There was an interesting article in today’s New York Times regarding the prevalence of plagiarism at our nation’s fine universities–although this is really not so interesting for those of us who have taught in them recently.  Although, I do find it disheartening that it is so prevalent–copying sentences from Wikipedia was a common offense committed by my students.  I always called them out on it and to my knowledge there weren’t repeat offenses.  At the time I told myself that I was reminding students about the boundaries of plagiarism, but I can never know if any lessons were learned.

The simple fact of the matter is students aren’t always engaged in the curriculum, or in the writing process because the hard work of writing loses out in their mental cost-benefit-analysis.  I don’t know if the article really explains why this is (surely, as the article suggests, the ease-of-use of author-less information, has something to do with it). But when I taught, I often wondered if part of it was the value placed on secondary sources over a student’s own creative analysis. Sure there are always going to be brilliant students ready to battle Foucault for supremacy in an essay about voyeurism–but what about the students who don’t believe themselves capable of that?  Why should a student take the extra time to rewrite background information when they don’t think that effort has any value–my sense was that students often assume they know how to do it well enough, so practicing proper attribution is an empty gesture.

The wall that I found myself so often beating my head against–how to get students to believe they can and should contribute new ideas to the world.  What does it mean for the rest of us when a 22-year-old leaves college risk-averse and ethically-challenged?

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