5.0867 Very Final Words on Plagiarism (1/175)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 29 Apr 1992 21:50:50 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0867. Wednesday, 29 Apr 1992.

Date: Wed, 29 Apr 92 19:23:41 IST
From: "David M. Schaps" <F21004@BARILVM>
Subject: Re: 5.0828 Final Words on Plagiarism

When I consider myself unfairly criticized -- and that does not happen
often, I am happy to say -- I normally do not reply, since I do not
think that the net (or academic journals) exists for the purpose of
self-justification, however justified. Since, however, Eric J Cadora
phrased his criticism of my behavior in the form of questions, I feel
constrained to answer.
My story concerned two students -- an Arab and a Georgian -- who
turned in examination papers with an essay identical in wording but
differing in the numerous misspellings; it turned out that both were
memorized copies of the Arab's notes, which he had lent to the
Georgian the night before the examination. I gave them both an 80.
Mr Cadora's criticisms are phrased in what seems to me a rather irate
tone, which I take to be a result of the suspicion that I was
unfair to the Arab student, and that my unfairness stemmed from anti-
Arab prejudice. I certainly try to treat all my students fairly, but
beyond that I will not try to answer Mr Cadora on this point, since in
so far as his suspicion relates to my subconscious attitudes, I am not
the person to know whether it is true or not. I can, however,
explain the story more clearly, and some of it may be of interest
to others on the net.
(1) When I was preparing for my comprehensive exams at the end
of my senior year at Swarthmore College, Leonard Barkan (now a
distinguished professor at Yale, but then distinguished by having
received Highest Honors the year before -- a distinction awarded
by outside examiners entirely on the basis of these exams) advised
me: "If you look over the course, you will see that there are a
certain number of major topics in the course -- things that the
examiner can't ignore. Prepare four to six of these topics well
and forget the rest. Since they always give you a choice of
question, you will be able to choose the questions that relate
to the topics you have prepared and give a very good impression."
The advice seemed reasonable, and served me very well on my own
exams. When I began to teach, I remembered Prof. Barkan's advice
again, and considered that it was not only a good way to prepare
for an exam, but a good way to study. I would be delighted if my
students came to the exam knowing four to six major topics of
the course well, and I think it would be far preferable to having
them know a little bit of undigested information about every
topic discussed. I therefore make it a practice to give my own
students the same advice that Prof. Barkan gave me. The Arab
student had in his notes a summary of what I had said in class
about Athenian democracy. It was in no way an "original essay",
merely a summary of my own words in class. I presume that the
Arab student had made the summary himself, though that is
merely a presumption-of-innocence: the photocopying of notes
at Israeli universities before exam time is so widespread that
one has to wait on long lines at the numerous copying machines,
and virtually every student's notebook will include many items
of which he is not the author. This activity is considered
perfectly legitimate, so that it would be no reflection at all
on the student if the summary had been copied from another
student's notes. By "notes" I meant merely the student's
notebook, by "essay" an answer given on the examination. The
summary in question having been both, I referred to it with
both terms.
(2) Mr Cadora is correct in distinguishing (as I thought
I had clearly distinguished) the case of the Arab from the
case of the Georgian. Although it was not necessarily the case
that the Arab had originally authored the summary, I certainly
presumed that to be the case, and, as stated, still do; the
Georgian had admittedly gotten his information second-hand at
best (and by any account, at one remove further than the Arab,
and only by the Arab's generosity). For this reason, once the
Georgian admitted to me that he had memorized the Arab's notes
(and both the students also referred to them as "notes"), there
was no question of giving the Arab student any less than the
mark that I thought it deserved. The Georgian's case required
more thought, and it was because of the Georgian's case that I
thought the story relevant to a discussion of plagiarism.
(3) In the final analysis, I found I could not justify giving
the Georgian a lower mark. It is true -- and I knew -- that his
work was not worthy of a university student; but I did not feel
that I could properly make the examination mark reflect this, for
a simple reason: had the Arab student not used the same method of
memorization, I would never have caught him; and even when I had
caught him, I had not caught him in any illegitimate activity.
It was not the last time that a student who did not know the
material properly succeeded in answering examination questions
correctly. Can I fail a student who writes a good examination
paper because "I know" -- from outside information -- that he
doesn't really deserve it? As long as he did not do anything
illegitimate, I don't think I can do so without invalidating
entirely the function of the examination process as an objective
check on the teacher's subjective impressions of a student's
work. So although I didn't think he deserved the 80 (and I did
think that the Arab did), I did not feel I had any justification
for denying it to him simply because I had "caught him" memorizing
somebody else's notes.
(4) It was because of the Georgian's case, not the Arab's,
that I have felt it necessary since then to notify students that I
would not accept "pre-fab" answers. Since such summaries can and do
circulate freely among the students (to a much greater extent than
they would at American universities, for a reason not relevant),
they make it impossible for me to prevent precisely the sort of
quasi-plagiarism that the Georgian had practiced. The only way to
make sure (or at least surer) that I was getting the student's own
thinking was to write the questions in such a way that a pre-written
essay would not answer them if it was merely repeated by rote, to
make sure that the thought is taking place in the examination room,
where proctors are supposed (sigh!) to see to it that the more
blatant forms of plagiarism are prohibited. If, indeed, the Arab
was the author of the summary involved, he would presumably have
been able, if required, to rephrase his information in such a way
as to answer the question; the Georgian would not have; and that
was precisely the discrimination that I wanted my future exams
to make.
(5) The nationality of the students involved is of course
irrelevant to the ethical question, and to the relative value of
their work. I did, however, mention it, for two reasons: (a) to
indicate what I take to have been the source of the unscholarly
behavior: although both students spoke Hebrew, for neither of
them was it their mother tongue, nor did either of them write it
easily or elegantly. This would indeed have made it harder for
either of them to compose an essay on the spot during the exami-
nation; and indeed, in marking humanities exams at an Israeli
university, I must routinely try to judge whether the student's
problem is ignorance of the material or merely difficulty with
the language, a problem that is real when it occurs, but much
less common, in other countries. (b) I had occasion once to read
an American journalist who wrote of a particular case of Israeli
consideration of Arab students' needs (in this case it was allowing
Arab students to cross the border to Egypt to study at Egyptian
universities, during the pre-'78 period when Egypt and Israel
were not at peace) that it was "on the face of it so unlikely
that it must wait for further confirmation". (I in fact had
served in the unit that controlled the border point through
which these students passed, and can confirm it.) It occurred
to me that some readers of this list might harbor similar
misconceptions and not be aware that Arab students study freely
at Israeli universities, organize their own students' organiza-
tions, etc., and I thought I might mention the fact by the way.
I did not anticipate Mr Cadora's understanding of the incident.
(6) In referring to one student as an "Arab" and one as a
"Georgian" I was merely using the current terms for those two
groups; I meant no political commentary. He was in fact,
an Israeli citizen, and I have never known an Arab, Palestinian or
otherwise, to consider it offensive to be called an Arab. On the ques-
tion of whether this part of the continent is properly called "the
land of Israel" or "Palestine" much can be said, and I will admit
to holding a strong opinion on the matter; but since too much
has already been said in many other fora, I urge Mr Cadora, and other
subscribers, not to renew a subject that does little to advance
scholarship and nothing at all to advance peaceable relations
among peoples.
(7) I did not refer to the "Georgian" as a "Slav" because he
was not a Slav, but a Jew. The Georgian language, which was his
native tongue, is not in fact Slavic, nor even Indo-European.
(8) The source for my assertion that "Islamic scholarship
is based heavily on memorization" is a good deal of personal
experience; but if Mr Cadora would like a published source, I quote,
for example, Bernard Lewis, "Islam and Development, The Revaluation
of Values", in id., _Islam in History_, pp. 298-9: "For the old-style
teachers and scholars, knowledge consisted of a finite number of
pieces of information; learning consisted of acquiring them.
Neither the scientists and philosophers of Islam on the one hand,
nor the mystics on the other, would have accepted this view of
knowledge and education. The schoolmasters and professors and
their pupils did, however, and they applied it in the schools."
Jewish schools, even the old-fashioned kind, did not place as high
a value on rote learning (though they did not denigrate it as
thoroughly as we are accustomed to do), and so the Arab students
arrive at our universities much less used to original thinking
than their Jewish counterparts; this is only one of the disadvan-
tages under which they labor, and like most of the disadvantages,
it is not one that the Jews created, but it is our job as teachers to
teach them to think critically and originally no less than those
students who have been brought up to such thought from the cradle.
(9) I am not a professor. Academic advancement comes slowly
in our small country.

(Dr.) David M. Schaps
Department of Classical Studies
Bar Ilan University
Ramat Gan, Israel
FAX: 972-3-347-601