Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Joy of Critical Thinking

Summer might seem like an odd time to blog about plagiarism, but it is a great opportunity for me to think about it, rather than react to it. At the end of the year I am inundated with plagiarized papers ranging from completely cut-and-paste jobs to citation infractions. I spend the first day of class reviewing plagiarism, how to cite, etc. and I pass out a "Guide to Citation," stressing that the attribution is more important to me than the format (at least for the classes where it is a large problem).

Because I teach music history to performers (primarily), I try to draw parallels between the plagiarism of musicological work and the Joyce Hatto scandal. Most of them find the idea of falsifying a recording fairly horrible, so I try to explain that plagiarism in their papers is no less offensive to me. The idealist in me supposes that this little speech does the trick, but then there it is again at the end of the semester: plagiarism everywhere.

A friend posted this intriguing article on his Facebook page, and it made me think more carefully about plagiarism and the assumptions I make. A lot of the plagiarism I encounter comes from students whose facility with written and spoken English is minimal. These are good students otherwise, who attend class regularly, turn in their assignments on time, and generally pass quizzes. There are, however, two major issues I have encountered that rise out of the same cultural conflict. The first is questioning authority figures. The second is fear of thinking critically.

I do not believe that students lack the ABILITY to think critically. I think, in the best cases, the ability simply hasn't been encouraged or cultivated, and in the worst cases, they have been taught to fear it. The language barrier, coupled with the cultural barrier, often means that when I say, "Is that clear?" it really isn't clear at all to them, but I'll never find out until it manifests in a plagiarized paper. A student once wrote in his/her evaluation: "Sometimes I have trouble understanding what we talk about in class, but I don't want to stop class to ask a question." Another student said she was worried about taking up my time with questions after class and felt it was disrespectful to make me read bad English.

So now I try to impart that I'd rather read their original thoughts in terrible English, than someone else's ideas and words in perfect prose. Most of them now write and rephrase in their own words, but I'm still struggling with getting them to use their own ideas, analyses, and reactions. I don't want to rule out the use of secondary sources completely, because I think they need to know how to use those as well (and sometimes that is all that is available). But how do I not only make them believe that I WANT to read their thoughts, but that their thoughts are also valuable to THEM?

I have various strategies (journals wherein they are graded on their own reaction to the music they hear, etc), but I'm eager to hear how the collective wisdom deals with these issues.

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Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea