Saturday, 24 August 2013

Academic Integrity

     When I was an undergraduate, I was always a little bit puzzled by the handout I'd receive in every class warning of what a serious academic offence plagiarism was. The same handout was provided verbatim and unattributed in each class, and I used to think myself clever, arching a suspicious eyebrow at the instructor and asking, "Did you write this yourself?" seldom bringing as much laughter as I'd hoped.
     But I never felt the warning about plagiarism was very helpful in making clear just why it was such a serious offense. We were just told, "Don't do it." My naive first reading of it was based on a sort of intellectual property idea, that "stealing" someone else's work and taking credit for it yourself was essentially a violation of someone else's rights, that you were cheating someone else out of they due credit.
     Of course that's one element of what makes plagiarism wrong, but respect for the original author's interests isn't the only value at stake, and actually a very small one in the academic context. How does it harm me as a writer if some kid in a philosophy of religion class in Kentucky passes off my essay on Anselm's Ontological Argument as his own? Maybe if he published it widely and diluted the market for my doing the same, but in a paper that only his professor will see?
     And so if we emphasize this aspect of plagiarism, we make our dire warnings of how very very bad indeed it is to steal someone else's work ring hollow, arbitrary and forced. Seriously, who cares?

     The problem is complicated, because there are actually several very different values at stake, and some of them are at odds with each other. Curiously, though, these sometimes competing values actually lead to the same conclusion, albeit for very different reasons. I'm going to talk here about three here: pedagogy, evaluation, and scholarship.

     Pedagogy is about teaching; the objective is to impart knowledge and understanding to the student, to help them gain mastery over the subject matter. To that end, it's an extremely useful exercise to have them attempt to explain concepts in their own words. I have been a student, and I have been a teacher, and I have never learned so much about a subject as when I tried to explain it to someone else. This is why the essay is such a common form of assignment; the cognitive effort of formulating a thesis and composing sentences that actually convey understanding of the subject matter is ferociously powerful in developing and reinforcing the student's own understanding.
     Sometimes, students will misinterpret the reason for an assignment, taking the instructor's question at face value as a request for knowledge. If a friend asks you for a justification of abortion that recognizes the personhood of a fetus, it's perfectly reasonable to just hand him a copy of Judith Jarvis Thomson's A Defense of Abortion, but your instructor presumably already is familiar with the subject matter of the assignment; she's not asking you to explain it for her benefit, but for yours. Merely copying out what someone else has written has almost no pedagogic value whatsoever (beyond perhaps honing one's penmanship, typing, or cut-and-paste skills). Now, maybe you do already have a keen understanding, simply from reading the text (in which case, good for you!), but if that's the case, explaining it in your own words should be a breeze. Even if it is, the exercise is still well worth carrying out, because you will improve your understanding by trying to communicate it.
     So, with respect to the value of pedagogy, plagiarism is primarily an offence against the student himself, a squandering of the opportunity to learn. And, to a lesser extent, it's a waste of the time of the instructor who reads the plagiarized assignment and tries to give you thoughtful feedback on what she thinks is your own understanding of the subject matter. Admittedly, the instructor is probably being paid to waste her time this way, but give her some credit -- she's probably not just doing it for the money, and really also wants to help you learn.

     The purpose of evaluation and testing is to grade the student's performance, whether for the beneficial purpose of diagnosing where more pedagogical effort is needed, the benign purpose of certifying that a student has met some requisite standard of expertise, or the downright pernicious purpose of weeding out those deemed unworthy of further learning opportunities. (As a teacher, I absolutely detest grading, though I understand why it needs to be done and so I grit my teeth and do it ruthlessly.) But whatever the ultimate use of the evaluation, the accuracy of the results absolutely depends on not helping the student to answer the questions. The test is meant to measure how well the student understands the subject matter, without help.
     Obviously, then, a student who copies someone else's work on an evaluation undermines the accuracy of the test. (Well, not always. I once had a student cheat on an assignment in a business ethics class I was teaching. Seriously! Business ethics! The result in that case, though, was actually an extremely accurate measure of how well he had absorbed the subject matter...) To the extent that the grading serves a socially useful purpose, this kind of cheating hurts everyone.

     Of course, there is overlap between pedagogy and evaluation for most assignments, since we tend to put grades on everything, including those assignments which serve a primarily pedagogical purpose. We kinda have to, because students tend to skip assignments if they can get away with it without harming their grades. This complicates analysis of individual instances of plagiarism; is someone trying to get a better grade than they deserve, or just being lazy about the exercise?

     An example: I once had a student submit an assignment in which he was supposed to choose a scenario and analyze it according to a particular set of legal principles. He picked an actual case, from the published decision of the court, which by itself was not a problem. However, rather than write the entire assignment in his own words, he cut and pasted the relevant portions of the court's own analysis. Now, my first instinct at this point was to nail him to the wall for plagiarism, but then I noticed something: the original case had not addressed every issue (the defense had not contested everything), so my student had taken the trouble to compose his own (quite competent) analysis of these issues. In fact, he'd been very selective in choosing only the best and most relevant sections of the text, and so it was clear to me that he had actually worked on the assignment, reading and thinking hard about it if not actually writing so much. So the pedagogical objective wasn't really being undermined so much. And my purpose in assessing how well he had absorbed the concepts wasn't totally frustrated, though it was made rather more time-consuming as I had to compare, line by line, the original judgment with his submission. If he had just identified the parts he quoted, my task would have been much easier. (As it was, I refused to grade it as written, and gave him a stern warning about the academic integrity policy and just how very dangerous to his academic career such a mistake could be. It was a teachable moment.)

     This brings us to the other reason for academic integrity, which is just a matter of doing good, useful work as a scholar. The whole enterprise of research and writing is to try to make some kind of meaningful contribution to expanding human knowledge. This is inherently a collective effort, involving thousands of human minds over many generations, and this creates some epistemological hurdles. If I publish a paper claiming that the Moon is made styrofoam, it's really not of much use to anyone if it's just my unfounded assertion. I should provide sources and references, cite where and how I got my data and how I reached my conclusions, to facilitate as much as possible the work of other scholars in understanding, evaluating, and ultimately confirming or rejecting my claims. As I've posted before, nobody cares what you think. What people care about is what they ought to think. And so it's important to provide all the information you can to help them make up their mind.
     To that end, we have developed various conventions about how and when to cite authorities, how to identify and attribute a quote, and so on. It's also useful to give credit where it's due for ideas you didn't come up with by yourself, not so much because the original author needs the pat on the back (though that's just courteous) but because it helps your audience to better understand where you're coming from and gives them another avenue to further investigate the ideas you're talking about.
     Failure to properly attribute sources in this sense isn't so much dishonesty as it is just laziness, and the chief effect is that it limits the usefulness of the finished product. Inasmuch as we're trying to teach students the habits of good scholarship, well, of course we're going to want them to include proper citations. But mere failure to do so is really more a matter of doing shoddy work, and shouldn't be confused with the grave offence of academic dishonesty.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Finding Beauty

     From time to time I hear about vicious and cruel tweets or comments thread posts about some woman or other being ugly. Most recently, I recall the winner of some tennis championship being the subject of hateful, nasty comments from people who figured she didn't deserve to win because she wasn't as pretty (in their opinion) as her competitor.
     Quite rightly, plenty of people have condemned this behaviour, and also making the point that there is much more to any individual (female or male) than how physically attractive they are. I have nothing to add to this self-evident observation; instead, I want to suggest another reason why we ought to regard such behaviour with contempt, and that is from the perspective of an unapologetic girl-watcher.

     I make no excuses. I confess that I do appreciate feminine beauty, and spend rather a lot of time in its contemplation. I do love to look at women. Not because I think that's all there is to them, not because I consider it to be any measure of their worth (even a small one), but because I just happen to be wired that way. If you're a woman, and you're talking to me, I am of course interested in what you have to say, because I value humans and their ideas and experiences, and I won't be staring at your breasts because, lovely as they may be, I value your mind much much more. That doesn't mean I'll be completely ignorant of your physical features, but they will just be one of many elements of the environment in which I might take some aesthetic pleasure. That I happen to like the music playing in the background, or the coffee in my cup, doesn't mean I'm not also paying more attention to you, your distinct human mind and your ideas.
     If you happen to just be walking by, or sitting several rows down on the bus from me, or otherwise not interacting with me personally, well, then, while I know there's a unique mind in there, I don't have any access to it; all I have available to notice then is the way your hair complements the shape of your face, or the flattering contours of your jeans. That I might take some pleasure in seeing such things should be no threat to you, nor indeed of any interest to you whatsoever (unless you happen to be interested in me). It happens entirely within the head of this middle-aged married guy that you may or may not notice in a crowd, but with whose mind you are not currently interacting. A guy who happens to derive aesthetic pleasure from many aspects of the world around him, one of which is the appearance of females of his species.

    Now, I say all this as a way of explaining that I sympathize with guys who pay attention to women's looks. I do too. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that by itself. But let me tell you a little something about how I look for feminine beauty. To me, it is a kind of puzzle, an exercise in perspective, a challenge. I start from the presumption that there is beauty to be seen in just about everything and everyone, if you look in just the right way. It's very much like the famous optical illusion where you can see the image as a young woman or an old lady, just by choosing to identify a feature as either the old lady's nose, or the young woman's chin.
     There is an additional pleasure in trying to solve the puzzle, to find the beauty hidden in plain sight. In many, particularly the women regarded as "conventionally beautiful", it's pretty easy to find. In others, it takes some effort, but it's there, and when I find it it's that much more of a special thrill to see. And if I can't find it (sometimes it's very well-hidden), I realize that the fault is with my imagination, not with her.
      It's one of those little joys of discovery that make my life worthwhile, like solving a crossword puzzle. (And sometimes, I reverse the exercise, trying to find a way to see the ugliness in a supermodel. Not very often, though. I don't much care for ugliness, even if I know it's there. It's just a challenge, to keep my on my toes.)

     And so, whenever I hear some jerk describe a woman as ugly, quite apart from my disdain for his lack of basic human decency (which I feel in my capacity as a human being), I also feel as a connoisseur some scorn for his flagrant and wasteful ignorance of the finer pleasures of girl-watching, pity for his inability to perceive and appreciate what is right in front of him. It is as if he had flung down a crossword puzzle in irritation, saying "Bah! Six letter word for lack of cash, beginning with P and ending in Y? Poverty has SEVEN letters, you stupid crossword!" I mentally pencil in "penury" and get to feel just a little bit superior.

Note: Apologies for the use of "girl-watching" instead of "woman-watching", but that's the commonly accepted phrase for the pastime, and when I started out as a boy, I actually was watching girls rather than women. Also, this piece is written from my subjective position as a heterosexual male who just isn't as interested in exploring the aesthetic beauty of the male form. In principle, my arguments should apply ceteris paribus to the appreciation of masculine beauty. But ceteris non paribus: no one ever seems to say that a man doesn't deserve to win at Wimbledon because he's less attractive than his opponent.