Organization, Stress, and the Temptation to Plagiarize

Yesterday in the Vitae subset of the Chronicle of Higher Education, two articles appeared that anticipate our upcoming student workshop on avoiding plagiarism. In one, Helen Rubinstein (current writing fellow at Cornell College, but who once taught classes here at City Tech) recounts a difficult story about a plagiarism case. In another, Melanie Nelson (President at MRN Consulting) debunks the myth that organization is an inherent trait. Together, these two pieces speak to some of the issues that may contribute to a student’s temptation to plagiarize, and to which professors may need to be responsive.

  1. Time Management

One of the points that Nelson makes is, like many other things that you can’t learn overnight, time management is a skill. We have all seen students struggling with this skill, but also often hear things like “I’m just not very organized,” or “I’m not a very good student.” It is important that as instructors, we resist the urge to buy into this logic. It’s not that some students are just inherently better than others–it’s that some students have developed their time management and organization skills and some of them haven’t.

  1. Stress

WAC Fellow Claire posted a recent blog on student stress and writing to learn, but it bears repeating here that stress is a powerful motivator for taking shortcuts. Rubinstein reads plagiarism not as an instance of students exercising their power to deceive, but rather as an expression of their powerlessness. She says, “Plagiarism is a gag on the voice, a paper bag over the face. So what if — the next time our students plagiarize — we tried harder to actually see them? What if we could understand plagiarism as an expression of exhaustion, of distress, maybe even a plea for help?” 

Writing is an activity that can be deeply affected by the internalization of either of these factors. Rubinstein’s call to view plagiarism as an opening to try and help students not fail is one that makes sense with WAC principles. Writing-to-learn itself is premised on the notion that writing, like time management and organization, is a skill. In addition to giving students tools to develop the skill of writing, we should be thinking about giving them tools to develop other kinds of life skills.

Cognitively Accessible Language and Writing in the Disciplines

In the latest installment of the interview series “Scholars Talk Writing” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, historian James M. McPherson made the following comment in response to a question about ‘popularizing’ academic writing:

“To be called a popularizer can be the kiss of death to an academic, young or old — if such a denigration is directed toward writing that is cheapened by a conscious effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In my opinion, however, good historical writing based on sound scholarship can and should be accessible and meaningful to an expert as well as a popular audience, so long as the canons of accuracy and sound interpretation are not violated. If this kind of accessibility is ‘popularizing,’ I consider it a badge of honor rather than shame.”

In WAC/WID, we often talk about writing as both a form of communicating one’s work, and as demonstrating a mastery of disciplinary conventions. But what if the convention in one’s discipline is an opaque writing style–aimed at an audience of experts who speak the same language and jargon? The role of the academic (and thus her writing) in relationship to the public and to her peers is far from settled. Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, for example, wrote a widely read piece on academic writing, calling it “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.” The reason? “Brain training” — academics spend years mastering the specialized knowledges of their field, and develop cognitive blindspots regarding which aspects of their research are specialized and which are widely known.

But there are reasons why it might be a good thing for academics to think about writing for a wider public, that have nothing to do with dumbing down the research (and that echo some of the ways we think about “writing to learn” for students in WAC).

Making your point in both academic language and non-academic language may strengthen the richness of your work, help bridge the gap between research and teaching, or may increase the potential of academic institutions to both reach and nurture students.

We often think of accessibility of language as a commentary on jargon, but there also other kinds of accessibility concerns to consider in the realm of social justice. “When we write about other people, especially in language they have no chance of picking up and reading, let alone writing in themselves and seeing their own voices in print, we are perpetuating a gross injustice.” In this sense, writing with less jargon to a wider audience is a matter of inclusivity and access to the places of knowledge production.

Writing with clarity is a skill that can be developed with practice, can help sharpen thinking skills, and lead to other professional development opportunities. New sites distilling academic work for a public audience are cropping up all the time. Check out The Conversation, and JSTOR Daily, both of which are a collaborative effort between academics trained in their disciplines, and journalists trained in writing to the public.

Technology in the Classroom

Our last faculty workshop of the semester is approaching, where we will be discussing strategies for implementing more creativity in the classroom. An aspect of this workshop involves the use of technology. But whether and how to use technology in the classroom is certainly not a settled debate.

There are broad disagreements over whether any sort of active learning (including technology) detracts from student development of the comprehension and reasoning skills required to digest a lecture. There are also disagreements about the extent to which technology can effectively be used to deliver course content. In particular, the trend toward “flipping the classroom” is largely premised upon taking advantage of available technologies for the explicit purpose of increasing student engagement with course materials. In a flipped classroom, lectures are delivered electronically outside of class, and in-class time is reserved for student synthesis, application, and discussion. Some faculty have even attempted the flip in large lecture hall situations, encouraging student accountability for completing required readings. Proponents of the flipped classroom model have developed many different types of resources for using technology outside the classroom in order to facilitate more active learning before, after, and during class. Ted-ed is one example.

But what about technology in the classroom itself? This can take either the form of technology used by the instructor (e.g. powerpoint, video clips), or technology used by the students, namely laptops. There are many elements to consider when deciding whether to allow students to use laptops. On one hand, research suggests that students demonstrate better understanding of concepts and applications when they take notes by hand. On the other hand, permitting the use of technology may foster a more inclusive learning environment, allowing for more alternatives to the traditional lecture. Chris Buddle at McGill, for example, allows students to use the internet to fact check him during class, which often leads to spontaneous discussions and new avenues for student engagement. It can also expand accessibility for students who require accommodations for varying sorts of disabilities.

WAC philosophy and pedagogy offers a robust defense of active learning. That said, it can be overwhelming to try and integrate so many new and different strategies and resources into a classroom. It may certainly be the case that using technology in new ways does not immediately yield the expected outcome. That need not be a reason, however, to shy away from it. It does not mean that you have to drastically change your curriculum to make it more fun or accessible. But it does mean that there may be ways to deepen student engagement with both your course, and with the pursuit of knowledge more broadly, which might fall outside the traditional lecture format, and may involve writing and reading in more creative styles and venues.