…or argue with dudebros on Twitter. I made that mistake yesterday.
First problem: they were arguing with me about plagiarism. It’s not so bad, they said.
Have you ever noticed that they tend to focus on trivial interpretations of real problems? They all think that they’re like little cut-rate Malcolm Gladwells, the twerps, and that picking some bit of common knowledge and taking a counter-intuitive perspective makes them brilliant. No, it doesn’t. Most often it makes them wrong.
So they’re yammering at me that it isn’t even a crime — it’s not stealing, because the original creator of the idea hasn’t lost anything, so why should anyone complain about it? Except, of course, that the creator has had credit taken from them, and try telling a writer that they lose nothing if someone else copies their work without attribution. But hey, they were on a roll.
Then, predictable as clockwork, the second problem: stereotyping. You know who else plagiarizes a lot? Asians! Their culture encourages copying. Then, the trump card, gloriously played with a triumphant smirk: When I say plagiarism is bad, I’m accusing all Asians of theft.
Yeah. All Asia. All Asian culture thinks plagiarism is just fine.
That’s where I threw up my hands and blocked them all. There is stupid, and there is impenetrable ignorance.
Here’s where they were completely missing the point. They were conflating plagiarism with rote memorization.
I’m a college professor, and I run into this problem a lot. There are some things that have to be learned by rote: you did this when you learned the alphabet and the times table. You have to learn this hard, boring core of knowledge before you can play with it creatively. You master the alphabet, spelling, basic grammar, and vocabulary, and then you get to expand that knowledge in creative ways. We run into difficulties with plagiarism when students miss the transition from “here’s a list you have to memorize” to “Now explain to me in your own words what the theme of that list was.”
That shift happens all the time. I’m going to be doing it to my students today.
I’ve been lecturing at them all week about glycolysis and the citric acid cycle. I’ve been showing them diagrams, leading them step by step through the pathways, occasionally digressing to explain how this one step is regulatory, or how the products from this step can be shunted to an alternative pathway, etc., etc., etc. I gave them a handout with a list of the things — enzymes, reactants, structures — that I expected them to have memorized for the exam. If I ask them to tell me what molecule is split by aldolase and what two products result, there is a straightforward answer. If they copy my lecture notes and say “aldolase breaks fructose 1,6-bisphosphate into dihydroxyacetone phosphate and glyceraldehyde phosphate”, this is not plagiarism. They get a cookie. They know part of the sequence.
I might ask them a few questions like that on the exam, because knowing the basics is essential, but it doesn’t tell me anything about their understanding. Anyone can sit down memorize a random collection of facts — it becomes a game of trivia.
But I’ll also ask a few short essay questions. Tell me something about how glycolysis follows the laws of thermodynamics; why does glycolysis reduce NAD only to oxidize it again in fermentation; how does the cell ‘know’ when to stop burning sugar, summarize all the regulatory steps? I’m going to expect them to be able to summarize and integrate and succinctly summarize ideas that were spread out over several lectures. Rote memorization won’t help.
So today I don’t lecture at all. I’m going to hand out big sheets of butcher paper and sharpies and ask the students to illustrate and explain to each other the stuff they learned this week. Just recreating a list won’t count — they have to provide some insight into the concepts, and they have to be able to teach each other.
That’s why plagiarism is bad (in addition to the fact that it steals from others). It’s the difference between being a user, someone who takes ideas and repeats them, and a maker, someone who creates and shares new perspectives, and opens the door to novel insights. The purpose of a college education is to create makers. We don’t need a generation of parrots.
As for the stereotype of “Asians” — it’s not true. It is a general problem that many students don’t quite get the idea of avoiding plagiarism, but it’s not restricted to “Asians”. Here’s my list of problem students:
First year students who got a poor education. You know the type: they mastered the 5-paragraph essay, they know how to look stuff up on wikipedia, and they never had to exercise their minds in 13 years of public education. We try to shake them up, but sometimes they continue their bad habits for a few years. They tend to wither in the upper level courses…or they learn.
Pre-meds. Oh, they’re capable of thinking, but when they feel that their entire future career rests on getting an “A” on every exam, they don’t want creative. They want the certainty of rote regurgitation.
Entitled white guys. Dudebros. It happens every year. They paid their tuition. For that fee, they expect that they have bought the right answers to every question, if you haven’t given them the precise answers expected for every problem, you have broken the contract, and it’s all your fault that they didn’t know the answer.
“Asians” don’t even make the list. If anything, they’re just a subset of my first item, and a few of them might fall into the second group, but it’s not because they have Asian Culture, whatever the hell that is.