Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The big lie about plagiarism

One of the big lies that Universities tell their students is that plagiarism isn't worth it: that you can't get away with it (not forever, at least) and that the punishment isn't worth the risk.

In more than six years, and more than 400 students, I've "caught" four people. I write "caught" because two of them were actually nabbed by software (Turnitin) and I could never prove that the third plagiarized - it was clear, from the change in font and suddenly excellent prose, that she didn't write it, but I couldn't find any evidence. The fourth included three pages that were lifted directly from a single source, no quotation marks, with a footnote at the end of the third page. The student claimed total ignorance to the conventions of referencing and attribution, which I was inclined to believe because there was certainly no way I would mistake those three pages for her own work - she was astoundingly sloppy, not deceptive.

Of these four cases, two were given no penalty at all and the three-page non-quoter was allowed a re-write, albeit with a huge penalty. (She still failed the assignment.) The other case, one of the essays caught by Turnitin, was the only one that I thought was truly egregious. Half the essay contained other people's words, and they had been cribbed from multiple sources - three sentences from Author A, two paragraphs from Author B, and so on. And then a few conjunctions and phrases tossed in just to break up the strings of borrowed words.

For all that, though, she barely failed the assignment and the plagiarism was never actually reported. Why? Because she was a fourth-year student and the instructor didn't want to jeopardize her graduation. He also didn't want to make the school look bad, justifying it with word to the effect of 'if we're only catching her now, how many other essays do you think she's plagiarized?' Evidently, ass-covering is more important than transparency and, y'know, ethics.

Plagiarism isn't taken all that seriously outside of the academy, either. I'm thinking about these things because of this Media Culpa story about the loathsome Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, which notes that she has problems with migrating quotation marks, misattribution, and eerily derivative word choice and phrasing. From The Canadian Journalism Project:
In 2009, a J-Source piece by Anne McNeilly, a Ryerson University journalism professor, looked at a Wente column on cell phones that was strikingly similar to one written by The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd just two days earlier. And Carol Wainio, who runs the Media Culpa blog that has been the reference for many today in discussing the long-time Globe and Mail columnist, has spent a considerable amount of time over the last 18 months picking apart Wente’s work. [...] Since that initial post, there have been at least 31 separate posts on Media Culpa about Wente or about The Globe’s issued corrections or editors notes added to her work.
The Globe and Mail "disciplined" Wente - though it's unclear what that word means, and she hasn't lost her job - but didn't actually called it plagiarism, even if it does meet the definition of the word. And Wente, for her part, hardly owned up to it. What's worse, her response reeked of classlessness. I'll only grab a couple pieces:
I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.


I haven’t always lived up to my own standards. I’m sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences. But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm. Most of all, I regret the trouble I’ve created for my Globe colleagues by giving any opening at all to my many critics. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any openings. In the real world, there are.
In the first selection, which appeared in the third paragraph of Wente's column, she frames the accusation as part of a witch-hunt. It's not the plagiarism that's the problem, but her politics. This isn't professional, it's personal. These aren't the words of someone who's sorry for her mistake, or who even necessarily recognizes that she's made one. This is someone who feels that she was unfairly targeted by a blogger with a grudge, and thus wants to subtly discredit the accuser. (Which continues, more explicitly, when she dubs Media Culpa's Carol Waino as "a self-styled media watchdog" who "has been publicly complaining about my work for years".)

The second selection I've quoted, Wente's final paragraph, is just as hilarious and telling. It's hilarious because Wente, a right-wing op-ed writer, is precisely one of those people who's built a career on attacking the character and reputation of people who are politically opposed to her. And it's telling because her final stated regret is not that she embarrassed herself or her paper, but that she has "giv[en] any opening at all to my critics". Wente vaguely admits to giving ammunition to her enemies, but she can barely admit that she's made a mistake. I mean, here's another one:
Journalists know they’re under the microscope. If you appropriate other people’s work, you’re going to get nailed. Even so, sometimes we slip up. That isn’t an excuse. It’s just the way it is.
If "you" then "you're"... what is this, a hypothetical?

Wente does, thankfully, admit in spots that she's screwed up. But it's all described in a fairly dismissive way - she should have been more cautious and careful, and apologizes for being "extremely careless" when she copied another journalist's sentence word-for-word. (Although, as Wainio points out, that's not the only part of the column that Wente more-or-less copied from elsewhere.) But that's the only thing that she actually apologizes for. The rest? The fundamental problem, as Wainio aptly describes it, of "erod[ing] public trust"?  That's just the opinino of over-zealous, self-styled watchdogs who are out to attack honest folk's character and reputation, I guess.

And this is the what out students hear about and see when plagiarism happens - an inability to admit guilt, a refusal to punish the guilty. How can they possibly take us seriously when we tell them that plagiarism is a big deal and leads to big trouble? How can we take ourselves seriously?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A knock on the defense offered for Yunel Escobar

A brief update on the ongoing Yunel Escobar and the "tu ere maricon" controversy, which I first blogged about here and here.

The common defense that's being used, in the hours and days following the press conference, is that the possible negative connotation of the word is being overblown. Latin American players and reporters have been quick to say that there's a translation problem - both linguistically and culturally speaking - and that it really wasn't a big deal. "Maricon" means a lot of things, they say, and lots of people use it everyday and in casual conversation with friends and family. So, no problem, right?

Well, I don't really buy it. In fact, the culture-gap/culture-clash defense strikes me as pretty weak. Worse, it strikes me as, at best, a bit clueless and, at worst, indicative of a much larger problem with homophobia and a misunderstanding of how it operates and perpetuates. (And I'm not even gonna go anywhere near the "boys will be boys" type of defense that's been offered by Dirk Hayhurst and others. Honestly, if I need to explain why that one is unbelievably fucking problematic, you're probably not going to understand anything that follows, anyway.)

Players and coaches like Omar Vizquel and Ozzie Guillen quickly defended Escobar by saying that Latin Americans use the word in casual conversation with their friends all the time, to show them affection, to tease them, and/or to emasculate them. 
  • Vizquel: "We say that word very often, and to us, it doesn’t really mean that we are decreasing anybody or talking down to people or anything like that. It’s just a word we use on an everyday basis. I don’t know why people are taking this so hard and so out of place or out of proportion."
  • Guillen: "In my house, we call (each other) that word every 20 seconds. I've got three kids," Guillen added.  "For us, it's like 'What's up, bro? What's up, dude?' It's how you say it and to who you say it. But that's our country.

Now, admittedly, I'm no expert or cultural anthopologist with expertise with respect to the Caribbean. But I am keenly aware of just how much more dangerous it is to be an LGBTQ person in Central America than it is in Canada. And that difference, that danger? I'm going to suggest that it has a lot to do with the ease with which people like Vizquel and Guillen can brush aside Escobar's words. (Just a quick note: I am not so naive as to think that race isn't playing a factor in the way that the Toronto media has taken up the story. But that's another story for another day.)

Because this defense sounds an awful lot like "when we say 'fag', we mean you're too sensitive. we don't mean you're gay or anything'." This sounds an awful lot like "when i say he's a 'pussy', i mean he's weak. it doesn't have anything to do with women, so it can't be sexist". It sounds like they don't recognize the implied equivalence - that if, say, "pussy" means "weak" but it also means "woman", then a connection is implied between "weak" and "woman". It sounds like they're pretending - or are genuinely oblivious to - the power that words carry, the things that they say in excess of what we intend for them to say all the time.

And that power? It doesn't go away if we stop acknowledging it - it just becomes invisible. As Irene Monroe puts it, in her coverage of this story, "if the phrase 'TU ERE MARICON' goes unchecked or is not challenged, it allows people within their culture to become unconscious and numb to the use and abuse of the power and currency of this homophobic epithet -- and the power it still has to thwart the daily struggles of many of us to ameliorate LGBTQ relations." Being unconscious or numb to the word's connotations through overuse isn't a good excuse - like I said before, it's indicative of the larger, systemic problem.

The response of people like Guillen and Vizquel is also a remarkably unempathetic. Every one of these responses has, from what I can tell, been offered by straight Latin American men who use it in conversation with other straight Latin American men and note that other straight Latin American men don't find it all shocking. WHAT A SURPRISE. But what about all of the gay men that they talk to? (I mean, in addition to the men that Escobar employs.) Or that don't talk to them because the language makes them feel unsafe? Or, worse yet, who join in the discourse because they would feel more unsafe if they didn't play along? Because - guess what? - that happens all the time. They don't exist, I guess. In fact, if the media-response outside a couple papers in Toronto is any indication, the whole queer community doesn't exist! Or, you know, you could look for them, because you would find them.

*     *     *

As a totally unrelated aside, I can recall the comic book creator John Byrne explaining that, when he was a kid growing up in England during the 50s, it was not uncommon for the English to use the word "nigger" in everyday conversation. He said that it was even relatively common, at least where he grew up, to give the name "Nigger" to cats and dogs. And, he adds, it wasn't racist at all! But how's that possible, you ask? Because the white people who used it didn't think it was racist.

That makes sense, right? A bunch of white people casually use a derogatory word for non-white people, and they apply it endearingly to animals and, of course, without malice or intent to harm - so that's totally cool, right? Because who could be offended by a word loaded with painful historical baggage? Who could be offended if that word's given as a name to a dog? End of story.

And if that logic strikes you as totally fucked up... then maybe you can see that I was lying when I said it was a totally unrelated aside.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Yunel Escobar press conference: well, that was a complete disaster

If I'm being charitable, there are two things that went right with the 30-minute press conference that ended less than a half-hour ago, where Yunel Escobar and the Blue Jays were asked to explain why he wrote, in Spanish, "you're a faggot/pussy" under his eyes. (You can find the picture in a blog I wrote yesterday, found here.)
  1. He apologized and said it won't happen again.
  2. The Blue Jays will donate money to You Can Play, a Toronto-based charity that combats homophobia in sports.
         Yunel Escobar.

And that's it. And that covers two or three minutes of the content of the press conference. So, what went wrong? All of it, pretty much:
  •  Escobar said the words "didn't mean anything", that he didn't "intend to offend anyone", and it was "misinterpreted". As far as apologies go, this veers dangerously close to victim-blaming. That is, he implied nothing, which means it's our fault for inferring something hurtful. And that's bullshit.
  • Escobar - and his teammate Edwin Encarnacion, via reporter Shi Davidi - said that the slur isn't necessarily a slur, depending on the "context" (Escobar's word, via a translator). Encarnacion said it was a "joke". Right. Just like when someone, for instance, uses "gay" but actually means 'ugly' or 'stupid'? That's a joke too. In no way are they implying an equivalence between "gay" and "stupid". No, not at all. It's just a joke. 
  • And what of "context", anyway? Escobar said it wasn't meant to be read by anyone. (Which is curious, since the manager, John Farrell, said that he often writes words under his eyes, and they're usually inspirational. Which suggests that they can and are meant to be read. But that's not the most egregious failure of communication between staff and players. More on that in a bit...) I don't know whether he's being disingenuous or he's actually that stupid, but there's no explanation that makes sense except to assume that he was directing it at the Boston Red Sox - the team the Jays were playing that day. And if he's directing it at the opposition? Well, that context lends itself to the interpretation that he did mean to call them "fags" or "pussies", and that he did mean it pejoratively. No other conclusion makes sense.
  • That other moment where Farrell wasn't quite credible? It took forever, but one of the reporters eventually asked whether homophobia is a problem in baseball locker rooms. (A classic response to this kind of incident is to frame it as an isolated incident - to invoke the "one rotten apple" fallacy.) And Farrell completely blew it. He said it isn't a problem, but any of us who have played sports at any level know that he's hilariously wrong. As Dirk Hayhurst, the former Blue Jay, wrote yesterday, "Crude, offensive humor is a part of the lexicon of the clubhouse. Always has been, probably always will be." So, let's be honest, at least. Because telling such a transparent lie just totally destroys your believability.
  • And Farrell dropped the ball at least one more time, too. When asked why he didn't notice the words, he said that doesn't pay attention to them, and that no one really does. And he didn't admit that he should be looking - in fact, he took no responsibility at all. That's a catastrophic failure of leadership. The first words out of Farrell's mouth should have been an admission of fault - an admission that he didn't look, but he should have. While, sure, Escobar deserves blame for hilariously poor judgement, Farrell is the guy letting him write on his face and failing to vet those same words. And, plain and simple, he's the boss. A huge part of the manager's job in baseball is to take pressure off of his players, to mediate between players and umpires, players and management, players and media, players and players... But Farrell just threw Escobar to the wolves.
  • This next criticism applies to everyone who was sitting on the panel. Until a reporter said the word "homophobia", not one of them used the word. Escobar and his translator said "gay", (as in, embarrassingly, "my hairdresser is gay") but no one addressed the elephant in the room directly. What they did do was admit that there was a "problem". Repeatedly, Farrell and the GM, Alex Anthopolous, referred to homophobia as "the problem". A problem so serious, evidently, that we can't even refer to it by name. For fuck's sake, guys. Couldn't you have spoken to a subject matter expert or PR consultant before doing this? Couldn't you at least bring a diversity or sensitivity trainer in to coach you? Which leads me to my final point...
  • ...which is that, aside from throwing $90k or so to charity, it felt like the Jays came into this press conference with no plan at all. No talking-points that made sense, no idea of how to talk about the issue, no clear indication that they had received advice or vocabulary (much less some quick mediation or counselling) from a gay rights or equity or anti-oppressive educator. (Hey, Blue Jays! I can even recommend my friend to you!) They. Looked. Totally. Lost. And what might the Jays or Escobar do after the money is donated? I have absolutely no idea. Hope that everyone forgets, maybe? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Yunel Escobar wrote what on his face, now?

In one of life's great mysteries, my typical orientation to sport is the total opposite of how I just generally read life. Niney-nine percent of the time, I'm all about the qualitative analysis and teasing out the nuance that numbers miss; when I'm talking games, though, I'm usually discussing data and metrics.

So, when people say that a ballplayer is "a winner", I mock them for seizing a quality that's hilarious undefinable. And when they say someone has a "bad attitude", I ask for the proof that it affects performance. Thus, when the Blue Jays traded for - and extended the contract of - Yunel Escobar, a player infamous for being surly and supposedly a bad teammate, I was thrilled. Here's a guy who's undervalued and underpaid for reasons that have nothing to do with his numbers. So long as he's performing above his pay-grade, he's a good thing.

And then, this happened.

Strangely enough, I learned about the existence and meaning of "tu ere maricon" only a couple weeks ago - at a World Cup qualifying game between the Canadian men's team and Panama. It's a homophobic slur, most commonly translated as "you're a faggot". And it's just fucking awful to see it scrawled across any athlete's face. If there's a way to cut or suspend him without paying him - and I'm pretty certain that there isn't, unfortunately - I am all for it. Just get rid of him. Find a bottomless pit and drop him in it.

It gets worse, though. Because fans are already doing cartwheels in an attempt to defend or dismiss his actions. For instance, from the page where the photograph was first posted:

  • "Let's not make such a big deal about this....you mind your business and he will mind his business."
  • "relax. its not big deal"
  •  "Ho hum - obviously he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer"
  • "what ever happened to free speech? dont get me wrong i dont hate gays but its just a name!!! get over it, soft people"

 Sometimes, people are just awful. And no number can justify that.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Personal stuff

A little over a week ago, my sister-in-law died. And over the last week or so, I must have retold the story of how she and my brother met a half-dozen times. (I should note that he's claimed, before, that it's not my story to tell. Given that the story takes place at my pseudo-wedding party, though, I think it's fair to suggest I have some ownership of it.) It's short, but it's worth repeating and recording.

At some point during the night of this party, my brother and his friend started to talk about how cute one of the servers was. They were, of course, all talk - neither one actually had the guts to say anything to her.

Finally, the wife of another friend, who was tired of listening to them, decided to approach the girl and tell her that both of these guys were interested in getting her number. But she had to choose just one of them.

So, she asked her co-worker, which one should she choose: 'the cute guy or the one in the suit?' (Her co-worker said you should "always" pick the suit.)

She chose the cute guy.

*     *    *

My daughter - who's now closer to four than she is to three, but was born in January and can't start school until next fall - was moved to a new classroom in daycare last week. The daycare has (i think) four different levels, and she's graduated from the third (pre-school) to the fourth (kindergarten - thusly called because the kids are at least three-and-a-half and because the majority of kids in the class are actual kinders, doing half-days at the school and the other half here).

For the most part, she's been really excited about this - she has a couple friends in the class (though the number of kids is much smaller and the number of friends is, accordingly, lower) and the daycare decided to acclimatize her first, having her visit for a couple hours every day for a week beforehand.

But now she realizes that the move is for keeps, and she mentioned both yesterday and this morning that she wants to go to "my classroom" - meaning the pre-school room. It's not that she doesn't like the kinder class, it's just that it doesn't feel like home, yet.

The funny thing, for me, is that I'm feeling the exact same way. This fall is the first in more than six years where I'm not teaching at York University. (Before May, I had taught there for more than four years consecutively, with a break of no more than a few weeks in any one year.) But I am teaching at the University of Toronto, though in a very different faculty (Engineering vs. Humanities) and a somewhat different capacity (a few not-quite-traditional teaching roles).

I actually really like it, here, and the work seems interesting... but it doesn't quite feel like home.