9.561 students, community, the Web

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Tue, 20 Feb 1996 18:40:24 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 561.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: tomdill@womenscol.stephens.edu (28)
Subject: Plagiarism and community (online or off)

[2] From: John Slatin <jslatin@mail.utexas.edu> (75)
Subject: Re: 9.560 students seeking online help

Date: Mon, 19 Feb 1996 18:33:10 -0600
From: tomdill@womenscol.stephens.edu
Subject: Plagiarism and community (online or off)

I agree with Paul Brians that the potential misuse of materials found
online is another area of concern for those of us evaluating student
writing--especially the undergraduate "research" work done in our
areas. I would suggest, however, that the problems are not only
linked to online materials. In our program, we have moved toward
encouraging student collaboration and interaction at all stages
of their writing process, and we encourage peer-editing. Since
I also see several stages in the process of almost all student
writing, I tend to feel that this process-orientation works against
the more trivial forms of plagiarism and offers a kind of solution to
that old problem. (It helps solve it, that is, once we move the
students past the point of supposing a book report--as they wrote
in high school--is a "research project." Until then, all the old
forms of plagiarism are pervasive.) But the collaborative character
of so much of the work our students do seems to me to open serious
questions about what we mean about plagiarism in the first place--
or maybe in the third or fourth places, since the first place is
pretty consistent. The whole online phenomenon (as has been
discussed here in other contexts) undermines some of the notions
of ownership and individual activity on which traditional grading
and evaluation of student work have been based, and I would suggest
that it is simply a further extension of the same problem created
by shifting to a process-oriented pedagogy--we are no longer, in
this situation, grading the solitary and independent work of a
single student, and that puts the whole system of grades into
I don't mean to head off Paul Brian's question, but merely to
broaden the context a bit.
Tom Dillingham (tomdill@womenscol.stephens.edu)

Date: Tue, 20 Feb 1996 09:36:59 -0600
From: John Slatin <jslatin@mail.utexas.edu>
Subject: Re: 9.560 students seeking online help

Paul Brians wrote:>
>I'd like to see a discussion of two issues:
>1) the ethics of posting scholarship and student helps and dealing with
>requests for further help
>2) ways of dealing with the increased risk of plagiarism in the networked era.
>If this discussion was already undertaken while I was unsubscribed due to
>various mailer problems here, I apologize, but think it would be worth
>revisiting anyway.
I don't recall seeing precisely this set of issues raised here before,
though similar questions have come up on other lists, such as MBU-L,
WCENTER, and others devoted primarily to writing instruction.

Paul's right, I think, in noting that asking students for proposals, then
drafts, then revisions, then further revisions helps cut down on plagiarism
while also accoplishing something more positive and important-- helping
students learn to write better by helping them learn to rethink what they've
written and by encouraging them to understand that nothing is perfect the
first time out, or indeed ever.

To this I would add that assignments calling for collaboration also work
well-- especially if the students are encouraged to develop their own topics
(I mean collaboratively, in consultation with the instructor) rather than
writing to our prompts, answering the questions *we* want to ask. Which is
not to say we should be glad if they regard (and continue to regard) those
questions as immaterial, but rather that my experience over the past 10
years or so has shown me that students pretty consistently come around to
those questions in due course, that is at their own pace and in contexts of
their own construction, if I encourage them on the one hand to strike out on
their own and on the other to treat me as a resource, someone to consult
about research strategies or the structure of an essay, someone who can
offer information there's no reason to expect them to have at their disposal.

Case in point: a year ago, in a course on 20th-century American poetry, I
gave an assignment that called for students to create a "web" of documents
(for posting on the Web) that would reconstruct a "conversation" between two
poets as that conversation shaped (and was shaped by) the poems they were
writing. Students did some inventive things, including interviewing local
poets and asking them about the relatioships between their work and the work
of some of the poets included in the Norton Anthology, then working with the
results. Others did a huge amount of work, which was for them original
research. ONe group in particular-- 4 young women, none of whom had taken
an advanced poetry course before-- chose to work on Sylvia Plath and Anne
Sexton. They came to me one day almost in tears, reporting that they had
taken 25 or 30 books out of the library, finding in each one only a sentence
or two about the poems they were interested in-- the best they could do,
they said, was to pull these sentences out and incorporate them into their
own writing as best they could, constructing the best case they could. They
were heartbroken; I, of course, was delighted-- the difference being that
they had assumed they would be able to find some large chunk of material
that they could quote wholesale (for them, this is the *goal* of research;
it's what's supposed to happen), while I assumed they'd be lucky to find
what they did and that they'd have to assemble whatever they found to see
how it added up (this being, for me, the point of research). What they
ended up with was something that won't threaten any of our jobs right away,
but they're hardly to be blamed for having failed to produce PMLA-quality
work first time out of the box. They came up with something quite
respectable for students of their experience (or lack thereof); but more
than that, they taught themselves something about the research process and
the difficulties (and rewards) of putting together a convincing case from
shards of evidence that I never could have "taught" them myself. No need to
worry about plagiarism there-- they were having far too much fun, and taking
far too much pride in their work, even to *think* about trying to palm off
someone else's stuff as their own.

Plagiarism is almost always an act of desperation, it seems to me. If we
can create learning environments that don't evoke despair at the
impossibility of satisfying the requirements and encourage instead a feeling
that they can think and act and write for themselves, we won't have to worry

Professor John M. Slatin
Director, Computer Writing & Research Lab
Div. of Rhetoric and Composition and Dept. of English
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712
jslatin@mail.utexas.edu http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu