What follows is a short paper I wrote almost eight years ago (my gad) for Teaching Seminar. It was the first thing I had to write in grad school; I remember finally arriving at my apartment (which I decided to rent without having seen) after a twenty-hour flight and a ridiculously expensive cab ride, only to find, in my first ever very own mailbox, not just the keys to my place but, haha, homework! The professor had sent the initial readings and requirements by snail mail, first paper due on the first day of class. Ah, grad school.
I’ve since had other things to say about plagiarism and intellectual dishonesty and whatnot, and it’s funny how weirdly hardcore I am in some parts of this piece. But the bits about high school made me laugh, kasi ganun nga pala ginagawa namin nun. I’d forgotten all about that. I’d also forgotten about my clamshell ibook (the laptop that looks like a purse!), on which I wrote my first ever piece for grad school in my first and only apartment that I rented and lived in all by myself.
Paper 1, 8/28/01
The writing of laboratory reports in my high school science classes led me to certain conclusions about writing that I believe I would not have vigorously tried to unlearn had I not chosen to pursue writing as a career. Laboratory reports were companion tasks to weekly experiments; as students, we were expected to perform the experiment at hand and write down a record of our findings. The general outline for all laboratory reports was the same: we defined our objectives, listed our materials, explained the procedure, answered a series of questions provided by our teacher, and wrote our conclusions. On the surface, writing laboratory reports seemed “harmless”–it did not ask for students to consolidate and organize their ideas into a coherent essay and demanded nothing more than brief, straightforward responses to the different portions of the outline.
A common practice among us students was to refer to the required textbook instead of the experiment in preparing our reports. The textbook was our Bible, and we often went to the extent of modifying our data to make it conform to what it established as the correct answer. This form of echoing reached its extreme in the way we wrote our reports. After a ten-minute experiment that had to do with throwing a ball up in the air and catching it as it fell, I managed to write this down as my conclusion: “I therefore conclude that 1. every object moves in a straight line unless acted upon by a force; 2. the acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force exerted, and inversely proportional to the object’s mass; 3. for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. These three laws, together with the laws of thermodynamics and Maxwell’s equations, were thought to explain the entire physical universe until the beginning of the twentieth century.” In the four years I spent in high school, I wrote many conclusions, including: “1. the total energy of an isolated system cannot change; this is the law of conservation of energy; 2. heat will not flow from a cold to a hot object spontaneously (see ENTROPY ); 3. it is impossible, in a finite number of operations, to produce a temperature of absolute zero. All thermodynamic properties of matter can be understood in terms of the motion of atoms and molecules.” ”I therefore conclude” was a phrase I uttered with much confidence, not in my own deductions, but in the statements found in the book. My lab reports always received high scores despite the glaring indications that most of what I wrote was lifted from the textbook, and I managed to pass classes like Chemistry and Physics with flying colors without knowing a thing about the laws of thermodynamics or Maxwell’s equations.
Although an inspiring English teacher in my junior year introduced our class to the concept and consequences of plagiarism, the value of academic integrity, and the fulfillment derived from coming up with one’s own thoughts and delivering them in one’s own words, such ideas were exclusive to her particular English classroom. Our knowledge of plagiarism was limited to copying a work in its entirety and passing it off as your own, which was obviously a crime. Otherwise, writing was as easy as cut-and-paste. The way I (and everyone else) wrote my lab reports demonstrates shameless, albeit unconscious, plagiarism, as well as an absence of any indication that I understood the experiment and the principles it meant to illustrate in my own terms. The practice of lifting passages from sources (usually the required texbook), piecing them together, and passing them off as your own writing was convenient, acceptable, and most importantly, rewarded with a high grade. It was never labeled as an act of deception, a theft of ideas, not even an act of sheer laziness, which of course, was frowned upon in school.
What kind of rhetorical space, to use Lorraine Code’s term, permits such a writing practice to thrive? What “territorial imperatives” dictated not simply a tolerance of but a failure to recognize plagiarism? I studied in a conservative, Catholic, Filipino convent school that maintained a reputation of being above the rest; it took pride in its tradition of molding girls to become “wives of powerful men” and its curriculum that included classes such as Cooking, Sewing, and Family Life. It was a school whose graduates had difficulties with Math and Science courses in college but who spoke English very well. English was the class in which we were most free to explore our own thoughts, yet on the first day we were to discuss Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, our teacher told us its theme was “Man is perfectible” and devoted the entire quarter explaining to us why this was so. Our training was not given to analysis but to memorization–we memorized events, dates, and places in History; we memorized formulas and equations in Math. Our Chemistry teacher spent the entire year reciting our textbook to us (she had memorized it too). The classroom was not a venue for asking questions. We were recipients of information, not active partakers and creators of it. Knowledge was finite and it was collected for easy picking in our required textbooks.The non-exploratory method of learning (a paradox in itself) textured the location in which I was educated and created ground for plagiarism as an acceptable practice. We were raised to parrot; there simply was no room, no available rhetorical space to think and speak for ourselves. To plagiarize, in effect (it seemed), was the right thing to do.
To identify and understand plagiarism is to recognize the value of intellectual property and to uphold the rules that protect it fiercely. Unfortunately, in the Philippines, respect for intellectual property is either (regretfully) set aside in the name of what are perceived to be more pressing needs or blatantly disregarded in order to accommodate income-generating, self-serving industries. There is a price to pay for intellectual property, and it is often too high. Books are always too expensive and often inaccessible or unavailable. In the academe, it is common practice for students to photocopy books in entirety, simply because the library carries only one copy of the book and it would be impossible for 10 classes of 30 students each to share it. Even if the bookstores were to carry the books, only a handful of students would be able to afford them. Photocopying, which would cost roughly fifty cents a page (roughly a cent in US currency), is the more affordable option. In fact, some teachers consider the student’s budget in defining the required texts for their courses; some cut down the 6 books they want to require to 3 for the sole reason that 6 would be too expensive (and the presumption here is photocopied and not “real” books). Although in recent years, the University of the Philippines has tried to enforce intellectual property laws by prohibiting photocopiers at the main library from copying large portions of/entire books, this only led students to borrow the books they needed and have them photocopied elsewhere. Photocopying has become a lucrative industry in the university, with various entrepeneurs setting up shop in many school buildings. Piracy is also rampant in the country, and copied audio CDs, video CDs, and computer programs are available everywhere–in malls, markets, street corners–for approximately P50-P100 ($1-$2). The loose, almost absent implementation of intellectual property rights creates a space for such transgressions to be commonplace and acceptable. Although members of the academe may problematize and even justify such transgressions, the cautious, thoughtful “breaking of the law” is limited to an intellectual few. The general public no longer perceives the violations that transpire.
The high school student writer untrained in critical thinking, educated in an institution the fails to call attention to problematic writing practices, and raised in an environment that tolerates and permits the disregard for laws that govern intellectual property may certainly fail to see plagiarism as irresponsible and may not even be able to recognize plagiarism for what it is. Although a handful of universities anticipate this problem and strive to raise student awareness with regard to academic integrity and intellectual property, most students do not even attend these universities and it will take more than an undergraduate English class to educate those who do.