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Do books make us cheat less?

A recent piece in The Globe and Mail on the increasing incidence of cheating on college campuses.  We’ve been hearing about this for a long time, and while it is disturbing, I want to think for a moment about the basic tenet behind such articles — that the internet is contributing to increased amounts of cheating and plagiarism and that the more we read and write online the more we will have to deal with this (or not).

The idea seems to be that it is now so *easy* to cut and paste from online sources and it is this ease that has contributed to the increased prevalence of cheating.  This strikes me as somewhat flimsy.  It’s not like it’s *hard* to copy sentences from a book.  OK, granted if you want to borrow an entire essay (or cobble one together from various sources), then that is a lot of typing to do.  But are we to believe that students are so lazy that the only reason they haven’t been cheating is because they are too tired to type?  Only with cut and paste are they transformed into a pack of intellectual wildebeasts?

My point is: I think the technology is getting a bad rap and our institutions are getting off easy.  If our students are cheating more (or plagiarizing more) it is because there is something culturally afoot that allows them to cross that line with greater moral ease.  Either the pressure to achieve has been ratcheted up too much or the sense of wrongdoing has been ratcheted down too much.  But either way, we need to do more work helping students understand the wrongness of taking other people’s ideas and the significance of doing original work.  And we need to police this problem with much greater vigor and visibility.  Stop relying on software programs, go back to our good judgment, create assignments where it is difficult to buy prepackaged essays, and visibly punish offenders.  Sounds all very draconian but there really is no point to assessment if you are assessing fraudulence.  It’s a waste of our time and unfair to those who do do the work.

Somewhere in the article it is suggested it’s wikipedia’s fault — that students today have grown up in a wiki-world (i.e. collaborative, etc.) and are being tested in a print world.  So are we the ones to blame, with our silly old notions of intellectual property?  But this too confuses categories.  Wikipedia is collaborative, not piratical.  I think it is a good idea to foster collaborative assignments, but the product must still belong in a strong sense to the individuals involved.

Similarly, maybe “wiki” means the idea of remixing — that “original” is an outdated notion, outdated as the printed book.  But in any action of aesthetic/intellectual recycling, the recycler marks out what his or her contribution is to the recycling and is judged accordingly.  Duchamps signed his urinal (with a pseudonym) and put it in a museum.  He was judged on the merit of his ability to undo the rules of art.  What if a student did something like this for a final paper?  Risky, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with it.  There’s nothing wrong with producing a final product that is heavily indebted to the ideas or work of others.  What matters is what you contribute.  Duchamps contributed one brilliant idea to the history of art.  The only thing that matters is that the mine and the yours needs to be as clearly marked as possible.  And it’s really not that hard.  Quotation marks are awfully effective — and very easy to type.  (I have a feeling like I might get a few urinals next semester…)

Anyway, the real point is that it’s clear that we as educators have a lot of work to do.