Blogs > Cliopatria > A TEACHER'S LAMENT (PART 1 OF MANY)

Dec 27, 2003 5:37 pm


According to the NY Times, computer scientists are developing software that can produce credible paraphrases of English-language texts. Yippee. It's hard enough assigning papers to students today, with the ease of computer-aided plagiarism. It's pretty easy to track down most copying from the internet (do they really think I don't know how to use Google?) though subscription encyclopedia are becoming more popular and are a little harder to get a look at. But paraphrased material can be very hard to track down if it isn't cited.

Some teachers have abandoned research papers entirely in favor of in-class writing, but I find it hard to see how to teach writing about history without students having the time and space to read and consider their sources, develop arguments, and consider alternatives. I don't want to become a writing teacher, spending class after class on the argumentative essay and citation standards; that's what we have writing courses for. But if (when) this tool becomes widely available, I'm going to have to seriously rethink the papers I do assign. I already assign most of my papers based on specific course texts, with questions quirky enough to be hard to find the answers elsewhere (though I have to start changing them, because I suspect there are starting to be copies of answers to my questions floating around). It's tough to be very original, particularly in classes like World Civ surveys where the students have very weak backgrounds in the subject matter, in writing and in analysis. I do what I can, but students don't always appreciate my assigning questions without clearly predetermined answers...

This raises other questions, as well, about the nature of authorship, about the nature of education,  about the automation of supposedly intellectual tasks, and about honor and ethics in modern society. But at the moment I'm really much more concerned with my students' intellectual and ethical development than with first principles and intellectual property.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 12/30/2003

I hope that leaving my questions open ended did not come across as approval of either action. I left them open to generate more thinking about where and how to draw lines.

In fact, I raised the calculator analogy because calculators brought up--and still bring up--similar questions and problems. That is probably even more true now, as calculators can store complex formulae.

Bu calculators do not relieve the student of the need to know how different formulae fit together to solve a given problem. If he doesn't know that force=mass x acceleration, then he can't solve a problem that requires understanding the relationship between mass and force.

Likewise, more powerful forms of correction than spell check and grammar check are going to be offering students more and more options on how to phrase things. Over time this will blur the line beween aid and cheating.

One counter is to focus more precisely what you and I and most other historians would like to focus on anyway, which is the nitty-gritty of compiling the right facts and utilizing them in an intellectually sound manner to paint pictures and draw conclusions.

In short, paraphasing will leave factual errors and sloppy analysis intact.

That was why I ended on the admittedly Pollyanna-like note of wondering if student use of such technologies could not be turned to the advantage of teaching.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/30/2003

Oscar Chamberlain asks: "If a student turns in a computer generated paraphrase and cites the source correctly, did she commit plagiarism?"

At the very least they committed academic fraud in claiming credit for another's work. One could argue that the computer is the author of the paraphrase, and turning in that paraphrase without citing the computer as the author is also plagiarism.

"If a student asks such a machine to paraphrase his paper--perhaps in the hope of improving the prose, did he write it?"

Not really. There's no reason for professionals not to use these technologies, but the aim of student assignments is the intellectual and skills development of the student. There's a big difference, I think, between a writing center consultation or having a friend make suggestions, and using an automated reviser. Spellcheck and grammarcheck are one thing, but revision is not a technical matter.

"It could be vaguely analagous to the change that calculators brought to math courses."

Which is fine and dandy, I suppose. But the use of calculators in high-level courses is very different from the use of the same tools in low-level courses where the students are supposed to learn basic skills. How are we supposed to evaluate the quality of our students' writing if it's not our students' writing we're reading?

"As the writing of software improves, it is possible that our job will shift from attention on the details of the writing to attention to the quality of the paper's logic and information."

That's largely what I use as the basis for my grading now. I'm not a writing teacher; I'm an historian and I grade my students' work for the quality of their historical argumentation. But part of the benefit of these assignments is supposed to be building writing and communication skills on the part of students.

I don't mind reading better written papers. I mind reading and spending time evaluating work that doesn't actually belong to the student. The computer doesn't care what kind of feedback I give. It doesn't help the student if I'm giving feedback that they can turn around and blame on the computer.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/30/2003

The paraphrase machine sounds frightening. And interesting.

If a student turns in a computer generated paraphrase and cites the source correctly, did she commit plagiarism? If a student asks such a machine to paraphrase his paper--perhaps in the hope of imporoving the prose, did he write it?

Ii could be vaguely analagous to the change that calculators brought to math courses.

As the writing of software improves, it is possible that our job will shift from attention on the details of the writing to attention to the quality of the paper's logic and information.

It might not be all bad.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/30/2003

I hate to sound like a neophyte, but what do we have writing courses for if not to teach students to write? Sure, I could have a full-bore process-oriented research paper in my World Civ survey, but I'm already trying to give them a great deal of content and context, so you'll forgive me if I think that some of the skills work could happen elsewhere.

My assignments already include a great deal of process information, and I talk about the elements of good arguments and good papers in class, without dwelling on mechanics. In the surveys most of my assignments are primary source analysis, and I talk about the kinds of things historians actually do with primary sources. In my upper division courses there's more secondary source analysis, and again I talk about how to read and understand and create these kinds of texts.

Andy - 12/29/2003

Some free advice (worth what you paid for it) from an ex-English T.A.:

(1) Don't teach citation, etc. in class. It will bore the students to death & take up valuable time, without making any appreciable improvement to their papers. Anyone who can't read a citation manual & figure out the basics, isn't going to pick it up in class. (You could do a single-page cheat sheet on the most important aspects of citation & hand it out.)

(2) Beating plagiarism by a process-oriented paper assignment has the incidental benefit that your students may actually learn how to write a paper. Amazingly few students have any real clue of how to discover, analyze, & evaluate sources and arguments. By breaking paper-writing into its component parts & having the students report to you as they finish those parts, you will do the students (those who care to learn, at least) an immense favor. Many well-meaning students honestly have no real clue what to do when assigned a paper. You certainly can't rely on the English dep't to have taught them this.

Example: Students turn in a report on the sources they've initially found, responding to questions like "Identify the source"; "How does the source support your thesis?"; "How does the source challenge your thesis?"; "Does the secondary source cite authorities for/against your thesis?" etc.