Since the last time I wrote about my class…

We’ve had 5 class meetings since my last post about my class – some more interesting than others.

On Wed, Feb 4, the plan was to work on the beginning stage of developing research questions for them to focus on for the rest of the semester. Unfortunately, attendance was pretty low that day – only 5 students were present. In past semesters, there was no subject focus for the class. I would assign them to groups of 4, ask them to find 2-3 news stories they wanted to know more about, and then gave them time in class to discuss which one to focus on for a group topic. Then each was required to develop a different research question related to the group topic. So, for example, one group chose an article about an artist. The math education major wrote about the ways art is being used to help teach math, while the criminology major wrote something about crime scene photography (considering photography as a type of art), and so on.

This semester, with such a small class, I am skipping the process of assigning them to groups. And with the focus on Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, I asked them to develop questions related to that. In class on Feb 4, I was prepared to have them work on a “presearch” worksheet to guide them through finding more information to narrow a topic. However, I also gave them the option of spending some time brainstorming a concept map on the whiteboards in the room. We had a really good discussion in class. Their homework that night was to write a blog post discussing three possible research questions.

In reading the research question posts, I realized that I had not been clear enough in explaining what I meant for the scope of the projects. I feel like I wrote it out pretty broadly on the class page about the research projects:

This spring, you will all develop research questions delving into issues related to the Ferguson movement. Examples include researching police brutality, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial disparities in education, continuing effects of residential patterns like redlining, white-flight, and gentrification, examining the intersectionality of privilege, and many other related topics.

But I realized I needed to spend more time in class and in replies to their posts explaining that they can explore topics beyond just what happened in Ferguson in August. The movement that started there has become a huge national discussion about racial disparities in a wide range of contexts. So I suggested that the education major consider a question related to disparities in education, and that the student who plans to work in public health consider a health-related question.

Their other homework that weekend was to read Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression by nina de jesus. I was nervous about assigning that in a 1000-level course, but it was designed to be an honors section, so I took that chance.

So, on Mon, Feb 9, we spent most of the class period discussing the feedback on their research questions (explaining the scope of possible related issues) and the article. As expected, several of them said they had difficulty understanding the article. Most of them said this was the first time they’ve had to read a scholarly article like this. I think the discussion went well. I don’t think I would use this article in a regular section of this course – partly because it seems more appropriate for a higher level of student, and partly because I’m not confident the discussion would have gone so well in a class of 24 students.

Toward the end of that session, we shifted from discussion of the article into talking about types of sources and the information cycle. We brainstormed a list of types of sources (books, journal articles, magazine articles, blogs, social media, websites, etc), and then discussed which type shows up first, right after an event occurs, which shows up within a day, and so on. But a student brought up the important question of picking apart those types – isn’t a blog a type of social media? where does “website” fit, when CNN’s website gets updated many times a day, a blog looks like a website, but then other websites might not get updated for a couple of years. We ran out of time before we exhausted that discussion.

Their homework for the next class period was just to watch a few videos about scholarly vs. popular distinctions, the information cycle, and peer review. No blog post required, for a change!

Of course, with no blog post about the videos required, I started class on Wed, Feb 11, with another in class writing assignment. I asked them to write out all of the distinctions they could remember between scholarly and popular sources. This was also intended to prime them for the exercise they were about to do. I brought in several copies of a set of articles all on the same broad topic and asked them to work in pairs to categorize the articles (each pair had one set to work with). There are 8 or 9 articles in the sets, including a newspaper article, a couple of magazine articles, a couple of scholarly journal articles, a chapter from a scholarly edited volume, and a couple of trade journals. Most of them came up with 3 categories – scholarly, popular, and somewhere in between – which is exactly what I was hoping for. So then we discussed how they categorized them – which ones went in which pile, and why. I feel like that lesson went really well.

I gave them a break on homework last weekend. On Mon, Feb 16, I did a rare thing and prepared a presentation to rehash once again the different types of sources, partially reviewing what we covered last week, but bringing in discussions of the types of information found in those sources (background and history vs report of findings from a recent research study vs introductory overview, etc). I feel like this is something I should have done more effectively in past classes, and that I’m finally getting into a better sequence for teaching this part of the course.

For Wed, Feb 18, we shifted to discussing plagiarism. The homework assigned Monday was to read a couple of articles (here and here), and then post a blog post responding to several questions. The last question on the prompt asked whether they were aware of any news stories about people getting caught plagiarizing. Only 2 of the students said they had heard of any such cases – one about the Mic News Director being fired, and the other about politician Ben Carson.

In class on Wed, I did my usual routine of showing some videos. I started off with Key & Peele’s “High on potenuse” video, mainly because I first saw it recently and thought it was pretty funny. Then I moved in to an example of complaints against Beyonce, and then a news story about Blurred Lines. I like these examples for a few reasons. After showing about half of the first Beyonce video, I ask what they think – if that was plagiarism or not – which opens the question of how much is too much, and how could she have done the exact same thing without being called a plagiarizer (include an explicit reference in the video, giving credit to the source of those moves). But then the short news clip about it mentions that the original choreographer is threatening to sue for plagiarism. I use that to start to disentangle plagiarism from copyright violation – the copyright holder can sue regardless of whether Beyonce included a citation, since the suit is about a copyright violation. On the flip side, getting copyright clearance has no bearing on whether or not you are plagiarizing. And then the end of the clip about Blurred Lines, they mention that the defense is claiming the aspects they are being accused of copying were common in several works from that era… Which opens the discussion of common knowledge, and when something does or doesn’t need to be cited.

Of course, I rather despise the rape anthem Blurred Lines, so need a palate cleanser after hearing it in that news clip! So from there, I move in to Weird Al’s Word Crimes, and ask whether that is plagiarism or copyright violation. That leads in to discussions of parody, as well as the ways non-academic works can reference other materials without including an explicit citation. Of course you’re supposed to get the reference of which song Weird Al is doing a parody of – if you don’t get the reference, it’s nowhere near as entertaining! And, finally, I wrap it up with a gratuitous showing of the video some people from my campus did for Pharrell’s Happy, again asking whether there is any aspect of plagiarism or copyright violation in that video. I mentioned the fact that Pharrell put out the call for people to make videos to that song, which means he gave permission for them to use the song, and they’re just dancing to it, not claiming to have created the song. But, the fact that a lot of other memes pop up using songs without permission doesn’t mean they can’t get in trouble or that it’s legal to use a song without (usually paying for) permission. I then compare that to speeding on the interstate – just because a lot of people get away with it, you know you’re still going to get that ticket if you’re the one that gets pulled over that day.

I know a lot of people don’t get in to discussions of copyright issues when discussing plagiarism, but I think it’s a really important distinction to make.

The homework this weekend is to work through a plagiarism tutorial, including taking the test at the end, and then writing a blog post about it. I really like this tutorial in particular because the test is just 10 examples of a source material and some text using that source – students have to apply their understanding by identifying whether it is an example of word for word plagiarism, paraphrasing plagiarism, or not plagiarism. In the past, I’ve just required that they get the certificate and turn that in. However, I always have a few students who just aren’t able to get the 9/10 correct needed to earn the certificate. So, this time, they will all write a blog post summarizing the most important points from the tutorial and discussing their experience with the test – what was the most difficult part? if you didn’t pass the first time, what helped? Those who get the certificate will embed it in their posts, while those who don’t will print it out, write their answers to the questions on the flow chart provided by the tutorial for identifying plagiarism for each question, and turn it in on Monday. So we’ll see how that goes!