have followed the introduction of the spell-checker.)

How do you deal with error? Do you like the grammar checker? And what do you wish your colleagues knew about error?

Declamation and the Digital

In Lester Faigley’s “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal” (CE October 1986, 527-542), this analogy stopped me:

In organizations where computer technologies have become commonplace, people have taken advantage of opportunities for horizontal communication on topics of their choice through computer ‘bulletin boards,’ which function like radio call-in programs. (538, emphasis mine)

It’s an early metaphor, certainly, and a notion that’s been addressed in various ways in our nascent literature about writing and blogging. But I love the shift there, the look to older technologies, and the way we understand those older technologies today as the domain of an apoplectic Rush Limbaugh or a low-key Tom Ashbrook. (No offense, Tom: I like your show a lot. But NPR, as the smart counter to Rush, sometimes tries too hard to make its programming chamomile-tea mellow and inoffensive.) Usenet as late-night call-ins from the cranks and tin-foil hat crowd.

Blogs, of course, have been widely represented as the same, and I hope we’re past that now. But what about the aspect of declamation? What about the late-night crank phone call to the radio station where the listener offers a half-hour raving systematization of gray aliens, the Zionist Occupational Government, black helicopters, man-hating bra-burning feminists, the United Nations, and the general incompetence of teachers of writing?

What happens if we understand those as instances of Seneca the Elder’s suasoriae and controversiae in the context of their relation to the hegemonic force of mainstream discourse? As, in fact, counterhegemonic uses of genre that in their deployment of genre serve to either (1) indict the way that discourse functions under an oppressive regime or (2) praise the operation of discourse under that regime, depending on who’s reading.

No answers. But I keep coming back to that Faigley quote as a moment of interesting rupture. Its juxtaposition of qualities and modes.

Accepted

Looks like I’ll be in NYC this spring, and among fine company, judging by the rhet-comp blogosphere’s activity today. I submitted an individual CCCC proposal for the first time since 2000, and I’ve been placed into a panel titled “Capitalism, Commodification, and Consumerism,” so I’m definitely eager to see who I’ll be presenting with. And happy and grateful, as always, to have the opportunity to share what I’m working on.

My presentation’s current title is “Identity as Economic Activity: Representing Class from the Wealth of Nations to the Wealth of Networks.” I’m planning to do things differently this year: I’ll try to write it as a journal article first, and then condense it down to presentation length in order to (I hope) get some helpful feedback before sending it out.

Abstract follows, for those who might be interested.

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A Quick Comp Primer

Let’s play a game. This is kind of an extension of my question about who would be composition’s Hank Williams a while back, and I hope you’ll help me out: it’s related to a nascent project I’m thinking about working on, but I’m also just curious to see what folks say.

Imagine you’re teaching a section of composition, but you’ve got no grounding whatsoever in composition theory or pedagogy. You’ve got very limited time — classes start in, say, three days — but you want to be the best teacher you can. So you go to your three wise, well-read composition colleagues, and you ask: “What’s the single most important issue I need to think about in my teaching, and what three article-length pieces of composition scholarship are most helpfully representative of the range of current thought on that issue?”

What do your wise, well-read composition colleagues — one of them, or all three — say?

[Naturally, there'll be conflict and argument among the three, and that's kinda the point. In effect, this is a poll asking for a hyper-condensed and updated version of a bibliographic collection like Tate et al.'s recent Guide, or -- well, OK -- of Bedford. For example, one colleague might say, "Error -- and you need to read Joseph Williams's 'Phenomenology,' David Bartholomae's 'The Study of Error,' and Andrea Lunsford's 'Cognitive Development.'" To which another colleague might groan and roll her eyes and say, "No, it's plagiarism -- and you need to read Rebecca Moore Howard's 'Sexuality, Textuality,' Margaret Price's 'Beyond Gotcha!,' and Kelly Ritter's 'Buying In, Selling Short.'" You get the idea.]

New Contact Info

I’ve finally had to delete the old email address associated with this site (mike at this domain) because of unmanageable amounts of spam. To contact me, please either look me up on the usma.edu English department web site, or send me a message at my gmail.com address, which is “preterite” and then the @ and the rest. (Yes, I like Pynchon.)

Update: In going through my harvested comment spam, I’ve seen a recent spamming strategy that may or may not be old news to other folks. Check out, for example, the spam-farm that the Wayne State Applied Genomics Technology Center site has become, by entering the URL for one of their member pages — http://agtc.wayne.edu/agtc/Members/bucks/ — followed by the drug of your choice — acyclovir, adipex, allegra, ambien, ativan, cialis, ephedra, fioricet, hydrocodone, levitra, lorazepam, paxil, et cetera — and a .html. Other victims include the University of Madrid’s Integrated Systems Laboratory, semanticweb.org, and the Denmark Learning Lab documentation site. All are sites using Plone, but that should likely be a warning sign for you CMS administrators. Charlie, Clancy, Bradley — have any of you run into this problem? (Are we certain that Knews isn’t pushing erectile dysfunction remedies on the side? :-) )

Clinton’s AAM

It was only a matter of time, really, until I had another Army dream. This was my first since I’ve been teaching here.

I’m in a large, spacious dark wooden building somewhere on campus. The building looks like a cross between a conference center and a cathedral, and there are big important formal military functions going on. I’m looking for Tink, who’s hiding and upset because she’s got a cut in one of the pads in her paw. I’m wearing dress gray with my old medals and decorations. Senior faculty and other Army officers and cadets are all crossing and entering and leaving the main room. I hear Tink yowl from an adjoining room.

I turn to move in that direction, to find her, but someone puts his hand on my shoulder. I turn around. It’s Bill Clinton, looking very large and muscular and imposing in his dress grays as well. And he’s got a medal on a ribbon around his neck, in the manner of a Congressional Medal of Honor, only it’s a lowly Army Achievement Medal. And Bill Clinton grins and good-naturedly punches me in the shoulder.

That’s my dream.