Today, The New York Times has an article about students and plagiarism that I could have sworn I've read at least a dozen times before, at least in its general gist.
As an exercise, before you click through to read the article, grab some paper and a pencil and jot down two or three reasons you think will be offered that the current generation of college students does not grasp the wrongness of using the words and ideas of others without attribution.
Is your list ready?
Well, as you might expect, much of this behavior is being laid at the feet of the new digital age.
What with all sorts of information resources available through the internets, and with copy-and-paste technology, assembling a paper that meets the minimum page length for your assignment has never been easier. Back in the olden times, our forefathers had to actually haul the sources from which they were stealing off the shelves, maybe carry them back to the dorms through the snow, find their DOS disk to boot up the dorm PC, and then laboriously transcribe those stolen passages!
And it's not just that the copy-and-paste option exists, we are told. College students have grown up stealing music and movies online. They've come of age along with Wikipedia, where information is offered free for their use and without authorship credits. If "information wants to be free" (a slogan attributed to Stewart Brand in 1984), how can these young people make sense of intellectual property, and especially of the need to cite the sources from which they found the information they are using? Is not their "plagiarism" just a form of pastiche, an activity that their crusty old professors fail to recognize as creative?
Yeah, the modern world is totally different, dude. The article describes a student who copied an online FAQ, verbatim, in a student paper and didn't cite the source because there was no author listed. You know what source kids used to copy from in my day that didn't list authors? The World Book Encyclopedia. Indeed, from at least seventh grade, our teachers made a big deal of teaching us how to cite encyclopedia and newspaper articles with no named authors. Every citation guide I've seen in recent years (including the ones that talk about proper ways to cite web pages) includes instruction on how to cite such sources.
Maybe we're not talking about ignorance so much as indifference.
Indeed, this impression is bolstered by an anecdote near the end of the article:
At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.
Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”
“Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice,” he said.
So, a modest proposal for students unwilling to engage the writing process: don't.
Take a stand for what you believe in! Don't lurk in the shadows pretending to knuckle under to the man by turning in essays and term papers that give the appearance that you wrote them. Instead, tell your professors that writing anything original for their assignments is against your principles. Then take your F and wear it as a badge of honor!
When all those old-timey professors who fetishize the value of clear writing, original thought, and proper citation of sources die out -- when your generation is running the show -- surely your principled stand will be vindicated!
And, in the meantime, your professors can spend their scarce time helping your classmates who actually want to learn to write well and uphold rudimentary rules of scholarship.
Really, it's win-win.