Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A plague of plagiarism

I just put an 8 week on-line sociology class to rest; entered the grades and said farewell. I was, up until the very last moment, about to have an all time record for on-line classes. For the first time since I began teaching on-line classes in 2000, I was about to have a class in which everyone who had not officially withdrawn actually completed the entire course with a passing grade. Some of those grades were going to be D's, but they were still going to pass. Normally there are several students who neither complete the course nor take the time to formally withdraw and thus end up with failing grades -- an "E" in our system.

Unfortunately, when I got to the very last student (both alphabetically and because she had waited until the last day of class to turn all her papers for the whole eight weeks), all the work she turned in was plagiarized. Some were papers taken in their entirety from one of the free on-line paper mills, other she apparantly did the work of hunting down paragraphs to copy from the internet herself. Plagiarism is always upsetting and disruptive, but this coming as it did at the last minute to ruin what would otherwise have been a class for the record book, was crushing.

I have less plagiarism in my classes since I got seriously tough on it, and created ways of getting the message across to students at the beginning of the class (borrowed some great "For Better For Worse" cartoon strips from Lynn Johnston -- with references of course) that drive home the point. But even with all the warnings, students still do it. I don't remember have these problems when I first began teaching 30 years ago.

As a sociologist I have to wonder, is plagiarism more common today or is it just easier for teachers to check for it? If it is more common (which I suspect but cannot prove) why is it?

For a time I thought that what I perceived as an increased incidence of plagiarism was only because the types of students that I taught had changed. I began teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and then moved on to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, now I teach at a community college, in a poor, rural area. Was the increase plagiarism due to my students having poorer preparation and poorer college skills? Since discovering the Rate Your Students blog, I realize that the problem of plagiarism goes well beyond my little corner of academia.

So if, as I believe (but cannot prove), plagiarism has increased, the question is why? I know lots of people who would jump to "declining values" as their first response. That answer reminds me of a quote from sociologist Abraham Kaplan "We do not explain why there is a lion in the garden by pointing out that in fact there are two of them in there." If values have changed what caused them to change? Values are a cultural phenomenon, they are the result of social processes, and do not float down from the ether. For there to have been widespread changes in values, there have to be widespread changes in society that produce those value changes.

What has changed? One thing that has changed is opportunity. The technology of computers and the Internet has certainly made plagiarism far easier than it was in my college days. I would liken it to changing the channel on the TV -- from the time I was 5 until I was 34, when I wanted to change the channel on the TV I got up, walked across the room and turned a nob to change the channel. I didn't change channels often, and used the TV Guide to look up what I might watch before changing channels. Then I got a remote control, and overnight I became a channel surfer, and changed my viewing habits just like that. My values and attitudes about television viewing changed after the fact, as a result of access to a new technology.

Something else that has changed is that a much higher percentage of high school students (and the population in general) are going to college, than did when I went to college. While the increased access to college has benefited many people who want to go to college who might have been left out forty or fifty years ago, it has also meant that many people who aren't really interested in what colleges offer (academic learning) are nonetheless attending college. They are attending college because that is what the job market demands. As a society we have lost alternative career paths -- even though there are shortages in fields that don't really need college (electricians, plumbers, construction, repair work). When economic necessity is forcing you to get a diploma, but you don't care for the activities that are required to get that diploma, short cuts become appealing.

These are just two ideas I've had about the sources of plagiarism. I think that there are more things, and I'd like to hear other people's thoughts.


E. R. Dunhill said...

I think you're right about plagiarism in part being a crime of convenience. Select All, Copy, Paste, done. Although, it never ceases to amaze me that students in the Internet age think that they can get away with it. After all, in the past, plagiarized text had to "ring a bell" with the grader, or at least have certain hallmarks. Now we have search engines (and other software), including several that are specifically designed to find plagiarized passages.
I also feel like I see many people who are willing to accept the benefits of various institutions, but who feel insulted by the expectation that they will abide by institutional rules or conventions.
Take, for example, Canadian snowboarder Rebagliati (sp). He won a medal at the Nagano games. He was also stripped of that medal (later reinstated) for testing positive for marijuana. His initial response to the media was (grossly paraphrased) that he would not apologize for his friends or what they did, that his friends were more important to him than the competition, but that he would not return the medal. Essentially, the institution's (the Olympics') rules don't apply to him, but he is entitled to its benefits.
I see the same thing with a number of students I know. They claim little or no respect for the authority and expertise of their schools and teachers, yet feel entitled to a degree. There seems to be a breakdown in understanding that the parchment and the medal are fairly meaningless as objects. Instead, they represent the some achievement within a community and within its system of rules. Perhaps the commercialization of education has yielded a generation of students-as-customers, who feel that they are buying degrees, and that anyone who demands something from them is getting in the way or providing bad service. I think higher education is yet another area that requires some community-building.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

It's the plague! The plague of moral relativism -- which is taught in our schools, colleges and universities. Kids don't have a clear definition of what is right or wrong anymore.

Sue said...

Chris -- I agree with you that the schools do not teach that plagiarism is cheating or that cheating is wrong, but that begs the real question. The schools are not isolated from society, they are an integral part of society. The schools are a reflection other aspects of our society, so why now? Why is plagiarism so much worse in 2008 than it was in 1988 or in 1978 or in 1968? Some of the worst plagiarizers I've had are the students who express the most conservative political and religious views. They are the students who tell me that abortion is an absolute evil and that gay marriage is destroying our country, but their sense of moral outrage does not apply to plagiarism. One sense that I have from extended discussions with my students is that from their families and churches they have come to equate morality only with things related to sex and that other issues (such as cheating -- unless it is sexual cheating) are not true moral issues.

I must say that the young woman who plagiarized in this class, owned up to what she did and acknowledged it was wrong, and apologized -- the first student who has ever done this. So she did recognize plagiarism as "wrong" behavior. But then she tried to back pedal by saying that she never thought I'd actually read the papers because she had waited until the last minute to turn them in.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Moral relativism has infiltrated every level of our society. Television and other media, our homes, schools and yes, the churches. Some evangelical congregations have clear-cut ideas on certain issues but no idea on others -- or at least do not spend time stressing the various nuances of what they teach. I hear things from my teenage son that send a chill up my spine. He frequently responds to my points with "what makes your opinion right? It's all a matter of how you interpret it" -- the very essence of moral relativism. (In fairness, I have taught him to be skeptical -- but he seems to selectively apply that skepticism only to viewpoints that do not coincide with his perceived advantage.) It reminds me of Bill Clinton's definition of "sex with that woman." It is parsing semantics. It is a nebulous positioning of belief relative to personal advantage. It permeates our society. It is insipient. It is the idea that "if nobody gets hurt but it helps me get what I want it must be OK." It is the cancer -- the plague -- that is slowly destroying our society. We, as a society, have lost the ability to clearly see what is right and what is wrong. And even, as your young student seems to say, when we have the head knowlege, there is no anchor to which it holds that says, we do what is right because it is the right thing to do.

E. R. Dunhill said...

What's the solution to moral relativism?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

A moral absolute to guide us.

The gauntlet is now thrown....

Whose absolute?

It was so much simpler when the majority of us shared common beliefs....

E. R. Dunhill said...

I'm more interested in who enforces the absolute morals, and by what authority they enforce. Does a government do this? Is it self imposed? Do community institutions assert it?
Do the Constitution and Bill of Rights offer some starting point for a national moral absolutism? Or, does an intentionally malleable government foment moral relativism?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Good questions ERD. To what level can we legislate/regulate/enforce morality? It's a short step to Nazi Germany. I personally prefer a limited government and a strict constructionist view of the Constitution. It is a delicate balance that we have between anarchy (i.e. freedoms taken to the extreme) and order.

In all honesty, I have no good answer.

As to enforcing morality -- we could go to the extreme of Islamic sharia law -- NO THANKS. Or on the other extreme -- each of us dances to our own tune -- anarchy. Anarchy is a stated goal of communism as a precursor to taking over the government.

It seems to me that over the last 40 years we have gotten out of balance. We are oscillating between the extremes and the amplitude of the oscillations is growing. I believe that it is the divisive issues of our time that have thrown us out of balance. I also believe these issues are merely the tools of extreme groups who are struggling for control of the reins of power.

I'm more a middle-of-the-road type. There are dangers in both extremes.

Tell us your views.

Sue said...

Chris -- you wrote "It was so much simpler when the majority of us shared common beliefs...." Exactly when was that? Was that before World War I when six percent of American school children were actually taught in German in the public schools? Was that before 1920 when all legal and government documents in New York were published in both English and Dutch? Was that in 1960 when a large proportion of American's opposed John F.Kennedy because he was Catholic and feared he'd be a pawn of the Pope? Was it before the 1960's when blacks and whites were in segregated schools? Whose values were they? The German Lutherans' values? The Italian and Irish Catholics' values? The upper class Episcopalian values? Just because the vast array of cultural beliefs and values were not represented in the schools, did not mean they did not exist in this country. I suspect that your view about the existence of shared values would be very different if you had grown up in say Johnstown, Pennsylvania (a wonderful town with enormous ethnic diversity and vibrancy that I got to live in for seven years) rather than the Texas panhandle.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: During the time of which I speak, all of those ethnic/cultural groups shared very similar values. The language wasn't/isn't the issue -- it was the common moral underpinning.

Prior to World War I, the Texas Panhandle was not far removed from the "wild and woolly" west of legend. In fact there is very little written about the late 1800's in the Texas Panhandle because the "founding fathers" didn't want the history to be generally known.

This area was settled by immigrants of many ethnic backgrounds. We still have strong ethnic enclaves of Germans, Czechs, Swiss, etc. We also have a huge hispanic population -- many of whom are recent immigrants. They bring the cultural and religious beliefs of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia -- and all of the other Latin American countries. In spite of the perception of most Americans who view this as "flyover" country, we are not isolated, nor have we been.

The town in which I was raised was one of the first to integrate their schools. Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, only a short drive from where I was raised, was one of the first colleges in the country with a fully integrated campus.

The values of which I speak were common from before the founding of this nation. They were commonly shared until about 1960 -- and not just in the Texas Panhandle. (In fact, like much of the west, it took awhile for churches to take root in this part of the country.) Those values began to fade with the rise of radical feminism, the hippie movement, increased tolerance of deviant behavior, the indoctrination on our college campuses with the concept that there is no God -- i.e. the rise of the cult of nihilism.

Did we have a perfect society prior to 1960? No way. Will we ever live in a perfect society? No way. There will always be a societal struggle between various beliefs. However, as I stated, when the majority of us share common beliefs we have greater stability as a nation and as a society.

Progressive said...

This may be everywhere, as I try to write this quickly:

Does everyone think talk of moral relativism is dangerous? Is it dangerous to blame issues like plagiarisms on it? A cop-out to the true source of the problem?

Moral relativism seems to be just the "outer skin" of the problem - more of a byproduct than the source. Mainly, individuals are being just that - individual. Moral absolutism can be viewed as a sham and a constraint on the abilities of each person.

For that matter, plagiarisms, I think, has been taught as cheating to a very stringent degree (differing from what was spoken of before). I have heard it in every class from every teacher, while students know the consequences.

Much of it is that many children have not yet bought into the learning process. They do not understand the importance of what they are doing. Also, plagiarism is only increasing because the population of school children is increasing as well and educators have more technological abilities to catch plagiarism (software that compares essays, for example).

I do not know if it is correct to view plagiarism as an example of some greater moral degradation. I think I may have to write a post on this.

E. R. Dunhill said...

To address the question of my views on moral relativism, I think some degree of this is inherent within our form of government. I live in Maryland, a colony that began to provide religious sanctuary to Roman Catholics; it was one colony among a number of Protestant colonies, all of which were established on a continent of animists (for brevity’s sake), and which would ultimately import different animists and Muslims as slave labor. Bearing in mind that non-Christians and non-deists did not enjoy such benefits, the government was established with the intent of brooking multiple systems of values.
We did, however, agree on a number of minimum standards, some of which were directed at the government, while others were directed at the citizens. We also enjoy (suffer?) a federal system, wherein rulemaking is divided between federal/state/local governments.
I think this is where we need to focus. Local communities are a much more logical unit for developing and enforcing standards of behavior. A human brain is only capable of knowing so many people and understanding so many relationships. Moreover, geography heavily impacts what rules make sense: some communities are full of farmers, while others have large numbers of lawyers/doctors/engineers; some have large Buddhist populations, while others have never had a single Buddhist resident; some have to argue over the rights to water, while others simply turn on their faucets. Our communities are where we spend most of our lives, so this is where we should be cultivating our social rules. Besides, it's easy to oppress someone you never have to see. It's a different story when your kids go to the same school and you eat in the same restaurants.
As with energy, as with agriculture, I think a major solution to "social rules problem" is mass-localization. Communities should generally make their own decisions.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: Your comment evokes to me the idea of a loose confederation of city-states.

What economic system would you foresee as the ideal in such a scenario?

E. R. Dunhill said...

I don't advocate a particularly loose confederation, nor the primacy of cities. States also have a big role. I do, however, feel that Americans have become fixated to excess on certain elements of national policy, at the expense of concern over the day-to-day issues of their own states and communities. Powers were delegated to states, and further delegated to counties and cities. Likewise, all of these administrative divisions have their own constitutions (even if they use different terms for this). I think the federal government has a responsibility to guarantee certain basic rights (though this is by no means its only responsibility), but decisions over the quotidian issues of education, marriage, zoning, &c. should belong to communities. Should someone in Oregon decide these things for people in Louisiana?
With this in mind, I don't see the need for particularly different economic system; our existing system is already based upon a federal model.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: What are some of the issues in which you think the public has become overly fixated on national policy?

Pat Jenkins said...

i hate to spoil all the fun guys, but in most students cases can simply be because it is easier and requires very little thought.. (kind of like my posts)