Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out for Blood: My Immoderate Response to the Garbage of Dale Spender

Before you read the following, please go here and try to get through this article without wanting to kill somebody. Then pick up your sword and return to the Kemzone.

Dear Dr. Dale Spender:

I hesitate to respond publicly to the festering crap you have been spouting to The Australian, if only because I would really rather that your views not be spread and therefore legitimised. However, there's a fine line between trying to prevent the dissemination of poison by ignoring it and trying to prevent the dissemination of poison by administering an antidote. I think I'll go the antidote route this time around. I'll probably do it by yelling a lot.

So you, madam, are "in touch" with the youth of today, yo? Your deep experience with "educationalism" has obviously prepared you for your new and exciting role as a proponent of cheating. Don't you roll your eyes at me! How on earth is cutting and pasting random material from the Internet and presenting it as original work any different from cutting and pasting random material from printed books and articles and presenting it as original work? Are students who lift whole papers from the Web just "learning"? Are the little bastards who troll my site looking for "free essays" on subjects ranging from The Hobbit to Batman to descriptions of their own aunts simply educationalisming themselves in their own ways? Or are they, in fact, attempting not to do any bloody work? You decide, O Educationalist.

All right...let's assume, for a moment, that you're not insane enough to be talking about students who steal entire papers. Let's assume your warm glow of benevolence extends only far enough to include students who take ideas, sentences, and/or passages from the Internet and pass them off as their own. Let's explore this practice in light of my particular discipline, English literature. Please stop me if you've heard this one before:

A student walks into an Internet cafe, essay assignment clutched in his hot little hand. He has a choice of five topics; let's say he's decided to go with #2, which is:

Discuss the motif of the journey in at least two of the texts we have studied this term.*

At the top of the instruction sheet is a blurb in which the prof explains that the student will be expected to narrow the topic down, finding a unique analytical angle from which to approach it. He will also be expected not to refer extensively to secondary sources but to "close-read" the texts; secondary material should be used for back-up only (i.e., secondary sources can help confirm points by providing necessary information, but they cannot themselves make points).

Let us pause for a moment and explore why the assignment is set up in this way. Is the prof "out of touch" with the ways students learn? Is she attempting to stifle the creativity one accesses when one goes onto Wikipedia and lifts a few paragraphs from an article on As You Like It? No, actually. She wants her students to learn how to analyse. She wants them to realise that analytical writing is not a cut-and-paste process, even with proper citation; it doesn't consist of reading other people's opinions and repeating them in an essay of one's own. Instead, it involves students using evidence from the texts at hand and coming up with their own (informed) opinions.

Last year, I was starting a group of students on a poetry unit when one young woman raised her hand. "I don't like poetry," she said. "I never get it. When I write essays on it, I always know I'm not going to have anything smart to say about it; that's why I like to read stuff about it online. Those people are much smarter than I am, and I can never come up to their level, so I need to read their stuff first."

Those people are much smarter than I am. This student was smart. She made intelligent comments in class; when she was pushed to it, she could find meaning in the poetry we were analysing. However, someone had made her feel as if her analytical opinions weren't valid because they "weren't as good" as the stuff she'd seen online. Well, no...possibly they weren't. She was a first-year student approaching poetry at the university level for the first time ever. However, she certainly had a chance to learn to be "as good" as these other critics if she was not bashed over the head with the idea that poetry was incomprehensible to anyone but experts and that she would be penalised for writing anything other than what these experts themselves had written.

First-years tend to see analysis as this great big magical process that is completely inaccessible to them. Some view it as "making stuff up." Some think they're simply "not smart enough" to understand it. Some buckle down and figure it out...but members of the first two groups may gravitate towards the ultimately harmful process of going to the critics first and deriving information from their work without fully understanding it. If students don't cite the sources properly, they're cheating. If they do cite the sources properly, they're filling their essays with other people's ideas and therefore losing out on the original-content marks.

To return to the theoretical student in the theoretical cafe with the theoretical assignment on the journey motif:

This student, whose name may as well be Siegfried, is baffled by the assignment. Journey motifs? What does that mean? He takes a look at the two texts on which he wants to write, the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Book I of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. Both texts involve physical journeys, but he can't really think of anything to say about that. They're just journeys, right? What's to say?

Siegfried sits down at a computer and logs on. He types "Canterbury Tales" and "essay" into Google. Oh, hey: here's a whole site full of papers on Chaucer! He checks, but none of them seems to be about journeys per se. That's all right; here's an essay on estate satire. Isn't it true that life itself is a journey? Don't people take metaphorical personal journeys all the time? Aren't we really going on a journey every time we make a decision about what to have for breakfast? Couldn't it be said that Chaucer himself is going on a journey when he makes the decision to write his poem as estate satire? That sort of thing is much more interesting than actual physical journeys, and look at all this ready-made analysis right here on the Internet! Siegfried is ecstatic. That's half his essay right there.

Now...Spenser. Siegfriend googles "Faerie Queene" and "essay." Damn...nothing on journeys...but here's a paper on allegory, and here's another one on the Redcrosse Knight and the stupid choices he makes. Maybe, Siegfried thinks, he can combine the two approaches and write about how Redcrosse's dumb choices take him on an allegorical journey of decision-making! Brilliant!

Siegfried gets to work and busily lifts ideas (and sometimes even full paragraphs, since they fit so well) from the online papers. He adds a generic introduction and a conclusion that repeats it almost word for word. Voilà: an essay...and he's hardly had to think about it at all.

Oh, Siegfried, you cheating, lying little idiot. Even if you had been honest about your sources, you would have shot yourself in the foot here.

Dr. Spender, tell me true: do you think Siegfried has learned anything from his little online adventure? I think he has learned a great deal about misinterpreting his set topic, but very little else. Students who go online for "answers" often do end up lifting inappropriate information because they can't find anything else; they try to make their stolen paragraphs fit into the topics provided, with the result that the prof finds herself blinking in puzzlement--and growing suspicion--at a paper that is supposedly on the role of women but actually on the masculine qualities of heroism...with the word "women" plugged in once in a while. Another major problem with Siegfried's approach** is that he has found three different essays on three different topics; he is therefore going to have a hard time actually comparing the texts he is discussing. He will probably write two mini-essays in one, joining them together only with a flimsy transitional phrase such as, "As well, in The Faerie Queene...."

Oh, I'll grant you that some students approach plagiarism much more intelligently than Siegfried, finding appropriate material and integrating it smoothly into their texts. If they don't understand the material, they shouldn't be incorporating it; if they do, they are bright enough to think up original ideas themselves and, well, shouldn't be incorporating it. Students don't learn to analyse when they steal. They simply learn to steal. Sure, some of them will internalise and learn from the new information they have pilfered, but they won't thereby figure out how to create such information themselves using their very own brains.

Dr. Spender, O Thou Well-Known Educationalist: perhaps you should descend from the heady heights of educationalism and actually spend some time in a classroom. You may think you are hip and with it when you validate students' cheating, but you are actually just ignoring the fact--extremely obvious to many of us--that students who cut and paste off the Internet are no different from students who copy information from books and articles...or from their friends...or from their parents or siblings or guidance counselors. Such students, my friend, have been around since the Dawn of Students. Internet plagiarism is not "just part of the way students learn"; it is a relatively recent permutation of the way students have always cheated.

Yours with great sincerity and quite a lot of uncontrollable fury,

Kem the Merciless

*This one's a pretty standard topic in English classes, actually; I've seen it used several times. If any of my students have stumbled across this site, however, they should note that though many of them wrote on a similar topic last term, none of them is implicated in the story of Siegfried. The most problematic of their essays were simply a bit off topic. It is, of course, entirely possible to write off-topic papers without the aid of plagiarism.
**Aside from the fact that he is plagiarising, that is.


Kyle said...

Kem, you have joined my pantheon of heroes. One remarkable thing about your essay that really sets it apart from our esteemed doctor's is, frankly, your use of evidence. By that I mean that you provide some.

I doubt that you will change Dale Spender's mind, but that's really beside the point, isn't it? What's important is that readers who come across both the article in The Australian and your response will - I hope - find your argument much more persuasive.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are more persuasive! Interesting article, but I agree - that's just ridiculous. I see her point about focussing on whether students can understand and apply knowledge, but it's not exactly an either-or situation. My university doesn't seem to have a problem assessing us on both correct citation and answering the question. Even setting aside the question of what's best for the "educative process," not distinguishing between your own and others' work is pretty dubious ethically.

Her analogies don't work - recycling your own work is not the same as secretly copying someone else's, and downloading music to make your own playlist (or whatever) doesn't make it your "own product." Also, "educative?!" Unnecessary jargon + radical idea = red flag.

Kem said...

Thanks, guys. Unfortunately, Dale Spender is "well-known," whereas I write a not-so-well-known blog. The good doctor has written books; she even has her own Wikipedia page (to which someone--not me, I swear--yesterday added this information: "Spender is an advocate for plagiarism in undergraduate education").

I am happy to say, however, that The Australian published the following letter shortly after I posted:,25197,24029283-25192,00.html

It pleases me that the letter was written by one Dr. Jack Bowers. I choose to believe that Jack Bauer is moonlighting as a very slightly disguised academic in order to kick some professorial butt.

Tassiegal said...

Dearest Kem,
Please can I show your wonderful rant to the MEU staff with whom I work? It illustrates so wonderfully what they have been encountering while marking....

Kem said...

Go ahead, Tassiegal/Ozzie.

Kyle said...

What really strikes me about Dr. Spender's argument is how easily she buys the facile explanation that cut-and-paste is just how "kids do these things these days." What's more convincing about your essay, Kem (regardless of the fact that your blog isn't well known - it's well known among my friends, who have all taught composition at some point) is the way you delineate between the different types of synthesis that cutting-and-pasting can lead to. (Same goes for the letter from Jack Bowers/Bauer, saving the world from terrorism and plagiarism in one fell swoop!) There's no doubt that reading widely across the internet (or the library!) can help students find a way into a topic that they might not have considered before, but the crucial step - the one Dr. Spender overlooks completely - is that of examining what they find with a critical eye. It's possible to cut-and-paste and cite one's sources, now, isn't it?

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