Historical Writing 2

Thanks to those who commented below, apologies for a belated response. And thanks also to Jack McGowan, who has posted his comments on his own blog, and to Victoria Carolan, also one of PhD students, who has made very useful suggestions in person.

One point raised by Alan, below, and by Victoria, was the confrontational tone I’ve adopted. Not just confrontational, in fact, but divisive – most of the time I try my best to adopt a non-hierarchical voice, and I’ve spent a lot of words elsewhere in the Historical Writing coursepack suggesting that all members of the department – undergraduates, postgraduates, research students, academics, administrators – are part of a historical community to which we all contribute. So I can only blame the extraordinary anger that builds up inside me when I have to deal with plagiarism for making me adopt the tone I did.

I still feel that anger, of course. And I am not sure that this is a problem that is best dealt with by tolerance. Yes, plagiarism can occur inadvertently – and probably all of us who write historically have had cause at some point to worry about how we’ve expressed something. Anyone who teaches will have encountered students whose plagiarism is accidental. But my personal feeling – and since I am identifiable I must emphasise that it is solely personal – is that this allows an easy escape route for many students who plagiarised deliberately. ‘I didn’t mean to do it’ or ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’ gets you one free pass. And it shouldn’t. For me, this is a bit like the issue of drug taking in sport: the athlete has responsibility for everything that goes into their body, whether they’re a chemist or not. Just because they didn’t know that coach’s funny syringe contained more than vitamins doesn’t absolve them. If you plagiarise at all, for whatever reason, you get 0 for that piece of work. If you get caught twice, you’re out of the department. But, probably fortunately, I don’t get to make those calls.

But I think that – thought I hate to use this word – a piece of writing that encouraged more ’empathy’ might be less aggressive and more effective. As has been suggested, ‘how would you feel if you opened your lecturer’s best-selling book and discovered that they had copied from your third year dissertation?’ is perhaps a more respectful approach, and more thought provoking.

My fear about discussing established historians who have ‘got away with it’ is that there’s a risk of blurring the line. But I take the idea that this might be a useful means of engagement. I have to say that they have not necessarily ‘got away with it’ just because they’ve kept their posts or are still getting contracts. In a field as gossipy as academia, once you’ve been tarred with that brush it won’t go away. I ‘m sure we can all think of examples where new graduate students are warned about letting Professor X see their work without having hedged it round with statements to ensure they get credited. I don’t think there’s space on this course for that sort of in-depth discussion – but I would _really_ like to develop a similar module to this for subsequent study years about public history, its demands, successes and failures, where such material would be appropriate and useful.

Points about software (although I can’t really see anyone taking that as a challenge), generic questions (urgh – laziness on the part of the instructor), coyness and so on all accepted and will be worked into the re-write.

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3 Responses to Historical Writing 2

  1. Jack McGowan says:

    That we all take this issue seriously is not in doubt, and it is very healthy that we all have slightly different views on how best to get the message across.

    I still have to say that I really didn’t find your original tone particularly confrontational or divisive. But if there is a hint of that it is all the more effective, perhaps because I know that your writing and teaching style in general verge just towards the ‘non-hierarchical’ and ‘tolerant’ to a finely-judged degree. That’s why I feel that there is little (if anything) wrong in allowing a hint of your (not so) ‘extraordinary’ anger about plagiarism come through. It seems there isn’t a great difference of opinion between us on that, i.e., that this is the one issue which will break the non-hierarchical, tolerant consensus we all try to establish.

    But you are right to make the distinction between accidental and deliberate plagiarism. So a more ’empathetic’ tone on the first balanced by a harder line on the second might well be the best way to go? Also, while I’m sometimes not a fan of sporting analogies (only when there’s a danger they won’t resonate with the ‘non-sporty’), I think your drug-use example is perfect here and you should definitely put it in.

    Lastly – ’empathy’, is not, IMHO, a word any of us should be scared of using! (It’s a favourite word of mine, in fact. Mind you, I do tend to overuse ‘eclectic’ too.)

  2. Alan Allport says:

    I should perhaps point out that I am not above ‘confrontational’ approaches to students myself – when I was a teaching assistant one of my more scathing messages to the students was bowdlerized by the instructor, who’s something of a well-known curmudgeon himself. But I find that strongly worded statements work best when applied with a dash of humor. What concerned me a little with the plagiarism piece was how po-faced it came across (which I’m sure is not a reflection of your actual teaching style). Seriousness doesn’t have to mean priggishness.

  3. […] Filed under: Teaching — trenchfever @ 12:17 pm Version 1.2, drawing on comments below. I think that this will be a way to engage students with the ideas, to get them to decide that […]

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