Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling Writing

SeedsTwo of my students handed two of the exact same essays. I was disappointed in both their lack of integrity and their apparent belief that I’m such a dolt I would not notice. The students are, however, freshmen, so to give them the benefit of the doubt, I introduced them to the concept of “academic dishonesty” and spoke with them about how they could fail the class, get in trouble with the University (I had to invoke the university as a giant, imposing concept), and later in life, ruin their careers by turning in the same work as another person.

The class is basically a writing and public speaking course for science majors. We’ve been talking about research and research journeys all semester, and all of the work they do involves a science spin—their final papers are research literature reviews, we’ve spoken about how to prepare conference proposals and abstracts, how to debate people who say factually inaccurate things (e.g., the Earth is 6,000 years old) and at the end of the semester, they will practice presenting their findings from the literature review papers. I’m thinking that next week we need to talk about ethics.

Of course, my students’ academic dishonesty is coming on the heels of Jane Goodall’s recent book scandal, where she (and her co-writer) plagiarized more than a dozen passages from Wikipedia, a website on organic tea farming, an astrology website, and several other sites. I can’t help but to draw a comparison, too, to Jonah Lehrer’s publishing scandal. Is the push to produce really so great in our society that we can’t consider and internalize and twist ideas until they become our own, or at least rewrite simple, informative passages in our own phrasing?

I have been concerned about our Tumblr/Facebook generation, a generation of “content” curators rather than independent thinkers and creators, and I noticed this problem right away with my class. For each speaker (researchers from different departments across campus) we’ve invited to talk to the class, I’ve asked the students to write 250 word summaries of the person’s education and research and to develop three questions to ask after the presentation. That first set of papers I received had obviously been copied and pasted from CVs and personal websites, meaning that the students hadn’t really read the information they were handing in. Many of their questions were unimaginative (“What brought you to UNM?”), which was another obvious sign. Naturally, I devoted a portion of the next class to discussing the need to use your own language and cite everything.

Until I started teaching this class, I’d been fairly safe in my “arts world” thinking, considerate of copyright and ready to acknowledge any influences. After the Lehrer scandal, I thought quite a bit about “self-plagiarism” and what is and is not plagiarism. When concerned about our curator generation, I’d been more concerned its affects on originality.

Yesterday, I was speaking with a biologist about the push to publish affecting intellectual property, integrity, honesty, etc. She mentioned one of her concerns: rushing experiments and not thoroughly checking all phases of an experiment to ensure accuracy of the results. Now I’ve spent a good portion of the morning thinking about research as a kind of “telephone game,” where one researcher might use another’s published-but-faulty conclusions as a foundation in a new study, and just how dangerous that might be, especially if you consider medical trials.

Our ethics lesson will obviously have to cover much more ground–honesty, objectivity, confidentiality, funding sources, accountability to the public, intellectual property, publication issues, mentoring issues, legality, competence, animal and human subjects, just to name a few. I can only hope some of it sticks considering that one day, these freshmen will become my health care practitioners and pharmacologists.


  • CathieSmathie says:

    I just had a conversation with a fellow instructor about how, more frequently, we feel like we’re running into a wall of “teaching character.” As in, it’s difficult to not only teach composition skills, but also integrity, honesty, and pride in ones work.
    I just had my students write a piece about the ways in which they saw connections between their own lives and a character we’d read. More than one student simply wrote: I have nothing in common with him.
    Now I want to structure an entire course with the theme of empathy.

    • Amaris Amaris says:

      I had some empathy prompts that I used a couple years ago and the students found them way too hard. I wonder if that’s something that just takes a while to develop with emotional maturity. You could, perhaps, involve some kind of service learning component and try to get students to go out into the community, meet people they never would have met otherwise, and try to understand their lives.

      Or maybe you could structure a whole class on “character,” which also could be interesting. I’m working on a class for the fall that will encourage students to be young contrarians rather than hide behind the “cloak of irony.”

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    The concept of a curator generation is interesting –as is the idea of teaching empathy. I used to tell my comp students that plagiarism was a serious violation of university policy, but also a violation of federal law — for which the most likely consequence was prison time. They kind of thought I was kidding. They weren’t really sure. Whatever generation we’re talking about, it’s always hard to learn how to think, always hard to teach people how to think. We know that in order to learn how to think, students have to get engaged with their subject, and have to ask a lot of questions, and have to be challenged again and again. And curiosity certainly helps.

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