Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Made-up in America

As I struggle to polish up some important papers, the New York Times has a couple articles on people in US colleges and universities who may not be trying as hard as I am to come up with original work.

The first, "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age," talks about, well, how a lot of today's students just don't get it when it comes to the importance of creating one's own work and citing the work of others:
At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site’s frequently asked questions page about homelessness — and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information.

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.
These are anecdotes, of course, and I will say upfront that they do not reflect my own experience when I have taught courses and graded students as a lecturer or a teaching assistant at two public university systems. I was instructed by my supervising professor and the TA who came before me to spend half of an entire lecture on what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and how hard we will come down on your ass if you get caught doing it. It also helped that the type of assignments we gave were very heavy on creating one's own work and didn't rely too much on compiling the information of others.

But the article suggests that this is a more widespread problem than I've experienced:
Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.

But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”
Wikipedia is the bane of professors, as you may well know. I have explained more times than I care to remember — always proactively, before someone hands something in from the encyclopedia made by Wiccans — that Wikipedia should never be a citation in your paper unless you're doing a paper on Wikipedia itself; on the other hand, however, it can be useful as a starting point for finding resources if you look at the links down at the bottom.

Still, it's disappointing that I should have to spend so much time with this. I guess it's not surprising, though, given the "foot-out-the-door" approach many schools have toward their students, pushing them along so they at least pass onto the next level. (By contrast, Korea has a "foot-in-the-door" approach where the main goal is doing whatever you can to ensure you somehow make it into whatever top school or top company you're trying to enter, even if just barely. But once someone is in college, the foot-out-the-door attitude sometimes takes over.)

The above article and its companion blog piece, "Are you part of 'Generation Plagiarism'?," suggest that this is a Millennium Generation (or Gen-Y) problem, but I think no small number of my fellow Gen-Xers are equally as ethically challenged, if not more so. When I was in college in the 1990s, there was a lot less of a looming threat that Teach will go online and find out that, say, you didn't theorize the micro-macro dichotomy of Social Science inquiry on your own, and that meant greater temptation.

But again, that's anecdotal. And for more of my anecdotal impressions, I'll say that I didn't really run into too much plagiarism in my academic encounters in South Korea, both as an instructor and a grad student. For the former, it may have been the type of assignments, and for the latter, it may have been due to the quality of the student body and the clear expectations about plagiarism.

That's not to say that I don't think cheating exists in South Korean colleges. Far from it, I witnessed in first hand in a big way when I took regular Yonsei undergraduate courses one semester way back when. In fact, it was clear I was being used as an obstacle to obstruct the TA's view of two co-eds who were sharing answers on a final exam. One was cute, so I didn't object.

And I'm guessing that story is more in line with what many NSETs in the K-blogosphere claim is rampant in Korean schools. Again, though, I'm not so sure. Like the NYT article, we run the risk of using an egregious incident as a representative case in a given population of students, thus smearing a whole lot of people who not only did nothing wrong, but worked their asses off to get what they achieved.

Work their asses off in South Korean schools, you derisively ask? Yes. Many South Korean colleges are no longer the four-year picnic that came as a reward for getting into college in the first place, particularly because of increasingly intense competition for post-baccalaureate jobs and grading quotas designed to eliminate grade inflation. In my brief stint as a lecturer in Korean academia, I could give no more than 30% of my students an A, and no more than 40% of my students a B. Regardless of how well they performed, at least 30% would get a C, D, or F. I wrote about that at Korea Beat:
My one stint at teaching undergrads in Korea was nothing like that. We were forced to give weekly updates on attendance, for which there was an automatic F if one received beyond, I believe, three in that semester.
And this:
Passing is not failing, but neither is it doing well. In the 30-40-30 system that is becoming the new standards, no more than 30% of the class can get an A (including A- and A+), no more than 40% can get a B (including B- and B+), and at least 30% must get some form of C, D, or F.

Yeah, if someone shows up and takes the exams, they are guaranteed at least a C, a passing grade. That allows them to move on to graduate, but in today's competitive job market, that might as well be an F.

The four-year picnic is a thing of the past in many schools.
Whoops! I just plagiarized myself.


  1. I was sent back to Korea to teach GRE. Later, after I got my master's degree at Yonsei, I took advantage of that to teach culture and Korean Studies courses. I was not an English conversation teacher, though I sympathize with the problems they face.

  2. Because I was living in Seoul, I knew almost all the stuff already and I wanted to have something tangible like a degree, and I thought it would be useful for my future academic and professional work in public health.

    John, I'd rather not lay out private details of my life in the comments section of my blog, so if you have private questions to ask me, send an email. That doesn't mean I'll answer, necessarily, but I might.

  3. Could John really be Emily fishing for info.?

    Be careful and sad news to see about Matt Robinson passing on your sidebar.

  4. You are very funny. You write a personal blog for the public on Korean, you present to public where you live and you are from, and your profession.

    Yet you dont reveal why you majored on something, or what race you are. That is a privacy concern for you?

    and not to mention, You asked me where I am from (I am Korean, of course), but you don't do the same. Yet other many other bloggers say their name. Hmm?

  5. Thanks for pointing that out (I hadn't actually read my own side bar). I'll be posting a little something on it later and leaving a note on Daniel Gray's Seoul Eats blog. That is very sad. I hope we helped make things a bit easier for him and his family, though.

  6. Actually, John, this is more like a Korean affairs blog, with occasional jaunts into innocuous personal stuff (like the Kogi truck post) or mentions of relevant personal experiences. But for the most part, I try to keep this blog not about me, except as the driving personality behind it.

    And I asked you where you're from, just as you know where I'm from.

    People have different reasons for their different degrees of privacy or anonymity. Having been burned by leaving a trail of personal details with which people in the past have tried to use to reach out and hurt me in the real world, I'm in no mood to make it easier for them. With people I get to know and feel I can trust, I have no problem becoming friends with in the real world. In fact, I have become acquainted with no small number of bloggers in the real world (I even went to Noryangjin Fish Market with the aforementioned Daniel Gray, and I've had beer several times with The Marmot).

    If you really aren't Emily (or Peter, who was obsessed with whether or not I was Japanese), then you will see that I do not wish to entertain any more of your private questions on my publicly accessible blog. You can either email me, as I asked you to do a couple comments ago, or forgo the questions altogether. Be warned that if you can't honor my request, I may have to start deleting comments, and I hate doing that.

  7. By the way, this post's topic is plagiarism. In America or Korea... take your pick.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. hmm, ok I understand. I didnt realize, You seem to act very funny and weird. I apologize for any hurt I gave.

    And I am not "Emily" or "Peter" etc.

  10. What do Korean studies have to do with public health? The only benefit I can see is that you get to know more about a specific community, Koreans. But I don't think it's necessary to study that for work in public health. Perhaps it will help you serve Korean Americans better by understanding the cultural context that they are operating from.

  11. itissaid, it was not my plan to do Korean Studies as part of public health studies. I was a pre-med in college and always wanted to go into the health field and as my twenties turned into my thirties, I realized a professional PH degree and an academic PhD was a better fit for me and my goals than a technical MD degree.

    But the Korean Studies degree that preceded it was never part of that design, even though it would be an enhancement to my future work (as well as a marketable subject I am "qualified" to teach). KS is about detailed study and knowledge base on Korean politics, society, economics, institutions, etc. It's a toolbox for any kind of professional or academic field if one's focus is on Korea, whether or not one is a Korean national or a foreign national.

    It is particularly useful if I am back in Seoul working on public health issues, although somewhat less so if I'm in, say, California or Hawaii working with Korean immigrants.

    But like I said, it was never by design to do KS first and then PH. I was working full time, and I was working in a field where I had to acquire most of the knowledge base needed for a master's degree in KS, so I thought, why not get an academic credential in the field to have something to show beyond mere work experience on my CV.


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