The Plagiarism Fetish

by zunguzungu

Lots of people are responding to this essay, by a professional writer-of-student-papers-for-them:

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else. You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

If this guy didn’t exist, our bad conscience would have to invent him. And maybe it did. Which is why I think blaming someone misses the larger point, which is that when a system is set up to make cheating easy and profitable, someone will come along and profit from it. Treating a systemic problem moralistically accomplishes very little. So while the NY Times might want to blame the phenomenon on digital technology or “the youth” — the Times being very good at moral panic — I want to suggest that this person’s existence is simply a symptom of a basically misguided approach to what paper writing is. If you treat a paper in objective terms, as simply a thing the student conjures up magically from the bowels of their laptop, you make this sort of counterfeit easy. The easiest way for a professor to assign papers is to remove him or herself from the process, to simply say “here’s the assignment, turn it in on this date.” Which is the logic of capitalist production: you specify what you want and when you want it, but by removing yourself from the process of production, you get to transform the labor of paper writing into a monetary transaction, de-socializing and de-contextualizing the object of production. Students produce the commodity (the paper) and you pay them for it (in a grade), and whatever happens in the middle goes blissfully unexamined.

As Marx put it, a commodity is a “mysterious thing” because the labor of its production has been rendered “as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor.” This is the commodity fetish: by severing the object from the relations of its production, you get to regard it simply as purely a function of its objective characteristics. The same is true with papers: when we treat a paper simply as an object — something we teach our students to produce and then critique objectively — we make it impossible to think in any kind of critical terms about how it was produced. In capitalist production that’s precisely the point: you want tantalum for your cell phone, but you don’t want to know about how it was produced. You want it for what it can do to make cell phones possible; precisely what you don’t want it for is its broader social meaning (or the labor that went into creating it), so you need a structure of thinking to prevent yourself from understanding how blood-soaked it is.

But what is a boon for the capitalist (who doesn’t want to worry about the labor of producing a commodity), is a dangerous exemption for the teacher: those instructions are easy for the student to pass on to the plagiarizer. When we treat papers this way, we lose the ability to know anything about how they were produced: because you’ve removed yourself so completely from the process of the paper’s production, its appearance as a finished product can only be judged in terms of its objective qualities. You can grade it, but you cannot confirm that the student wrote it because you know nothing about how it was produced. This is therefore an easy hurdle for a dedicated plagiarizer to clear.

This is not a systemic necessity; for those of us who make our own syllabi, it’s a choice, and a bad one. As Angus Johnson writes,

What’s really dismaying to me about the kerfuffle is how quick many professors have been to disclaim responsibility for addressing this problem. Four of the first six commenters on the Chronicle essay are teachers who say it’s beyond their powers to put a stop to this kind of cheating in their classrooms, that because of their class sizes or their administrations’ policies, they’re just not able to do anything about the problem.

I just don’t believe it. I just don’t believe that there’s no way for them to address the issue, that they’ve tried everything there is to try and been stymied at every turn. That just doesn’t ring true to me — not on the basis of my own experience nor in light of the comments left by other aggressively anti-cheating professors in the thread. Combating cheating and plagiarism takes inventiveness. It takes dedication. It takes flexibility. But it absolutely can be done.

I agree, and treating papers as a process rather than a product is the first step. Because focusing in on all the stages between assignment and submission — making that the focus of your intervention — transforms the problem. By requiring a series of intermediate steps which build to a final portfolio of work (and include a variety of different interventions and conferences both with me and with other students), you accomplish two things. On the one hand, it makes the paper writing process much more transparent. Plagiarism becomes both a much more labor intensive proposition and therefore much easier to detect: when a substantial paper trail is required, most students will just to write the paper themselves (and the ones who don’t will be much more easily caught). At the same time, it allows you to do exactly what it is your job to do: intervene in the process, guiding, critiquing, and being involved long before the student makes the irrevocable errors that pointing out after the fact does little or nothing to correct anyway (so many papers that students turn in were flawed from the start because the first step the student took was the wrong one; intervening earlier allows you to prevent that from happening in ways that postmortem evaluations cannot).

This takes work on the part of the professor, of course. And part of the problem is that in those enormous classes so beloved of education-as-commodity minded administrators, it becomes very difficult to be involved in students’ writing processes. Online education is the easiest place for plagiarism because the whole point of it is to break down every element of the education “production” process to its most basic units; rationalizing the system means transforming a process into a transaction. But it only becomes easier and cheaper (to the extent that it does) by skimping on something very, very important, whether or not it shows up in the bottom line.

I don’t mean to insult people who face this problem or imply that I’ve personally solved it; it’s a huge and difficult issue, and the conditions under which we work (not always created by us) are a big part of why it’s such a problem. But we should understand that treating education as an economic transaction is almost the entire problem, and we have significant means available to us to push back. Which is why I thoroughly endorse Angus’ vocationally minded rejection of the idea that a systemic problem is not our responsibility:

…if you, as a college professor, create a classroom environment in which students are able to cheat without consequences, you’re rewarding cheating and punishing honest work. You can wring your hands all you like about declining ethical standards, but the situation you deplore is one that you’ve helped to create.

To put it another way, if you’re a teacher or a professor then finding and punishing cheaters is your job. It’s your job in the same way that grading is your job. It’s your job in the same way that facilitating class discussion is your job. It’s your job in the same way that crafting appropriate tests and assignments is your job.