Chapter 5

 

 

The Assignment

 

 

                   The other most frequent occasion for academic dishonesty, after examination-room copying and small homework exercises, is the term paper (and often the smaller mid-term papers) in a course in the humanities. Sometimes one of the social sciences, too. If we could imitate the Oxbridge system of simply not basing grades on exercises of this sort, using only the annual proctored examinations, there would by definition be no possibility of plagiarism for academic preferment among under­graduates.  But the American system, which is increasingly copied in other countries as ever larger fractions of their populations head for colleges, requires grading to be distributed over many courses and, in each course, based on many exer­cises. 

 

                   Even at the most elementary level, depart­ments of English, history, and so on are agreed that our style of education re­quires us to ask students to perform substantial amounts of work that culminates in a document produced out of our sight; and at an advanced level almost all disciplines do so.  Students must learn to use the library, they must have exercise in writing, they must learn to document the sources and results of their researches.  This cannot be done in an exami­nation room, and we professors absolutely cannot watch them as they do it.  If we then grade the student on the result, the temptation to pla­giar­ism is as strong as would be the temptation to cheat during an unproc­tored examination.  More, perhaps, since even their fellow-students will not be an embarrassing presence, as they might be in an examination room.  Apart from policing, is there anything to be done? 

 

                   The answer is yes, and the form of the answer is perhaps the most cheerful news there is to be found in this entire essay on the melancholy subject of student dishonesty.  In essence it is this:  The device that holds the best promise of reducing the incidence of plagiarism is exactly the device that best fosters good teaching and good learning.  It lies in the manner in which the assignment itself is given to the student.  A vague or banal assignment will not only teach nothing to the honest student, but it will of its very nature make dishonest res­ponses easy to come by; while a focused, trenchant question will elicit sear­ching work from the student and at the same time make cheating prac­tically impossible.          

 

                   To take an extreme example of a bad assignment, suppose one were to say, as I recall was said to me somewhere in the 10th Grade, "Write a Report on termites."  This was for a class in --- I can hardly remember --- English?  Social Studies?  It was not biology, I am certain, because I never had a high school class in biology.  I do know that about a thousand words were expected.  I also know that my friend Joe Frein and I (our whole class had received the same assignment) went to a small Funk and Wagnall's encyclopedia my parents had bought in furtherance of their children's education, found the article "Termites," and counted the words.  There being about two thousand, our only problem was to remove half of them; we did this with such success that our paper was praised.


 

                   I cannot recall whether we submitted our report jointly or severally; probably that was not the point.  It was one of my early lessons in editing, though the teacher may not have intended it as such. To this day I cannot recall what the point in fact was.  At that stage of school, one did "reports"; that's all.  "Plagiarism" and "research" were simply not part of the high school lexicon.

 

                   Whatever the purpose may have been then, such an assign­ment cannot be suited to any purpose we have in college.  Yet there are those who give out assignments not much different, and then grow indignant when they receive a paper they construe as having been plagiarized.  The fact that the assignment, even if "honestly" accom­plished, teaches nothing worthwhile goes hand-in-hand with the fact that plagiarism will be all but inevitable in some of the papers turned in.

 

                   Suppose, for example, that the professor of History 236, "Recent America, 1914-1970," wishes to assign to each student a term paper focusing on some special but significant part of the period studied during the term.  He does not say to the class, "Each of you is to write a term paper, 3000 words due April 29, on some special but significant part of the period studied during the term," and then collect the results on April 29.  To do this is to court receiving a host of "reports" taken from various textbooks, treatises or encyclopedias, some of them second-hand from a fraternity file of old term papers.  The professor can have little idea, when he reads the results, whether they represent learning at all; the library and the files are full of documents of the sort he has asked for, and even an original one, carefully done by his best student, will not look much different from the others.

 

                   A slightly improved procedure is to hand out to the class a sheet containing thirty topics, and ask each student to choose one of them, but seeing to it that no two students choose the same topic.  In this way the professor can encourage students to talk to each other about what they are doing, and how they are going about it, something profes­sors often foolishly discourage by giving the "same" assignment to all the class with the injunction to "do your own work without help from anyone else." 

 

                   One student chooses "Franklin D. Roosevelt's First Hundred Days"; what now?  The assignment is still incomplete.  The files and libraries are crowded with papers and chapters on even this par­ticular three-month period on Capitol Hill.  Is the student entitled to go to a file and find a paper on the subject, copy out the bibliography, then go to the library and, consulting no more and no less than that bibliography (page references and all), write out an "original" report in half the time it would take an ordinary person?  His paper might not be exactly a plagiarism, but it would certainly resemble the one in the files, and its writing would have taught him only a part of what the professor intended him to learn from the exercise.

 

                   What is the student really being asked to do?  Inform the professor of what went on in the spring of 1933?  Of course not; the professor already knows.  Improve on the analysis given by a hundred historical studies done by professional historians and biographers, not to mention the newspapers of the time and the memoirs of the principals?  Again, certainly not.  Condense everything known to a thousand original, well-chosen, apt phrases never before used?  Impossible.  It is likely the student is really being asked something like this:

 

                   "I want you to learn to use the library, and to learn to read and to write.  In this assignment I am asking you to submit to me a document which will be partial evidence of your present state of accom­plishment along these lines.  I have given you a topic as a focus for this exercise, and of course you'll learn something about 1933 as you go, but that is only part of it.  I want you to read at least ten different views of the era you are studying (there are hun­dreds), and I want you to find those ten by the same method you would use to find the hundreds if you wished to, just so you'll get used to the method.  I want you to put the main points down on index cards, and classify them thus and so, and to do it in such richness that the classification you make will have some bearing on the ease with which you will be able to use the material when it is time to write.  Then I want you to outline your argument, write it down in good English sentences, and provide enough footnotes so that the reader will know which statements are your syntheses and evaluations (if any), which are "facts" reported in newspapers, etc., and which are syntheses and evaluations of other people.  Finally, I want you to remember what you've done, so that if you have to do something a little more elaborate next time you'll have a practiced hand, and maybe an idea of how to do it more ef­ficiently than you did it this time.

 

                   "The actual document you submit is thus only part of what I want from you.  It is traditional that I give you a grade on the basis of that paper, and not follow you around the library and dormitory as you do your work --- more than traditional, it is convenient.  This means I have to infer from your paper how well you've done what I am asking.  Please make your work of such a nature that the inferences I draw from that paper are correct.  If I find I am deceived by it, I shall want to explore with you the errors you have made which led to my deception.  If I find that the deception is deliberate, I shall be angry."

 

                   This is an abbreviated version of the assignment as it should be given, printed here as if it were a three-minute lecture delivered in class on the day the topics are handed out.  As a matter of pedagogy this is not entirely the way it should be done.  Every professor knows that any given three-minute segment of his lectures will, whatever the subject, pass right by a large part of the class.  The message con­tained in the two quoted paragraphs should be delivered more than once, both orally and in writing --- on the same paper that contains the list of suggested topics.  (It should of course be made clear that a correspon­ding instruction applies, mutatis mutandis, to papers on topics other than Roosevelt's Hundred Days.) 

 

                   An instruction of this sort should be repeated in many ways, and expanded.  That place where I had the professor explaining that the notes should be "classified thus and so..." is, in particular, an enormous abbreviation:  honest scholarship and its apparatus must be taught in detail, with examples and with counterexamples, and not only on the day the official assign­ment is given out, but throughout the course.  If the students are supposed to know not only American history from 1914 to 1970, but how to find out more about it than the required reading supplies, and how to write about it, then the duty of the profes­sor is to teach not only American history from 1914 to 1970, but also how to find out more about it than the required reading supplies, and how to write about it.

 

                   Not only is the quoted assignment an abbreviation, it is a simplification as well, compared with what should be done.  I would not give that assignment verbatim even if I were sure the student understood every word, because the topic, "Roosevelt's Hundred Days," is really insufficiently focused to teach what it should or to discourage plagiarism (or some lesser form of shoddy work).  The dormitory and fraternity files, however loaded they might be with papers on various topics in American history, probably contain only a few papers that can be har­vested for the Roosevelt Hundred Day story, but those few are there.  And then, what about the hundred days?  It won't teach a student much about politics, economics or Roosevelt to have him merely run through the list of legislation gene­rated by the Brain Trust, duly named, described and arranged in chrono­logical order of their passage through Congress.  History (and not only history) is a matter of ques­tions, not a list of facts.

 

                   How much support, how much opposition, did the Roosevelt program muster, and why?  Did it ac­complish its purpose?  Were Euro­pean countries a source of any of these ideas?  How did it happen that Roosevelt subscribed to this particular program and not some other?  If he had tried some­thing different (find an example, something in a newspaper or a speech of a Congressman), would it have passed Congress?  Would it have stood a better chance with the Supreme Court than the NRA?  And so on; there is no end to questions, but students often do not realize this, and simply believe any explanation given by an authori­tative looking book or professor, and write it down.  There is no use in a professor's demanding scholarly apparatus in a term paper if he does not first demonstrate the necessity for that apparatus, if he does not make it plain --- at every turn ---that for everything we think we know, we must be prepared to explain how it was that we came to know it.  Or believe it.

 

                   This must go on all term.  The "assignment" is not something handed out during a Wednesday in January, to be forgotten by the professor until a Wednesday in April; it is the essence of what he and the students are doing.  On the printed assignment sheet, the item about the Hundred Days must contain enough specific questions to be addressed by the term paper to make it impossible that any student paper written in previous years can serve an illegitimate purpose, or that any scholarly work will contain enough consecutive pages addressed to those particular questions to serve as a crib.

 

                   Of course, a true academic felon can still hire someone to write a paper for him; there are even mail-order services for this sort of thing.  But that is mere academic crime.  We are talking here about more ordinary students, who can be taught better by such assign­ments, steered towards understanding by exactly the mechanism that steers them away from temptation.  Not only is help from "outside sources" not forbidden, it is demanded.  Students are required to ask help from the scholarly community, from the newspapers, from their fraternity brothers, exactly as the rest of us ask.  They need only be sure to tell us where that help came from, how trustworthy they think those sources are, how controver­sial, and so on.  That's what footnotes and biblio­graphies are for.  Who would plagiarize, when he has all this, when he is downright entitled to use all the help he can get, and when telling the professor how he got it earns him nothing but praise?

 

                   Temptation sometimes arises from contempt.  A silly or pointless assignment will sometimes generate in the student an anger that tran­slates, especially as the deadline approaches, into a feeling of righteous­ness about evading it.  Why waste time pleasing the old fool; why not just get something down on paper and the hell with it?  A good assign­ment is, on the other hand, an encouragement.  It is thrilling to track down an answer, boring to copy it down predigested.

 

                   But the professor must not make the assignment too difficult; that, too, can lead to contempt.  Who does he think we are?  Doesn't he know we have three other classes, and final exams coming up?  He hasn't got the right to ask me to spend two weeks in the library, as if I were writing a PhD thesis or something.

 

                   The detailing of the assignment should be as much helpful as it is demanding.  For younger students there is no harm in suggesting some answers, and leading them through the steps needed to defend the thesis in question, where for older and more experienced students there are more subtleties of historical interpretation to be considered than the professor will have time or desire to mention.  Even Beethoven was not initiated with The Well-Tempered Clavier; he began with scales and minuets, and was told to get them right.  Then, little by little, he was permitted to explore.

 

                   Permitted!  If only we could induce in our students the realization that our assignments are a privilege, that now, at long last, we are putting them on their own, that they can now find out for them­selves the real truth, where before they had to believe "what teacher said."  Wouldn't they be proud to come back and tell us how they did it?