Friday, April 18, 2008

Reminder to Self: Process not Product

My students often “quilt” their writing with lists, phrases, full sentences, and even paragraphs they find on the Internet. Because they might find the same exact paragraph on five different websites, they confuse the paragraph with the research category of common knowledge. This confusion leads directly to unintentional plagiarism, and I work hard to ensure all my students only plagiarize on purpose don’t plagiarize. In our recent poetry wiki, students needed to find three resources on their poet’s biography. Per the instructions in our textbook, I directed students to read over each source and take notes on important details. After internalizing the information, students should put the sources away and write a summary from memory. Next, students should edit their summary for dates, titles, etc. by referring back to their references.

After completing this process, students put their summaries through Turnitin.com. The students’ results lit up with color like a rainbow. This too-small sample shows how the student text (on the left) is highlighted when it matches something on the Internet (websites listed on the right):

turnitincom-report.jpg Hmmm. It turns out that many students could not bring themselves to write a summary without looking at the resources. I struggle to explain that while the facts are common knowledge, the written expression cannot be copied without credit. “You need to write it in your own words,” I’ll say. “I don’t know any other way to say that!” they’ll exclaim. Now, I may live to see a time when common knowledge includes written expression, but until that day, I want to keep working at this clarification. Also, writing a summary in original language is a good method for me to assess students’ reading comprehension, just like I do when I ask them to translate Shakespeare’s dialect into today’s speech. I decided that all those quilted summaries needed to be re-done.

“Go back and say that again in your own words,” I said in my best gentle, but firm voice. My students and I get on pretty well, so nobody laughed openly. A few students held my gaze as if to say, “Really? You are really going to make me do this again?” They returned to their seats and punched out words while plugging in less effective synonyms. “Her many accomplishments include” became “Her several achievements include.” I explained that they needed to do more than punch out words; they needed to change the syntax, too. Wearily, students converted the strong, active voice sentence structure they’d borrowed from the Internet into weak, passive, meandering phrases. “Born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, Rita Dove earned many honors” became “Rita Dove was born in the city of Akron amidst the year of 1952 in the city of Ohio.” By now, I am bleary-eyed from reading draft after draft. My head feels fuzzy as I realize that students have finally met my goal of genuinely paraphrasing, only now their language is weaker than their usual prose. Since I’d backed myself into a corner, I had to concede that students had met my goal even though I wasn’t satisfied with the results.

As I discussed the mess I’d made with a friend and mentor, she pointed out that I’d focused on students fixing a ruined product, born of a corrupted process. “You can’t re-spackle a wall,” she said. “You have to start over.” Her point works with my love of cooking metaphors, too. If I bake a cake with a corrupted process, say forgetting the eggs, I can’t fix that cake. I need to throw it out and start over, getting the process right the second time in order to get a better product. I needed to have students throw out that corrupted summary. I needed an alternative process, another assignment, a do-over, to give students a chance to apply what they’ve learned. I didn’t set my students up to succeed when I asked them to fix their broken products. It’s a lesson I’ve learned before, but I didn’t see it coming this time. The process means more here than the product, and I needed to build in process-repetition. On the one hand, it exhausts me to think of creating a second assignment, but let me assure you, the energy I wasted doing this exercise poorly cost me more…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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