Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cold War In The Classroom

Dr. Miller, aka Anotherpanacea, has called me to account for my post a few days ago ("Why I Won't Turn It In"), in which I detailed my objections to the pay-per-plagiarism-police service known as Turnitin.com. AnPan does use the service, and he offers his own justifications for that choice in his post titled "Why I Use Plagiarism Detection Services." There, he claims that the basic axiom governing his decision is simple: "Trust, but verify." It's an axiom borrowed from the (so-called) Cold War and which was most famously given voice by Ronald Reagan, the late, great advocate of preemptive security measures. AnPan breaks down my argument into three basic components, which I will address below in the same order he presents them, before coming back to remark briefly on what I see as the problem with employing his Cold War logic in the classroom.


According to AnPan, I gave three arguments for my objection to Turnitin. I summarize his summaries thus:

Argument (1): Cheating is a vice, generating its own vicious ills. The punishment of cheating is only a superadded penalty to something that already harms the cheater.
Argument (2): Plagiarism-prevention services constitute a violation of the Honor System.
Argument (3): Plagiarism-prevention services disrespect the students and, consequently, disincline them from acting with respect (toward the Honor System, toward me, toward themselves).
and...
Argument (4*): I mark this one with an asterisk because, although AnPan doesn't list this as one of my arguments, he does make extensive use of my following objection: Professors are not, and should not be forced into the role of, police.

First, some generic remarks. You will notice that only Arguments (2), (3) and (4) legitimately constitute objections to Turnitin. Argument (1) is more of a framing argument about the cheating/plagiarism issue in general. Also, I don't really see Arguments (2) and (3) as separate arguments, but rather of a piece in my more global defense of the spirit-- if not also the letter-- of the Honor Code. And, speaking of the Honor Code, I actually DO think that it makes a BIG difference that my institution has one and AnPan's doesn't. So, as a beginning gesture of compromise, let me say that I might find myself far more persuaded to adopt some variation of AnPan's approach if I wasn't so concerned with what I see as a fundamental conflict between Turnitin and the Honor Code.

Now, the rejoinders:
Re: Argument (1): AnPan is correct to characterize my position as a variant of the Platonic/Aristotelian theory of vice, which maintains that vice harms the vicious independent of its punishment by the virtuous (or the less-vicious). And he is also correct to state that-- as articulated by Socrates in the Gorgias-- the virtuous, if they are wise, will desire that their unjust acts be punished. Let me say (AGAIN!) that I have never claimed that I think cheating/plagiarism should NOT be punished. My basic objection to Turnitin is that it requires that I treat all of my students as "guilty until proven innocent," which is, in my view, a punishment in advance of the crime. Every institution of higher learning already has mechanisms in place for punishing these sorts of infractions, which I will (and do) employ when needed. Turnitin doesn't add anything here, except that it might make it more likely that cheaters get caught (and therefore punished), but it does so at the expense of treating non-cheaters the same as cheaters. Or, rather, it does so at the expense of treating everyone as putative cheaters. Everyone may in fact be a "putative cheater"-- I certainly wouldn't go to the mat protesting that claim-- but I am no Angry God and the students are not, in my view, already Sinners poised above the fiery pits of hell in my angry hands. Maybe a few more of the "actual" sinners get off with my approach, but the net gain of maintaining an environment in which the distinction between potential transgressors and actual transgressors still has some meaning is worth it for me.

Re: Argument (2): As I said above, I think the Honor Code is the difference that makes a difference between AnPan's situation and mine. An Honor Code, as I see it, ought to serve as the preventative mechanism that makes other preventative mechanisms (like Turnitin) unnecessary. That is not the same as saying that the Honor Code is a preventative mechanism that guarantees a perfect moral community-- which is why it requires, in addition to one's pledge to act honorably, also a pledge to report honor violations. I don't know enough about how Honor Codes operate at different schools, but my school's Honor Code is entirely administrated by students. (The students composed the Honor Code, they propose and approve amendments to it, they adjudicate violations of it, and they hand out punishments for said violations.) So, at my institution anyway, the entire academic integrity system is built upon the default assumption that students are acting with integrity and, correspondingly, they are "policing" violations of their community's collective integrity. I just cannot see how professors' participation in Turnitin is NOT a violation of this Honor System. The students sign a pledge to "not lie, cheat or steal" and "to report any such violation" that they may witness. If I am "turning it in," I am effectively robbing them both of the opportunity to enjoy the trust we generally accord to honest people and also the opportunity to stand up as protectors and defenders (and, yes, policers) of that privilege. AnPan characterizes my position-- incorrectly, if not also ungenerously, I think-- as "turning a blind eye to cheaters." I DON'T DO THAT; I don't turn a blind eye to cheaters. As a member of the Honor community, I also consider it my obligation to "report any such violations" of which I am aware. But there is a world of difference between "turning a blind eye" to transgressions and turning oneself into a Gatsby-esque All-Seeing-Eye-In-The-Sky with regard to those transgressions. As much as I trust in the Honor System, as I believe all members of my institution's community are obligated to do, I also trust in the mechanisms that it has in place for its enforcement. If I take it upon myself to impose other, vigilante mechanisms of preemptive enforcement, I might as well remove my name from the roles of that Honor community... because I am no longer operating on principles of honor, but rather on some kind of suspicious, Hobbesian, and fundamentally amoral principle that presumes everyone is motivated above all by pedestrian self-interest.

[Addendum to (2): I'm a poker player. I have a regular poker game, between friends, that I play in weekly. Despite its somewhat sketchy reputation in popular culture, and despite that one of the key elements of the game involves "bluffing," poker is actually a game that requires a lot of honor and trust. Which is why, in my previous post, I analogized using Turnitin to sitting down at a poker table with a pistol under the table. There's no guarantee at the poker table that someone doesn't have an Ace up his or her sleeve, or that s/he won't steal off with the money, or that s/he won't secretly neglect to ante up if it goes unnoticed. But in a game among friends, we all trust that noone is cheating. That doesn't mean that noone ever cheats, nor does it mean that if someone is caught cheating that there aren't consequences, it only means we've all agreed that the game can only be what it was meant to be-- namely, an honorable game-- if we all trust that everyone is playing fairly. I could, of course, protect my money more effectively by assuming that everyone is potentially a cheater and harboring a pistol under the table in case of that eventuality-- which would most certainly disincline the other players from cheating, and would most certainly insure a harsh penalty if they did-- but I would have to admit to myself that I was playing an entirely different game then. More on this when I get to the Cold War analogy below.]

Re: Argument (3): I have to admit, I am utterly perplexed by AnPan's objection here. I simply do not see the analogy between respect and contempt that he wants to draw. My suspicion is that AnPan is engaging in a little bit of elision here between respect/contempt for a person and respect/contempt for his or her actions. I can respect a person, as a matter of principle, and still have contempt for what he or she does. Correspondingly, I can have contempt for people generally and still respect how a particular individual may act in any particular instance. For my part, I think we're morally obligated to respect persons, and morally prohibited from holding persons in contempt, qua "persons." Things like Honor Codes, on my view, enforce these principles. Honor Codes operate on the presumption that it is not required in advance that one "prove" oneself "deserving" of respect, though the implicit caveat of those same codes is that if one does violate the presumptive trust, then one runs the risk of being expelled from the community that the Honor Code governs. (And banished, presumably, back to the state of nature.) Pace Nietzsche, I don't think this is an "elitist" sentiment... though I do agree with Nietzsche that it is a special privilege of our very special kind of animal, namely, the animal that can make promises.

Re: Argument (4*): I'm surprised that AnPan didn't state more explicitly his objection to my objection to (preemptive) "policing," because it seems to me that it is on this point that our positions fundamentally diverge. I don't see anything in AnPan's articulation of his position that indicates he has any problem whatsoever with being a policeman. His axiom-- Trust, but verify.-- is the sine qua non of the logic of preemption. Which, by the way (finally!), brings me to the point I've wanted to make all along...

The classroom is not, and should not be, a Cold War.
AnPan (despite his probably ironic employment of Reagan's poorly-garbled Russian adage) is a lot closer to Ronald Reagan than I think he wants to admit, and he seems to view his students as an American might view Russians-circa-1982. (Or, alternatively, as an American might view Muslims-circa-2002.) He's running a Cold War classroom, in which the basic Nash Equilibrium or M.A.D. rubric applies. That is to say, the classroom is a millieu in which everyone is suspicious and noone can be trusted, so every preemptive security mechanism one can employ should be employed. This is, in my opinion (and all due respect to AnPan), an awful way to conduct a classroom, especially a Philosophy classroom. That kind of CYA attitude is exactly what motivates students to cheat in the first place, convinced as they tend to be that grade-grubbing and ladder-climbing is more important than actually learning. I cannot stretch my imagination far enough to imagine a scenario in which condoning and confirming this world-view is beneficial to anyone. I am not my students' antagonist. I'm not their enemy. We are not at war with one another.

We are on the same side.

I hope, at the very least, that students plant their backsides, however reluctantly, in my classroom every day because they want to learn. And even if they don't primarily want to learn philosophy, I hope and trust that "learning" is at least somewhere on their list of priorities. I'm convinced that if it is not, if they are only there to cheat and scam and maneuver their way to some other imperfectly-evaluated consequence, that I will have the fortitude (and grace) to concede that battle to them. (See Arguments above.) That's not a war I want to engage in, "cold" or otherwise. And employing devices like Turnitin, in my view, is tantamount to conceding that battle. It is, effectively, conceding to the Logic of the Cold War, which surreptiously assumes that we are all combatants, though we pretend not to be, that values preemptive security more than a comminuty that bravely-- and virtuously-- puts itself at risk, and that erroneously determines the spoils of war as trumping anything and everything that might be lost by the warriors' (physical, spiritual or moral) casualties.

The balance between risk and security is always a delicate one (as I argued in a previously published article on the topic). Turnitin certainly offers a security that I do not presently have in my classroom....

But I, for one, would rather take the risk.

5 comments:

Stephanie said...

Dr. J- Do you make any distinctions between different uses of Turnitin? There are different submission methods- professors or students can submit papers. And there's an option for resubmission. If AnPan is having students submit the papers themselves and leaves the option open for resubmission, then I don't think Turnitin is serving a policing function. The issue seems to be how we define plagiarism.

I agree with you 100% that we shouldn't distrust our students. But the reason why I use Turnitin is because, in my experience, plagiarism is unintentional and the result of a lack of instruction in citation practices.

Turnitin is a fantastic resource, for example, for showing students when they have failed to properly paraphrase a text. (It color codes words and everything!)

In short, I think plagiarism is a pedagogical rather than a moral issue. I find Turnitin to be a helpful resource in giving student immediate, individualized feedback on the originality of their assignments.

DOCTOR J said...

@Stephanie: I don't suppose, in principle, I would object to students using Turnitin as a way of checking/confirming that they aren't repeating others' thoughts/claims/ideas without propoer citation. But that's not what the service is primarily intended for... and (as I understand it) that's not why my institution has signed up for it. Turnitin is, for the MOST PART, a policing service. And to that I still object,

anotherpanacea said...

My response: http://www.anotherpanacea.com/2010/09/the-problem-with-honor-cold-wars-and-hard-hearts/

Joey said...

I pursued my UG education at a 'great books' program that had no verification step for reading apart from notes that students took, in-class discussion, and the quality of their semester paper / 'don rags'. The director openly admitted that he'd be ok with up to 20% of the UG population not doing the reading if it meant the other 80% of us could flourish in an environment that existed no where else at the time.

I don't know how many of my peers skipped out on texts, but I have to say I flourished in an environment where I could interact with the text, rather than having to prepare for a 'reading comprehension' quiz or some such cruft. And I do know some people were ousted for not carrying their end of the bargain (repeatedly attributing to various authors something that they set up as an argument to later destroy is self-outing).

COULD the program have substantially reduced cheating? Probably.

Would the costs of that reduction have outweighed the losses incurred by the rest of us? Probably not.

So as one student grateful for the freedom and intellectual playfulness that came from an environment of trust, let me simply say: keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I think the problem here is lies with policy and the pejorative terms used to describe Turnitin.

It is unfortunate it is referred to as a 'plagiarism detector' as nothing could be further from the truth.

Turnitin is really only a tool which measures the extent of similar text found from it's extensive database.

If Turnitin is used as an aid to student feedback as part of the learning and assessment process it is a very useful catalyst for dialogue about good research practice, paraphrasing, quoting and citation.

If you choose to use it as a policing mechanism, or without explanation/agreement then students would be rightly concerned. But this concern should realy be about your policy of use rather than the tool itself I think.

All assessment measures something, but we tend to talk about measuring how much students have learned rather than identifying the few students that have learned nothing.

I think the same thing is true of this tool, although it can be used to identify a miniscule number of intentional plagiarists, its real value is in verifying correct citation, quoting and paraphrasing as part of the learning process for the majority.