Archive for the 'advice' Category

The kids aren’t all right: plagiarism(!) edition

[by JSC5]

Another day, another curmudgeonly story about “kids these days”. Today’s complaint comes from the New York Times, which goes out of its way to blame plagiarism among college students on everything except the obvious culprit.

The article starts off on a prejudicial – if hilarious – anecdote:

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

Now, on a first reading, I figured this paragraph was trying to tell me that DePaul students aren’t the brightest of bulbs if they can’t see the big text color tool at the top of the Microsoft Word window. On a second reading, however, my Old Codger radar went off. This is more than just a funny story about a lone idiot and his lack of a moral compass; this sets the stage for how the author wants the reader to interpret the entire rest of the article. What explains plagiarism in college these days, the author asks? Why, the decrepit morals of the young, of course! The author even has anecdotes to prove it!

Then we get this gem of an explanation:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution. “This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally.”

On a first reading, I figured this was a story of a 31-year-old undergraduate misfit committing social suicide on the front page of the New York Times while engaging in some pop psychology. But no, this is supposed to be another piece of “data” on young people’s attitudes towards plagiarism, with the conclusion that kids these days just lack the moral compass of their forebearers when it comes to serious things like media and intelectual property.

Then the story brings in the academic set to try their hand:

“Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. …  Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

This one’s harder for me to dismiss as just the lazy observations of a single student. Ms. Blum is a professor, after all — an anthropologist at Notre Dame. What I find hard to stomache, however, is the offhanded way in which Ms. Blum asserts that today’s media content is more pastiche-driven than previous generations. While I love a good mash up as much as the next guy, I’m not crazy enough to believe that Kanye invented sampling or that Family Guy invented allusions. I’m pretty sure that most creative works going back to antiquity have drawn on pre-existing works.

Finally, the article brings in the favorite boogey man of the Old Codger: the internet and its deliterious effect on the morals of our youth:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Yeah, it’s possible to believe that cultural creations accessed via the internet have no author, just like it’s possible to believe that Star Wars really did take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The difference is that we usually give moral actors who are not “kids these days” (like Star Wars fans) the benefit of the doubt and treat them like normal humans with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs similar to our own. The rules for “kids these days” are different, however. Lazy writers get to trash them at will.

Let me lay down what I think ought to be a fairly simple explanation for plagiarism:

  1. Kids today are no different from my slightly older generation, or their parents’ generation, or Shakespear’s generation. We’re all the same idiots and fuck-ups, geniuses and successes.
  2. Things like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the internet in general don’t erode our values to the point that people start commonly believing that “this information is just out there for anyone to take”. Please treat the younger generations as competent moral agents (see point #1)
  3. Instead, the internet reduces access and plagiarism costs. Copying someone else’s words no longer involves clickety-clacking them from a book to your typewriter or Apple II. Now you can Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V it (or use an entirely different and unintuitive keystroke, for my Apple folks out there). When costs fall, consumption tends to rise. In this case, ‘consumption’ is plagiarism.

Now, this explanation is boring compared with the sexy NYT article talking about the moral failings of the youth caused by “the Internet” (always capitalized, like Towne, Shoppe, or any Noun from ye olde Book of random Capitalizations). But it seems far more plausible, and has the added benefit of not treating the current youngest generation as a bunch of uniquely-monstruous idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: plagiarism is a terrible thing. But the fix seems to be pretty easy. The only way students could think they’ll get away with copying and pasting Wikipedia entries without attribution is if their teachers are in the habit of accepting long entries of text including information, analysis, and theories that the student clearly was not born knowing. Start treating shitty writing that doesn’t reference its information like it deserves — by giving it a failing grade — and you’ll be well on your way to fixing plagiarism. One can’t help but wonder how awful the teachers are if their students think that merely copying and pasting Wikipedia articles would get them anything but a swift kick in the ass and a big fat goose egg on the top of the paper — even if the actual plagiarism is never caught.

Death by entertainment

[by JSC5]

I can’t help but take issue with some things my colleague says in his interesting post, “Death by information“.

First, our points of agreement. I, too, think that we as a culture are far behind the learning curve in terms of our ability to successfully integrate into our lives the massive amount of new information that the web makes available. The dopamine rush of clicking the next link, reading the next email, reading that next little piece of insightful analysis of today’s news … that’s all very real.

Where I part ways with JSC7 is where I look for a solution. He calls for technologies that give our internet experience more structure, with pre-commitments to self-limit time or locations while online. That seems a bit off to me.

The problem isn’t so much “death by information” but rather “death by entertainment“. We shouldn’t treat the next item in the RSS feed or the next email in the inbox as information that we’re gathering in a (misguided) attempt to make ourselves more productive. Instead, we should treat the next unread item in the RSS feed as entertainment, pure and simple. It’s not the case that we were thirsty and came to the internet faucet for a drink of water and just end up lingering a longer than is optimal. Instead, we were bored and went into the Internet Saloon for a drink, and our drunkeness is the predictable result.

One outcome of looking at the problem as death by entertainment rather than information is that the obstacle to optimizing internet use isn’t necessarily structure, but rather personal creativity and imagination. While bars are fun and great places to pass the time, all but the most incorrigible souses agree that it’s just not healthy for a bar to be the main source of entertainment. There’s a bunch of other great places to find entertainment, like triple-A ball parks, Do-It-Yourself artisan groups, folk music festivals, and so on. It seems to me that we all overconsume bars and underconsume all the other great entertainment options — not because we’re alcoholics, but because it’s an easy, sure place to find some fun without having do the work of scrolling through the list of alternatives and picking one.

To bring this back to the internet, I guess the lesson is that online communication can be great for spreading information and increasing productivity. But my personal overconsumption over the internet has little to do with the information I’m getting and everything to do with my failings as a creative, active pursuer of entertainment. I have all the tools I need to structure my online experience. It’s just that sometimes I’m simply not creative enough to find better modes of entertainment than reading the day’s news and commentary.

So maybe the solution isn’t additional technologies to structure the internet experience. Maybe the solution is additional effort in cataloging, searching, and settling on alternative modes of entertainment. The relevant barriers there are in higher entry costs, uncertainty, and inconvenient access.

Reform soccer’s rules

Richard Epstein over at Forbes offered up some interesting potential rule changes that might make soccer a better game. I like soccer. By far the best part of it is that there aren’t any commercials and you can do other things while you’re watching it, because everyone else in the room will start oohhing like a vuvuzela chorus as soon as something interesting will happen. And it’s the only competitive international team sport that anyone cares about. But I’m with Richard as far as changing the rules go. Today’s soccer rules are appropriate for 19th century high school games – they’re simple, easy to enforce with few refs and assume ties don’t matter much. For the World Cup, it doesn’t cut it. Here’s what I would add: Continue reading ‘Reform soccer’s rules’


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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