Monday, 20 June 2016

Plagiarism and Constraint

"Submitting to Turnitin" has become part of the dull routine of education. For many students, submitting to Turnitin and getting a clean bill of health with regard to plagiarism detection has assumed a status of achievement independent of any intellectual effort in the work itself. It's an interesting example of how technology applies constraints on practice and transforms them. Plagiarism itself has become a technical rather than an intellectual failure. The process of writing and marking assignments has become systematised within the bounds of what can be handled by the technology. The result is a loss of variety, and with it an increasing sense of alienation from academic work which, we should worry, will feed the temptation to cheat the system rather than encourage intellectual engagement with topics which might risk "breaking the technocratic rules".

I've become interested in my own reaction to seeing plagiarised work. I, like many other teachers, find it a dispiriting experience. Why?

The problem is in a mismatch of expectations. As an academic, my expectations of engaging with an academic topic form a horizon of possibilities which are constrained by my knowledge of the discourse. When I encounter a piece of plagiarised work, I realise that the constraints bearing upon the student have nothing to do with intellectual engagement with the topic. They have everything to do with the constraints of the education system the student is caught in. We criminalise plagiarists. But really they are victims of the horrible alienated practices that education has turned into. The dispiriting feeling is a recognition of the difference in types of constraints operating between myself and the student.

It's rather like when having fallen in love with somebody, one gradually realises that the world of the other person - the constraints they operate within - is irreconcilably opposed to my own world. In love we walk away. In education, we are more determined to find a way through it. Except that the education system itself gets in the way. The essential step is to discover and express the constraints which unite everyone. This is the conversation that can happen where one gets to the heart of the matter.

I'm thinking about how the levels of unfolding constraint which I talked about in my previous post might be useful in this situation. There is a need to coordinate the combination of constraints and distinction-making, and to know how one might move from one aspect of constraint to another. The teacher needs a "constraint map" which may be not dissimilar from the map presented by Krippendorff. It is identifying the constraints in the teacher-learner intersubjective situation that movement from identification of a common constraint can gradually lead to the asking of questions, the gradual introduction of confusion and the supported identification of new categories and further questions. This is intellectual engagement. 

1 comment:

Richard Farr said...

The tragedy of Turnitin is that so many students think the solution is to "write it in my own words." Sources need to be identified, even if you choose to rewrite until plagiarism checking software can't find a single things to quibble about. Perhaps staff are using Turnitin as too much of a blunt instrument. I am aware of one place (non-UK) where students are given "three tries" to get the Turnitin score below 30%, or they fail... and not a human reader in sight.

I, too, am disappointed by plagiarism, but it's one component in the wider matter of dumbing-down and a discouragement of risk-taking. I am beginning to think that putting "management" in the title of so much of what we do is a part of the problem.