Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Trust


Academic Integrity Workshop Day 2. This was even better than Day 1. We had a presentation on TurnItIn.com, an online service that maintains a burgeoning database of potential cheat materials against which we could check student papers.

Some of us (including myself) were thrilled; others, faculty as well as students, were horrified. We had a lively discussion of the respective merits of Hobbesian cynicism vs. Trust and the macroscopic projection of our microcosmic views when it came to politics and world affairs: strong military and cops to beat up the Bad Guys vs. Trust and Niceness. Needless to say I was for the military, cops and turnitin.com.

Meanwhile those of us who'd brought our laptops were cruising around the internet looking at the turnitin.com site, the Rutgers Academic Integrity site recommended by the presenter and, in my case morningstar.com. I was checking to see whether turnitin.com was public so that I could buy stock in it. It isn't--yet. But I'll sock in bucks as soon as I can.

There were significant differences by department in our attitude to this item. English, which had been offered access to turnitin as a pilot project were not enthusiastic. In one sense they were the ideal subjects to test it: they assigned the most papers and were most directly concerned with assessing student writing. But they were also by and large Luddites who didn't like the idea of having students submit papers electronically and, quite apart from moral qualms about the cynicism inherent in the project, were uneasy about the technical issues. Theology was ambivalent. Turnitin was a nasty, cynical thing: G. said, it could also be used for pedagogical rather than punitive purposes to teach students how to cite references properly but I thought this was a little self-deceptive or disingenuous. As I pointed out to Fr. R. on our break, "Hey, you guys believe in Original Sin, right?"

I don't understand why trust, or faith, is supposed to be a virtue. It's simply an empirical conjecture about how people are likely to behave, and I do not understand why it is supposed to be a good thing to guess, a priori, that people will behave well rather than badly. I've been to quite a number of retreats and other programs where participants were supposed to fall backwards into the arms of others there to catch them. I could never understand the point of this exercise: of course, given the set up, it was highly probable that we would be caught. It does not follow that it is likely we would be caught in ordinary life situations and, as a matter of empirical fact, it seems highly unlikely. What is the point of attempting to instill empirically false beliefs? Even if we recognize that people are not likely to be kind and decent to us, or to catch us when we fall, it doesn't follow that we shouldn't do what we can to be kind, decent and fair to others.

Currently the received wisdom seems to be that Liberals believe that people are inherently good so that Trust is warranted while Conservatives believe that people are fundamentally bad so that it takes soldiers, copes and coercion to keep a lid on things. I'd with the Conservatives when it comes to their pessimistic view of human nature and views about the importance of coercion. What I don't understand is how this supports their views on domestic policy. If people are fundamentally bad, as I believe, employers will certainly exploit their employees because they can, men will beat their wives because they're bigger and stronger and none of us will contribute substantially to take care of people who can't take care of themselves. We're bigots and selfish jerks because our nature is fallen but our rational nature, imagio dei, isn't wholly corrupted, so we can see what we are and establish schemes to circumvent our sinfulness--coercive taxation and the welfare state.

6 comments:

Peter said...

As a former English professor and NOT a luddite ...

I have used turnitin.com and other services in a discretionary way. I mean that when I've suspected plagiarism I've used the services to confirm my suspicions or as a check on my gut.

The one truly egregious case I had was confirmed by the service and gave me ample grounding for the later conversation w/the student. It was my first experience of going beyond the "trust" model, and, I have to say, had a desired result: the student both admitted his guilt and dropped the class.

Personally, I believe in creating assignments that are difficult or impossible to complete through plagiarism. But I also believe in careful use of the available tools for enforcement ...

Matt Zwolinski said...

First off, I'm all in favor of turnitin.com. A professor here in one of the science departments had trial access to it last semester, and allowed me to run through a suspicious paper I had. It cleared it, and I was very confident in the result.

I used another service, "Easy Verification Engine," which works a bit differently. You buy a program for $20, and can use it forever. It is basically a very clever search engine program, that will take students' papers as inputs, and then run a series of searches on publicly-accessible websites. Nothing you couldn't do yourself, in theory, without the product. But it's much more thorough than I would ever be, and prints out a nice little report when it's done (though not nearly as nice as TII.COM). Advantages: cheap, and doesn't actually send the students paper to any third party computer (hence avoiding any 'privacy' concerns -- not that I consider these to have any merit in these cases). Disadvantage: it won't detect plagiarism from material on non-publicly accessible websites. A big drawback, I think, since it misses out on frat-files and purchasable papers.

Oh, another disadvantage is that the company is run by crooks. I bought a copy, was not completely satisfied, and asked for a refund -- just like they guarantee on their main web page. They never responded to a single email I sent.

On the theoretical issue of trust, though. Trust doesn't *just* serve an epistemic role. It serves a communicative one as well. And hence it has the potential to change the behavior of the person on whom it is bestowed. So even if trust is a bad way of assessing the likelihood that a student has cheated, it might be a good way of getting them not to cheat. Depends on whether people, in this context, respond to trust by being trustworthy. There are certainly *some* cases in which that happens, but I'm skeptical that this is one of them. Or at least, I'm skeptical that the gains in trustworthiness from being trusted will be greater than the gains in trustworthiness from being closely monitored by a very clever computer program.

Anonymous said...

On the final paragraph - what about the old social democratic justification for social democratic institutions? Namely, that a state-organised healthcare system, welfare state, comprehensive school system*, etc, are not about coercing people to their better natures, but citizenship, including within this the creation and maintenance of a commonality of experience in certain (by no means all) areas of social life? Thus, the point of (in the British case) the NHS et al is not about forcibly extracting 'charity' from the relatively wealthy, but superseding charity, a part of which entails that the relatively wealthy too use at least some of the publically-funded and organised institutions.

* In the British sense of the term - I don't know the Americanese, sorry.

H. E. said...

Right. The idea that it's naughty to get healthcare privately even if you're kicking in to the NHS and there are no adverse consequences for patients in the public system.

Here I think it gets down to intuitions and I don't have the intuition that commonality of experience as such is of value. Inducing people who can afford to opt out to use public facilities could, in some cases, be desirable because it has good consequences. E.g. we need to get a critical mass of middle class kids from educated homes into the public education system because it improves the quality of education for those who can't opt out and maybe there are similar pragmatic reasons to get the relatively affluent to use state supported services and facilities of various sorts. If affluent individuals with political clout have a stake in the state system they're more likely to vote to keep it well-funded. In the long run that may be a good reason to get people who can afford private insurance schemes to use the National Health anyway. But the question is whether there's any intrinsic value to "commonality of experience" apart from even long-run political consequences.

What makes me doubt egalitarian intuitions about the intrinsic value of common social experience is that in every case I can think of they can be explained by noting that sentimental ties motivate benificent behavior: people as a matter of empirical fact more likely to support social programs that benefit people they see as being like themselves, members of the same community and, as we see in the US, unlikely to support programs the believe benefit the Other, particularly ethnic minorities. But suppose, per impossible, the welfare state were locked in forever and there were no danger that a super-affluent minority from whom taxes were extracted to support the scheme, could stage (what we in the US call) a "tax-payers revolt." Would commonality of experience still be of any interest?

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