Thursday, April 30, 2009

[Citation Needed]...

It is that time of year again. Papers and projects, essays and exams. I am finishing up a collection of twenty or so essays and projects for my HONORS Ethics class. HONORS in this case refers to the students' GPAs, not moral character.
Nearly every paper had at least a handful of improperly cited quotations. Some of them were mild (missing quotations marks, improper form) but a large number of them were egregious. I am talking a page and half of direct cut and paste quotation without any citation (unless a citation was already on the website). I am not naive, I know there are numerous resources out there, and that it is very tempting to plagiarize. But I thought I had this one beat. I included some fairly specific recommendations for the paper format:
By the end of the semester you will have a written paper, at least 6 pages long. It will explain the moral issue, and develop the arguments you will present. It will be in proper English and use the proper citations. The format of the written part will be as follows:

1. Introduce the Moral Issue (1 page)
2. Explain your personal intuition about the issue. (½ page)
3. Explain the prima-facie argument for the position you will develop. (½ page)
4. Explain in detail the arguments, using where possible their own words, of proponents of the position. You will use at least two quotations from two sources. (2 pages)
5. You will present objections to those arguments. (1 page)
6. You will respond to those objections with the best counter-arguments. (1 page)
7. You will reflect on the issue with you new found understanding. (1 page)

And I spend some time going over my concerns about plagiarism and proper research, I even scheduled class time to go over outlines, and the like. So, I had high hopes. They've be thoroughly dashed by this year's crop or crap.

There seem to be a number of varieties of this kind of plagiarism.
1. "Dumbass Roulette". This used to be the most common form. It is an entire paper, cut whole from a website, and presented by a student who was already failing, or in danger of failing the class. I imagine, that faced with the inevitable prospect of failing due to lack of work or what have you, they decide to try their luck and just submit something. Maybe they'll get lucky, the instructor might be tired and overworked and not notice anything.
2. The "Filler". Here is a person who may have approached the assignment with some sincere attempt. They thought about it, wrote a handful of sentences, and discovered that the six page paper (or two page essay) was just going to require way more work than they imagined. I am guessing, this is a person who tends to do work at the last
minute. They might check the assignment for any unusual requirements, and include all that (as well as a rewording of the assignment). Then insert page after page of plagiarized material until the required size is met.
3. The "touch up artist". Here we have someone who has learned to download essays in whole, but then fine tune them a little, changing tense, pronouns, cutting sentences in half, maybe even adding some original work. They will likely even cite a source (maybe even the real one, typically wikipedia) in the endnotes, so you know they can't be accused of plagiarizing. At worst case, this can usually buy them an extra week to write a real paper if they are caught.
4. The innocent "touch up artist." Maybe I am a sucker, but I do think that some of my students do the latter bit of plagiarism and honestly think this is what is expected of them. In other words, that"putting it in your words" means something like saying the exact same thing except changing a few letters here or there. I blame their other teachers, peers, and parents for this. I've had plenty of teachers who never read a word I wrote but assigned a grade anyway, I certainly expect some lowerclassmen are schooled in this art by upperclassmen, as well.
5. The "reporters". I am convinced, though I can't prove it, that a style of research in some discipline is literally a string of long quotations from other papers, possibly with some original material scattered here and there. I liken this to the current state of journanimalism where a so called reporter, "reports" exactly what someone tells them (a politician, army officer, corporate executive, etc) as though that was research. I am guessing, that the actual assignments in these disciplines are more rigorous than that, but like me (and everyone I know who teaches) our expectations have dropped to a point that we expect much less. So once students know what little is expected they aim for that, and the bar gets constantly lowered.

I've toyed with the idea of encouraging plagiarism as a part of research, then require the students to fact check their own plagiarized works, and improve them, but the real menace of plagiarism is not that it is stealing, dishonest, and such. For me the problem is that it is a symptom of laziness, and that is really hard to combat with more work.

I am open to suggestions on how to fix this.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What's the deal with dancing women?

I find myself affecting a Jerry Seinfeld voice when these little social commentaries well up in me. Okay, I understand that the interwebs is kept alive by advertising. Fine. I've grown to see past the ads most of the time. Sometimes they can be pretty funny like the GMail ads. I occasionally use GMail to send gaming notes from school to home or elsewhere, a nice little delivery system there. GMail's context sensitive ads can produce a giggle on a occasion. I might write a note about a horror scene "Dead bodies rise from the grave" And Gmail puts a note saying "Buy Dead Bodies cheap!" as a note. I remember an adventure with Giant Spiders that had a bunch of Exterminator ads.
I have noticed some strange trends...
Places like and use pretty girls on their ads. That I can understand. If I were in the market for a new girlfriend, a site offering pretty ones would be what I was looking for. But I've noticed that Online Universities use pictures of the same women as dating sites. I can't tell right off the bat whether I am being solicited by a dating site or Phoenix university for my business. I get the idea that sex sells and that a pretty girl might catch my eye and thus I will linger over their ad, so okay, fairs fair in the ad business.
But here is the puzzler.
Lots of dubious looking mortgage and tax sites, and more and more sites lately have been using these animated gif ads of woman dancing. My first thought was, well sex sells, an animated woman might attract more attention than a still one (in some circles) so that must be it. But here is the thing, these animated women dancing ads are not generally of models or even very attractive women by societies standards. Could they not avoid a more attractive model?
So then I thought, maybe it is the motion that is meant to catch my attention. If so, well anything could work, why dancing women? Then I thought, maybe the dancing women who look 'normal' are less threatening to other women, and so you only need one ad for everyone (since coding by gender requires some work). This seems plausible. The dancing women go from happy looking, they are dancing because interest rates are lower... um okay, to only vaguely humanoid (cloaked in abstract colors and such), hey there is something vaguely human dancing on my screen, I better check this out.
When the same animated gifs appear on different product ads, I tend to give them even less (if that is possible) attention than I do when they are different. This whole thing makes me wonder if maybe there are marketing geniuses developing these ads. Maybe they attack our brains on some level and make us vulnerable to the content. Maybe that same woman doing the dance for which she would be laughed out, were she to do it in public, can succeed where other ads do not.
I for one, would prefer it stop. The intertubes promise to offer something in advertising that has remained elusive, though something originally intended with it. That is actual useful information at the touch of a finger. Our minds are so used to ads lying, exaggerating or obfuscating, that we probably would not know what to do with the truth. But where print ads, radio and television cannot easily answer our quality/price/availability questions, the internet ads could. If only they would.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Falcon Read In

Each year the school has a day set aside for faculty, staff, and students to read short works. Some are original, some are not. In the past I've read Lewis Carrol, Jonathan Swift, and Dr. Seuss. I like to keep it light and quirky. This year my plan was to read the very clever short story "They're made of Meat." However...
Last week, we were discussing sexual orientation in my Ethics class. The topic of same sex marriage, and the new rules in Iowa and Vermont, came up. Most students tend to express a sort of laissez-faire, do what you like, sort of attitude, but several were very strongly opposed to the idea. And as we worked through the arguments, it was basically that old "pseudo-religious" hate. I say pseudo-religious, because people will say things like "I am Christian, so..." as though all of Christianity were in accord. Still, there is probably some truth, that they think that is how they are supposed to believe given their status.
We talked and the floor kept dropping lower and lower, until it started to involve words like "disgusting", "freak" and worse. Mercifully, the class ended and I have only brought it up a couple of times.
After that day, I thought about how a topic gets discussed, the bad feelings get aired, and then it gets dropped and we move on. It is somewhat unavoidable in a survey style class, but it bothered me, I wanted to do something more. At the same time I didn't want the class to become a scolding between me and these two students.
I did decide to read something on the issue for the Falcon Read In. It might seem odd that a college professor should feel nervous about talking about homosexuality on a college campus, but the environment here, and the economy out there, breed fearful people (like myself). I wanted something biting, satirical and devastating, but, other things came up in my life and my plan to do some serious research fell to the way side. I spent some of yesterday and today trolling the web for something good.
I ended up not quite satisfied with my selections. I erred on the side of funny. I picked the transcript of Portia De Rossi's "apology", a piece from several years ago entitled, "A lawful union can be stable and happy", and "10 reasons why Gay Marriage is UnAmerican." Not wanting to be too glib, I read a poem entitled A Love Letter to Matthew Shepard, which I thought was sweet and sad.
I was very nervous. The person before me read from a book of Christian Devotions of all things. Mercifully (I suspect), the majority of students in the class were from the Film and Theater Department, and from what I understand they are Fabulous.
I introduced the pieces first talking about my own wedding, how much love I felt. And how Laurie, Alexis, Jeremy, and Suzanne all came to share that love, but are not allowed, for the moment, to experience it the same way. How each of them had to hide, or face hatred and scorn. I could see, even with the jokes, that the topic made a lot of students uncomfortable, and some of the staff and faculty. But, I saw some smiles to... and there was a lot of applause. So maybe things aren't so bad.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Auger Management

I finally broke down and rented the above auger, an electric saw, and built the gate in our back fence. Now the kids can, in theory, open the gate and go play with one of the three sets of kids that live behind our house, without having to travel the long (out of sight) way around the block. The neighbors were cool with it (One of them actually cut a trail through the semi-woods from his yard to ours). So, we shall see.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Crocodile Hunter - Ruby at 9 months

Here is our big girl.