In a recently published article, The Chronicle of Higher Education cited a 2010 study by Zinch China, a company that advises American universities in how to court Chinese high school students. Zinch China had interviewed “250 Beijing high-school students bound for the United States, their parents, and a dozen agents and admissions consultants.” From that small sample size, the company had “concluded that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high-school transcripts, and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive.”
It’s easy to condemn these statistics from an American perspective–after all, our national ethos is rugged individualism, and in the classroom this manifests as emphasis upon the production of original work, i.e., a compulsion to discourage, prevent and discover plagiarism. But the U.S. isn’t China, and China isn’t the U.S. And right now the U.S. higher education system is not equipped to deal with international students who are not well versed in what is academically ethical in the fifty states.
This reality leads to more questions. Should individual expression be emphasized as much as it is in the U.S.? Is America’s preoccupation with plagiarism a healthy platform from which to inquire and judge the educational practices of other nations?
Culture Is Key
The Chronicle points out something that can’t be overlooked: the element of cultural difference between the U.S. and China. A land of over one billion people, China puts less pressure on its citizens to be “individual” in the sense that Americans understand the term. In fact in China there is much weightier pressure to conform. Conformity, of course, is a four-letter word in American culture. U.S. professors often want students to participate in class because participation suggests a student is engaging with course material in an original way. In China, conversely, the “sage on stage” model is employed—a professor lectures, and students listen.
When it comes to assignments American individualism emerges as loud reminders to students to never, ever plagiarize–reminders that start being audible around high school. The result is that the ideal American student spends just as much time researching as s/he does making sure s/he has cited and paraphrased well. Why? Because in an environment where “Thou Shalt Not Plagiaize” might as well be one of the Ten Commandments, one missing reference is enough to get someone expelled.
To contrast, the Chronicle quotes Damon Ma, a Chinese student at the University of Delaware: “[Chinese students in China] write a 25-page paper and they spent two hours and they got an A.” Ma is claiming that Chinese students often write papers much faster than American students because, in China, students can copy and paste without attribution. In China, it seems, expressing an answer uniquely is not as important as getting an answer right.
Typical American reaction to this disclosure is negative, but the hyper-focus on plagiarism in the U.S. is not much better. Lifting freely without giving credit and obsessing about giving credit are two sides of the same coin—polemical actions that are equally presumptuous and equally damaging.
Fear and Loathing in the Classroom
Case in point: Turnitin, the new tool that is rapidly catching on in American academia. Turnitin describes itself as “the leading plagiarism checker” used by 69% of the “best” U.S. colleges and universities and 56% of the “best” U.S. high schools. With access to millions of papers, books and web caches, Turnitin lets users compare what they have written to the words that are in Turnitin’s database. It then lets users know if their writing hits too close to home to the writing of others.
It sounds like a good idea—one that helps protect students from themselves, right? But I detect major problems.
Let’s start with the obvious. Turnitin doesn’t just let students sit at their desks, rephrasing and rephrasing, retooling and retooling the same sentences until their words are, at last, substantially ‘different’ from those of someone else–it encourages them to do so. There is something silly about the very idea of that. Instead of doing research or expanding upon theses or fleshing out their own ideas, students are spending that time manhandling their writing until a program deems it sufficiently unique. Would it not be more efficient for the future leaders of society to put their minds to work by formulating new ideas than by scouring the ideas of others and rephrasing them? Granted, both skills are necessary–formulation and rephrashing–but it ironically appears that in the American push for originality (formulation) a bizarre zeal for rehashing and repurposing has emerged. The result is that style is original but content doesn’t have to be.
Online critiques also cite the “hostile” environment that Turnitin creates. Professors either ask students to run their papers through Turnitin before submitting them or tell students at the beginning of a term that all papers will be evaluated by the service post-submission. This, says a chorus of student voices, simply institutionalizes mistrust–which is about as counterproductive and unpleasant a mood that can exist in academia. Add to this the fact that all papers submitted to Turnitin become property of the company and we officially have a conundrum. To quote a commenter named Bob: “Why are we violating authorial integrity to teach students that violating authorial integrity is wrong?” (Quoted here.)
All this in the name of presenting knowledge in an original way?
Clearly, a happy medium is in order. The American focus upon individualism has resulted in services like Turnitin that drive students crazy. Meanwhile, Chinese indifference toward plagiarism has left Chinese students ill-equipped to handle American university. As the world becomes more culturally integrated by the day, these mutually exclusive ideals have to be reconciled. Higher education must learn how to encourage independent thinking without policing every word that students write.
What that means, ultimately, is that China and the U.S. are going to have to compare notes.
Photo courtesy MESA