The Internet murdered the term paper.

March 27, 2007

The term paper has been murdered by the Internet. Right? Jason Johnson in Sunday’s Washington Post wrote on this topic; explaining how he was rewarded at work for putting his name on someone else’s writing. “It was an open secret that my entire report, written “by Jason Johnson,” had been composed by others and that I had been merely an editor.”
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“Essay Time.”
Flickr: Tim Riley.

“As kids today plagiarize more and more from the Internet,” Johnson writes, “the old-fashioned term paper — composed by sweating students on a typewriter as they sat elbow-deep in reference books — has no useful heir in the digital age.”

It is tempting to do away with research papers. Web sites like TurnItIn.com, which compare papers uploaded by subscribers to its vast database of journal articles, newspapers, web sites, and other research papers, cannot possibly catch every instance of plagiarism. What’s more, TurnItIn is hard to use (from my experiences training professors at this university to use it) and is only in use at the universities and colleges that have opted to pay for it. Clearly it has gotten so easy to plagiarize that there is almost no reason not to.

Colleges, of course, disagree: Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity University in Washington, called the column “a stunningly irresponsible case for tolerating plagiarism” on her blog.

The writer (did Jason Johnson actually write the column, or did he just cut and paste it from some sophomore’s dream of a world without plagiarism consequences, a world without the need to demonstrate any ability to write something longer than an instant message) manifested a remarkable disrespect for the ability to conceptualize and write a lucid text presenting the student’s own analysis of facts and opinions. The writer argues that we academics should simply give in to the prevalence of plagiarism and find methods other than term papers to assess student knowledge, reasoning and writing abilities (well, he pretty much dismissed writing abilities as relevant).

While spending the time to write a good research paper or essay will help hone a student’s writing skills, maybe those skills, for the average shmuck, aren’t relevant anymore. The modern student communicates through IM or short notes on friends’ Facebook or Myspace “walls.” The longest things most students have to write on a daily basis are e-mails to professors (and believe me, I have seen students write their professors or bosses using Internet abbreviations.)

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I guess they’re not really quality.
Flickr:Lasagna Boy.

Who hasn’t seen blatant, painful grammar or spelling errors on store signs, flyers, advertisements? Try our “FRESH” Hot Dog’s. It makes a logophile like me cringe, but some—most?–people won’t even notice the error. The meaning behind the language parses just the same. In the corporate world, e-mails from administrative assistants, co-workers, even bosses are littered with more spelling errors. (Microsoft Word, which, of course, is used in almost every office across the country, is telling me right now that “logophile” should actually be spelled “loophole.”)

If the ability to create original writing was valued, the first generation of Internet plagiarizers would all be unemployed right now. (And let’s not forget that plagiarism wasn’t born with the ‘net. My grandfather plagiarized a term paper in dental school and copied pages verbatim from a book about the most obscure subject he could think of, the tsetse fly. Unfortunately, his professor’s specialization turned out to be the tsetse fly—without that unhappy coincidence, though, the man would have gotten away with it. He was a very good dentist until he retired, and he has never written another word on the tsetse fly as long as he’s lived.)

If nobody seems to care about good writing, why do we teach it? Having just spent the last four years of my life writing and studying writing, I feel like there must be a reason.

Some day, at your job, your supervisor will ask you to research a new technology, or a competitor, or a possible new contact. Once, that meant original work; even if the information was available, odds were it’d be on the other side of the country. But we are very close to the time when the answers to everything you might ever want to know on any subject will be a few keystrokes away. Perhaps Johnson is right, and the ability to “synthesize content from multiple sources, put structure around it and edit it into a coherent, single-voiced whole” is more crucial today than the ability to write original ideas. “Students who are able to create convincing amalgamations have gained a valuable business skill,” he writes. In addition, just like a regular research paper, a plagiarized papers will teach students how to research on the Internet, how to vet a source for accuracy, and how to work all the bells and whistles in Word. All important skills.

Not all plagiarized papers construe a “single-voiced whole.” Clever plagiarizers edit, but sloppy plagiarizers cut and paste–and get caught. But Johnson’s essay all but ignores the fact that plagiarism, sloppy or clever, caught or not, is morally wrong. If we are moving into an age where we must accept that term papers teach students how to edit rather than write, is this also a tacit acceptance of dishonesty? I hope not. I hope there is a way to accept that editing is a bigger part of modern academic work than writing without encouraging blatant plagiarism.

But there is still the issue of declining writing skills as editing skills are on the rise. Are we prepared to eat hot dog’s qwik-ly for the rest of our lives? Will Microsoft Word’s spellchecker and MSN messenger team up to destroy grammar? Will we, in the future, lol instead of laugh? Will we :) instead of smile? Will we care?

Let’s wait and see. U with me?
For a different take on the issue, see another piece from the WP: Wikiality in My Classroom.

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5 Responses to “The Internet murdered the term paper.”

  1. megevil Says:

    Thank you for writing this! I teach 10th and 11th grade English, and share your views (or more appropriately, I c ur point :)).

    One thing that simultaneously cracks me up and terrifies me is how I have trouble convincing my kids of their superior intelligence over spell check — have you had papers turned in with ridiculously misused words, presumably suggested by SC as an alternative to a DIFFERENT word that they misspelled? Arrgh.

    You may enjoy reading some of my teaching/logophile/grammar snob posts if you get a minute… hand in there.

  2. Chris Combs Says:

    Great entry. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the talk about how the human mind can still interpret garbled words, as long as enough characteristic letters remain:

    it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae…

    (See the above link or this Snopes article for a fairly thorough treatment of both the phenomenon and the urban legend surrounding “Cmabrigde”‘s study of it)

    And, of course, the spammers are clearly on to this. Thanks, technology!

    The fact that the brain is capable of interpeting such text does not mean that it should have to expend the additional effort to do so. As with garbled grammar, it’s an impediment to understanding what the writer is trying to say.

    Yes, that mis-used “it’s” might only throw a full-stop for a quarter of the English-speaking world – but that’s still a quarter of your audience; and as the errors become more and more frequent, the transmission of even the hardiest English engine starts to skip a few teeth, grinding, grumbling, until after a “should of done it’s” or two, the whole shuddering beast explodes in a shower of sparks and “Whuduhfuhs.”

    Useless? Yes, learning to write English proficiently is useless, if you don’t need your written thoughts to be understood.

    And, parting shot: “Synthesize content from multiple sources, put structure around it and edit it into a coherent, single-voiced whole” – sounds like most blogs to me.

  3. Rachel Says:

    Megevil: As a part-time writing tutor, I DO get a lot of students who accept whatever Spellcheck’s first suggestion is. I have to tell them to turn off the “red and green squigglies” but they don’t listen.

    Chris: Maybe kids should be asked to blog instead of write a research paper?

    Language is changing, and with the advent of the internet, it’s changing much faster. (I feel like an old fogey saying it, but you know it’s true!) Yes, right now it’s still important to know how to communicate in correct written English, but in a few generations, my guess is that the definition of “correct” English will have become much broader.

    I hope that there still will remain those with a great appreciation for the written word, but already there are far fewer than before television. Magazines in the 19th century published long blocks of text; now we are asked to break a piece up into sidebars and bulleted lists to cope with the attention spans of modern readers. What technology will the next decades bring that push writing further into obsolescence?

    Ooh, I just depressed myself. Thanks for commenting, though. You’ve given me more to think about!


  4. […] journalism — by Rachel @ 8:14 am Here’s a column on GoErie.com that riffs off an earlier blog post I […]


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