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The Importance of Writing

Writing is hard work and all the marvels of modern technology haven’t made it any easier. Vast resources now lie just keystrokes away, but the basic art of assembling one’s thoughts into engaging prose is little changed since the days of paper and pencil. While mindless information doubles every three years, thoughtful writing still proceeds at an old fashioned pace.

Unfortunately, the timeless nature of writing isn’t shared by its fraudulent imitation: plagiarism. Though nearly as ancient as writing itself, plagiarism adapts quickly to new technology. With a web full of seemingly ownerless prose, plagiarism is as easy as cut-and-paste. And if you don’t see exactly what you want for free, you can buy it online at any number of “paper mills.”

But a more insidious way in which technology has fostered plagiarism is by shifting our attention from content to appearance. A well-written student paper is no longer “A” work unless it’s printed in color on glossy paper, with fonts and images and an accompanying multimedia presentation. Students feel expected to turn in the best papers ever written, not the best papers they can write themselves. So they assemble those papers. With hours invested in the decorations, students feel justified in stealing some or all of the text. After all, they “couldn’t have said it any better” themselves.

In addition to its easy rationalization by people seeking the rewards of writing without the associated effort, plagiarism is also widely misunderstood. It isn’t limited to the theft of another person’s words; it also includes the theft of their ideas. More generally, plagiarism is any form of dishonesty about authorship. A reader or listener should always know whose thoughts they’re hearing.

Plagiarism isn’t a victimless crime. It deprives its readers of their time and trust, and its true authors of their good names. In academia, plagiarism inflates grades relative to education and devalues honest scholarship. Among authors and journalists, plagiarism cheapens the very art of writing, much as performance enhancing drugs cheapen so many sports. Plagiarism is as much a problem of morale as it is of ethics.

Prosecuting plagiarists is a miserable undertaking. It brings joy to no one, as I know from sad experience at the University of Virginia. After uncovered extensive plagiarism in my large introductory physics class in 2001, I spent two years dealing with endless honor cases. But I view that episode as an anti-scandal—as an enlightened community taking action against a misbehaving few in order to maintain its own intellectual integrity. Eliminating plagiarism isn’t about the plagiarists; it’s about supporting the honest people by giving them a fair environment.

Plagiarism isn’t an obscure tweed-collar crime. It’s a sorry fact of life everywhere and any school or organization that feels untainted is probably in denial. With plagiarism so commonplace, an organization that deals openly with it deserves our support, not our condemnation. There is no scandal in cleaning house. The scandal is in tolerating or covering up plagiarism.

Unfortunately, plagiarism is openly tolerated in the most public sectors of modern life. It wasn’t always that way. Lincoln didn’t just perform his Gettysburg address; he actually wrote it. What happened to that tradition of intellectual honesty in public speech? With ghostwriting so ubiquitous among the rich and powerful, it’s no wonder that young people see little value in learning to write well. They view writing the way they view cleaning their rooms—an unpleasant chore they’ll do only until they can afford to hire someone else.

When students believe that writing assignments are merely hazing rituals, hurdles on the path to success in life, some will inevitably plagiarize. And when instructors assign writing that has no clear educational goals, how can the students value it? Having explicitly stated goals is both good discipline and a way to avoid misunderstandings. If students believe an assignment is “busy work,” some will be busy cheating.

Finally, students need to be taught that the act of writing is intrinsically valuable to them. It crystallizes one’s thoughts in a way that nothing else can. As a physicist, I find that I often learn more from writing papers and proposals than I do from working in the laboratory. I rarely find writing easy, but I always find it rewarding.

Originally published on the Commentary Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, April 4, 2004, edited by John Timpane.

On Stating the Goals for Assigned Work

It is easy for students to misunderstand the purpose of assigned work. Since they don’t have the instructor’s knowledge or perspective on the material, they generally can’t tell where things are headed or why a particular assignment will get them there. If the instructor doesn’t make his goals for each assignment clear from the start, the students are likely to adopt instead their own default goal: obtaining the highest possible grades. Since society rewards high grades more than anything else that can be obtained through the educational system, students naturally equate the goals of their work with whatever activities produce the highest grades. Sadly, if turning in words plagiarized from encyclopedias or web sites yields high grades and no consequences, students learn to do exactly that. Merely telling the students not to plagiarize won’t help much because many students aren’t mature enough to act ethically when doing so is against their self-interest. If plagiarism is invariably rewarded rather than punished, some students will plagiarize.

If the rewards and consequences of student behavior aren’t aligned with the instructor’s academic goals, there will almost certainly be some amount of academic misconduct. But even when the alignment is good, it’s important that the students understand the goals underlying the assignments. I have taken to putting explicit goals on each of my assignments, so that there should be no misunderstanding about why I want the students to do what I have asked them to do. It the very least, it is good self-discipline for me and ensures that I’m not just assigning busy work. Nothing attracts misconduct like busy work or work that is perceived as busy work by the students. In the act of stating explicit goals for an assignment, an instructor must reconcile the assigned work with the goals and will tend to eliminate work that has little educational value. In the act of hearing or reading why they are being asked to complete an assignment, the students must overlay their default goal (i.e., getting high grades) with the stated goals. Hopefully, this communication of purpose will help to keep everyone on the same page.

One reason why conveying the instructor’s goals to the students is important is that their default goal, obtaining the highest possible grades, is usually associated with turning in the best possible finished work. For most students, the best possible finished work would be the work of someone else. Students who assemble their papers out of other people’s words often do so because they can’t improve on those words. The claim that “I couldn’t write it any better myself, so I just put it in my paper” is not only a common excuse, it is a compelling rationalization on the part of many students. They convince themselves that cutting and pasting in that fashion is OK because they assume that the instructor actually wants the best paper ever written on the topic. Therefore, I state as part of my term paper assignment that I don’t want the best paper ever written on the topic; I want the best paper that the student himself can write in his own words.

This essay was originally written on March 18, 2006. © Copyright 2001 by Louis Bloomfield. All rights reserved.

On the Motivations for Grade Inflation

People often claim that instructors who give inflated grades do so to obtain higher evaluations from their students, but I don’t buy that argument. Sure, the students will happily accept the inflated grades, but they still won’t respect bad instruction and will mostly say so on their end-of-semester course evaluations. The anticipated quid pro quo just doesn’t work very well, perhaps because the instructor has no way of enforcing it.

Instead, I think that instructors give inflated grades to buy peace. The higher the grades an instructor assigns, the less students will complain to the instructor and the easier the instructor’s life will be as a result. Across each campus and society in general, grading is an arms race and no instructor wants to stand out as giving the lowest grades. Apart from a few curmudgeons who relish being hardnoses and intimidate their students, the harsh graders will end up enduring lots of student complaints about lower-than-expected grades.

Instructors have every incentive to give their students artificially high grades. They get peace and they may even get some measure of vacuous popularity. The same goes for departments and even for entire schools. Since giving a B or C risks conflict and discord, why give anything less than an A? In a world where normative data are secret, there is simply no direct cost to giving high grades; it’s a free lunch! Of course, there is a small indirect cost to inflating grades. When everyone gets A-range grades, there is no dynamic range left and all classes become essentially pass-fail: an A is passing and every other grade is failure.

There is a simple way to stop this arms race: publish normative data. In other words, let the whole world know the average grade in every class, every department, and every school. Apart from having to meet FERPA requirements (student privacy), this disclosure would eliminate most incentives for giving steadily higher grades. An instructor would no longer be able to buy peace with inflated grades. Suddenly instructors would be able to use the whole range of grades again to truly distinguish the excellent from the middling from the mediocre. If it were widely known that the average grade in a particular class was a C, a student could once again be proud of getting a B. And if an instructor really felt that all of the students in a class deserved A grades, let that instructor defend that belief as part of the normative data.

In any case, no one should ever take a student’s grades too seriously. I’ve learned from long experience just how hard it is to assign meaningful grades, even though I teach a physical science with relatively little room for subjectivity. Students are so different how they think and learn that it’s hard to use a one-dimensional measure to represent a multi-dimensional educational process. Personally, I need a broad dynamic range just to limit the effects of measurement errors. For twenty years, I’ve kept my average grade at a B and made good use of the whole spectrum from A+ down to F. Because of how challenging it is to measure student performance meaningfully, I can’t claim that there is any significant distinction between students whose grades differ by a minor step (e.g., between a B+ and an A-). I think, however, that there is a real distinction between those whose grades differ by major grade steps (e.g., between a B and an A).

Finally, I hope that everyone who encounters my former students will look beyond grades to see for themselves what those students have learned and what they now know. Education isn’t meant to be a hazing or weeding out ritual; it should teach something. Student should emerge from school with something wonderful between their ears and it should show. If it doesn’t, what have we been doing?

This essay was originally written on December 11, 2005. © Copyright 2001 by Louis Bloomfield. All rights reserved.

On the Motivations for Cheating

I think that students cheat primarily because our society rewards appearances more than realities. All of the emphasis is on how you look, not on who you really are. We reward people for their degrees and good credentials so much more than we reward them for becoming educated, that it’s no wonder students take shortcuts. As much as we laugh at the online services that shamelessly trade academic degrees for cash, maybe they’re not so far off; maybe some students really should just buy their degrees and avoid having to put on the charade of getting an education.

As much as I love learning myself, I recognize that there are people who do not share that love and whose lives will not be improved by passing through an educational system they neither value nor respect. Many of these people will go on to lives that make no use of what they would or would not have learned in college, so making them attend college just for appearances is a waste of time and resources. It will only serve to reinforce their beliefs that education is merely part of the game they have to play to succeed in life. Instead of polishing their resumes at the cost of their integrity, they would do better to skip college and learn instead to be honest and decent human beings.

This essay was originally written on December 11, 2005. © Copyright 2001 by Louis Bloomfield. All rights reserved.