Friday, February 08, 2008

tom sawyer and the fence

SIUC students largely ignored a survey on plagiarism here that was offered by national expert Don McCabe, whom I went to see, brieflly, yesterday. I sat in the back, as I knew I had to leave early, to talk to a student who had requested a meeting. I can verify that this article reported accurately what he said; nobody knows why they chose to ignore the survey. It was pointed out that he is, after all, asking them to report honestly on dishonesty. He also pointed out that IP addresses make the concept of "anonymity" in these online surveys obsolete these days. Yet SIUC students still gave him about a tenth of the response that students at other schools gave him; the faculty, on the other hand, was about consistent with other schools.

The talk was well attended, but mostly by faculty, people like me, possibly, who teach about plagiarism, or others who keep the fires of interest burning. The way I teach it, to internationals who freely admit that it's common and even required in their countries, makes the plagiarism he talks about almost inconceivable. Yet I knew he was right about several things: it's an entirely different world from when he started studying the issue, in 1990. The cut-and-paste web makes the borders of personal expression permeable, words, pictures and ideas batted around like so many marbles on a wooden porch, with a few arguments breaking out occasionally over a "cat's eye."

He'd heard the word "whitewash" as a cynical characterization of what he was doing, and a possible reason for being cold-shouldered by students. I saw no evidence that his visit was an attempt to cover over anything, though I have no idea of how the pr of these things actually works. We came, we listened (at least for a while), and I, for one, found Dr. McCabe to be refreshing, honest, interesting, and knowledgable. Yet he left town not knowing one thing: how SIUC students were really feeling about the issue. Whatever doubts he carries about all the real data he has collected on the issue, at least that's better than no data at all.

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