selling out to turnitin: alienation makes a comeback

Later this month, discussion is going before the BSU Faculty Senate on whether to rent access to turnitin to ease Fears of Plagiarism. It has mixed support on this campus. As far as I know, no one in English supports the idea. Faculty in other areas are suggesting it, but I haven’t heard their arguments and I don’t know how enthusiastic they are about it. The administration is ready to pop the $3,600 a year it costs.

I’ve never been one for using turnitin. It’s better to create writing tasks that demand that students become knowledge producers rather than knowledge hackers; the need for turnitin, that is, is an admission of educational failure – or boredom, at the very least. Using turnitin means faculty won’t have to read the papers anymore: just run ’em through the database, have a quick skim for form, and on to the next one. I find it embarrassing that our faculty would look to turnitin. To propose that turnitin might be an option is to suggest that faculty are seeing their roles less as teachers and more as plagiarism police, citation cops, knowledge vendors.

I also know there are more detailed and persuasive arguments out there. And this morning, while looking for something else, I came across a paper on the very thing: “‘Turn It In’: technological challenges to academic ethics,” by Jennifer Jenson and Suzanne De Castell. This is a dense article – and it’s worth every word of reading. I’m still thinking this one through, so my consideration here is a little rough yet.

Their starting point is identifying an underlying change in higher education: our work has shifted from maintaining sites of knowledge to sites of legitimization. Essentially, the university is a gatekeeper and award-giver:

Under changing conditions of knowledge, knowledge production, knowers and the value of knowledge (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003), universities and their roles and functions have shifted from sites of learning. What is now transmitted is of value principally as an end in itself to sites of legitimation where what is of value is a degree with high vocational ‘exchange value’ (de Alba et al., 2000).

They then open up one of the less-mentioned ironies of turnitin, one I’ve mentioned to faculty before: turnitin makes a profit from using texts that they never pay for or acknowledge. Turnitin, that is, engages in the same violation of property rights of student work as they purport to defend. (Hang on to this idea because it will appear later in their argument.)

Strangely enough … , when Turnitin uses the work of others to turn a profit, the fact that they have made use of the work of others ‘for free’ is not evident or questioned, except for a section on the size and authority of Turnitin’s legal representatives, and those advisors’ arguments about why it does not violate students’ intellectual copyright4. So access to and use of ‘intellectual property’ is permitted for corporate profit, but not for students’ deployment in an ‘information economy.’

Next, they address the changed role of the essay – or any text production – at the new capital-exchange university. In the idea economy where knowledge is finding and neatly organizing given ideas, writing as a means of developing arguments and orchestrating ideas falls flat.

[T]he cultural, and therefore the educational, significance, functions and uses of the essay itself have changed. We are today very far indeed from inhabiting an essayist culture, so it is no surprise that for most of those students from whom the production of a formal essay is demanded, the point and purpose of that genre is something they have never experienced and fail largely or entirely to comprehend.

But we’re not bemoaning the loss of essayist culture here: this is not nostalgia. This is a deeper sea change. Whereas the essay used to be a way to articulate and circulate ideas, and the ability to create essays was a means to education, now,

In the current culture of consumption, within which the university has readily positioned itself as a ‘broker,’ its professors/researchers as ‘service providers’ and its students as ‘clients’, an essay today has, in Lyotard’s words, ‘exchange value’—no longer a practical or useful tool for the development and dissemination of one’s ideas; the essay as a scholastic ritual functions as itself a commodity, traded primarily for marks. The essay does not have the kind of cultural ‘currency’ it once did, and students and their professors, even those who routinely assign this task, recognize this. Like tests, essays today are symbolic artifacts exchanged for marks, which in turn are exchanged for degrees, which buy not only cultural capital (i.e. a ‘higher education’) but a place in the ‘market’—a job (Noble, 1998).

Because the means of developing knowledge has shifted, the need for documenting sources becomes ornamental; and if the need for documentation is mere ornament, then a technology like turnitin is perfectly fit and sound.

We can insist that they ‘cite their sources,’ and we can teach them ‘when and how to cite,’ but this amounts to little beyond an ornamental response to the underlying educational problem university educators are experiencing. This is better understood as a chronic and pervasive inability to manage complex ideas and information in the production of a well-informed and artfully composed argumentative text. And from an educational standpoint, we argue, resorting to technologies like Turnitin makes matters worse by making appropriation a vastly more dangerous practice for students both overstretched and under-supported by ill-suited and ill-fitting institutional performance requirements.

That last sentence can be driven home: As we resort more to turnitin, so we abandon our responsibility to teach knowledge production for the less problematic knowledge transmission. Teachers and administration are part of the problem – and this is what makes the whole matter so embarrassing: adopting turnitin actually runs against our stated ideals for education:

Such a view surrenders educational values for economic values, as educational production (in this case, in the archaic and culturally exhausted form of the essay) is progressively reoriented away from use value and towards exchange value …. We have argued that Turnitin and similar ‘educational’ technologies, in terms of the kinds of compositional processes it alternately promotes and prohibits, is a reductive, fragmented and educationally damaging product for both students and professors/teachers, as well as being ethically in direct violation of its own purported ethics with respect to ‘intellectual property rights.’

Finally (for this part of the essay), they return to the larger context of teaching: a shift in zeitgeist that’s been occurring over the past 10 years or so. There’s a deeper concern for the intellectual health of public education, one they characterize as

a species of anomie and alienation which has been a direct result of the (technologically mediated) reorienting of public education towards economic models of investment and return, rather than cultural and educational models of social identity and self-formation.

Alienation arguments are out of fashion; they faded away with Marxism and Existentialism – and with them went a powerful means of critiquing the relationship between knowledge and the knowledge-maker. And students have become more estranged from learning over the past ten years or so. Many don’t speak of learning as a verb so much as Their Education, a noun, something that they are not responsible for creating or working with but simply possess by exchange. And they are encouraged to become even more alienated if we bring in turnitin.

Still, I don’t think the faculty who are proposing turnitin will listen to the arguments much. The drive to make look like we’re Doing Something, that we’re Addressing the Problem, is strong, and renting turnitin is such an easy and visible solution, that the implications are easily brushed aside as the off-kilter concerns of A Few.

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  1. Pingback: turnitin one year after at morgan’s log

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