Thursday, May 02, 2013

Welcome to the panopticon, girls and boys

While grading papers for my two Shakespeare classes, I made a distressing discovery: 25% of them were on the same topic. They weren't just responding to the same prompt, but applying that prompt to the same rather narrow subtopic--a subtopic that was not among the handful I'd suggested.

You know what came next: I Googled it, and discovered that there are approximately a million hits for this topic. It comes up in every discussion of the relevant play and there are dozens of free essays available on the web.

It also happens to be a stupid topic. It's simultaneously obvious and really difficult to do well; if anyone had run it by me, I'd have warned him off. But because it's so obvious, and suggests only a couple of possible lines of argumentation, it's impossible to tell whether any given essay is borrowing ideas from the internet, recapitulating a half-remembered discussion from high school, or doing original (if uninspired) work. Nothing is directly plagiarized: I put in the long hours ascertaining that. But other than writing a motherfucking airtight prompt for next time, what's a girl to do?

I did the only thing I felt I could: I announced to both classes that I believed a number of their essays--giving no specifics--contained ideas derived from uncited sources. I emphasized that it was okay to get information or inspiration from elsewhere, if they were otherwise doing original work, but that they absolutely needed to credit all sources. I told them I would give them 48 hours to get me a new bibliography (and, if necessary, a new copy of their paper with any previously-omitted citations), but that otherwise their grades would be affected.

I should have been able to predict the results.

My students examined their consciences, and at least dozen emailed me confessions. One acknowledged that he hadn't cited a source for the date of the battle of Actium. Another revealed that her decision to write about women in Coriolanus had been inspired by a discussion about gender roles in her Russian Novel class--and she apologized for not crediting that professor. They were, all of them, so very sorry.

I guess guilt-tripping is never a waste.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

hahaha. Students just don't get it. Citing a date for a battle? Do they even have a clue?

I get research papers from my Shakespeare folks tomorrow, and I am not looking forward to them. Sigh...

Bardiac said...

That's a brilliant way to handle the problem!

Did some of the more obvious err, borrowers, confess?

Flavia said...


A couple did. And it was...illuminating, I guess I'll say. (None of them did anything outrageous, and their papers were less strong to begin with, so it wasn't a major problem.)

But, ugh.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I am so gladde I don't have to grade assignments written by undergrads.

nicoleandmaggie said...

And if they'd just gone to the library and cited their sources instead of using the first page of Google search, probably A. you wouldn't have noticed because nobody reads things from the library anymore so it wouldn't be 25% of the class on one topic (especially if someone checked out the book) B. the arguments would have been better hopefully (because of publication) and C. as long as arguments are cited, then that's one way scholarship can look.

We have a professor on faculty here who doesn't allow students to do their own criticism in her intro course-- all they're allowed to do is cite published papers and compare those criticisms. "You're not allowed to have an opinion," she tells them. It's an interesting technique.