Sunday, June 22, 2008

Teaching a student a lesson...

Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies
in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification
I've discovered a new journal in which to publish!
(Image from Plagiary)

Regular readers might have noticed that I have somewhat of a mild dislike for plagiarism. But I very much enjoy tracking it down . . . as readers may also have noticed.

One of my recent composition courses was for first-semester students (the spring semester being the first semester here in Korea), and I figured that my task was to educate these students not only about writing but also about consequences.

Too many professors in Korea don't seem to take plagiarism seriously enough, thereby leaving their students with the impression that plagiarism will be lightly forgiven, so students invariably try to plagiarize in my classes -- only to be shocked at the result (as well as by my ability to uncover their copying).

Just yesterday, a student sent me his first draft -- three weeks late! -- and I looked at it briefly without bothering to correct it since it was so late. Also, much of it was intentionally plagiarized, and I never go to any extra trouble helping a student who has plagiarized.

For example, the student 'wrote' this:
Charles R. Walgreen 3rd transformed Walgreens into an exceptional company that outperformed Intel, GE, Coca-Cola, and Merck in the twenty-five years 1975 to 1999 -- its stock exceeded the growth of the market by fifteen times.
This doesn't sound much like the writing of a freshman, especially one composing in English as a second language. He offered a source:
University of Chicago Center for Research in Securities Prices data, all dividends reinvested and adjusted for stock splits.
Hmmm . . . no page number provided. Would I have to sift through all the 'data' to find the precise source? Nah, I wouldn't, because the student's source was in fact totally different, namely, page 92 of Good to Great, by Jim Collins.

To show this, I will again provide the student's 'writing' with some words highlighted in red:
Charles R. Walgreen 3rd transformed Walgreens into an exceptional company that outperformed Intel, GE, Coca-Cola, and Merck in the twenty-five years 1975 to 1999 -- its stock exceeded the growth of the market by fifteen times.
Now, check page 92 of Good to Great:
Consider the case of Walgreens versus Eckerd. Recall how Walgreens generated cumulative stock returns from the end of 1975 to 2000 that exceeded the market by over fifteen times, handily beating such great companies as GE, Merck, Coca-Cola, and Intel. It was a remarkable performance for such an anonymous -- some might even say boring -- company. When interviewing Cork Walgreen, I kept asking him to go deeper, to help us understand these extraordinary results. Finally, in exasperation, he said, "Look, it just wasn't that complicated! Once we understood the concept, we just moved straight ahead."

What was the concept? Simply this: the best, most convenient drugstores, with high profit per customer visit. That's it. That's the breakthrough strategy that Walgreens used to beat Intel, GE, Coca-Cola, and Merck.
Now, this was clever plagiarism . . . but not quite clever enough. I used the sequence "Intel, GE, Coca-Cola, and Merck" to track down this source via Google, but if the student had simply scrambled the sequence, he would have been more clever and have made my job rather harder.

Of course, the student could have attempted to bluff since he had been fairly clever, but he was also smart enough to foresee that I'd then simply prod him to supply me with the specific passage in the website for the University of Chicago Center for Research in Securities Prices where he'd gotten his data, and that would have been as impossible a task as any posed in "Scarborough Fair."

He therefore capitulated without protest, supplying the correct source, even adding in that citation that he'd borrowed not only from page 92 but also from page 32 of Good to Great. That was generous of him. Indeed, his paper had borrowed so much from Good to Great that the student had to provide seven separate footnotes citing the book.

The paper's bibliography, however, shrank a bit as we were forced to bid adieu to the following three 'sources':
Hoover's Online

University of Chicago, University of Chicago Center for Research in Securities

Walgreens, Walgreens Annual Report 1998
A sad good-bye to these witless 'witnesses', but three's a crowd when they don't belong. I now eagerly await the final, hard copy of this student's essay, which he will have to send by express delivery, for I don't normally grade essays by email.

I expect that this student has learned an important lesson in an exceedingly teachable moment.

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At 12:36 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

You are one tough cookie, Jeff-er-y,
Do you show them up front what you are able to find out about their sources and writing or do you keep this as a secret weapon?

At 4:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I tell them ahead of time, but they don't believe me.

This particular class is at the elite institution UIC, at Yonsei University, and is made up largely of students who went to a special high school where they were all taking advanced classes. They thus probably imagine that they're really smart.

Well, I thought that I was really smart, too, when I was 18, but my first semester at Baylor taught me better, and I learned what hard, academic work really was -- something even a lot harder, in its own way, than hauling hay bales from Ozark fields in the heat and humidity of a mid-July day.

I discovered mostly that I was just smart enough to learn from the consequences of my mistakes, but that's at least something, and it's something that I can pass on to my students . . . especially the ones who cheat.

I believe that your father would approve of teaching students about consequences. No student in his class ever got off scot free.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:33 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

nice play on words! I carried on the Scott tradition. I have often been considered too tough or hard line as a teacher. I used to require my eighth grade American History students to do a research paper which had to include 5 sources. One year in particular, I had 2 children out of 45 that had encyclopedias at home. No internet, of course. I allowed their textbooks and interviews to count. Had to, or it would never had happened since the school library only had 3 sets of encyclopedias. One child copied the entire paper from one encyclopedia. I gave a ZERO! Being a small town and school, I was called to a school board meeting to account for my actions. I relented and allowed a redo but stipulated that I would automatically take the standard 30 points off for being late. I worried myself sick about the whole situation, but the child has gone on to great things. I've never been forgiven, but maybe the lesson was learned.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Never been forgiven? By whom? Eventually, that 'child' will realize that you were his best friend.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to teach students, you must know how students think. See the new book on "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the reference -- I'll take a look.

But I was also a student once, and I've also been teaching many years, so I already have a fairly good sense -- based on both direct and indirect experience -- of how students think.

Jeffery Hodges

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