Control V Redux: Relating to Digital Natives

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, March 21, 2012.

I recommend starting out with a perusal of our last two posts if you haven’t read them already:  my Control V: Approaching Plagiarism, and Katherine’s Seven years in an attic.  What follows continues that conversation:

I think Katherine’s post makes a lot of important points and I agree with a large part of it—and I certainly agree with the spirit of it.  I absolutely agree that academics struggle to agree on a theoretical, to say nothing of a practical, definition of what plagiarism is.  But whether deliberately or inadvertently, Katherine leaves us with the sense that fault lies with instructors who seek only to punish without providing orientation, guidance, or precaution.  My frustrations with plagiarism have grown from the fact that I feel I’ve provided all of these in spades, and yet STILL…the plagiarism.  Perhaps the bigger problem is that we ARE providing our admittedly vague and caveat-laden definitions of what plagiarism is, and the other handful of instructors, TAs, tutors, and advisors that students come into contact with every semester across the disciplines are defining it too.  And either the definitions they receive openly contradict one another, or they are all so sufficiently unclear and garbled, or rooted in discipline-specific examples, that students can’t make heads or tails of it.  It makes me wonder if the academy dreamed up a term like “academic honesty” to put in student handbooks, because the committee meetings that sought to articulate language for a plagiarism policy just turned into a din of academics talking past each other like they do.  The result is that students deal with it in two ways…and in their defense it’s the same two ways I deal with things I can’t make sense of:  I either ignore it for the time being and see what happens, or I wind up paralyzed by fear of transgressing some line I can’t even see.

We tend to see the struggles of our students through the only true lens really available to us:  our own experience.  So for my part, I am among the last people in the world who graduated from college entirely without the support of the internet.  The web was out there in 1997, but, to my recollection, it had yet to be harnessed in any meaningful way by college and university campuses.  When I started college, email was a disk you carried around in your pocket.  Around the time I was being handed my email disk, most of my current students were being conceived!  It wasn’t until my third or fourth job after college that a co-worker showed me this amazing thing:  it was called Hotmail!  To tell my students this they might assume that I also started my car with a hand crank.

I made some quips about my college at the opening of my initial plagiarism post (see link above) and I’ve been thinking back on those years in light of Katherine’s post and the discussion.  Because the internet was barely a thing, and certainly not a thing that had yet collided with academic life, plagiarism in the 90s could hardly be said to be the refuge of the lazy.  To actually plagiarize something would have required some considerable effort to find it, and, for the love of god, retype it!!  And for the undergrad with beer to drink and Pringles to eat, this was a bridge too far!  It was easier just to make some shit up.  And I’m sure the professoriat of the day was as adept at sniffing out late twentieth century fabrications as we’ve become at detecting early twenty-first century intellectual theft!  I didn’t make up a lot of stuff I should say (lest the current Colby registrar go flipping through his or her archives) but like any undergrad I took some liberties and short cuts here and there.  Thing is, the liberties I took were ones I learned from.  I built arguments and synthesized ideas and learned to paint with words, even if some of my raw materials were of dubious origins.  As we read on a daily basis, the minds of digital natives operate differently.  Katherine gets at this in her discussion of their relationships to text as established through anthropological inquiry.  I once had a student who I failed for plagiarism.  But in retrospect, he had constructed a paper with surgical plagiaristic precision, knit together with some eloquence from a mind-boggling array of online sources.  The sites he had used were, in some cases, very relevant, but in other cases somewhat tangentially relevant, indicating that to have wound up on such a site in the first place would have required a very interesting thought process.  While I was bound by my policy to fail him, and he understood the result and didn’t resist, I was compelled by the fact that his process must have taken him a REALLY long time–a heck of a lot longer than just writing it himself.  This is but one case, but one in which laziness was in no way the motivation.  While initially I was angry with him for wasting my time, I now see that he was actually engaging the assignment to a greater extent than his classmates, and must have learned an enormous amount in so doing.  This generation processes information differently.  They are as prone to laziness as any preceding generation of undergraduates.  But in discussing plagiarism, and forging plans and policies of how to deal with it when it happens and how to preempt it before it happens, we need to be mindful of these differences.  Not an easy prescription for faculty and administrators who can’t clearly define plagiarism and probably never experienced any serious impulse to resort to it themselves.

This is certainly not to say that my student who knit together the impressive tapestry of other people’s language and ideas should be rewarded for his enterprise.  On the contrary it is to say that we need, as instructors, to do a better job of crafting ways for students to use the technology to the best of its potential, and embrace the culture of sharing that Katherine describes, while still exercising their developing intellectual muscles.  There are so many ideas readily available to them now, that I wonder if they have not grown more reticent to develop their own and practice the means of articulating them.  And, as I mentioned in my first post, that student, who synthesized to be sure, would have encountered multiple occurrences of the same language in the various places he looked.  The inevitable lesson from his online experience, a result of an approach to a project that I never would have anticipated as his instructor, was that he encountered ideas and language repurposed all over the place.  Is it not a rather unceremonious yank of the carpet to provide him vague definitions of “academic honesty,” canned notions of plagiarism forged from an earlier generation of scholars, and a sea of examples that highlight the opposite of our intended lesson, and expect him to emerge with a proper sense of his own place in an evolving academic landscape?

Katherine and I have converged here in the same blog, and we both study history, but we come from quite different intellectual roots.  Katherine came from a place where history was practiced and taught as a social science, such that finding history being thought about and pursued among the humanities was a bit of culture shock.  But she has an outlook on writing that is very matter-of-fact, very mechanical, very task-oriented.  I began as an English major who focused on creative writing.  As such, writing is something different for me—which makes doing history very difficult.  Writing is anything but mechanical, as much as I long to make it more so.  With writing comes cycles of self-loathing, sleep deprivation, erratic patterns of nutrition and exercise, and a curt coldness towards people I care about.  In short, I live my writing–its a life-style for me.  It’s a job, or part of one, for Katherine.  While Katherine is rather blasé about the notion of someone stealing her stuff, the very idea of it makes me fume.  I didn’t put myself through all that for some piss ant to come along and swipe it so they could more quickly get back to their beer and Pringles!  No, no!  You steal my stuff and I’m coming for you!  As with many things, the ideal ground probably lay somewhere between us.  But the point is, here we have two more or less like-minded people of the same discipline, and we don’t react to, or probably define, plagiarism in the same ways.  Imagine if there were 4 or 5 of us—or however many instructors your students see in an average semester.

To return to my original point, I don’t agree that the problem is a result of failure to address plagiarism.  I’m sure some do fail to address it because, like me, it never occurred to them as students to do it, so it doesn’t occur to them as instructors that their students might.  But I know that I do discuss it openly and extensively with students.  But I wonder if an inconsistent set of messages, benchmarks, definitions, and policies inundating students every semester actually exacerbates the very problem it seeks to address.

I wonder, too, if because we cling to the notion that modern plagiarism is merely the refuge of the lazy, and because instructors like me have been so annoyed both by the act itself and the time wasted in having to deal with it, we are disinclined to spend further valuable time trying to coordinate definitions and policies that we believe apply only to the lowest strata of students who will have as little regard for our policies as they have shown for us and our assignments.  To that I would only offer an additional recollection of my own college years.  I had no concept of what an “academic” was.  I knew that somewhere there was a line in the sand between teacher and professor, but I didn’t care much where it came from.  I did not know that my professors wrote books and articles when they weren’t teaching my classes.  I didn’t know that they had varying ranks, pay scales, and status.  I didn’t know the difference between an adjunct and a tenured or tenure-track professor.  When I look back, I remember many professors but have no concept of whether they were, at the time, tenured or not.  And I don’t think it would be immodest of me to say that I went through college more or less with my eyes open.  So how thorough an understanding of academic honesty or academic integrity could I have possibly aspired to–not knowing even enough to know that I didn’t know what an academic was?  College students don’t know these things, no one ever tells them, and they don’t care.  My point is, taken at face value I understand our collective anger about plagiarism—since while it’s seldom our own stuff being stolen, we’re ever reminded that it may as well be, and I relate to the inclination to meet that anger with firm punishment.  But students who see us for 3 hours a week standing in front of a room don’t see our struggles any more than we see theirs, and it’s unrealistic of us to expect them to understand them.   They don’t see their plagiarism, whether out of laziness or ignorance, as a personal affront and we may need to get past seeing it that way too.