Mixed Messages in Higher Education

The conversation about fraudulent papers may be so heated because, as Chicago Tribune higher education writer Patrice Jones argues, this issue "raises bigger questions about writing standards at universities."  Her perspective is shared by Susan Jackson, associate dean at Boston University, which brought suit against eight term paper mills:
    The issue [of fraudulent term papers] is at the intersection of a lot of big and
    important questions in academia. . . . Academic dishonesty, the effect of the
    World Wide Web and how do students best learn, these are all questions
    universities are discussing" (quoted in Jones, 1997).

The purpose of higher education may seem quite different to our students than it does to us.  We value learning as a foundation for an informed citizenry.  Our "disengaged" students may see it purely as the key to a higher paycheck, a way to develop their earning potential, not their minds or their character.  Ted Marchese describes this "consumerist" 1990's generation of students in a recent editorial in Change:
        To many of these students, college will be only a slightly elevated encounter with an
        institution (schooling) they've long since figured out.  They've learned that you can
        disengage, play the game by its negotiated rules, and progress just fine to the point of
        it all, a necessary credential.
Unless the value of learning becomes clear in his or her interactions with us, a student may not recognize that purchased papers are not really cheating us; they are cheating the person he or she wishes to become.

Larry Spence, Pennsylvania State University, suggests that the explosive growth of the online term paper business demonstrates "the ludicrousness of much of higher education today when you think about the fact that a class assignment can be so vague that a student can go to the Internet and find a generic essay on it" (quoted in Jones, 1997).  When students have little contact with professors, when graduate students grade papers for instructors, when responding to student thinking is not part of a faculty member's responsibility, universities create an environment in which plagiarism can flourish.

Even when faculty are working with student writing, however, there is little campus-wide consensus among faculty about how to develop student writers.   Students may hear very different messages in different classrooms.  Some instructors share the perspective of  Edward M. White, who, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1993, argued that plagiarism is "outrageous" because it enforces the "gamesmanship of learning," undermining "the whole purpose of education itself.  Instead of becoming more of an individual thinker, the plagiarist denies the self and the possibility of learning.  Someone who will not, or cannot, distinguish his or her ideas from those of others offends the most basic principles of learning."

Others believe that ideas evolve within communities and debunk what Doug Brent, in a previous Kairos edition, calls the "romantic myth of the solitary genius."   Andrew Higgins of American University observes how writing "gets done in many professional situations":
        My wife works for a think tank in Washington and has published numerous articles.  She
        wouldn't think of publishing one without getting feedback from a large number of people,
        and much of that feedback takes the form of rewriting (e-mail, 8 January 1997).

What should we value, intellectual autonomy, synergistic thinking, or both?  Which perspectives best serve students?

Even those of us within the computers-and-writing community reveal ambivalence about what we value.  Though we stress the collaborative value of electronic media in our classrooms and the potential of these media to create community in new ways, we nevertheless define our professional accomplishments in terms of traditional individual publications.   Recently, for instance, the main thread on a professional computers-and-writing list was whether synchronous and asynchronous media engender different kinds of thinking, promote different  forms of learning, create more or less community.  At the same time this thread was developing, subscribers were introducing themselves to the list.  Even as participants were extolling the kinds of collaboration and synergistic thinking they have been able to create in their classrooms, they were introducing themselves to the list, almost without exception, in terms of their individual publications.  If, as Doug Brent believes, hypertext has the potential to "break down the culture of ownership," why is the culture of ownership so strong within the very community which has raised these issues?

The irony goes deeper:  40% of the clients who made purchases from the High Performance Papers site (no longer active) were our colleagues, "professors who are under so much publish-or-perish pressure that they don't have time to do their own research," according to Peter Revson, whose High Performance Papers were later recycled to the Term Paper Warehouse (quoted in Connell, 1997).  The problem is not only with students who do not value learning; it is also with us and our institutions, if good teaching and collaboration are valued so much less than individual publication.

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