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Guest Thinkers

How to Avoid Plagiarism (and the Future of Higher Education and All That)

So the third suggestion of Hacker and Dreifus in HIGHER EDUCATION concerns avoiding PLAGIARISM.  Plagiarism is easier than ever these days–thanks to the abundant resources on the web.  And the ingenuity of the plagiarist is typically a step or more ahead of the development of the software designed to thwart him (or her).

First off:  Don’t tell students just to do a paper on something having something to do with the class.  That kind of assignment makes it really clear you don’t care that much what they do.  And it both enables and comes close to excusing the web search for something, anything, to fulfill this vague and unhelpful assignment.

Ideally, our authors add, the paper assignment should be specifically tied to what’s done day-to-day in class and incorporate and feature responses to the reading done for the class.  That undermines the student’s creativity, someone might say!  But it actually liberates by focusing the student’s imagination on the point or points of the class. 

A generic paper found or bought online will be so obviously out of place in fulfilling an assignment for a particular class uniquely structured by an imaginative and erudite instructor.  A professor may not be able to prove (beyond a shadow…) that it’s plagiarized, but he (or she) can just give it a bad grade for not fulfilling the assignment.

In classes like political philosophy or constitutional law, research papers, in my opinion, aren’t even appropriate assignments.  Students are confronting tough texts (great books and opinions) for the first time.  They need to read them for the first time in a direct and unmediated way.  They need to experience firsthand the liberating greatness and unrivaled insight of Plato, for example, and they shouldn’t be diverted from the real thing by (relatively) boring articles on Plato. They need to experience the true pleasure of reading. They ought to be reading to find out what’s really true about who they are and what they’re supposed to do. They ought to be animated by the thought that the author of this or that book that has stood the test of time can teach them all sorts of stuff they probably couldn’t have figured out on their own.

 For those (few) students who grow up to be scholars, they’ll be time for the secondary stuff later. And those “budding scholars” especially need to be taught to be suspicious of relying on what the fashionable experts (and their abstract and convoluted theories) are saying.  Those students who go to law school, of course, will know advance that you can understand what the courts are doing best by working your way through the actual opinions, which are often much more subtle and fascinating (and screwed up) than what the experts think about them.

It wouldn’t be hard for me to prove to you that one of the most important skills a student can pick up in college is how to read complicated books closely and comment accurately and intelligently on what he (or she) has read.  That skill will influence in a big way, for example, how well he (or she) will speak and write for his or her whole life–on and off the job.  

The widespread acquisition of that skill will also, of course, determine whether the busy and productive lives of today’s young people will often be completed by reading “real” books for pleasure.

Also (in my opinion): Professors should always assign more than one paper per class.  Part of the evaluation of students should be their willingness to knock themselves out to correct their shortcomings.

Finally:  If you do assign a research paper (as is sometimes appropriate), students must be required to do the paper in stages, with each stage carefully reviewed and graded.  That, for one thing, makes plagiarism almost impossible.  For another, it’s true that most students need that help to connect research to writing.

All this advice, it goes without saying, is most likely to be followed by professors at relatively small colleges with relatively small classes. 


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