Ukrainian University from Within: Anthropological Notes (Part 2)

September 2014
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First part of the article is available here.

“Who has seniority here?”

Boy, do they love parades at my university!  It’s absolutely our (i.e. the teachers’) most important task – once a year, on the eve of the academic year, to march in a thousand-person column past the rector’s rostrum.  Attendance at this parade is so mandatory that for missing it they give you a reprimand and open a personnel case against you – seriously!  The university leadership stands on the rostrum (alas, there’s no mausoleum to put them in front of) and magnanimously looks over their “fiefdom.” In front of them, in a never-ending line, pass the departments, in accordance with a strict hierarchy, with professionally-designed department logos.  And when the line of a particular department approaches the rostrum, the loudspeaker ceremoniously announces its name and its main achievements.  And then the crowd shouts “Hooray!”, waves their flags, and releases multi-colored balloons into the air.

I feel a personal pacifistic opposition to this “Soviet” paramilitary ritual, but I’ve managed to convert this feeling into anthropological interest.  So, as usual, this time an extremely interesting dialogue makes its way to my ears.  My department is lining up, it’s taking its customary place in the order of departments (order is everything for us) – between philosophy and physical education.  And suddenly one of the professors asks:

- But who goes first – students or teachers?

It’s not an easy question.  On the one hand, it was the students who are granted the privilege of carrying all the heavy, awkward banners and flags.  All of that good stuff, undoubtedly, should go in front, so the column forms that way.

- But what will that look like?  - the same professor’s bass voice rings out. - If the students are in front, does that mean that they’re the most important?  I think the teachers have seniority.  The students are only here temporarily.  And we’re here all the time…

Everybody falls silent in confusion.  The students stop and wait for someone to tell them what to do.  Finally the dean settles it:

- Well, of course, you’re right, Volodymyr Petrovych.  We have seniority here.  It’s just that they have to carry the banners in front.  Don’t worry, it’s not for long…

The professor scowls; the others discuss heatedly, albeit quietly.  The problem of “proper formation” and “who has seniority here” has clearly hit home for many of them.  I stand there and think about the time I ended up in Berlin, at the Freie Universität.  While I was there, there was an open lecture by the famous philosopher Homi Bhabha, one of the living legends of postcolonial theory.

I got to the lecture 15 minutes before it started, but there already weren’t any available seats in the room, except for about fifteen chairs in the front row, which had signs saying “reserved.” Of course, I thought, seats for the rectorate or dean’s office, the leadership, other honored guests.  The crowd is growing, there’s not even anywhere to sit on the stairs or the floor, but those chairs are still empty.  Finally Homi Bhabha is introduced – a noble grey-haired Indian man in national dress enters, the room gives him an enthusiastic standing ovation.  But the chairs in front are still empty.

Finally the dean enters and gives a short speech.  “We invited Homi Bhabha,” she says, “in honor of a new cohort of students beginning their studies in our master’s program.  This lecture is dedicated to them.  They have made it through a rigorous admissions competition, they have demonstrated their perseverance and motivation, and now they will begin studying at our university.” And from there she reads out their names, one by one; a line of embarrassed young people enters the lecture hall and takes the “reserved” seats in the front row.  The auditorium applauds for them, Homi Bhabha applauds for them.  All the seats were intended for them.

After that the philosopher delivered a spectacular lecture and there was an extremely interesting discussion, and all of that.  But the episode with the seats completely upended my conception of the “university order.” I’m not idealizing a foreign country or casting aspersions on my own.  And really, it’s not about the seats, just like it’s not about the parades.  It’s about the possibility of overcoming hierarchy in education, the possibility of thinking up an alternative way of doing things.  And if we can, what critical mass of such thoughts and theories do we need, so that the answer to the question “who has seniority” might look different?

On (ahem!) plagiarism

I teach a humanities subject; I like to have my students write a substantial piece of work (something like an analytical essay) instead of taking an exam.  And although this assignment significantly increases my workload (reading, commenting, explaining, reading revised versions), I am still convinced that the ability to think clearly, logically, and critically can only be demonstrated by texts, not tests.  Of course, I take into account their field of study and understand that I can’t expect similar-quality texts from computer science students as from the sociology or philosophy departments.  But nonetheless I continue to insist stubbornly on essay writing.

The typical student essays that I end up with can be divided into a couple piles.  The first one – the biggest – is of texts of varying quality, but all copied from the internet.  The better among them are sections from scholarly monographs or chapters of textbooks, scholarly articles; others are just student essays of some sort, generously distributed around the internet.  In the smaller pile there are essays that have more individual work put into them, or at least are compiled from various sources, although completely original essays are unfortunately rare.

There is a typical reaction to my accusations of plagiarism.  Today’s students, who are preparing for a career in, for example, programming, somehow find it particularly difficult to believe that a humanities teacher is capable of using Google to check for plagiarism.  They are sincerely amazed when I hand back their essays with a note identifying their internet source:  they look at me as if I pulled a rabbit out of my hat.  Their faces show their astonishment, and their explanations are naïvely childish.  And how wonderfully they try to justify themselves over email!  I’ve even saved one of their messages (punctuation from the author):

Yes, I am guilty!  I did it consciously!  And I’m sorry!  But I want to clarify that I only used a few sentences from other works (approximately a paragraph in total), but I didn’t do it to deceive you or to get out of doing my own work!  After all, everything else I wrote was entirely my own opinion!  It’s just that these sentences were so similar to my own thoughts and formulated so nicely, and I decided to use them!  Now I understand that I shouldn’t have!  I’m sorry!  Please don’t make me write a new essay; let me replace the copied text with my own, because a new essay needs new thoughts, and on this topic I don’t have any more…I hope that you will understand and not be angry!  Sincerely!

But the main thing isn’t that my ability to uncover plagiarism resembles magic to them, although experienced teachers often don’t even need Google to find the plagiarism in student texts.  Most often they sincerely don’t understand what the problem is, why plagiarism is bad.  And here I’m not sure what to say.  I get flustered.  How can I explain it to them, what arguments should I use, what values should I appeal to?

Once I had a chance to look over a lot of English-language syllabi, put together mainly for American, Canadian, and Australian universities.  Almost every one of them had, in the introductory section, a more or less wordy passage about the impermissibility of plagiarism, often with references to particular sections of the university regulations or some other official document.  For them, plagiarism is treated as cheating, academic dishonesty, the appropriation of someone else’s intellectual property, and departments require their teaching staff not only to put warnings in their syllabi and hand out severe punishments for plagiarism attempts, but also to work continuously to explain what it is and why it is unacceptable.  It makes sense that a taboo against plagiarism goes hand in hand with explanations of alternatives: the rules of proper citations, paraphrase, and other tricks of academic writing.  A large and important part of liberal arts education is centered on this.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka