I think we have two debates going on in an overlapping mode here, caused
by a confusion of terms.
The original thread started with professors dropping out-of-class
writing assignments for fear of plagiarism. Somehow this got elided
with the idea of dropping "the term paper" or "the essay," which is
quite different. I think we are using "the essay" to stand for the
current-traditional school-centered paper (sometimes based on secondary
sources, sometimes not) which tends to bring out the worst in student
writing. Sometimes it descends to the five-paragraph theme, and at
others it hovers in the murhy mid-regions of "the research paper," which
asks students to collect some stuff on a topic they don't care about and
string it together with appropriate footnotes. Let's call this form
"the current-traditional term paper" so that we know what we are talking
Certainly, good riddance. But the original debate was about getting rid
of "out of class writing," which is a hugely bigger category. If
students aren't allowed to write anything that takes longer than 50
minutes because we think they'll steal it, there is a gigantic danger of
dumbing down the whole enterprise.
So what do we substitute? Natasha gave one good example. Russ has lots
more, and I'm sure everyone can chime in with pedagogies that centre on
involving students with longer-scope, inquiry based project in which
writing circulates throughout a student community, not just from the
student to the teacher. Writing Across the Curriculum is founded on
this, although it takes great effort to make sure that WAC is not just
meaningless writing moved from the English department to somewhere else
(a whole 'nother story). Some of this can be done in class, but usually
it's the editing, swapping, commenting, presenting that is the best use
of precious co-presence.
This, by the way, is the best way to counter plagiarism: give students
projects in which the writing is so embedded in process that (a) they
won't be motivated to plagiarise, (b) it will be very difficult to
plagiarize, and (c) if they do plagiarize they'll piss off their
classmates more than they'll piss off the teacher.
Plagiarism is usually a sign of disengagement: if the product is
meaningless, why not buy one instead of building it from scratch? Maybe
that's the catch line for the Herald: "U of C prof suggests making
students care about their work."
Not co-incidentally, I'll be talking about this at length at Inkshed.
Dr. Doug Brent
Associate Dean (Academic)
Faculty of Communication and Culture, University of Calgary
2500 University Drive N.W.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4
Voice: (403) 220-5458 Fax: (403) 282-6716
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