Of Plagiarism and MOOCs

A colleague involved in developing a FYC MOOC wrote to ask me my opinion of how much plagiarism might happen in the course. The colleague referenced last August’s Chronicle article on cheating in Coursera courses and was clearly wanting me to say, “No, it won’t be a problem.” 

I think it will be a problem, and here’s my explanation, quoted from that conversation:

As I understand it, there actually are stakes for students in non-credit-bearing MOOCs, in that Coursera and other proprietors actually connect successful students with prospective employers. Any time cultural capital that is readily convertible to economic capital is involved, there will be cheating. I have no idea, though, how widespread it might be in the course you’ll be teaching. 

Last semester I taught a course on Crimes of Writing to writing majors at Syracuse. We spent a lot of time on the various sorts of ghostwriting. As the students talked candidly, I discovered that more than half of them had ghostwritten papers for other students. One was engaged in it extensively and making quite a good income at it. And this ghostwriting was being done for in situ classes. I would have to think it would be far more extensive in DE or a MOOC.

But that’s all hypothesis, based on scattered evidence. As I’m now involved in data-driven research, I’m discovering how far off the mark the hypotheses of pedagogical “experts” can be.

I’m not being coy when I say “this is just a guess, and it could be wrong.” One thing the Citation Project has taught me is that my teacherly experiences (such as the conversation in Crimes of Writing) and my reading about other scholars’ experiences and opinions—all of it inevitably colored by media sensationalizing the topic of plagiarism, especially as related to students, and most especially in digital environments—really doesn’t matter much until it is intersected with data-driven research. Who knows, for example, the extent to which the writing majors in my class were gilding the lily, engaging in a bit of braggadocio, testing the waters to see how their classmates or professor would react, taking on the role of daring risk-taker in a risk-free environment?

I should also confess that I’m a little uncomfortable with finding myself in the position of predicting plagiarism problems—uncomfortable given that I’m usually in the role of talking educators down from fetishizing plagiarism. A focus on plagiarism gets educators away from teaching writing. And good teaching of writing is essential to providing students with tools and practices that give them the option of not plagiarizing and nevertheless succeeding.

Yet my opinion persists, as a hypothesis and nothing more. The more students and faculty are removed from a relationship with each other, a feeling of shared responsibility, the less obligation students feel to the instructor and to the instructor’s inconvenient ethical ideals.

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connecting writing instruction in colleges and high schools

Lots of folks who’ve read and heard the early reports of Citation Project data have referenced secondary education, suggesting that CP researchers should take our data to our colleagues in the secondary schools; that we should learn how source use is being taught in secondary schools; that we should replicate our research in secondary schools; and so forth. Lots of good ideas.

Reading two different pieces today takes me to this question: How is source use being taught in secondary schools, and how should college teachers pick up where 12th grade English leaves off? Really, it’s the first part that’s prodded by today’s readings. First, Larry Ferlazzo, an award-winning secondary teacher, writes in Education Week about how to teach students to work with sources. Although his title, “Teaching Writing by Respecting Student Ideas,” suggests a different focus, some of the piece recommends teaching students formulae for working from sources:

As wary of formulaic writing as I am, I have found teaching two simple “formulas” useful to our students to help them develop a sense of self-confidence. One is “ABC” (Answer the Question, Back it up with evidence like a quotation, and make a Comment or Connection) and the other is “PQC” (make a Point, Quote from the text supporting your point, Make a connection to your personal experience, another text, or some other knowledge).

You may be reacting with horror at this: No wonder the 174 students studied in the Citation Project were, about half the time, quoting from page 1 of short, simple sources as their means of working from sources. If this is the sort of thing taught in high school, what else can we expect?

Or, you may be saying to yourself, we have to remember that good writing from sources, just like good grammar and a sophisticated vocabulary, does not derive from an inoculation but from ongoing mentoring that is tailored to the learner’s writing experience and intellectual acuity. Maybe it is really smart, really appropriate for such formulae to be taught to secondary students who need to be introduced to basic structures of intertextual rhetoric.

I find myself in both places at once, but very much in the latter. Really, we can’t expect secondary teachers to be teaching college level writing. That’s the job of college writing teachers, right?

So if you buy the second possibility, and if you’re a college writing instructor, it seems feasible to be asking how to make those connections. The first step, it seems to me, might be to inquire, at the beginning of the term, about how the students in the class are accustomed to working from sources. Finding a good quotation from page one sound familiar? Check. Make this a really serious class discussion. And then talk about how college writing builds from and also diverges from these models of thesis + quotation-as-evidence + add some other thought. Talk about the value of summary, analysis, paraphrase, critique. It’s a great way to open up the course, to set the agenda of extending students beyond the familiar without abandoning that familiar entirely. (I am personally guilty, guilty, guilty of mounting a too-excoriating challenge to the 5-paragraph theme. I should build from it rather than throw it out.)

Build from rather than throw out. Instead of trashing our secondary colleagues for not teaching college writing, we pick up where they have left off, helping our students toward greater comprehension of more challenging sources, and toward more sophisticated ways of talking about those sources than simply copying a key sentence and citing it.

What’s our alternative? Frost McLaughlin and Miriam Moore, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I visited Lord Fairfax Community College earlier this fall, touch on the answer: our alternative is to continue accepting the appearance of researched writing instead of authentic writing from sources. In the December 2012 TETYC journal (I won’t provide the URL, because NCTE will just default it to their member login), “Integrating Critical Thinking into the Assessment of College Writing” reports McLaughlin and Moore’s research on college teachers’ assessment of student writing. They find that “certain elements of writing command more attention than others, dominating raters’ perception of other elements.” The “certain elements” have everything to do with correctness; the “others” that are overpowered are those connected to critical thinking. In instructors’ assessment, in other words, the correctly edited paper will fare better than the one that demonstrates critical thinking.

We can continue in this vein, rewarding our students for good editing and for providing evidence for their claims. We can continue to ignore that their “evidence” is mostly quotations, and that those quotations are often drawn from the first page of simple sources. We can continue to be swayed by the appearance of good source-based writing, rather than specifically and extensively teaching students how to bring critical thinking, insight, analysis, and comprehension of sophisticated sources to their work from sources.

Or not.

If we are to choose the “not,” if we are to connect our first-year writing courses with high school instruction, extending that instruction and building upon it, we’re going to have to get creative. We’re going to have to quit teaching to and assessing only the surface of our students’ writing.

Postscript: I swear I’ll get into Settings soon and figure out how to make those blasted snowflakes quit drifting across the page.

typifying a national phenomenon—not.

title=”typifying a national phenomenon—not.”>typifying a national phenomenon—not.

I never imagined myself a data wonk. I’m terrible at math, know nothing about statistics. If Sandra Jamieson weren’t my research partner, the Citation Project would have no quantitative analyses whatsoever.

And yet. Yet my work on the CP has made me acutely aware of how claims can—and cannot—be made with quantitative data. I’m not talking about skewed bar charts here, but more about sample size versus claim size. I have this awareness because of all the research we’ve consulted for the CP, most of it from single campuses. It’s not that these research projects aren’t useful; on the contrary, they raise all manner of important questions, and they allow a window into the behaviors of isolated groups. Susan Blum’s research at Notre Dame? Very provocative. But as you read her book carefully, you find her dancing between the admission that hers is a one-campus study, and her desire to claim that her findings illuminate what college students everywhere are thinking and doing.

Thus it was with the pilot data for the Citation Project. Tricia Serviss, Tanya Rodrigue, and I designed and conducted a study of students’ source use. We conducted the research at our own institution. We published our findings in the journal Writing and Pedagogy. People were interested. All was well.

Then, however, Sandra joined the project as co-principal researcher. Two more campuses came on board. We analyzed the data—now using SPSS. Our findings began to change. Thirteen more campuses came on board. More SPSS. Our findings began at last to settle into a pattern. Each school had its own distinct profile, but few were remarkably different from the aggregate. And the findings from the pilot? One of the chief findings was overturned in the 16-campus study. At Syracuse, incidents of patchwriting outnumbered paraphrase two to one. In the 16-campus study, paraphrase outnumbered patchwriting two to one.

That’s an important difference. So I’ve become sensitive to claims like these, from the New York Times article linked here: “90 percent of the 2,800 boys in the survey — who lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but typify what doctors say is a national phenomenon.”

Oh, please. On what basis do doctors claim that the boys of Minneapolis-St. Paul are typical of the nation? Is there other data we’re not hearing about in this story? The only way we can know the answer is to go to the research that’s being reported. 

That’s a second thing that I’ve become very alert to, especially in my teaching: I’ve become acutely uncomfortable with students’ willingness to find a story like this and regard it as a good source on which to build claims. No, it isn’t. What this story does is provide a journalist’s reading of someone else’s research. It is not the research itself. So I find myself insisting, even with my first-year writers, that students find and read the research being reported, and not depend exclusively on what even a good journalist has to say about it.