Friday, October 29, 2010

One Way to Encourage Students to Engage with Scholarly Articles

I've been spending the last 3-4 weeks in my class discussing how to develop a research strategy, how to conduct library research and how to evaluate sources to determine if they are credible and authoritative.

I thoroughly enjoyed John Goshert's presentation at the beginning of the semester about deepening the level of our students' critical thinking through scholarly articles. I don't want to sound like a brown-noser or anything, but I genuinely thought it was inspiring. As a result, I've made some modifications to my curriculum this semester in order to emphasize scholarly texts a lot more.

I added an extra day to my curriculum to "champion this cause," if you will. Since I taught my lesson about engaging with scholarly texts last Wednesday, I decided to blog about how I approached it in case it could possibly be helpful to you.

I introduced the lesson by showing a brief PowerPoint presentation to kind of get my students thinking about the big picture of why they should do scholarly research. The presentation was based on a blog entry by Matt Might at his blog It is called The Illustrated Guide to a PhD. Might has given permission to reproduce this blog entry for non-profit purposes as long as they give proper attribution to him and follow these requirements. Here's a reproduction of the presentation, with my additional comments in [brackets]:

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge.

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little.

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more.

With a bachelor's degree, you gain a specialty.

A master's degree deepens that specialty.

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge.

[I modify the original text for the above slide to say that reading scholarly articles takes you to the edge of human knowledge. And then I tell them that this is why the English department stresses peer-reviewed, scholarly articles so much. Scholarly articles are where the truly deep, critical thinking is taking place. They're at the edge of human knowledge. So, if you want to improve your critical thinking, you need to read scholarly articles.]

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus.

You push at the boundary for a few years.

Until one day, the boundary gives way.

And that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.

Of course, when you’ve reached this point, the world looks different to you now.

So don’t forget the big picture.

[On the above slide, I talk about how this is the purpose of research and scholarship: to expand the circle of human knowledge. All of us are benefited directly or indirectly by this process. I mention a story I heard on NPR's Planet Money about economist Tim Taylor who asks his students rather they'd prefer to be a middle income American living on $70,000 a year or a super-wealthy person in 1900 living on $70,000 a year. Approximately 2/3 of his students choose to be middle-income Americans because imagine all the things you'd do without: no antibiotics and other important medical procedures, no airplanes for easy travel abroad, no movie theaters or TV or Netflix or iPods, etc. The point is that the circle of human knowledge has expanded quite a bit in the last 100+ years. And we all benefit from those tiny little dents.]

[I then add something which wasn't in the original blog entry, but was a post script. I preface it by saying: "To put it a different way..."]

If you zoom in on the boundary of human knowledge in the direction of genetics, there’s something just outside of humanity’s reach. [The author of this has a son who was born with a rare, fatal genetic disorder. He discusses that he and his wife started funding graduate students after they learned about this.]

So... Keep pushing.


As for the rest of the lesson, I had required my students to bring a scholarly article to class this day and we spent the day talking about how to read scholarly articles, what their format is like, the best methods for reading them, etc. I then gave them about half an hour to read through their article and then we had an in-class discussion in which the students respond to what the experience was like.

For those students who were frustrated with the highly technical language, I go over some strategies for learning how to process what you read in scholarly articles better. (For more of my lecture notes---including strategies---or for the PowerPoint I created with the images above, feel free to email me.)

One of the awesome comments I got in class on Wednesday was from a student who said that reading his article was "surprisingly refreshing." He was reading some of the scholarship about Constitutional law and talked about how it was nice to actually read directly many of the things he hears glossed over in the mainstream media. I used that as a jumping off point for discussing how when you are reading scholarly articles, you're often reading primary research. So you're getting information direct from the source, free from mediating forces that interpret the information for you. You get to make up your own mind about the topic when you read scholarly articles.

I hope some of these ideas are helpful to you as you work on encouraging your students to engage with scholarly texts! Any pointers you have to share?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Defining Plagiarism

Over the summer our colleague Christopher Bigelow shared a link to an interesting article in the New York Times about plagiarism. If you haven't already, you should check it out. It's about how the Internet is causing students to become confused about exactly what plagiarism is (or at least complicating it).

Tonight I'll be teaching my lesson about how to cite sources in MLA. For the first part of that lesson, I spend some time talking about plagiarism since that's what we're trying to avoid when we cite our sources. I was inspired by this New York Times article to create the following activity for my students. I'm going to put them into groups of 3-4 and hand out the following exercise for them to do together:


What is Plagiarism?

Suppose you wanted to define the concept of "plagiarism." Working in groups or with a partner, try to reach a consensus about whether each of the following cases is an example of plagiarism or not:

1. A student buys a paper online and turns it in as his own work.

2. A student buys a paper online and changes most of the wording so that it is in her own words, then turns it in as her own work.

3. A student is writing a paper about Columbus’s voyage to America. He writes "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492." He does not cite what source he got that fact from.

4. A student is writing a paper about the Great Depression. She used information from Wikipedia in her paper. Because Wikipedia is created by unnamed authors and written by a collective group, the student did not provide a citation for the website in her paper because she thought it counted as common knowledge.

5. A student is writing a paper about homelessness. While researching the topic, he found a website that featured a really good FAQ page about homelessness. He copied and pasted information from this page directly into his paper. The website was anonymous (meaning it did not indicate who wrote the information), so the student did not provide a citation for the website in his paper because he thought it was unnecessary for something anonymous.

6. A student is asked to write her own analysis of a painting for a class. The student consults an analysis about the painting in a textbook written by a Humanities professor. The student uses the essay to spur her own thinking about the topic. She writes the analysis in her own words, using some of the ideas written in the article about the painting.

7. A student is asked to write a research paper for his History class. He realizes that the assignment is very similar to an assignment he did in his English 1010 class and he decides to turn in the old paper he wrote for 1010 for his History assignment.

8. A student is asked to write a research paper for his History class. He realizes that the assignment is very similar to an assignment he did in his English 1010 class. He does some additional research about the topic and makes some revisions to the paper before he turns it in for his History assignment.

9. A student is writing a research paper. Nearly 85% of her paper consists of quotes from other sources about her topic. All of the quotes are cited correctly, meaning that the student clearly identified where each quote came from.

Based on your decisions, create a working definition of "plagiarism." Specify what general criteria you would use in order to determine if something is plagiarized or not.


I'll then have the class share their definitions as a class. We'll use that as a jumping off point to discuss some of the ideas presented in the article and what really counts as plagiarism or not. We can also discuss unconscious vs. conscious plagiarism, since the English Department's policy makes a distinction between those two types of plagiarism.

I figure that this exercise could be helpful because, while some of these examples are clear cut, most of the examples are not. They'll have to debate and engage with each other to figure them out. It can also help them really begin to think about what plagiarism means on a more personal level using real-world examples.(By the way, almost all of these examples are real examples that I've encountered in my own experience---and two of them come directly from the New York Times article.)

Side note: Michael Wesch's lecture An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube (given to the Library of Congress) is good supplemental viewing for the New York Times article because it talks about the complications of authorship on the Internet. (And, dang, it's just a really great lecture for its own sake.)

Edited 10-12-10 to add: I wanted to follow-up on how this lesson plan went in my class. I liked it a lot better than what I had done previously (which was just to define plagiarism in a lecture for them). This was much more engaging---in fact, one of my classes ended up having a very robust discussion that lasted 10-15 minutes about this topic. I found that it was helpful to ask them which scenarios they weren't sure about after they gave their definitions and we wrote them all on the board. One thing that surprised me about this activity was that I realized that there is a gap between what the students considered to be plagiarism and what I (or at least other professors) considered to be plagiarism.

For example, most students do not consider #7 to be plagiarism (incidentally, neither do I; I just think it's a little unethical), but I've heard professors at UVU saying that it is plagiarism to re-use an old paper and I thought it was important to let the students know about it. (I encouraged them to talk to their professor before they re-submitted an old paper or to revise it in some way.) Some of the students debated about whether #9 was plagiarism, but I've had a discussion with Psychology professors who feel that it is plagiarism if most of the ideas in your paper are not your own---even if they are cited. Some students thought that #4 or #6 were not plagiarism (and I do think it's plagiarism, even though I think #6 is probably unintentional plagiarism)---but that might have something to do with the way I worded the questions. Anyhow, it was really illuminating. I think it went relatively well.