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Time to Require Pen and Paper Again?

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 2008 Issue
May 12, 2008

Time to Require Pen and Paper Again?

When I was a student at Golden West High School, a particularly well-read English instructor quoted from a text he held in contempt: the Cliffs Notes guide to Albert Camus’ classic novel The Stranger. Dr. Postelle informed us that he had read the same paragraph, sometimes paraphrased and sometimes not, in numerous papers during his career. It was his way of warning us that cheaters would be caught.

Now, as an instructor at a university, I am longing for the days when the laziest of students would copy from the same tried (and seldom true) source. Unfortunately, I do catch a few students trying to offer the wisdom found on Wikipedia as their own.

As the spring semester ended, I had a university senior offer an entire Wikipedia entry as his paper on a famous scientist. When I asked how he could do something so incredibly brazen, he replied that he didn’t have the time to use Google Scholar.

“It shouldn’t matter anyway,” he added, “since Wikipedia says you can copy the content.”

Yes, the copyright information page of Wikipedia does suggest copying is acceptable:

“Wikipedia content can be copied, modified, and redistributed so long as the new version grants the same freedoms to others and acknowledges the authors of the Wikipedia article used (a direct link back to the article satisfies our author credit requirement).”

I explained that copying an article, even one that can be legally copied, is still an act of plagiarism.
“But I included Wikipedia in my list of works cited.”

Clearly it is time to explain to a new generation what is and isn’t ethical, since copying information is not always illegal. The “Creative Commons” copyright and the “GNU Public License” have forever changed what it means to copy a creative work found on the Web.

Of course, I am also reasonably certain that students know that homework is supposed to be representative of their own skills and knowledge. If the students didn’t realize there was something inherently wrong with copy-and-paste papers, they would not have learned to “borrow” passages from papers found using Google Scholar or other less obvious sources.

It was much harder to copy passages from library books than it is to copy from a Web site. My students come from a generation that expects “free” content, ranging from the legally free to read (ad supported) newspaper Web sites to the illegally free to copy music and movies found online. In the digital era, copies are even easier than using a Xerox machine.

The Creative Commons ( is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating “licensing agreements.” These licenses are designed to allow people to copy, modify, and even redistribute copyrighted works that have “some rights reserved.” Supporters of the concept proclaim, “Information wants to be free!”

I have nothing against an artist wanting to give away a work for free. It is clearly the choice of the artist to forgo getting paid for his or her efforts. Sometimes, you create something so great it almost begs to be shared with the world. In other cases, giving away a work is a marketing approach.
My wife and I “give away” information about writing on our Web site. Like giving away a single song from an album, it’s a form of advertising. I’ve purchased albums after downloading free songs from iTunes.

The band Nine Inch Nails has given away complete albums. The band has said that free downloads have led to more people hearing their music, expanding the band’s audience. According to Trent Reznor, he decided to release albums online that might not be considered commercially viable by record labels. The result was $750,000 in online sales in a single week.

I realize a lot of people downloaded the free songs, shared them with friends, and never bought a single item from the NIN site. But, is this really anything new?

Copyright came into being because authors like Charles Dickens were upset that copies of their works were being made and distributed. Dickens was so angered that he toured American in 1842 and again in 1867, speaking out against copying the works of authors. The result of his efforts was modern copyright law.

The response to copyright law? Some have suggested the rise of the public library. When you think about it, it makes some sense: if popular books cost a premium, share them.

When I was growing up in Ivanhoe, my mother would take my sister and me to the library on a regular basis. Using a library is free. Hundreds of people might read the same book, but the publisher received only a single payment.

But, despite the free access to books, I always knew it was wrong to copy from an encyclopedia, history book, or any other work and expect a teacher to give me credit for “work” on an assignment.
Maybe it was always clear that since you had to buy Cliffs Notes that something untoward was anticipated. Paying for Cliffs Notes was like a penance of $2.95 for not reading the complete text of Moby Dick. After all, in 1984, $2.95 would buy a meal at Taco Bell and the gas to get there. You had to pay a price for laziness: no off-campus lunch that day.

When I started teaching, I bought a stack of Cliffs Notes. I have one for every novel and play I have taught. But, I no longer expect to find copied paragraphs. No, my students don’t have to pay any price at all for intellectual theft and laziness.

As this academic year ended, a colleague suggested I have my students handwrite, in ink, at least one paper. I was stunned. Now, I understand what she was telling me. You can’t copy from the Web to a Bic pen. I can’t wait until September to see how students react. They’ll probably be as stunned as my classmates and I were when we had a teacher recite Cliffs Notes on The Stranger.


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