Thursday, March 3, 2011

Another Weird Thing My Students Do

We've been talking about weird things undergraduates do lately. Here's another weird thing undergraduates do.

In my introductory classes, I often have my students write little essays in which I pick an argument we've discussed in class, ask them to state it in a clear way, give some sort of justification for each of its premises, and then give an evaluation in which they present an objection to the argument and explain how it works. This is usually something we've already talked about, too. So, after we've read the sixth Meditation and discussed it in class, the assignment might say, "Explain mind-body dualism, then state, explain, and evaluate Descartes's conceivability argument for this view." Nothing weird so far, I don't think.

But I've noticed that a small but substantial minority of students sort of freak out at this point, especially early in the semester. I get a bunch of emails from students who are worried about plagiarism, and so they don't want to copy arguments and definitions and stuff from the handouts. And I get a bunch of emails asking if I want them to make up their own argument for mind-body dualism. And, relatedly, I get quite a few papers that don't contain anything that remotely resembles anything that Descartes ever said, ever. When I ask the author of the paper about it, I often hear the same stuff about how they were worried about plagiarism and they thought I wanted them to make up their own argument.

I think this is really weird. It is really weird, right? The purpose of in-class handouts is to serve as a guide to understanding the material. Why wouldn't I want my students to make use of them in completing their writing assignments? Are there really teachers out there who would bust students for plagiarizing the handouts they hand out in class?

And why would I want my intro-level students to make up their own Descartes's argument for dualism? Why wouldn't I want to use an assignment like that to check for comprehension of the material we've been discussing in class? And why wouldn't the fact that I say I want them to discuss Descartes's argument for dualism be a clue that I don't want them to make up their own?

Plus, it's hard to make up your own philosophical argument. These are students who have literally no background in philosophy whatsoever. Why would I make them do something so difficult so soon? (Of course, it's possible that my students don't realize that it's difficult, or if they do they don't realize what a reasonable guy I am.)

I think this is so fucking weird. I mean, if you were taking an evolutionary biology class, and you had been talking about Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium, and in the context of that discussion there was an assignment to state and explain Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium and address some related controversies, nobody thinks you're supposed to make up and explain your own Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium. Do they?

--Mr. Zero

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are you sure they're worried about plagiarizing arguments from the handouts--and not from the sources the handouts draw from? If the handouts include material from the primary texts or from class discussions, then it seems a little less strange for them to worry about plagiarism.

I have many students who are confused about whether they can use arguments from the primary text or if they have to come up with their own entirely new arguments. And I have had many students who assumed original arguments brought up in discussion were off limits. So it may not be about the handouts, per se.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 7:48,

I see what you're saying. It's possible, but I didn't get the idea that this is what's going on. It's hard to reconstruct an exact dialog that would be representative, but in talking with these students I have been left with the impression that they were specifically worried about plagiarizing me, not Descartes or whoever.

But even then, the solution is simply to attribute the argument to Descartes. If you attribute the argument to its author, you're not plagiarizing.

I have had many students who assumed original arguments brought up in discussion were off limits.

Yeah. I think that's so strange. I mean, I'm shooting for assignments that connect to the class discussion. I'm not shooting for assignments that proceed independently of what goes on in class.

Anonymous said...

Aw, introductory students can be so cute!

I bet they're freshmen who, as part of their introduction to college life, have listened to extremely stern lectures about the evil that is plagiarism. So, they're nervous, they're terrified of getting expelled, and they're new enough that they don't understand how to ask for clarification. It's a perfect storm of good intentions and confusion.

That said, what I usually get from students so new to philosophy is not worry about having to create their own brand new argument for some claim, but instead frustration that I don't want them to give me their original arguments. I'm stifling their brilliant creativity by asking them to focus on Descartes's argument, you know.

Anonymous said...

After a semester where 4 members of a class of under 30 plagiarized significant portions of essays from Wikipedia (despite the fact that Wikipedia had relatively nothing to say concerning the assigned essay topic and my repeated warnings to use no sources beyond the primary text) I would look upon paranoia concerning plagiarism as a welcome relief. Your students sound strange but conscientious.

Anonymous said...

I have had students plagiarize from my handouts. It really can be an issue. When students ask, I sometimes provide electronic copies of the fairly detailed notes I use for class. I've had students give me papers that copied and pasted half a page here and half a page there from these notes, without even bothering to change the font or formatting to fit with their own.

The upshot is that now I never provide notes explaining arguments, at least not if there's any chance of the argument appearing in a student paper. Instead I give handouts that are meant to help the student figure out for themselves what the arguments are.

On a related note, does anyone know of a good plagiarism guide for students? There are plenty of practical "how to write a philosophy paper" guides, but are there any practical "how to remain academically honest in philosophy" guides?

Xenophon said...

Zero, thanks for the post.

I also am not surprised by the students' reaction. I agree with the earlier comments that they've had DON'T PLAGIARIZE beat into them, and that I'm puzzled by students who want to create their own arguments. When I create an assignment where I'm checking understanding of material, that's not a place for student creativity, but some students think every assignment, regardless of its purpose, should seek out their opinion on the material.

But I'd like to add that they might have real concerns about plagiarism. When they're looking at the book and handout, basically you're asking them to paraphrase, or put in their own words, things that you've probably said more clearly than they can. Or at least that's what the assignment sounds like. So I can see them thinking that anything that doesn't just come straight from your handout is going to wrong, and anything that does will just be copying what you say.

Maybe a better format would be an in-class quiz, where a grade is given just for making a serious effort. Then it's formative assessment, and students know they need to get the skill down because they'll have questions of this form on the exams? Just an idea.

Anonymous said...

I would echo 8:13's and 8:57's difficulties. Would that I had students who were afraid to jot down random philosophical musings on the material and/or outright copy easily found internet sources that are only broadly related to the assigned topic.

It's certainly odd to find a group of students as thoroughly conscientious as yours, Mr. Zero. I'm wondering if it's not some combination of these three things:

1.) the originality confusion mentioned by 7:48
2.) the intimidation factor mentioned by 8:13
3.) the force of the academic honesty portion of your syllabus

Anonymous said...

I don't think that students have a very good sense of what "in your own words" means. If you don't have that notion, then the two remaining options are original or plagiarized. Kind of a dumb mistake, but not a "weird" one.

Anonymous said...

I say it is not weird at all--or if there is anything weird, it is that they care as much as they do. Similar to 8:57, I would be kind of happy to have this problem.

Surely you know that the rise of the internets has both made plagiarism way easier to do and way easier to catch, such that plagiarism is a huge issue on most campuses. And 8:13 is probably right that they have been bombarded with lectures about the matter. Furthermore, they might have some professors telling them that class notes have to be cited (I both had this happen as a student, and know some of my colleagues do it), and that would only add to their paranoia.

And as for philosophy being hard, and the comparison with evolutionary biology--surely you know that while it may be completely wrong, many people think that everyone can have their own "philosophy" while they don't think the same thing about the natural sciences. And Descartes would probably only add to this, because of the emphasis on introspection in the Meditations (it is something we can all do, in our own armchairs). So that part isn't weird either.

Anonymous said...

I've gotten to where early term writing assignments are just the first part of yours. "I don't want you to evaluate this argument at all. I just want you to explain what the argument is." This keeps it clear what kind of work I'm after, and that using wikipedia or a handout without acknowledgment is giving someone else's summary as if it is your own. And it emphasizes the bigger thing...that before you can evaluate an argument, you have to understand it and, ideally, be able to describe it in a way that the argument's author would recognize and accept. My students aren't initially great at reading and understanding arguments...

Anonymous said...

"I don't think that students have a very good sense of what 'in your own words' means. If you don't have that notion, then the two remaining options are original or plagiarized."

I think this is the root of the matter, although I agree with what others have said, too. I like this assignment, Mr. Zero, and I think you might mitigate these problems by explaining in more detail what you want them to do ("Tell me, in your own words, how Descartes argues for mind-body dualism.") and why you want them to do it ("I want to be sure that you understand what the argument is, how it works, etc."). And remind them to attribute the argument to Descartes.

One interesting idea I've heard for teaching the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing is to do an in-class activity in which you give them a passage and have them write two summaries of the passage: one that intentionally plagiarizes the passage and one that merely paraphrases it.

Also, I love the phrase "your own Descartes's argument."

Anonymous said...

I give similar assignments, in which I ask students to explain and evaluate a particular argument. I remember one student emailed me because she didn't really understand part of the argument (I think it was Hobbes' argument that political sovereignty must be absolute). So, I explained it to her, in MY own words (obviously). Then she turned in a paper in which the paragraph I sent her explaining the argument was plagiarized in its entirety.

Anonymous said...

I've found similar things: students seem excessively anxious about not plagiarizing, for all the stated reasons - fear of punishment, a mistaken belief that they're supposed to be making up "their own Descartes' argument", etc etc.

In my experience, I've found that clear instructions about the goals of the task helps them. Undergraduates seem (increasingly?) to want explicit instructions, to be told whether they're writing summary/exposition or critical analysis. So perhaps if you tell them when setting the task, or in the rubric, "this task is intended to test your comprehension of the material we've studied, and show me that you can follow and explain someone else's philosophical argument," then they tend to be happier, and more likely to stay on track.

Anon 9:34: - One book-length plagiarism guide is Charles Lipson's "Doing Honest Work in College." But there's a shorter test which someone once showed me - ironically, I can't now find the webpage it was on, but I shall not claim it as original. It goes like this -

1) Did you write it? (yes/no)
2) Did you cite it? (yes/no)

If you answered "yes" to 1 and "no" to 2 - congratulations! You didn't plagiarize: you developed your own ideas.
If you answered "no" to 1 but "yes" to 2 - congratulations! You didn't plagiarize: you made honest use of other sources.
If you answered "no" to 1 AND 2 - You plagiarized! Go back and redo it.
If you answered "yes" to 1 AND 2 - that doesn't make sense. Go back to high school.

Ian said...

11:51 - I have the exact same story. The best part of it was how impressed I was when I first read that paragraph in the kid's essay. I was like, damn, his first page and a half were pretty shaky, but this part is right on point...

Anonymous said...

This is interesting. I wonder if it's symptomatic of the overemphasis on rote memorization. When a student's told to merely memorize and regurgitate, then in effect she's officially licensed to plagiarize. But if you ask her to summarize an argument in a non-verbatim fashion, she's completely at a loss.

Anonymous said...

And Descartes would probably only add to this, because of the emphasis on introspection in the Meditations (it is something we can all do, in our own armchairs). So that part isn't weird either.

One might avoid this by emphasizing that the point of Descartes's introspection is to identify features shared by all rational, human agents (as opposed to 'that which makes Johnny the unique individual he is').

Anonymous said...

Just to pick up on what 1:34 says. People have different cognitive styles. Some students are better at rote memorization and slower at breaking down information. It takes greater effort for them to understand the material, or, they understand it, but it's harder for them to break down the info into smaller chunks and recombine them in their own way. So they have to rely on rote memorization of arguments. I had a student who was exactly like this. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, was very good at breaking down info and putting them together in his own way. As a result, the boyfriend's exam answers seemed to evince greater understanding and he got a higher grade, though the female student worked much harder.

p.s. I don't mean to make the generalization that men and women have different cognitive styles. I'm a dude but a slow learner and better at synthesizing ideas in my own way than analytically breaking down other people's ideas. I could understand some of the girl's problems, and I sympathized with her more, so I was sorry to give her a lower grade.

Anonymous said...

You are an inexperienced teacher.

Anonymous said...

Wow, 8.22, that was really helpful. Presumably, as someone who feels qualified to call someone else inexperienced, you have some advice from your own experience you want to share? Because if you just came on here to answer someone's question about teaching with "you're inexperienced" - well, that's kind of an asshole thing to do. If you answered your students' question in the same unhelpful way, then - no matter how experienced you were - you'd be a terrible, unjustifably-arrogant little teacher.

Anonymous said...

Are there really teachers out there who would bust students for plagiarizing the handouts they hand out in class?

Yes! I do a lot of teaching in teams with colleagues from other departments, and I've been surprised at how much variation I see in what they tell their--and so also my--students about plagiarism. One (tenured!) colleague even insisted that a student who included a direct quotation (complete with quotation marks!) in her paper, but without identifying the source by means of a citation, had committed plagiarism, and he was surprised that I disagreed.

Anonymous said...

oh, anon 8:22, you are a wonderful person who makes productive comments.

Anonymous said...

You need to improve your manners, Mr Zero. You come across as a rude asshole. If you put your name on this blog, and philosophy departments read it, they would be reluctant to hire you because of the way you treat people who irritate you.

Anonymous said...

I think this has already been said in one way or another, but my immediate guess is that the students have no idea what an argument is. It's pretty standard in my classes that I ask students to summarize an argument and instead they summarize the paper or chapter in which the argument is found. Given that they have no idea what an argument is--and your explaining it to them fifty times in class often won't help--if you ask them to restate an argument, they think the only options are to (1) copy what you say Descartes is saying (a related point: my students believe me when I say "this is what Descartes is saying here", but they are often incapable of actually seeing that that is what Descartes is saying here; after all, he writes in full words, often long ones, without any smiley faces for punctuation, etc), or (2) come up with something unrelated on their own. You are assigning them something different from these two options, but they can't distinguish what you want from either (1) or (2). (1) sounds like plagiarism to them, thus they go for (2). I think it's weird, but only because I think it's weird to be 18 and not know what an argument is.

Word verification: tweripat
I guess: "Look at that wimp waving a flag; what a tweripat."

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 4:55 PM,

I disagree. I'd rather work with Mr. Zero than someone who posts insults like yours. Let's hope your name doesn't surface.

Anonymous said...

I find 4:55's use of 'need' very irritating. Saying someone 'needs' to do something, when in fact they have no relevant need and all the speaker means is that the person ought to do it, that usage has a very kindergarten teacherish feel. Of course, the fact that the content of 4:55 is very kindergarten teacher lecturish aggravates the grating quality.

Anonymous said...

This is off-topic but: does anyone know where an ad was posted for the job at Univ. of Kansas? (I'm referring to the one implied by the hire listed on the Leiter thread).

CTS said...

I'm struggling with a related problem: that it is more and more difficult to get students to do as the assignment asks at all. My assignments have become inanely didactic:
You need to do X, then Y, then Z. You must use and cite the required primary source reading, in this case that would be the selections from Plato's Republic (see under Required Readings in red font). Do not write about wr Q or P.....

And, yet, I get papers that do only one of X, Y, and Z - or none of them, papers that make no use of any source or only of the unrequired secondary readings, papers that are devoted to whether Q or P.

I remind, revisit, and so on for every assignment, but there will be some who never seem to be able to do as instructed. Needless to say, my assignments have become less 'creative' to a great extent.

Oh, and I am a very 'experienced' teacher. :-)

Anonymous said...

1:28, I noticed that as well. I really don't think there was an ad for that job, as given the candidate's AOS's, I would've noticed it and applied. My guess is that it's a mistake... maybe it's the University of Missouri at Kansas City job?

Anonymous said...

it is more and more difficult to get students to do as the assignment asks at all.

I see this a lot. In fact, I just finished reviewing a random sample from an entire year's worth of assignments in various sections of my department's intro to ethics course, and the most surprising thing to see wasn't how poorly students did on certain tasks (evaluating an argument, say), but how few even bothered to attempt the tasks at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled about what's so puzzling; weirded out about why you're weirded out.

I think that's because I've become way too aware of the "Study Group" mentality that has swept our undergrads. They check with eachother on everything, and their written interpretations of texts and arguments tend to converge on a single, recognizable gloss. Usually it's something you said that one of them copied and spread, with some distortion thrown in. Speaking of which, besides "Study Group," there's frantic note-taking, which means if you've ever explained what each step in the argument is saying, it's out there, and probably being used by a number of them, word for word.

For these reasons, they already have -- in some easy form -- the verbatim "answer," at least to the State-the-Argument prompt. They can't imagine that the assignment, supposed to involve reasoning or critical skill (says "philosophy", right?), could boil down to reproducing a ready batch of words. Plus, they know you'll see the uniformity of answers across the study groups, and they don't see the point in that (for you!). So, they wonder, could there be something more?

Makes perfect sense to me, given the way they tend to work these days.

Nonscriptor said...

This is veering slightly off-topic, but the reference to "frantic note-taking" in Anon 2:00's insightful comment inspired me to ask a question.

I'm thinking about trying an intro course in which I write very little on the board and mostly just lecture very slowly. Here's my inspiration:

I give short-essay format exams in some intro level classes. Many questions have the form, "What is X's argument that P? [Insert follow-up question here.]" Follow-up questions include things like "What would X say about Y?" and "Explain at least one objection to that argument and how X could meet it."

Many of my students (like yours, probably) respond by writing down, as nearly verbatim as they can remember, everything that I wrote on the board about the general topic, but nothing else, even when what I wrote on the board doesn't actually answer the question.

I'm hoping that if I remove the note-taking crutch of writing down all and only the things that I wrote down, students may be forced to think about what I'm saying when they take notes. Some will probably crash and burn, of course, which worries me.

Has anyone ever tried anything like this? Any advice?

Anonymous said...

I really don't think there was an ad for that job, as given the candidate's AOS's, I would've noticed it and applied. My guess is that it's a mistake... maybe it's the University of Missouri at Kansas City job?

No, it's not a mistake. It looks to me like an inside hire for a job which was never advertised. I was under the impression that was illegal. But, then again, there are aspects of the profession which continue to surprise me.