The Moose in the Living Room: Some Thoughts on Plagiarism in Student Writing

by Matthew Luskey on February 11, 2014

The comedian Steven Wright jokes that when hunters stomp through the woods in camouflage, they are about as inconspicuous as a moose trying to hide in the living room by holding a chair. The same analogy applies to many plagiarized papers, which I find puzzling, dispiriting and insulting for their glaring obviousness.* It may not always be easy to prove plagiarism – how the moose gets into the living room – but it sure is easy to spot. 

Despite the robust literature on anti-plagiarism education, plagiarism-detection software and campus plagiarism policies, the obviousness of plagiarism is often under examined. We might explain the obviousness of a plagiarized paper as a sign of student cluelessness, carelessness or callousness, but these labels don’t get us very far. We need to spend a little more time considering why there is a moose in the living room and how it keeps getting in.

 Tracking the Moose

Why is plagiarism so obvious? Because we educators read student writing for a living, we learn to identify and track patterns of student discourse. With the vast majority of students who are novices or emerging academic writers, these patterns are quite distinct from the patterns expert writers use. As David Bartholomae and Mina Shaughnessy have shown, syntactically clunky, error-prone features of student writing are indicative of students trying to assimilate and mimic new genres of academic writing, new modes of thinking, new ways of building and responding to arguments. Gerald Graff refers to this as learning “Arguespeak,” the primary mode of discourse in academic writing and the “moves” that enable it. Though they can certainly irritate us when we are reading stacks of papers, error and awkwardness are quite often, and somewhat paradoxically, the telltale signs of authentic development and effort in student writing.

Frankly, we might acknowledge these developmental features in our own writing as well. When we stretch ourselves, our writing is cumbersome, jargon-filled, flabby with excessive nominalization (e.g. “is a representation of” rather than “represents”). To borrow Anne Lamott’s phrase, we must write “shitty first drafts” before we can write good second drafts and terrific third drafts (21).

Plagiarized papers stand out for their violation of these familiar patterns and this lack of a visible, developmental and messy process. So often they are obvious for their lack of error, their momentary absence of uncertain or halting ideas, their brief silencing of a student voice trying out a new lexicon. Suddenly, semicolons are used correctly; their presence in an essay is as prominent as the antlers above the wingback. Sources are framed and cited in different formats, and conceptual, nuanced and discipline-specific language make a startling appearance. Threshold concepts that once hindered or challenged student thinking now operate in full force. 

This is not to say that all well articulated, finely developed and correctly cited papers in standard written English are suspect. Rather, they are suspect when they appear in contrast to the discourse patterns exhibited elsewhere in the specific student’s writing. What makes plagiarism obvious, if not always provable, is a familiarity with the student’s writing and thinking process. For me, this is why plagiarism deeply offends: it erases the relational and dialogical core at the heart of writing.

Back to the Woods 9780674724631

It should be little surprise, then, that the research on cheating shows an increase in incidents of plagiarism on assignments that greatly diminish the writing relationship between a student writer and the reader. When the writer and the reader remain fundamentally and deeply alienated from one another – what James Britton described as the “student as examinee” writing for the “teacher as examiner,” plagiarism increases.  Such conditions flourish in assignments that involve:

  • a one-shot, high-stakes performance-oriented task
  • purely extrinsic rewards and punishments
  • generic and inauthentic tasks that reduce intrinsic motivation
  • a low expectation of success due to task difficulty and a lack of adequate preparation (Lang, 35) 

Put in a slightly different way, a moose is more likely to appear in the living room when assignments with a heavy grade weight require a product without a process and minimize the interactive relationship of the writer and the reader. 

Fortunately, as James Lang asserts, “the most effective means to teach our students are also the most effective means to reduce the incentive and opportunity to cheat” (62). Such approaches, elaborated in the CTLT’s online resources and detailed by Tonia Malone in an earlier blog, include:

  • establishing a clear written policy about plagiarism that serves as a recurring discussion and “priming” tool over the course of the term
  • using meta-teaching and meta-cognition strategies and tasks
  • designing original and authentic assignments with grounded assessments
  • documenting and rewarding the process of research and writing
  • teaching explicitly the conventions of integrating and citing appropriate sources. 

To be sure, the ethical and academic responsibility for not plagiarizing begins with the student writer. But if plagiarism signals an effacing of the messy writing process and a breakdown in the relationship between the writer and the reader, then it is well worth thinking about the kinds of assignments we design, the supports we provide over the course of the assignment, and our tolerance for imperfection. 

* I am indebted to a former professor at the University of Oregon for this fine analogy. It has stuck with me over the years.

Sources:

Britton, James, et al. The Development of Writing Abilities (11–18). London: Macmillan Education, 1975.

Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (2nd Ed.). New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York, Panthenon Book, 1994.

Lang, James M. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2013. 

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