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« This Week's Acquisitions | Main | Bleak House 1-29 »

January 28, 2006


Vito Prosciutto

Most of the undergrad English classes that I had didn't have any sort of exams at all. This seems the simplest solution to the problem. Exams seeme appropriate in a class where the objective is, say problem solving (e.g., math), or if recall of specific facts is of importance, but English is really outside that bound. There is the danger of a student having all outside work done by a paid accomplice, but this could be approached by having some in-class writing assignments, perhaps an open-book addressing of some point about the reading, but an actual exam? I think that'd be a bad idea.


I think that you have raised some really interesting questions here. Rather than hijack your comment thread, I have written up a post about my thoughts on your point #2 over at my blog.

Feel free to come and take a look.


Re: #2, I have had some students tell me that other instructors require them to footnote and cite material drawn from classroom lectures, and I've had other students do this on papers they turned into me without even asking. It always felt a bit weird to look down to the footnote and see my name cited with a class date ... But at the same time, I can appreciate the dilemma you're setting up.


Oops ... I meant to say the papers they "turned in to me," not the papers they "turned into me." The latter would be the ultimate form of plagiary, eh?

Brandon Watson

I was a bit surprised not to see Laurence Sterne on the list, given that Sterne regularly plagiarizes in Tristram Shandy. (The most notorious case is an attack on plagiarism lifted almost entirely from someone else; oddly appropriate, since attacks on plagiarism are often cases of plagiarism to some extent.)

I think we academics tend to confuse the moral issues of plagiarism with those issues of plagiarism that are really just the way academia works. There are very few moral problems with plagiarism, except where a case counts as illegal, or where it endangers someone else's livelihood. The major problem with plagiarism in an academic setting, whether teaching or research, is that if allowed to go unchecked it brings down the whole system, which depends crucially on assigning credit where credit is due. So we tend to overlook plagiarism where it doesn't pose a real threat to this (the usual 'common knowledge' exemption, for instance). And there's no moral reason why we shouldn't -- I think you're right that the real question is whether we can do it consistently.

I've always thought that the reason we don't have a problem with students plagiarizing our lectures is that, rightly or wrongly, we tend to regard our lecture material as falling under the 'common knowledge' exemption: i.e., as something anyone who's taken the trouble to research the subject should have picked up somewhere, so it's pointless to bother about where, precisely, they picked it up. But I haven't thought about this particular question much. It could be that the real reason is that here there's no threat to the principle 'credit where credit is due' -- if a student appropriates my idea, that's not a failure to give credit to me; given that they are doing it in work for me, it's just what I would expect to happen if they found it a usable idea. I think that's why I don't like it when people cite my lectures in their papers, although I can see the point of doing it: it feels like they're trying to pass off as research ideas they are expected to have exposed themselves to as a matter of course.


Brandon makes some good points about the "common knowledge" exception. I always point out, too, that we're talking about "common knowledge" within a given context. Depending on the audience I am addressing, some things might count as common knowledge that would not count as such when other audiences were involved. (I might cite some things in a general article for the American Historical Review, for instance, that I could assume the readers of a more specialized journal like Civil War History already know).

Based on that expansion of the "common knowledge" exemption, I've told my students in the past that all of us within that particular course share "in common" the knowledge discussed in lectures, so to cite that common knowledge would be redundant within the context of that course. I might say the same thing about fact and figures or a basic narrative of events drawn from the course textbook, although one would have to be careful here.

What Brandon's generally getting at is that we should try to get students thinking about what constitutes plagiarism and what constitutes the quotidian collaboration of academic life.


Caleb's exactly right; I think students often come away with the notion that plagiarism is a matter of failing to follow the rules of some citation format, when really it's about making a genuine contribution to a far-reaching collaboration.


Ah, the obsession with novelty in art as being inherently good. Is it any more plagiarism for Will to do a different Lear, than for whomever to remake the film of 'Alfie' (the first that springs to mind)?

Each is an artistic work in its own right. So maybe they re-imagined something, rather than imagining it. Big deal. Gain points for doing it more interestingly. Lose points if you cack up a classic.

Slapped wrists if you fib and pretend your work doesn't have a heritage. But its still your work when you've finished with it, low-end or high-end.

Because this is art.

Undergrad essays are either examples of hard work and cogent thought under the stresses of all that scarey teenage angst, or the cut'n'paste jobs of lazy wasters. Reward the former for effort, originality, and genuine ability. Fail the latter as a duty and an act of justice.

Because this is not art, it is education (and when you hit postgrad/postdoc, criticism).

Artists are permitted such leeway because they are artists-it is their job to imagine, or re-imagine, and then develop a work to conclude as their own. Critics can't get away with anything because they are (humble) critics, so if in doubt, footnote and cite, and earn extra points for so doing.


A useful text to suggest for those suffering from an excessive appreciation of novelty in art:

Miola, Robert S. 'Shakespeare's Reading'. (OUP: 2000).

Anyone who believes that this is an acceptable precedent to permit cheating in essays by copying rather than thinking, is so dumb they should not be allowed on to a university campus, except as a medical specimen.


The question is, why do you expect your students to produce original ideas?

In the sciences, undergraduates aren't expected to come up with original ideas, but to demonstrate that they possess knowledge and skills.


No Eng. Lit. tutor would demand that their undergrads develop entirely new readings of any work (the original research, as with the sciences, comes later).

What is expected is that they did the thinking themselves. They took their own ability to analyse a text, read it critically, thought about it, worked at it, and came up with something from their own mental toil (and their study of other critical views on a text, properly cited), written clearly in a way that can convey what they think to others.

Not the results of 5 minutes spent with Google and a bit of editing.

'Original' here means they went from A to B by thinking for themselves, not copying.


Another thing just struck me -- given that most of what we say in undergraduate lectures is either "common knowledge" or based on the textbook/readers we are using, interspersed with only a little of our own research, why should we be expecting the students to cite us anyway? They should be citing the textbooks, readers, and/or whatever else we have based our lectures on. It's our job to make it clear to them where we are getting our information.

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