When my daughter was in her first year of university studies she described to me a situation that happened in her chemistry class (which had about 100 students in it) towards the start of the term. They had the class in a small lecture hall, with fixed and tiered seating in a semi-circle around the front stage area where the instructor would usually stand. At the end of the class, the instructor collected the homework that was due that day. While the instructor waited for the assignments to be handed in, students around my daughter openly looked on my daughter’s answers and those of others around her. As students passed the homework from the left to the right across the rows, some paused to check their answers with some of those from other students. The instructor stood at the end of the rows of seats, collected the answer sheets, and left. My daughter had the distinct feeling that nothing odd was going on: it was all quite ordinary.
I open with this vignette because it is both dramatic and prosaic: at the time I was shocked by this activity, but probably shouldn’t have been. As my father explained to me when I was in my teens, “the world isn’t fair. Get over it.” Well, if you are a teacher or instructor at any level, I guess the paraphrase here would be “some students cheat. Get over it.” I don’t mean let students cheat. I just mean know that some students will cheat if given the opportunity--this is a condition of existence-- and plan accordingly.
This podcast episode is the second in a series of three podcast episodes and blog posts probing academic integrity, with a focus on online environments. In the first episode, I spoke with Ellen Watson of the University of Alberta’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. In that episode and in the accompanying blog post, we sketched out some strategies to use when planning online courses that would discourage cheating. One question that I asked after doing that episode was how much of a problem is cheating? How much time and effort should an instructor devote to this? In this, the second episode, I try to establish some kind of context for instructors so that they can decide for themselves how much cheating is likely occurring in their classes. In the third episode, I’ll talk about how to talk with students when they have done something that looks like cheating to you.
Student self-reports of cheating
Let’s get started: how much do students cheat? Well, let’s ask them and see what they say. Here are some statistics on academic cheating from plagiarism.org:
But wait, there’s more from a site called academicintegrity.org This site seems responsible. It is run by the International Centre for Academic Integrity, claims that it does not endorse any commercial products, and is a non-profit society. They aren’t trying to sell us anything.
Data about the percentage of students who self-report that they have cheated in an academic context seem alarmingly high (https://www.plagiarism.org/article/plagiarism-facts-and-stats): 39% of undergraduates cheat on tests? 62% cheat on written assignments? Two out of three undergraduates have done one or the other?
How did they define cheating? Well, the site says students were asked if they “cheated in some form” so even minor transgressions would count. That will inflate the number somewhat, but it won’t account for everything. The conclusion seems clear:
One of the problems instructors sometimes have when talking to students about cheating is that they tend to take a “holier than thou” attitude towards cheating. That is, they feel that they need to pretend or take the position that a professor would never cheat. Let’s just take a moment and examine that proposition.
How often do professors cheat?
Benson Honig of McMaster University’s school of business did a study of articles published in business. He found that "of the 279 articles he reviewed from his own academic discipline, 25 per cent "had some amount of plagiarism" and over 13 per cent "exhibited significant plagiarism."
Instances of professors cheating get reported in the press from time to time. Let’s consider two relatively recent incidents.:
U of Regina engineering professor Prof. Shahid Azam published an article that contained text that also appeared in one of his student’s thesis. The professor explains that the two of them co-wrote articles together, and the text in the thesis was, in fact, written by the professor. That explanation might solve the article issue, but it creates another one: is it OK for a professor to write a student’s thesis?
In 2011 The Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Alberta, Philip Baker, gave a speech at a convocation banquet to future doctors. Parts of the speech were identical to a speech published in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande, a Harvard professor. Dr. Baker at first explained that he was inspired by Gawande’s article, and had failed to identify it as a source. It seems possible that Dr. Baker had been extremely busy and the pressure of having to deliver a high-stakes formal speech may have led to failing to identify his source.
So what can we take from these two instances of professors and plagiarism? I think to some extent we could argue that both show the same kinds of errors under pressure that we sometimes see in student work. In the first case, rules around collaborative writing are unclear, and that lead to confusion around who wrote what. In the second case, a time crunch may have led to the writer failing to give credit where credit was due.
Strategies for instructors
Where does that leave us as instructors? The two cases give support to two specific actions:
Honig, Benson & Bedi, Akanksha. (2012). The Fox in the Hen House: A Critical Examination of Plagiarism Among Members of the Academy of Management. Academy of Management Learning and Education. 11. 101-123. 10.5465/amle.2010.0084.
Academic Integrity in High School. Plagiarism Facts and Stats. June 7, 2017. Downloaded June 2, 2020. https://www.plagiarism.org/article/plagiarism-facts-and-stats
McCabe, D., & Pavela, G. (2004). Ten (Updated) Principles of Academic Integrity: How Faculty Can Foster Student Honesty. Change, 36(3), 10-15. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40177967
The podcast is here:
There is something about the word "philosophy" that slows people down from writing a teaching philosophy statement. It's an abstract term, and grandiose, too. So maybe we should just substitute "beliefs" and think about writing down what we believe about what makes for good teaching. So let's do that.
Statements about what we believe makes for good teaching have three or four main sections:
Section 2. Once you've set the context for your work as an instructor, tell us about what general principles inform your teaching strategies. I believe, for example, that writing is social: it must have an audience or readership for it to exist in any meaningful way. As a subsidiary belief, I also think that students learn by sharing what they are learning with other students. These beliefs lead or connect to classroom practices: I have students read each other's drafts and respond to them because that activity follows from believing in the social nature or writing. What ideas inform your instructional practices? In my case I connect my research to my classroom practices (https://www.wecanwrite.ca/uploads/1/0/0/3/100308630/end_of_career_teaching_philosophy_reflection.pdf). If you haven't done classroom-based research to support your instructional practices, find research that has.
Section 2 should also talk about how you think students learn: what pactices have been shown to work? This presentation has some ideas to get you started: https://prezi.com/bynu7c8sbb8-/edit/#4_24309637)
Section 3. In this final section, connect the details about your instruction beliefs and practices to what you think the goals are for education. John Dewey believed that education's goal was to support democracy. Do you agree? As you develop your career as an instructor, what new practices do you see on the horizon that you think are promising? I created a blended learning class (part online, part in-person) in the last five years of my teaching career, and that looked then (and now) as a promising new approach (https://www.ualberta.ca/centre-for-teaching-and-learning/grants/uofa-blended/index.html).
Some documents advise you to add an assessment section to your statement. This section answers the question "how do you know your strategies are working?" To some extent, a discussion of the research about teaching will also do this, but it is always a good idea to think hard about assessing our practices.
Above all, keep in mind that a teaching philosophy statement is a reflection document: it is you showing your ability to critically reflect (that is, reflect in light of research) what you do when you teach. Show readers that you do think hard, that you are aware of research on teaching, and that you are committed to developing your teaching practices.
Can I use the word "I" in a research article? This and other perplexing questions about the range of styles you can employ in your research writing are answered in this episode of the Teaching Writing podcast. As writers of research documents, we need to answer that question along with many other specific questions in order to write successfully (read "get published'). In this post, though, I'll also try to point us towards some of the bigger questions and issues that help us understand the answers to the specific ones. (For the more attentive among you, you'll notice I've already used I, you, and we!).
Let's begin with an answer to that first question: I think the short answer is yes--you can use the first-person pronoun. Generally. though, in research articles I've co-authored over the last few years, we'll use "we." However, we don't use it a lot--mainly in the introduction where we make the main claim or argument of the article:
To answer these questions, we used triangulation (Candlin & Hyland, 1999), which allows both collecting data from multiple sources and using multiple approaches to analyze the data (Hastings, 2012). Triangulation “provide[d] multiple lines of sight and multiple contexts” (Hastings, 2012) to examine and enrich our understanding of the move-visual interactions in research articles in discrete mathematics. Our results show notable associations between the move structure and the visuals used in the articles in ways that contribute to the central rhetorical purpose of the articles, namely establishing facts (i.e., new knowledge). Here we first summarize some existing research on visuals in academic genres. Next, we briefly describe the study design. We then present results including the roles that visuals play in RAs in discrete mathematics as well as examples of move-visual associations in their rhetorical structure. Lastly, we discuss the implications of our findings, including the pedagogical implications for academic writing classes in mathematics and related disciplines.
My apologies for the length of the quotation, but I think it helps to make the point of how extensively you can use "we." Whatever you do, you need to be consistent in your usage. I'll note that "we" shows up frequently in the methods section of this article as well as in the discussion part of the results section, and again in the conclusion (full citation at the end of this post).
Ultimately, the journal and the editor you send your manuscript to controls the decisions you make about style. English for Specific Purposes (the article I'm quoting from) has a 13-page booklet listing their style requirements. One of your first tasks when preparing a manuscript is to find those requirements and ensure that you've met them. Everything from how you report your data to how you visualize it might be specified.
OK, so we can use "we." But how personal can we be in research writing? In the slides that I used in my in-person workshop you'll see some quotes from a recent article by Randy Harris. Here's a quote from the first section of that article:
I have a neighbor, just into her seventies. She walks her dogs past my yard daily, and when she finds me puttering about, she infallibly asks, with a mischievous grin, "Are you working hard, or hardly working?" Same question. Every time. My neighbor is resisting the incursions of Alzheimer's Disease, resisting the erosion of her memory and her Self, and her armament includes rhetorical figures.
After the end of this prologue (titled "0. Two Tales of Resistence"), section "1.0 Introduction" begins this way:
Rhetorical figures are neurocognitively motivated linguistic assemblages which achieve degrees of salience, memorability, and aesthetic pleasure by the way they recruit our biases for particular patterns and relationships. Their neurocognitive resonances enable figures to make specific colligations and constructions more resilient to the fragility of memory, individual and cultural; to the vagaries of attention, individual and cultural; to the presence of noise, internal and external; and to any combinations of the above.
I think most academic readers will recognize this text as academic for all kinds of reasons. But Professor Harris has already made himself present in the text, and he continues to do so through the use of "I" in footnotes and occasionally throughout the manuscript.
I wondered how much of Harris' use of informal language is a product of gender (it appears not to be a major factor), status in the field (he shows tendencies to vary linguistic register in an article in the early 1990s when he was just establishing himself), and field of study (rhetoric). The formality of the field and values of the field of study can influence the acceptance or rejection of informality, with discrete mathematics standing out as one example of a field that values precision ahead of personality.
Moghaddasi, S., Graves, H. A. B., Graves, R., & Gutierrez, X. (2019). “See Figure 1”: Visual moves in discrete mathematics research articles. English for Specific Purposes, 56, 50–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esp.2019.08.001
Harris, Randy Allen. "Dementia, Rhetorical Schemes, and Cognitive Resilience." Poroi 15, Iss. 1 (2020): Article 12. https://doi.org/10.13008/2151-2957.1301
With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!
Sometimes clarity presents itself and you know just what to say to someone in a way that they understand immediately. Other times, well, you have to work at it, as Watterson suggests. Of course, we usually don't think we're trying to be unclear--we think we're communicating in the way we're expected to communicate. The irony is that the result can often be foggy.
What happens to create that fog? As with many things involving words, the answer can be complicated. The heart of the answer, though, is this: clarity depends on a meeting of the minds between the writer and the reader. In other words, it is negotiated and created out of that interaction. That means that being clear isn't totally up to the writer, and that is where things go sideways, at least initially.
Achieving clarity is difficult. Why?
Readers negotiate with writers to decide what a text means. As a writer, you may or may not have a good idea of who will read your work. It could be that your immediate audience is your supervisor at work. Then again, it could be (using this article as an example) that you don't know all that much about who is going to read your document and you have to make a series of educated guesses about them. I'm going to guess that you've got some post-secondary education, that you work in a white collar-type job, and that your job requires you to write--which is why you would read an article about clear and concise writing strategies.
How do you change your writing knowing that readers are jumping around and not sitting still and reading what you write word-for-word? Here are some of the strategies I talk about in a recent podcast:
Conciseness, like clarity, depends on your knowledge of your reader. If you know that your reader already knows something, that means you can skip over that topic or cover it briefly. Knowledge of your reader is the number one way to write less.
Here are four other ways to write concisely:
When I prepared the workshop I delivered on concise writing strategies, I came across these websites that you might be interested in, too:
Purdue OWL on wordiness
APA Blog on wordiness
Plain language equivalents for wordy phrases
Grammarist on wordy phrases
Good luck with your writing. And to paraphrase Mark Twain, if I'd had more time I'd have written a shorter article!
Style and academic writing: joining those two terms could be seen, by some, as an oxymoron. That is, they aren't always thought of together, and for some people they are poles apart. But let's ignore that for the moment and concentrate on the two key terms here: style--what is it, and how do you identify it?--and academic writing--which to some extent requires a variety of writing styles.
In a recent podcast I gave some examples of how style has been defined:
None of these are wrong, but they aren't particularly helpful, either. Let's also consider what style is not:
Some of the component parts of a writing style include:
In another post I shared a document that helps identify these and other features of a written text and prompts you to identify those features either in your own writing or the writing of someone you are trying to emulate.
In the podcast and the slides you can see examples of the three levels of style that classical rhetoricians identified:
Ultimately, you'll want to develop your ability to write at each level, depending on your purpose. I'll examine each of those styles in future articles and podcasts.
Style in writing defies easy definition. That makes it hard to talk about, and harder to master. The ancient rhetoricians grouped style into three categories: the high or florid style (used to entertain, as in literature); the middle or forcible style (used in political discourse); and the plain or low style (suitable for instruction). In a previous article I gave an overview of the three styles; in this article and in a recent podcast episode I focus on the plain style.
First, let's clear up the confusion between style as linguistic element and style as cultural display. Plain style, because it is utilitarian and accessible by most, historically was associated with the lower classes in society. For our purposes, let's just ignore that association. The plain style, as it is used today, dominates communication. Speaking plainly and writing clearly matter across class boundaries.
Most workplace writing should be written in the plain style. But what is the plain style? Here are some characteristics:
How do you get to the point where you can start and finish writing projects efficiently? Many people who have attended my workshops ask that question or some variant of it. Those same people already know of the vast self-help literature on the topic: a search of an online bookseller will turn up pages of listings, many offering "tips" and activities guaranteed to turn readers into writers.
My experience teaching writing for 35 years and running workshops for both students and instructors tells me a different story. For a recent workshop and podcast, I decided to look at the problem of academics who are having trouble getting their writing done from a different perspective. I took as my jumping off point Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: 25 million readers couldn't be wrong, could they? I then combined his ideas with Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Finally, I added insights from research in writing studies about what kinds of knowledge writers need to have to succeed, drawn from Anne Beaufort's College Writing and Beyond.
Here are Covey's habits with my translations of them for writing in parentheses:
In a recent podcast, I took up the topic of online writing tools and what they can, and cannot, do to help you with your writing. What is out there? What might help you?
Let's get started by establishing some baseline ideas about writing. First, writing is a process, that is iterative (repeated) and social: you write, largely, to communicate with others. One more thing: Writing is genre-driven, which means that there are types or kinds of documents that are used to accomplish a variety of specific purposes (resumes are a genre that serves the social purpose of getting hired). At first glance, it isn't clear how online tools can help with those aspects of writing.
We also need to consider the sub-skills that contribute to good writing performances. To write well, you need to understand your writing process and what would help you at each stage of the process. You also need rhetorical knowledge: who are you writing or communicating to and for what purposes? Do you understand and have experience writing the kind of document (the genre of document) that your communication situation calls for? And finally, do you know enough about the topic to write well about it?
So, what online tools can help? At the early stages of drafting a document, some sites can help you add to your subject matter knowledge base. Because these are specific to each person and context, I can't really link to any. But Google Scholar will connect you to academic research, and other sites and search techniques would also help.
After you have a draft, grammar and spell-checker software can help you with sentence-based grammar and spelling. Grammarly is one popular tool; GradeProof is another, free one (an add on for Google docs). There are many others, some of them free. Check out the many reviews to find something that fits your needs and budget. But try to select something that not only corrects the errors but also explains why the correction needs to be made at all.
A key component of improving as a writer is feedback: how can you get it? You might use LinkedIn and Twitter to follow others with a similar subject matter interest or writing consultants that might give answers or advice if you are one of their followers. You could also search out hashtags that identify strings of posts that might help you with a writing issue.
Most important, though, is joining a writing community or finding others who are working on similar documents. If working in a large organization, perhaps you could connect with others in your organization. That would sidestep the problem of sharing work-related documents outside of the organization, and it would help build your network within the company. Writing well depends upon excellent reading skills; if you exchange drafts with others in your organization, you can learn an enormous amount about how to write well from reading and offering comments on those texts. Google Docs, Dropbox, Word, and other file sharing software applications that offer the ability to comment on documents are all tools that can support sharing and commenting.