Turnitin – an off topic post

This week I learned about Turnitin. What I have learned really concerns me. It seems that so much of our writing is being judged (or now graded) based on an algorithm. Applying for a job? Make sure that you include key words from the posting to get your résumé “noticed” by the computer “reading” it. Don’t even think about calling the company to speak with the manager you would report to – submit your résumé and online application and if it matches some undefined qualification a hiring manager will call you back. But be careful! If your résumé isn’t “readable” it will automatically get tossed.

Now it seems that education is taking the same approach. Turnitin provides not only colleges and universities but also K-12 schools with a program that will screen for plagiarism, assist with feedback, and grading.

Plagiarism is a serious concern. I imagine that it has dramatically increased with the ease of “collaboration” and access to multiple ideas sources through the internet. In every syllabus I have ever received there is always at least a brief note about plagiarism. It is a real problem that can have life altering consequences. Remember Senator John Walsh from Montana? (Spoiler Alert! He had his degree revoked.) I have had classes that focus on the ethical issues of plagiarism. It is literally stealing someone else’s work. Stealing is wrong. Don’t steal other people’s things or ideas. Don’t pass off someone else’s work as your own. Don’t buy a canned paper off the internet and expect that it will go unnoticed. This is cheating. Which is also wrong.

My understanding is that there have been other ways to check for plagiarism. If Turnitin stopped at being a resource to verify plagiarism I would have no problem with it. In our culture, the borrowing of other’s ideas and not giving them appropriate credit is not acceptable. But to offer a program that offers feedback and grading based on “best practices?”

I understand that teachers and professors do a lot of work. Grading papers sounds tedious. Yes there are those gems that standout, but I bet those are not the rule. I have no desire to sit down and read 20 to 40 essays on the same topic, provide unique and appropriate feedback, and determine a grade that is fair. But I do expect my professor to. That is why I am in college. That is why I pay tuition. I have hired my university to provide me with the opportunity to gain new knowledge and learn how to apply it. I am asking an expert in the field to critique my knowledge. I don’t care if my writing fits an algorithm. I want to know if I have been able to effectively relate knowledge that I have learned in that course.

I am a distance student. This means lots of Blackboard posts. From reading my classmates posts, it is apparent that some are foreign students. Their posts can be grammatically “rough.” But they have great ideas. Yes, it takes longer to read and try to decipher what they are trying to say, but it is worth the effort. I don’t think that my grammatically correct regurgitation of course material deserves a higher grade than their original thoughts that applies knowledge learned.

How does Turnitin account for this scenario?

One of my courses is using Turnitin. It is the second political science class that is required for graduation. I get there are quite possibly over 1,000 students across all sections. I understand that trying to grade two short essays from every student is time consuming and probably intellectually draining work. Here is my idea. Don’t have writing assignments. If it is too cumbersome to have a person grade my paper, don’t require it. If between the various faculty, graduate students, and professors grading 2,000 essays eats up valuable time wait until the courses are smaller and individualized attention can be given to each assignment and student.

Turnitin seems like the easy way out. If a course wants to make sure that students know how to appropriately cite information, both in text and as a work cited list I can think of several ways that multiple choice questions can be used. If you don’t have the time to spend with each assignment, get creative to find new assignments that aren’t tedious to grade.

I wonder how Turnitin would “grade” a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Or any of her other books. Can Turnitin “see” style and intentional breaks with the “rules?”

Or is this just one more way that individuality is being squashed? Learn the material to do well on the test, learn to write to the algorithm, create the résumé that will get “noticed” by the computer.



A question to Toni Morrison:  My 15-year-old daughter lives to write. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?Darren Wethers, St. Louis, Mo.
The work is in the work itself. If she writes a lot, that’s good. If she revises a lot, that’s even better. She should not only write about what she knows but about what she doesn’t know. It extends the imagination.




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