I have taught the research essay for over a decade; my skills at teaching the components of the essay, the elements of documentation, and the aspects of academic integrity have grown with each set of students. However, the distance between my skill set and my students’ misunderstandings about plagiarism seems to grow each year despite my gains. This week, I collected short essays in which I asked students to quote one professional reading at least three times. Before submitting their work, I asked students to use Turnitin.com; I release the report to them so they can use the tool as a safety net and make changes before submitting the final draft to me in class. A record number of students committed paraphrased plagiarism; they put parenthetical notation, acknowledging the source of ideas, without using any quotation marks to signify that they copied the writer’s language word-for-word. Turnitin.com highlighted these “matches,” and the students chose to make no changes before submitting their work to me.
More and more, students tell me they had no idea quotation marks could be used for something other than dialogue. Yup, it’s true. I’ve tried to address this misunderstanding in written directions and class lessons; sadly, this misunderstanding about quotation marks seems to co-exist in students who also struggle with reading and attendance. Sometimes I feel ludicrous. I’m pursuing the curriculum appropriate for students’ age level, but my content doesn’t meet the comprehension level of a growing proportion of students. I don’t have a quantifiable assessment, but when students don’t understand the various uses for quotation marks, I suspect a lower reading level. How much can someone read and still be unaware that quotation marks are needed for someone else’s text when it’s copied word-for-word? Especially if that student has read specific directions for the very assignment? Today’s technological students are surrounded by dialogue—texting, instant messaging, cinema and t.v.; expository reading seems easy to dodge. Rather than fail all offenders, I offer students an opportunity to correct their work for the lowest possible passing grade…it’s a teachable moment, right?
Here’s the cost: I spend so much time teaching students not to plagiarize—in all its various forms—that I spend less time on excellent logic and argument in writing. I spend so much time teaching students what not to do, that I accomplish very little on helping them express authentic discussions of their own. Sometimes I think I need to work exclusively on critical reading before moving on to critical writing. Am I putting the cart before the horse, asking them to care about intellectual property before they’ve had any of their own? I think I cared about academic integrity because I felt I had a dog in the fight; I had ideas and expressions of ideas to which I planned to put my name. My students and I spend so much time clearing up what it means to be honest, that we don’t spend a significant portion of time ensuring that students write about ideas of any consequence.
A colleague of mine attributes the growing number of students who don’t understand that the syntax, the words used to express an idea, can be “owned” to the open-source nature of Internet information. Upon Googling “plagiarism,” for example, a student might find five sites that define and explain the concept with the same exact language, and one site makes no reference or gives no credit to another. The words, in effect, seem to be the public domain—common knowledge has been extended to word-for-word expression.
I know as teachers we can spend a weekend talking about “kids today” and the problems with the Internet and plagiarism; I really, really like the Internet, and I like teaching with it. I just want students to understand about quotation marks, to value written expression as worth crediting to someone else. More and more, with each passing year, I feel old, beating my intellectual property drum before a people who find satisfaction in the facsimile without concern for its origin. What line is worth fighting for on the front of research in our brave new world? Should I surrender some of the paraphrased plagiarism energy and work harder on the logic? With fifteen weeks in a semester, I’ve got to prioritize, and when I’m in the trenches like this week, I lose my certainty as to which is more important.