Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Margaret Wente ‘teaches’ us about plagiarism


A Margaret Wente column often opens with an anecdote about a ‘friend’ like “Ben” or “Jim”, or maybe something about her hubby.  Sometimes it seems like a formula that sets the reader up to believe that what follows comes from her own insights and experience.   Often though, the body of the article seems to mirror other columns - frequently including quotes from the same experts.   At other times, the columns smell more strongly of plagiarism.

In another context, I was reading something by Mark Bauerlein, and remembered that Ms. Wente had mentioned him.  Google turned up a 2009 article that opens with recollections about her university glory days (when profs hung out with undergrads smoking dope and talking Blake).  But things have changed, and now elitist professors ‘sip sherry’, working just a few hours a week, and take “six months off each year to do as they please”. I checked out the column, and (again) found what seem to be attribution problems (others can decide whether the ‘p’ word applies).  Here’s the first problem – which looks like another mis-identified quote (emphasis mine throughout).

Wente:  Richard Vedder, a leading U.S. critic, has argued that the higher education system has pawned off the responsibility of educating students "in favour of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research (which the majority of undergraduates are not involved in) that for the most part, doesn't matter."

Daniel L. Bennett, September 4, 2009:  Meanwhile, graduates will be unequipped to compete in the global economy due to a higher education system that pawned off the responsibility of educating them in favor of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research (which the majority of undergraduates are not involved in) that for the most part, doesn't matter.

While the blog on which these words appeared is associated with Vedder, the article appears to be by Bennett.  (Note also the partial quotation marks - a common practice for Wente.) 

Then there’s this bit where Wente describes how humanities profs spend too much time on irrelevant research. 

Wente:  Take my old stomping ground, English Lit. When last I looked, nobody was clamouring for another book on Moby-Dick . Yet as demand goes down, supply goes up. Over the past five decades, the "productivity" of scholars in the fields of languages and literature has increased from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year. Who reads them? For the most part, hardly anyone. "The system has reached absurd proportions," writes Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University…

So Margaret, thinking back on her college days, ‘looked’ at recent research, noticed an excess of Moby Dick scholarship, and produced stats showing that as “demand goes down, supply goes up”?  

In her column, Mark Bauerlein is introduced in a supporting role at the end of the paragraph to discuss student retention and buttress what we assume are Wente’s words and ideas.

So here’s Mark Bauerlein in his own words:  “Demand goes down and supply goes up”, he wrote on page 11 of a paper called "Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own".  And what example did Bauerlein use for this observation?  Moby Dick. He asks how many critical readings of Melville’s classic are needed, later adding: “Nobody off-campus declared, “We don’t have enough books on Walt Whitman…”.  (These are the kinds of things a professor might expect a student to attribute).

And then there’s the almost identical sentence from Bauerlein’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (presumably the result of his own humanities 'research') that Wente neglects to enclose in quotes or otherwise attribute to him:

Bauerlein:  In a working paper I wrote recently for the American Enterprise Institute, "Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own, " I reported that over the past five decades, the "productivity" of scholars in the fields of languages and literature had increased hugely: from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year.

Wente:  Over the past five decades, the "productivity" of scholars in the fields of languages and literature has increased from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year.

After mentioning Vedder again, Wente wraps up with a punchy conclusion.  She says reform won’t happen until “students count for more than articles in unread quarterlies”.    By some amazing coincidence, the conclusion (page 24) of Mark Bauerlein’s paper reads:  “Students count more than articles in quarterlies”. 

Now this isn’t as bad as those other examples, but again:  would these practices constitute plagiarism for a university student - now, or in Ms. Wente’s day?  Especially, if they’re a kind of, you know, habit?  And lest we think this is all in the past, there are more recent examples of attribution problems to go along with many similar instances and the dozen or so Editor’s Notes over the last couple of years.

Yes, teaching is important, and there are probably always a few lazy professors – just like there are a few lazy journalists for whom a different set of standards might apply.  In The Ryerson Review of Journalism’s cover story on the Wente plagiarism affair, another scribe is quoted saying, “and the second message…was the sense that there was a double standard, that there was one rule for a famous columnist and another for the rest of us.”  (Perhaps some of them are thinking about this recently announced “voluntary separation” program).

But the last word on plagiarism and teaching should go to Ms. Wente herself, who wrote: “Teachers are told to give a pass to students who are caught plagiarizing…Kids aren't dumb. When they see…slackers and cheaters getting away with it, they're getting a values lesson they'll never forget.”
Couldn’t agree more.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for keeping tabs on this serial plagiarist.

    ReplyDelete