Sunday, November 15, 2009

Courseblogging: Occasions of Sin

Am halfway through the second set of papers: close reading of an early modern poem ten to forty lines in length, no interpretative or critical sources allowed, use of the OED highly encouraged. Two plagiarism cases so far (well, three, but the third one plagiarized a single sentence that wasn't even germane to her analysis, and once you get into single-sentence stuff, I'm inclined to dock the grade and move on rather than go through the hassle of filing a full report). I am disappointed, but not especially surprised; that is, in one case I'm both surprised and disappointed by WHO turned out to be a plagiarist, but not surprised that there were plagiarists. I mean, if you Google, say, "death be not proud poetry analysis," you WILL find many, many examples of what you are looking for. And as Angelo says in Measure for Measure, we are all frail.

There's a school of thought that says you're not supposed to give assignments like this. If you go on the Chronicle forums (which are a hotbed of judgmentalism, but somehow I can't tear myself away from them), you will find lots of people who will tell you that if you don't craft highly specific, unplagiarizable assignments that are unique to each class, you're just asking for trouble. As my older, Catholic-schooled relatives would say, you are giving students an Occasion Of Sin, and part of the moral responsibility is yours if they fall.

I don't agree. For one thing, I don't believe there's such a thing as an unplagiarizable assignment. (In my very first lit class, back at the University of Basketball where the Honor Code had teeth, I came up with a paper topic that I thought was unique -- "imagine you've invited two of the playwrights we've read this semester to dinner at your house and write a dialogue between them" -- and one kid STILL plagiarized. I doubt that anything will discourage the truly determined.) I'm also not convinced that it's a good idea to design your classes around the possibility that students will cheat. They probably will, but it gives the cheaters too much power.

Also, it seems to me that if the assignments are too specific, it's less likely that students will be able to transfer the skills they learn to their other classes. (I wonder if this is why the conferences I held last week involved one student after another telling me they'd never had to write a poetry analysis paper before. The simple, generic assignment that allows students a fair amount of latitude to make their own choices seems to have fallen out of favor.)

Still, I'm feeling a touch of nagging guilt; I have to remind myself that several of the other papers are excellent. At their best, the students picked poems that they liked and had a lot to say about, and a couple of them told me in conference that they were surprised at how much they were enjoying the assignment. (A few of them even chose to write about poems that they weren't required to read, since I told them they could pick any poem from the anthology if it met the requirements for the assignment -- it will give me a break from endless papers on "Death be not proud." Yay for people discovering Herbert and Vaughn on their own!)

I do think I need to do more scaffolding and really teach students how to focus closely on language, although this may not be feasible if I'm teaching two large-ish sections again; I'm not sure a short OED assignment plus class discussion are enough to prepare them for a longish analytical paper. One of the students showed me a cool color-coding method one of her high-school teachers had taught her; it involved identifying patterns of words and highlighting the ones that fit together in different colors. I might try this next time around.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Oddly enough, I've (knock on wood) never had a plagiarizer in my Shakespeare class at warm-and-fuzzy school. I've had a few suspects, but lengthy bouts of internet sleuthing, including the use of, turned up nothing. So if they plagiarized, they did it the old fashioned way -- with books. But I doubt it. Almost every case of plagiarism I've found, going all the way back to the year 2000, was due to internet pilfering. The only case I can remember that used a book was when a student used a book that I knew well and had on reserve to steal a paragraph or two. That was sort of funny.

I almost always feel bad when I have a plagiarism case, but I never blame myself. Students have a choice to do the work or to slack off. They're adults. Still makes me feel bad though. I wish they'd think about the consequences first -- long and hard.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Come to think of it, the only time I've seen a case of book-based plagiarism, it was the introduction to an assigned course text. Wasn't too hard to spot, especially since the passage in question contained the word "bibulous."

Sisyphus said...

So people have told me that there have been studies and fear and lack of time are the biggest pushes to make a student attempt plagiarism.

So maybe it is fear/confusion that they can't do the assignment?

I had a crappy high school but a wonderful honors English teacher, and just about every night he sent home a teeny little poem and we had to write a paragraph on which was the most important word in it, and why. (I think he made us have to do 100 words.) Or maybe it was the top three most important words.

So I never had to write an essay for him ever and that probably fucked up my writing in other ways but it did help me zero in and practice the basic idea of closely reading a text (a word!) and making a claim about it. Practice makes familiar and all that.

What if you had that as the standing assignment every session and then built that into the class discussion? By paper time they'd be good at that (probably suck at the papers still, true, but hopefully in new and interesting ways!)

Of course this might be too easy for them. Or they might _think_ it was too easy for them; that's what I always get at my school --- they won't admit when they need some remedial help.

tenthmedieval said...

So I never had to write an essay for him ever and that probably fucked up my writing in other ways but it did help me zero in and practice the basic idea of closely reading a text (a word!) and making a claim about it. Practice makes familiar and all that.

What if you had that as the standing assignment every session and then built that into the class discussion? By paper time they'd be good at that (probably suck at the papers still, true, but hopefully in new and interesting ways!)

Wow, I completely have to do that.

One of the things my students have not yet twigged is that I'm scouring the web each week for images related to the topic, so I've already seen several of the websites they're using by the time they turn in essays. That said, I haven't recognised anything yet...

Ceirseach said...

Well, since the last batch I had included one student plagiarising off a review on Amazon and one plagiarising Wikipedia's plot summary of the novel, of all things, I'm feeling a little jaded too right now. You'd think they'd at least make an effort to make their own prose not sound like something my dyslexic younger sister could have improved on in grade two, so that the stolen bits don't stand out so much. For their grammar, if not quality of thought.

Bardiac said...

I think the key is to make it more painful to plagiarize than not. I'm not sure how to do that with a poem analysis, but a ton of prewriting work would probably help.

I love the assignment Sisyphus talks about! Can we all adopt it? Please! :)

LOL, my capcha is "eductivi."

Fretful Porpentine said...

I love Sisyphus's assignment, too! I do a variation on it in class (get together with a couple of other students and pick the three most important words in a poem), but I've never tried it in written format, and that may be the sort of first step they need.

Of course, then I'd have to grade all those mini-papers. Trade-offs, trade-offs...

Flavia said...

I try to solve this problem (though I don't) in the following ways:

1. When we start a unit that involves poetic analysis, I my students a handout with about 15 poetic/literary terms that they'll be expected to be able both to define and to identify: parts of a sonnet, enjambment/enstopping, alliteration, diction, caesura, kinds of metrical feet, etc. We go over and use these terms frequently in our collective close-readings in class.

2. I give a short assignment or two--usually one in-class, to be done in a group, and one an individual written response--that involves students taking a short lyric poem and writing a short paragraph on 5 different poetic or literary features in that poem, of their choice: they're to identify them, and then tell me how they contribute to the poem's meaning or effect.

3. When I assign an actual close-reading essay, I give them a handout that gives them tips on how to write such a thing. They often get good, via the above activities, at identifying and talking about the meaning of individual features, but are hella bad at synthesizing them into an argument. So my handout tells them both how to break the poem down, and then how to (attempt to) write about it coherently, and make an overarching argument.

So all in all, not dissimilar from what Sis's teacher did, but with the intention of building up from that step.

(I'm not saying it's totally successful, but at least I feel that I'm giving them the right tools. . .)

Bardiac said...

Oh, that's a great assignment, too!

I'm totally going to borrow that!

Would you be kind enough to email me your list of words, please?

Sisyphus said...

Don't grade them!!!! Collect them for points (a check or a minus) and make them fight in class!

(as in: what words did you pick? Aha, there's a group of 3 who say this word, and a group of 4 who say that word! We now have two teams and each team has to prepare a presentation on what the poem means and why _your word_ is more important than the _other team's word_ to this meaning. Go!)