I’ve Gotta Be Me: The New, New Plagiarism

Once again the mass media are shocked – shocked! – to discover that today’s college and high school students have no respect for their sources, for their teachers, for their forebears, for the difficulty of writing, and ultimately for themselves. They plagiarize, willy-nilly, just like they download and Facebook (that’s a verb) and “try on” personalities that belong to other people, rather than creating personalities of their own.

What now seems to be a back-t0-school ritual of confusion over the complaint (what’s the problem?  that students are not wholly original, or that they are not wholly truthful in crediting sources when they are not wholly original?) is prompted by a recent book by Susan Blum, a scholar at Notre Dame.

There is little new here, I think, including the round of criticism that blames the students for being thieves and cheaters, and/or blames Western culture for continuing to be in thrall to Enlightenment ideals of individual authorship.  (I’m referring to the debate/dialogue, not to Professor Blum’s book, which relies on original research.)

Legal education is hardly immune to the plagiarism problem.  Nor is legal education any more successful in general than education at any other level in combatting the problem by hectoring students about what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to research and sourcing.

This is what I have done, partly to deal with the plagiarism issue:  I teach differently.  Like many teachers, I put a premium on teaching my students to develop the faculty for independent thought and expression, including understanding differences between contexts where “new” expression and judgment is called for, contexts where uncited “old” (others’) expression and judgment is fine, contexts where “old” (others’) expression and judgment is fine but citations are required, and contexts (this last category is the largest one) that involve blends of these things.

I can’t do that with standard law school end-of-semester exams, whether they are in-class or take-home exams, because end-of-the-semester exams generally don’t challenge students to write well.  That is, exams generally don’t challenge students to write as lawyers in practice are expected to write:  Clearly, concisely, efficiently, and with the sense that the lawyer’s personal judgment is what the client expects and deserves.

I can do that to a large degree, but imperfectly, by assigning my students to write a series of short papers based on hypotheticals that I design and that are not ripped from the headlines, the advance sheets, or the Teacher’s Manual — and that, in the main, don’t ask solely or even primarily for “legal” analysis.  I ask students for their judgment, which depends on legal analysis but which has to go beyond it.  I have found that papers that respond to my hypotheticals are, by definition, not subject to plagiarism problems, because the hypotheticals do not lend themselves to cut-and-paste responses, even in part.  With multiple assignments during the term, I can raise and address issues of citation and see whether students have learned appropriate lessons.  Am I certain that no student of mine has ever slid a cut-and-paste job past me?  No.  But I don’t worry about plagiarism.  I worry about structuring my teaching so that my students are forced to think for themselves.

One thought on “I’ve Gotta Be Me: The New, New Plagiarism

  1. It’s bits like this that bother me:

    “It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.”

    It’s all that darn Napster and Wikipedia! What?

    I think your answer is right, Mike. The problem here isn’t all about cheating students. Some students will cheat and cutting and pasting from the Internet has – surprise – made it easier for the cheaters. (Fwiw, Don McCabe told our faculty that law students are the least likely to cheat while business student are by far the biggest cheaters – score one for law school!)

    The more serious problem is that writing a five page essay in English 101 on the Truman presidency or solar energy might have made some sense in 1980, but it’s ludicrous in an era where your iPhone lets you carry the Library of Congress in your pocket.

    Educators should focus on ways to teach students to gain the skills they need to gain to do what they will need to do, not lament the decreasing functionality of particular pedagogical assessment techniques!

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