How do I plagiarize thee?

let me count the ways...

Monday, December 7, 2015

One of my final exams was late, was on the wrong topic (cars), and, as I got through it, I found a suspicious sentence, googled it, and voila, ten straight words from another source. The other source was on the web, also about the advantages and disadvantages of cars, but I didn't linger; I'd found what I was after, and gave the student a zero. No student is going to pass the class, or get any grade at all, for plagiarized work. And that's what I told her when she came in inquiring about her grade.

She burst into tears and what ensued was a long story about how ten straight words from a website about the disadvantages of cars, could end up on the final, with her believing that this was ok, and that she should be able to pass the class and move on with her life. Actually she wanted more than to pass, she wanted an A, but that's kind of like what graduate school is. You get an A, you pass.

Way back in 2012, she had written most of the essay on cars, in a group of people who studied English writing and who tried to produce quality essays. At that time, yes, she had taken phrases from different places on the web, and she even showed me another, which came from a TOEFL site that encouraged good writing and had academic phrases. At that time, she considered this good writing, although up to ten words at a time came from other sites. In general she considered it her own writing, so, when it came time to submit something for the final, she didn't have any trouble submitting it and calling it hers. It was hers when she wrote it. It was still hers today.

I was still stuck on the fact that eight straight words from her final exam matched up exactly with a site easily found on the web. I recognized the fact that she hadn't intentionally tried to fool me, or pass off as hers, somebody else's entire essay. In fact the essay she had given me was quite poorly written by my own standards, but I hadn't even looked all that carefully once I'd found the eight words.

I took her word for it that she had at one point these academic phrases memorized so well that she didn't always know what was hers and what was not. In her country, one memorized essays, or at least phrases, and one recalled them at will, that's how one lived. That's how one put together one's own essay, and sure enough, voila, she found one in her e-mail, dated 2012, that looked like the exact one that she had given me. And she maintained that she considered it hers.

To her getting a zero was pretty harsh for something that wasn't even intentional on her part, that was her attempt to provide high-quality writing for an assignment, that she didn't even realize wasn't supposed to be about cars. She was proud of her essay, as, though she'd written it a few years ago, at least she'd written it.

I let her write the final again. This time, no cars. Write about the topic.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

new image

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

As I leave here (retiring as of tomorrow) I just want to vent one more time. This is where I vent. You want to read negative stuff about teaching ESL in the USA, read here. It's not just, everyone copies, even the president copies, vice president of the USA, they all do it, no it's not just that. We have a problem with our students from the kingdom. In short, the whole language approach isn't grooving with them. They find it easier to get answers without learning to read, and they do, and pretty soon you have this guy in my office, fairly high level class, flunking the heck out of it, doesn't have a prayer of being able to read the textbook. And it occurs to me, it's not only that it's now an academic textbook, with academic words and long sentences, he's never read anything like that in Arabic either. He doesn't have the words, doesn't have the tools. He listens carefully to what I say but can't read the questions on the quizes or the listening exercises. He doesn't know where to start.

How did he get this far? At the next level down there were only maybe three, for big readings in a term, a few small ones, you could get by by memorizing. The kinds of questions and answers were more limited, and the answers were all out there. He might even have looked at his neighbor, if his neighbor had the answers, and got away with it. That was his approach to writing too. Grab something that worked once, try to make it work again. If they passed it a term or two ago, they'll pass it again. Do anything to avoid actually writing it yourself.

A lot of this cheating seems to be a heck of a lot of work, but that's easy for us to say, who can write a whole sentence any time we sit down, and when it's not a whole sentence, it's because we're running our mouths intentionally. It would be harder for us to cheat than to actually write. But it's easier for them, not only easier, but actually the only option, in some cases.

Heck of it is, I kind of like the guy, this particular one, and it weighs on me that now, probably, he'll have to go back to KSA. Another dream dashed on the rocks of our insistence that people do their own work. Or, our intolerance of pure inability to read, that we can't manage (in a higher classroom), or treat, or work around easily.

Another student did work around it. He too couldn't read, and had no intention of trying to learn in the short course of a six-week term. But he had been at this level twice already; had already flunked it twice, very well could have even had the same chapters I was assigning. Determined to muscle his way through, he played his cards well; got the maximum points out of everything, and learned enough key words so that he could know what the questions on the exam said. Sometimes he challenged me: was this really in the book? To me that made it more clear that he'd never opened it. When I pointed out that I'd mentioned it in class, he looked at me quizzically as if surely he would have known if I had. Yes indeed his listening was good. But the first time, he had no frame of reference; after reading about something, he may have remembered what he read. But listening to me talk, he didn't necessarily catch what it was about, and now he was having trouble placing the reference. I got angry that he got this far without opening the book. But it's not unusual. He'll pass too. He was intense in hauling in the answers, going over old exams, knowing enough to get by.

I'll be grateful to get out. The picture below is a wall where I work. You can mark it as you wish, with chalk or whatever, the gray still wins. The drabness permeates. It's concrete, baby. Concrete support.

Friday, October 14, 2011

thy kingdom come

In this post I'd like to write about a problem that is somewhat larger than plagiarism; plagiarism is a big part of it, but not the only part of it. This term for the first time I had a higher level class of about 14 that was almost entirely made up of students from the kingdom; there were also two Japanese, one Korean, and perhaps an Iraqi who in some ways matched the others but in some ways didn't. The problem was briefly that with such an overwhelming majority from one culture certain cultural traits were pronounced and encouraged, literally run rampant, while the advice we gave more or less fell upon deaf ears. Then, compounding that, was the effect over time; they had come up through the program; they had got where they were based on what they were doing; they had every reason to believe that it would work again, and, to some degree, it did.

First is a kind of slavish obsession with points. These guys will dispute with you one late mark that amounts to maybe .03 of an attendance grade, so that you end up talking about whether they were four minutes late or six minutes late. One element of it is that it just isn't that important to me, so it's entirely possible, I marked them with a 1 when in fact they deserved a 2. Okay. But as I thought this over, I realized that this obsession surely has been carried up from the lower levels, and has not been eased by our tendency, which is to focus on the learning and just give the points as a byproduct. These are very nice students: polite, hard working (in their own kind of way), willing to take our guidance and willing to do whatever we require. So why can't they read yet? Why is their writing so abysmal? Why do they have absolutely NO grammar?

In the writing sphere, we see plagiarism left and right. Sometimes it is from other sources on the web. So, for example, they write about an article concerning Assad, open up another article about Assad, and copy a sentence from that, and call it an opinion about Assad. It IS a sentence. It IS about Assad. But it's copied directly. Why would they NOT want to just write and improve their writing? Here they are, flunking the Writing Assessment, flunking the TOEFL, but getting 85, 90 as their grade. What's missing in this picture?

Now I was a speaking-listening teacher, basically, and when they talked about Assad, for example, they all did well. They understand main ideas. They can state opinions and back them up. They are polite and have perfect listening, so they know when it's a good time to jump in with their own opinions. I'm making vast generalizations, of course; out of ten, one or two are actually a little shy. One or two don't really have opinions or think to put them in sentences. But, overall, we have people who can get the main part of what I want and get a good grade overall. I don't feel bad giving them 85's or 90's.

But in their main Core and Writing classes, I'm sure it's a different story. And what happened below? Down at the intermediate levels, they need to have the pressure ratcheted up a little: be able to read the questions of a listening exercise. Be able to read 14 sentences in a vocabulary exercise in less than 20 minutes. They can't do this kind of thing. Somehow, we need to attach points to skills. How did they get the points, without getting the skills?

My main observation about the points is this: If their obsession will not wane; if we cannot teach them to focus on the skills and not the points, then we have no choice, but to tailor our teaching toward encouraging them to learn through more just giving them points for producing something, or for doing the homework. They "do" the homework, but you don't see them learning skills from it, because they are basically copying the homework, or shortcutting the homework, or whatever they have to do mindlessly to get the points. I think in this case a more effective strategy would be to make all points contingent on having the skills with them, in class, to be produced on demand...

Our job is to engineer what they do in their free time as well as what they do in class. If, in their free time, they can copy each other's work, and get away with it, then obviously, they will, and they won't learn the skills. If, in their free time, they discuss what they have to do in order to succeed, and they do, and this is something we want them to do, then we win. Or rather, they win, because they have the skills.

I basically see it as human nature that they are where they are, at a high level, unable to read (getting 40 on the reading subskill paper-based TOEFL), unable to recognize grammatical errors in spite of perfect listening, unable to write a grammatical sentence. They are polite; they are well-meaning; they are hard-working, in their own way (though they would rather work to copy successfully than work to write successfully) - even in their faults, they are nice people, good students. Perhaps too nice, too good: we tend to try to help them, and say, we think they should move up a level. Then, they are at a spot where they can't read, can't do it any other way. What we get is entirely a product of our own desire to please them, and hope that they will somehow just pick it up. They won't. They are, as a class, pretty much unable to write.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Some of my students are so determined not to say anything that it far overpowers my will, directed at them, to open their hands, find their voice, and let us know something of their true selves. I feel like the grumpy old guy with a sharp nose and sharp intolerance for leftovers...when, to them, if it's been used before, and it works, it surely must be acceptable again? Anything to duck, so to speak.

I actually have been building up a vent against all kinds of activity that can best be described as lazy, but lazy doesn't always describe it fairly in the end. Sometimes they have to go pretty far afield to find someone else's notes, someone else's ideas on the same subjects, that they can then transfer over to what I've been doing and try to make it look like two-terms-ago's work is actually fresh. It's easy for me, who actually likes making hypotheses, writing, coming up with new ideas, to sneer at that as leftovers, and I sure don't want to read the same ones twice. But something more is going on here, because they've worked so hard to keep and organize, on that end, and then on this end to regenerate, to transplant, to try to claim as their own...

The week is over; I'm tired, and I feel like these various piles of rehashed-whatever have me as tired as I used to feel shoveling out old barns with still-active horses in them. At some point I should just let go of it, I'm sure. But I'm more mad about the total lack of originality, the utter falseness of's an elaborate game to make me believe they actually wrote something...and as I write the word elaborate, I remind myself again that it took a lot of work, on their part. It was in fact much harder for them to copy, and actually get away with it, than it would have, for them to simply write it...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Using the web to fight plagiarism: Links