Thursday, January 02, 2020

A Blue Outlier: Or, Free Agency and Blue Jay Land

For those who are Blue Jays fans the Ryu signing is important for a number of reasons. It tells us something about the willingness of the Jays to spend money on free agents. I think, in part, this willingness came in response to being called on the smoke and mirrors "aggressiveness" discourse that really was not very aggressive (see my last post on this), but I also think it tells us a great deal about how the Jays think of their team at this point in time.

In my last blog, I tried to argue that the Jays had a certain development strategy forced on them their situation. With an old, increasingly unproductive, and expensive team (with contracts potentially weighing them down into the future), the Jays had little choice but to:
  1. Try to shed players and payroll (particularly when less expensive minor leaguers would be ready to play particular positions in a relatively short time, hence the ditching of Donaldson who was, without doubt, still a productive player). 
  2. Pick up what prospects they could by trading players from their roster
  3. Or, bargain shopping for undervalued players and flipping them for the best prospects they could get
Ryu does not fit into this mold. The Jays paid him well. And, the contract is relatively long (4 years), which will put him into his later 30s (36) by the time it is done.  I've offered my views on this before. With very specific exceptions that are going to cost your team *a lot* of money for *a long* time, pitchers on the other side of 32 are always a gamble. This is not to say anything bad about Ryu.  He has pitched very well (in spite of missing time) over the last five or six years, but one never knows. Most players careers are in decline by 32 and many -- I'd guess most -- are done in the mid 30s.

For the Jays this signing breaks the Shapiro/Atkins mold (which has been to avoid long-term contracts and look to the middle/lower end of the free agent market to score a bargain). What does this signing tell us? 

First, it does not tell us how well Ryu will pitch. He's pitched well but there are a couple of matters that we should note before expectations get out of hand. (1) He was pitching at the Dodgers Stadium. Ryu pitched really well on the road, but has pitched superlatively at home and that is no surprise. Dodger Stadium is a pitchers park. Rogers Centre is a hitters park. What this means is that you can expect Ryu's numbers to be *not* as good as they were last year, if he pitches exactly the same.  Add in a bunch of games at New Yankee Stadium and Fenway ...  and what I mean is that I would not expect a 2.32 ERA. My best guess is the low 3 range but that is still very good. (2) Ryu has had injuries and he has never pitched more than 192 innings in a year and that was in his first year in the league. I know few pitchers pick up 200+ innings any longer but that really remains what you are looking for out of the guy who is supposed to be the ace of your staff. (I picked up these stats from Yahoo.)  His next highest inning total was 182.2 last year and he seems to have missed at least a little time every year in the majors. He's missed significant time 2016, 2017, and 2018. So, Ryu is a good pitcher but ... there are a couple of warning signs there as well. 

Second, it tells us that Marcus Stroman wanted a lot more than 20 million $/year or a contract much longer than 4 years.  To this point in their careers, Stroman has not been as good a pitcher as Ryu but he is significantly younger and that makes a difference. Stroman has had injuries but he has, generally, pitched more in a far less friendly park than Ryu. One might argue that his all-emotion-all-the-time approach and his semi-nasty comments wore out as well (a nicer way -- and thus likely the right way -- to say this is that Stroman did not fit into the clubhouse culture the Jays were looking to develop), but I suspect the key issue was how much Stroman was asking for. The Jays balked at this and so it must have been north of the amount for which they signed Ryu and by a fair amount. If not, I suspect they would have just resigned Stroman to the extension he wanted. 

It might also tell us something about Aaron Sanchez, although this is more difficult to judge because of his injury history. There is no doubt that Sanchez, like Stroman, is a good pitcher. He may have better overall talent, but he is more of a gamble. What we might say is that the decision to trade him, rather than try to negotiate with him also suggests the range that the Jays guessed Sanchez would want and, perhaps because of his injury history, that was a gamble they were not willing to take.  

Finally, it tells us something about what the Jays think of as their competitive window. I will confess that I don't like this term. What I mean here is not to suggest that the Jays feel they will be competitive for the next four years (because they likely won't be this year coming) but when they will start to be competitive. They are gambling that Ryu will be a really good pitcher for the next four years and that starting, say, in 2021 that will be important. To be sure, the Jays need front end pitchers this year after injuries, trades, and slower than expected development hampered their rotation and bullpen last year. They also, to be sure, need to think about the way in which they want to use their pitching staff (at times, last year, they seemed to be making it up on the fly with pitchers shuttling up and down to AAA with shocking regularity).  My guess, however, is that the Ryu signing is not about this year as much as it is about the years after that. The gamble that the Jays are making is that he will be part of a really good rotation in two-three years time that features not only him at least three pitchers out of their current list of prospects. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Blue Off Season?

The Blue Jays have had an interesting off season ... sort of. I guess all teams have interesting off seasons, or most of them, but what is interesting about the Jays is what the specific things they have done illustrate about how their upper management (Shapiro and Atkins) think about their team and what we might be able to expect as time goes by in terms of development and competitiveness. I think we have learnt two important things.

First, we have learnt that the word "aggressive" seems to have a specific meaning.  The Jays did not, of course, opt in on any top name free agents ... sort of (more on this in my next blog). No one expected them to sign Cole or Rendon but, we were assured, they were being aggressive. The problem was that this word --  "aggressive" -- seemed to be more of a talking point than an description of what was actually going on and it was only a short period of time until someone asked "what do you actually mean?" Does aggressive mean that you are actually trying to sign players or does it mean that you are just sort of kicking the tires and taking the odd second hand model out for a test drive?

From what I can tell this seemed to take Shapiro and others aback because ... well ... it exposed the fact that their efforts to reassure fans through the media were a bit of smoke and mirrors. It also exposed the fact that media commentators were willing to start asking tougher -- and perhaps better -- questions. The real problem, however, occurred because concern over the exact meaning of the word "aggressive" merged with concern over another metaphor: "waves of talent," whereby the minor league system will be supposedly producing new talent ready for the major league level every year or two. The problem was that at least some commentators were having a difficult time understanding where this talent was, say, with regard to the outfield or bullpen or the starting rotation. In the wake of this concern, speculation, then became rife that a fair number of players were, or might be, on the block with the exceptions of Grichuk, Biggio, Bichette, and Guerrero. Said differently, if there were no waves of talent (at least at specific positions), might not the Jays turn to trades to make their team competitive? And, if so, who would be traded?

What we learnt, then, was that the Jays were approaching this off season in basically the same way they had approached other off seasons: they were looking for bargains, but they were trying to disguise that fact by using words like "aggressive." When pressed on the word and its meaning, Jays sources clarified that what they meant was that they had been more aggressive in talking to free agents. This is something different than actually being aggressive in the market and attempting to sign free agents. In reality, their approach was basically the same as it had been and, in relatively short order, the Jays signed (or completed the deals, which are not quite the same thing, with) Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson, and Shun Yamaguchi (three 30+ pitchers).

This fits the same patterns as the last couple of years. It is no more or less aggressive. The contracts were relatively low in terms of cost and for relatively short durations. In the short term, they help the Jays address problems with their pitching staff. In the medium term, if one of these guys, say along with Giles, gets hot, they can be flipped at the All Star break for a prospect or two, likely middle range and perhaps someone who has worn out their welcome with elsewhere. Said differently, this was not aggression, but more of the same: Jays management was shopping for bargains or players that could be traded for prospects.

Let me be clear: I am not objecting to bargain shopping. I have some questions about the "more of the same" approach of the Jays, but I also thought the complaints last year that the Jays should have been in on the top level free agent market were horribly misplaced and displayed only a misunderstanding of the talent level that the Jays had on the field. They also mistook early season good play by the Phillies and Padres -- who had signed high priced free agents -- for dramatic improvement, something that did not really pan out over the entire season. What I object to is the semi-dishonesty of the matter.  In fact, I find the whole "we are doing all we can to improve the Jays" discourse troubling because it begs a question: isn't that what you are paid to do? Are there team presidents and GMs out there who are *not* doing everything they can to improve their teams? And, if so, how long to they remain presidents and GMs?

The second and related point is that I am not certain how well more of the same will serve the Jays in the near future. In my view, Shapiro and Atkins found themselves in a mess when they took over the Jays. They had an old and expensive team, whose best prospects were in the low minors. The team was years away from being competitive, was saddled with large contracts, and old players who were spending a lot of time on the DL. They didn't have an option but to bargain shop. They needed to rid the Jays of salary (which included the reality that the team was going to eat a lot of it, but again that was not their fault), needed to see if any of the low prospects were good, and needed implement their own draft philosophy. In this context, picking up and flipping good low cost veterans was a legit strategy while allowing time to develop and draft younger players.

I wonder, however, if this strategy is coming close to the limits of its effectiveness and I wonder if the Jays management is starting to think the say way. One problem is that everyone is doing it and that is making those bargains ... well ... less bargainful than they were a couple of years ago. The other thing is that if we assess where the Jays are now, they are a team with remarkable strengths and considerable weaknesses. I am going to guess that the Jays are going to play close to .500 ball by the time the season is done. I expect the Yankees and Red Sox to lead the way with Tampa continuing to play good ball.  What this means is that the Jays can play good and exciting ball but they are not going to be in the hunt and may be more than even this year away for being seriously competitive. I think that is how the Jays think about it, too, hence, their bevy of stop-gap contacts.

With regard to pitching, I suspect that the Jays will start the season with a rotation that looks something like this:

  • Anderson
  • Shoemaker (or Kay)
  • Roark
  • Ryu
  • Thornton

I suspect they will end of year with a rotation that looks much more like this:

  • Zeuch
  • Pearson
  • Thornton (or Kay) 
  • Borucki
  • Ryu
And, I don't mind this at all because, truth be told, with the possible exception of a free agent signing down the road, this is likely the staff that will be pitching for the Jays when the are competitive, perhaps in two years time. For this year, Shoemaker, Anderson and Roark could be traded or transitioned to the bullpen, where they might be good and able to extend their careers for another two or three years. The bullpen is a bit of a mess but my guess is that the Jays will try to figure that out as the season goes along. Giles, Yamaguchi, Kay (if he is not in the rotation), Pannone, Gaviglio, Romano and Font are all likely to get long looks and I expect Reid-Foley will as well as Waguespack, who might sub in for Thornton if he does not go forward. 

If this is the Jays approach, it is not a bad one. In fact, it has much to recommend it. What I can't figure out, then, is why the spin? What the Jays management has done over the last several years might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it has a logic to it, it made use of the resources that they could make use of, and accomplished a number of goals. 

There is a third and final thing that we have learnt about the Jays that relates to the outlier in all this: the Ryu signing. I'll address that in a later blog. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Oddities of Wexit

Let me be clear from the start: western alienation is a real thing based on real concerns. It has an important history, one that has served as a fundamental challenge to the Canadian political system, one about which we should learn. I find Wexit more challenging and more problematic and I can't shake the feeling that there are other issues -- almost Trump-like issues -- lurking in the background. I don't blame premiers of Albert and Saskatchewan for trying to convince the federal governments to address economic problems in parts of the west. That is, one might argue, part of their job. Nor, do I blame people who have lost their jobs for wanting help in getting new employment. Policy either advances employment or it doesn't and I think it should. But, current elements of western protest and some of the Wexit dynamics in particular have other dimension to them. What I would like to do in this blog is explore some of these dimensions without, in any way, rejecting the legitimate claims and concerns of western Canadians.

First, while politics is politics, one idea that seems to haunt current western Canadian discourse is the comparison with Quebec. There is nothing new in this. We've heard this before: Quebec threatened to leave and it  got a bunch of goodies in return. We want the same thing. I am not going to argue that the regional equalization formula is fair, but this is a drastic simplification of what has been going on with Quebec politics. Separatists, for instance, were not looking to get things from Canada. They were looking to get out. Separatism was not a negotiating strategy; it was an aim. Federalists, like, say, Pierre Trudeau, made a different argument altogether. They never argued that Quebec should be given things. In fact, Trudeau, Sr., Jean Chretien, Stefan Dion, and other French-Canadian federalists argued precisely the opposite. What they said was that Canada needed to change. It needed, for instance, to recognize the equality of French-speaking citizens. A failure to do so would have negative consequences (because Quebecers would not accept being second-class citizens in their own country, which makes sense to me because ... well ... why would anyone accept being a second-class citizen?), but that was an argument about changes on the national level.  Those changes were about things like Charter rights, bilingualism, diversity, and the social welfare state, but they were not about giving Quebec things to pacify it.  Yet, somehow, this discourse has persisted.  At least part of the current discourse, in other words, is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which Canadian federalism has operated with regard to Quebec.

Second, I find the current aspects of western alienation interesting because they seem to have a price. Again, let me say, I get it. It is a premier's job to try to do things that will help their province.  But, past versions of western alienation did not do this and I am not at all certain I like it. In effect, in putting a price on it, the current premier of Alberta is saying "I will sell my province's support for this price." What if you get close to that amount, but not quite? Is that good enough? Would you engage in negotiations? How much is the support of your province for the federal system worth to you? How much is your identity as a Canadian (I'll return to this later, in another blog) worth to you? There is an odd and mercenary feel to this current manifestation of western alienation not on the part of ordinary people, but on the part of political leaders.

What is odd about this is that past versions of western alienation were not based on a cost-benefit analysis of federalism. To be sure, they had their problems with federalism, its operation, and federal policies. But, they were not fixing a price and putting the province in the store window for Ottawa to buy. Instead, they challenged what they saw as the fundamental institutional dysfunction that hampered the effective and democratic operation of the Canadian political system. The United Farmers of Alberta, the Progressives, the CCF ... I would even argue that the Reform Party had elements of this as did the early days, at least, of the Social Credit movement.

One can agree or disagree with the perspectives of these movements. There were a bunch of them, including other united farmers movements, labour parties, and a range of small social credit parties. Some of these movements may have been misguided and they do not amount to a cohesive whole. The CCF was not the same as Social Credit.  What pushed them forward, however, was a believe that the problems the west (and, other parts of Canada), lay not simple in economic disparity but in a dysfunctional political system and, while this dysfunction had particular regional effects, it was not bounded to a region. The effects were part and parcel of the overall political-economy of Canada and, as such, had generally detrimental effects (limiting democracy, promoting inequality, etc.) that could be felt in other parts of the country. IOW, while western alienation movements allowed for and spent a great deal of time discussing regionalism, they were not limited to region. They did not erect a price tag and say "this is what it takes us to be quiet." Instead, they said "can we talk about the character and nature of democracy in Canada and how it functions?" It is this larger dynamics that is missing in this current version of western regionalism.

Third, I find it odd that western regionalism has now so closely associated itself with the oil industry. Let us be clear, this is not all the west. It represents a particular part of western Canada and speaks generally in the name of the entire region. It does not represent, for instance, either Manitoba or BC. The northern west is completely absent for its discourse. And, everything is directed against the federal government. Thus, for instance, pipeline development is a matter of pitting one western province against another. The federal government is not, in other words, being asked to do something for the west. In reality, it is being asked, in the name of the west, to force one province (BC) to bend to the will of another province (AB).

This is a very odd form of western alienation and a point where the politics of the matter have become so extreme as to seem almost as they were a fantasy. In effect, the logic of the argument is that one needs to screw the west (force BC into line) to promote the west (help the AB economy). One might forgive any federal government for feeling that they would be damned if they did and damned if they didn't.

But, the issue goes further than that.  Western alienation was, traditionally, forward looking. Again, you can argue about specific policies and self identities, but even the Reform party argued it was wanted to build a different type of Canada. The Progressives, the United Farmers, the CCF, the Dominion Labour Party, etc., were all about the future. This version of western alienation is about the past and, in particular, about the economic past. There are some other elements to it, I'll address in a minute but, economically, its infatuation with the oil industry has caused it to miss a key and important point: the carbon economy has a best before date and that date is fast approaching.  In other words, rather than looking to the future, the current Wexit campaign is looking for ways to try to squeeze a few more years out of an economy that is dying.

I will leave the oddity of this to one side for now, but this near complete focus on the carbon economy explains why the proponents of western alienation are so fascinated with speed. They often argue that X or Y needs to be *done now*. I think this is not simply a focus on the need to have its concerns addressed, but an implicit recognition that we are dealing with an economy that is so rapidly declining that even with concerted federal action, its future is bleak.

This also explains why Wexit proponents see things like the rule of law and environmental protection as serious problems. After all, the rule of law is important and the demands that the federal government just skip it -- ignore court rulings, say -- are antithetical to good government. They are confusing coming from people who are self-professed conservatives who, regardless of what one thinks of them, often claim to stand for law and order. In this instance, a central element of the conservative edifice is being put on hold. Likewise, I have no reason to think that westerners are any less concerned about the future and their children's place it in than, say, folks here in the Maritimes. The idea that environmental protection is an attack on a region is odd; the idea that it be ditched is odder still. Why, then, is it being made? I suspect it is being made because someone has done the calculations and figured out that with proper environmental protection, the carbon economy is not profitable. It used to be and, to be clear, Canadian environmental protection laws and policies are no more advanced than they were a decade ago. Our environmental policies are considerably behind those of other countries. The only thing that has changed is that carbon economy is losing profitability. Getting around that seems to involve -- at least according to the oil economy's proponents -- ditching laws we find inconvenient, forcing BC to heal, and dropping the country even further behind international environmental standards. All this in an effort to preserve an industry that has a limited life span anyway.

If we put all these things together, we get an picture of contemporary western alienation. I want to repeat a couple of points: I understand the person who is having a hard time putting food on the table or worried about what her or his kids will get for Christmas. Economic downturns have a human cost. We need to recognize and address that cost. We, in other parts of Canada, need to reach out to our fellow citizens in the west and let them know we sympathize with their plight and, indeed, to begin a concerted conversation about addressing it. I'd expect that if my province experienced a sudden economic downturn and I think we owe the same thing back.

The beginning point of that conservation, in my view, needs to be about transitioning the economy of AB and SK away from the carbon industry. That used to be a plan. The proponents of western alienation when I was younger (Peter Lougheed, for instance) subscribed fundamentally to the idea of western economic diversification. I do too. The west has a lot going for it, let's put those things on the table and enhance them. And, of course, there will also be an oil industry for one reason or another. It will just be smaller.

What I am talking about here, however, is that the current form of western alienation -- Wexit and its slightly more moderate political forms in the UCP and SP -- represent a different form of western alienation and regionalism and it is one with which I have a difficult time. It has tied its raison d'etre to an industry with a best before date, suggested we play fast and loose with the rule of law, rejected environmentalism not because it is wrong but because it is a drain on profits, it lacks the progressive character of earlier forms of western alienation, suggests that one of the proper jobs of the federal government is to beat other western provinces into line in the name of the west, and draws inaccurate comparison with Quebec separatist.

This is an ideological perspective that, in my view, does not serve the west well.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Parental Rights and Tough Love

In my last post, I tried to argue that parental rights are not absolute. This much I will take as evident even if we don't talk much about it. Parental rights are bounded for two reasons: the fact that children are people and not objects that one owns; the fact we live in communities with other people who also have rights.  Moreover, I tried to argue that we are responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of our actions.

There is nothing shocking here. We just don't normally apply this standard to child rearing which is often treated as a purely private matter.  I might point out that what I am saying is neither shocking nor new. I am not inviting the state, say, into a new realm of power. We have operated with these principles for a very long time and the world has not fallen apart.  And, it has not because these things make sense. What I'd like to do in this blog is continue this argument and loop back into a consideration of how this applies to tough love.

The idea that we are responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of our actions should not shock people either. Responsibility can take several different forms. We often think of it in terms of legal responsibility (who has to pay the piper, as it were, if something goes wrong). I'd argue that this is both an important and limited way of thinking about rights and responsibilities. There are a bunch of other reasons why we might want to think about the consequences of our actions outside the framework of legal responsibilities. For instance, we basically use this standard with our own kids when we tell them to do their homework. We do so because a reasonably foreseeable consequence of not doing one's homework is that one will fail.  We teach our kids to have enough money in the bank for rent or mortgage because the reasonably foreseeable consequences of not doing so is that one will get thrown out of one's apartment or lose one's house to the bank.

One of the problems I have with "tough love" (and, to be frank, I have several) is that it reduces the scale of parenting to a relationship between a parent and a child. It pretends that there are no reasonably foreseeable consequences to parenting actions.  Let me immediately qualify what I am saying. I am *not* arguing that most of the time there are serious consequences whereby parenting strategies spill out of control and cause problems. Kids make mistakes. They cause problems. Hockey balls and baseballs break windows, bikes drive over plants, gardens get squished, cars get bumped. This is all the normal stuff of childhood and, most importantly for my argument, there is no ill intent here. It is impossible to foresee every problem that a child can cause just by being a kid and doing kid-like things. In instances where kids cause problems doing kid-like things, there are other non-legal responses that we should use.  Those might even be something to consider in some future post.

What I am interested in here is not finding some ways to criminalize ordinary kid stuff or hold parents criminally responsible for a window broken by a neighbourhood baseball game (although parents should warn kids of possible dangers and problems). There is a difference between an errant throw accidentally going through a window and someone intentionally throwing a projectile at house to indicate, oh, I don't know, political disagreement or something like that.  One is an accident; the other is intended as a violent statement.

What is interesting is that the standard I am trying to stake out seems to apply here. The problem with mistakes is that, by definition, it is difficult to foresee the consequences because ... well ... they involve what are unintended consequences that, by definition, cannot be foreseen. Don't believe me? How many times have your heard someone say "that was an accident" as a way of saying "I can't be held responsible." (Even in instances of accidents, you might want to do something for someone who has suffered as a result of an unintended consequence but, again, a discussion for another day). Under law, in most instances, you are not responsible for an accident. If I mistakenly take a packet of, say, bolts from the store that is something different from intentionally robbing the store.  I should still return the bolts -- because, the act of keeping them after I discover my error is theft! -- but the act of taking them is, in itself, not a crime because I lacked the necessary intent.

A consequence that is reasonably foreseeable, it seems to me, falls somewhere between accident and intent.  One of the reasons that we don't criminalize the actions of kids is that they lack the necessary mental capacity to consider the consequences of their actions. Playing baseball is fun so you play baseball without thinking that you could break a window. Adults are different and this is one of the things that makes people adults. Adults can and so should consider the potential implications of their actions (and we teach kids to do so, as I noted above). As a society we have a whole group of crimes (called negligence) that involve the consequences of actions people should have foreseen.  So ... my point: nothing particularly radical or unusual here.

How does this relate to tough love? This way: I have found in discussions with tough love proponents that they don't really think through the implications of their actions.  They focus only on the immediate problem which is, in one form or another, a disobedient child. I've had a number of conversations that answer this question: what does one do with a disobedient child?  Of course, the answer depends completely on how disobedient. In instances where children have really misbehaved -- and have no illusions, the examples I heard involved some pretty serious stuff -- one of the responses was that the child cannot live under your roof. You've heard this before: "my house, my rules."

I will leave to one side the efficacy of that. I find it more of a slogan than a good way to run a family, but ... perhaps another day. Let's allow that one accepts that injunction: you follow my rules or out you go.  What happens next?

When I talk to tough love advocates they fall into two camps. Some treat this as something akin to a game of chicken with one/s own children: '"they'll blink and in the child's tearful remove, the parent's authority is re-established."  The child will go away and learn the lessons of hard knocks, returning later perhaps understanding the rules and accepting them, even if grudgingly.

These things can happen but there are other reasonably foreseeable consequences. What happens, one might ask, if you deny a person shelter? What is the reasonable and foreseeable consequence? Well, one option is that the child breaks down and accepts their place in the pecking order. The other is that they will seek shelter elsewhere. Likewise, what happens if you deny someone food? They could beg you for food, or they could seek it elsewhere. I don't think this is an economic calculation. I think it is built around emotion. But, particularly in instances of significant age differentials like a parent/child relationship there are uneven burdens of understanding the implications of actions. After all, the adult is the adult and a child is a child.

What does it mean to seek shelter. Well, one could sleep on the streets, one could go to a homeless shelter, but in my experience there are two other common results that tough love advocates don't discuss:
  1. Couch surfing, whereby your child lives with others (or bunch of others who feed, cloth, and shelter them, who provide a shower, sometimes council, entertainment -- TV -- and social interaction). 
  2. Break and enter: now homeless youth seek out shelter, warmth, food, hygiene by breaking into homes that they believe are empty. 
No one is saying these are the only responses and that is not my point. My point is that they are reasonably foreseeable consequences, even if we don't talk about them. It is not difficult to see how, say, a fairly young person (say, late teens as an example) if deprived of shelter might end up doing things that they would not have done under other circumstances.  If someone were cold and hungry, it is foreseeable that they will take actions to be warm and not hungry even if those actions move them outside the boundaries of the law or into a situation where they need to rely on the kindness of other people. The target, in the case of breaking into someone's house to look for food or something to rob or even a place to sleep if the person were away, will likely be a target of opportunity; that is: their action will not be something that is well planned out. And that simply highlights the randomness of the crime for those whose house is, say, robbed. 

In both instances, the discourse of tough love and its supposed merits fails to grapple with this. I do know there are worse things that can and do happen in instances of homelessness, but let's stick to this point to finish off the argument. In both instances, the tough love advocate has ignored a reasonable consequence. When they say "my house, my rules" and suggest that showing a disobedient child the door, they don't also say "my house, my rules and by following my advise, you could be creating a situation where your wayward child will rob your neighbour or break into their house." Instead, they paint the act of forcing homelessness on a child as one that is, more or less, consequence free. The worst that will happen, this discourse implies, is that your child will be lonely and sad and uncomfortable for a night. You will have either (a) taught them a lesson or (b) removed a dangerous (in the case of a seriously disobedient child) problem. All you need to do, I've heard tough love advocates suggest, is have the will -- the internal fortitude -- to take this action.

My point is that that is a limited perspective. Even if a parent were going to take this action, they should be fully aware of its potential consequences.  IOW, you should take the action knowingly because, in effect, what you are being urged to do is not just make someone comfortable, but to offload your problem onto someone who, chances are, you don't know. Imagine a particularly grave situation: a child is stealing from you to support their drug habit. What do you think happens if you refuse that child entry to your home? Do you think their drug habit stops? Do you think they stop stealing? Is it, say, equally foreseeable that they will steal from someone else? I am not trying to say that these are not difficult decisions for parents, or anguished. But, in this example, the act of forcing homelessness on the child is taking a chance with other people's property. You are gambling that the action you have taken -- turning a thief lose on your neighbourhood -- will not cause problems. 

My argument has problems. I don't want to disguise that.  If you are not going to throw your son or daughter out of the house, what are you going to do?  How long is an adult responsible for their child? What of adult children still living with their parents? Should one leave one's self in a potentially dangerous situation to protect others who might not even need the protection? 

My discussion of this point has been far from perfect. I don't have easy answers as to how to deal with disobedient children. What I am arguing is that tough love is wrong (in an ethical and potentially legal way) because urges people to offload their problems and not think about the consequences. It ignores that fact that the actions you are taking have foreseeable consequences for other people.  While I don't have easy answers to the problems our kids might have, I do think that this is not the right approach. I don't think it is the right approach for the child and I don't think its right to offload a problem onto some other person who does not know that the problem is even coming. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Tough Love: Reasonable and Foreseeable Problems

What responsibility do we have for other people?  There is nothing new in this question and I am not the one to answer it.  However, lately I have been thinking about "tough love," a sort of layover from another time that still rears its head in different ways. I know people who swear by tough love as a child rearing strategy. I will confess that I have found this odd. There is a history here, a sort of tradition of looking at children -- even, and perhaps your own children -- in a certain jaded way. I've heard parents say, for instance, "that child is testing you" to other, newer parents. I don't propose to review that history. Instead, what I thought I would do is try to think through some of the implications of tough love, for both kids, parents, and your neighbours.  In a future post, I will discuss some of the other things I find odd about tough love. In this one, I'd like to begin to address an issue that is not often considered: what are the reasonably foreseeable problems that come out of a tough love approach to child rearing?

This question is not often asked and that is, in itself, odd. Someone might say "how you raise your kids is a private matter" and by this they mean several things. One of the things that they mean, to put the matter bluntly, goes something like this "how I raise my child is my business; not yours." You (other person) have no right to intrude on my child rearing. My family is private. And, yet, I want to try to convince you that this is not exactly or precisely the case, nor should it be.

This is so because child rearing is not a right like other rights because you are dealing, by definition, with at least one other person. I might have a right to, say, in the privacy of my own home watch what I want to watch on TV. I do recognize that we could push this example to its limits and likely reject even that assertion but I hope you get my point. Whether I watch Stargate or Doctor Who is really no one else's business. If my neighbour chooses to watch a Hallmark Christmas movie, that is her business. I can't go over to her house, stroll in, and turn the TV off because I consider her selection of holiday movies to be poor. It is private precisely because it has no effect on me. I may like or dislike a personal selection but I don't even know, most of the time, what my neighbour is watching.

Raising children is not like that. While my neighbour's selection of movies has no effect on anyone else, how one raises a child does and in two senses. First, it has an effect on the child. There is no way to claim that the same protected right of privacy applies because being a parent by definition means that you have a duty of care over another person. I recognize that this statement can get messy in rapid fashion. No everyone chooses, for instance, to be a parent. Different people have different understandings of what care means. But, it is also, I think, widely recognized that we do have responsibilities. We have responsibilities as citizens (to obey the law, for instance, and if we object to the law to do so in specific ways). And, we have responsibilities as parents that are enshrined in law.

Most of us think this is right. While most of us would say that we need to be careful not to impose our values on others with regard to child rearing  (we might, for instance, want to protect parents right to make certain decisions for their kids.  Children, for instance, should likely not be forced by their communities or the government to, say, play a certain sport or musical instrument. This can and should be a private familial decision). But, we also recognize that there needs to be a limit to this and that limit occurs when the duty of care for the child has been breached. Don't believe me? Watch how upset people get the next time there is a news story about social services not reacting quickly enough to protect a child who was being abused by their parents and ends up with serious injuries.

No one is saying that this boundary line is easy to define. In fact, I'd be deeply wary of people who think it is. The point is that virtually everyone recognizes that it is there and it is important precisely because we are dealing with human lives and not TV show choices.  From the beginning, then, as a society we recognize (and, have long recognized) that the right of parental control over children is not an absolute right. However contentious this may be in practice, we recognize that the child, at the least, has rights too (to proper nourishment, to education, the protection from cruelty, etc.).

Second, and more controversially, this is also a situation parental actions have effects on other people.  I would contend that those other people have rights too. This might sound a bit odd, but let me use an example to illustrate my point. Imagine a situation where my neighbour elects to raise her child with a certain attitude toward the property of other people. She certainly has the right to teach her children about her views, explain why they are correct, etc. But, what happens if these views, say, are some sort of bizarre anarchistic type of thing and her son (I am just making this example up) elects to burn down my shed. Is it OK that he has done so because he is just enacting a private matter of his own education determined in a familial context?

I am arguing no.  I have a right to protection and safety for myself and my property (in some measure) and this right is important too. If my neighbour (say, someone on my street -- and I hasten to add that my neighbours are really good people, again this is just an example) encourages her children to commit crimes, endanger the lives of others, destroy their property, she cannot argue that this is a private matter when it starts to happen and I should have no say in the matter and no recourse. One's right to raise a child how one wants is, in other words, bounded by the right to life of others, to their security, and their protection.

I fully recognize that the example I made up was silly and I did so just to illustrate a point. The point I want to illustrate is not that I have rights (to life, security of person, etc.) because that is patently obvious. We all knew that already and if that was all I had to put on the table, I should have stopped this blog some time ago. Instead, the point I want to make is that we can and should have a test that we can keep in mind in determining whether the actions of a parent are causing potential danger to others through their child-rearing strategies. In other words, we can create a mental framework, as it were, that can help us make determinations about parental actions.

This is even trickier but I'd propose a standard against which we can measure actions and their legitimacy.  The problem with my example is that it is so binary that it does not capture the shades of grey within which most of us will operate. In my example, the parent who encourages their child to go burn down a shed or car or house of a neighbour is committing a crime. Their are encouraging and promoting reckless and life-endangering actions on their part of their kids, They are teaching them to ignore the safety of others and threaten their security and person. No one that I know would contend that that is a good child-rearing strategy and no one that I know would contend that this is acceptable.

While we can debate the boundaries of this and we would all understand that the situation is mediated by a variety of considerations, we would also all understand that the parent bears some level of legal responsibility. It is not that one person is legally responsible for another's action. This responsibility  is mediated (and, we likely need to discuss what that means so a future blog).

This discussion has taken us pretty far from where I began -- which was with a consideration of the oddities of "tough love" -- but I've done so for a reason. I wanted to indicate that the decisions parents make with regard to child rearing are not absolute rights. They are bounded by law and they have legal responsibilities. Child rearing is different from other rights (which we might treat as more or less absolute) because it involves two levels of human relations: that is, unlike the TV show I choose to watch, decisions with regard to child rearing involve necessarily the lives of others (the child and the folks who might have to live with the effects of your or my child rearing strategies). These people have their own rights and so the actions one takes cannot just be explained away as a "that is my right as a parent."

Here is the key point to which I wanted to get. I am not arguing that every parent is responsible for everything their child ever does. I'll address the limits of this in my next blog. But, I am arguing that parents are and should be treated as responsible adults. If there are reasonably foreseeable effects of the decisions they make, they are responsible for those effects. If you teach a child to hate and they end up hating ... you bear some responsibility for that. If you teach your child that violence against women is OK, and they are violent against women, you bear some responsibility for that. If you teach your child to disregard, say, property rights and burn down your neighbour's house ... you bear some responsibility for that.

Why? Because the actions that you took had reasonably foreseeable consequences. Yes, the person who burned the house is responsible for their own actions. They caused the fire and endangered the lives of others. But, the person who taught them that that was OK is also responsible for their actions. They created a situation where their child was a manifest danger to their neighbours and they cannot wash their hands, I am arguing, of that reality and must take responsibility for their own actions.

There is a lot more than can and should be said about this. I am not trying to create some sort of situation where criminals blame their parents as if this got them out of their own responsibility.  It does not. I am, however, trying to highlight an important and often neglected element of child rearing: the actions of parents have consequences to other people. Let's not pretend that they don't.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Plagiarism, or I did not know I was cheating ....

I began teaching at university over two decades ago and in that time one (well, more than one but this is the one about which I am blogging right now) discourse has remained constant: I am frequently told that students inadvertently plagiarize because they don't know that it is wrong. A recent Voice of America article on the subject suggested that international students may be particularly susceptible to what one web site (from UOIT) has called "accidental plagiarism." Here is a quote from that site:

Accidental Plagiarism might occur when you do not really understand how to properly paraphrase, quote and cite your research. Not knowing the proper method of documentation can result in students misattributing someone else's words or ideas as their own. In other words, if you have paraphrased research from a book or an article or a website, but you do not include an in-text citation, the reader will assume that the idea and/or words are yours, not someone else's.

This kind of logic is often combined when dealing with international students by something that strikes me as shockingly close to racialization pretending to be an open progressive effort to understand difference. I have been told that "they" (international students) don't know that plagiarism is wrong because in "their" culture, it is acceptable.

To be clear about my perspective: I don't believe it. OK, sure, it is possible that there is a student or two "out there" who does not know that cheating is wrong.  I think it is a convenient story we tell ourselves in order to try to explain cheating away as inadvertent. I don't see why we need to. This perspective runs the risk of making me sound like a conservative curmudgeon, but remember, I've already said that the vast majority (well over 9 out of 10 in my experience) of students are 100% honest. When we talk about cheaters, then, we are talking about a small group and I see no reason to not have a frank discussion about what motivates that small group. In fact it might help us.

Honesty and Dishonesty 

The first thing you might notice is that there is a general aversion to calling cheating, cheating. We use a series of other words and those words are, in the end, likely more accurate and ... so ... good ...  we use them. But, they also run the risk of making cheating sound not quite so bad. This was not cheating ... it was an "infringement of policies related to academic dishonesty."  In my experience, students are well aware of what cheating is. They had had this explained to them in high school (often over and over again) and in university (often over and over again). Indeed, I would hazard a guess that a student going into, say, the Winter semester of their first year has been warned against plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty at least a half dozen times (if we include orientation) and likely five times (if they take five courses per semester), in writing. In other words, the average first year student getting to the Winter semester of their first year has had written and oral discussions and warnings about academic dishonesty and its importance and consequences close to a dozen times in university *alone,* not counting high school or from friends or family.

Moreover, we need to remember that universities teach adults. Yes, I know, "emerging adults" or some other similar term (we used to talk about the "cultural extension of childhood" when I was in grad school a generation ago) is in use that means that students attending university are not as old, as it were, as they used to be in terms of maturity but, frankly, they are not kids either and should not be treated as such. To the best of my knowledge, they don't want to be treated as such. It strains my imagination to believe that an adult cannot tell the difference between honesty and dishonesty, between cheating and not cheating.

Here is a thought exercise. Imagine you own a TV (I know I used this example in my last post) and someone comes in and takes it. Have they stolen it from you? Another one: imagine that you go to the store to buy, say, bread. The bread costs $2 and you pass the clerk a fiver. She rings it in but does not give you your change and instead puts it in her pocket. Has she robbed you?

In my experience, students have no difficulty telling right from wrong and know precisely what cheating is. In fact, students often spend part of their time when they meet with me, telling me what is right and what is wrong (the university should ... faculty should ...). They know there is a difference between honesty and dishonesty (in an exercise I do in class to illustrate this point, I ask the class how many want a dishonest roommate?). So, if this is the case, why do students still cheat, even if it is a small percentage. Is it that there are just so many bad apples "out there" and that is the way it is?


Yes ... in part. There are simply dishonest people out there. The problem for instructors is that I don't think we ever really catch those people at least no regularly. The professional cheaters -- the dishonest people -- I have long suspected don't get caught. They are just too good (and likely have enough resources) and so generally manage to avoid getting nabbed.

The more common scenario we run into, I think, is twofold: (a) the amateur cheater, and (b) the cheater who skirts the edges of honesty.

The amateur cheater is a student who makes bad choices. In most of the rest of their lives and in their studies, they are honest but, for one reason or another, they decide to step over the line on a particular paper or assignment. Some assignments, in fact, might be easier to cheat on then others. From what I can tell, students make this decision for a variety of reasons. They have waited too long to start a paper, their grades were much worse than they had hoped, the reality of a failing semester starts to sink in, and the like.  When a student makes this decision (the decision to cheat), I actually don't think they see themselves as being dishonest or cheating. In fact, most students that I've talked to after flagging their work vehemently deny that they are cheaters (even if they avoid discussing the specific work, say, a paper, we are discussing).  Their self image is not that of a dishonest person and, moreover, I gain a sense that they are also genuinely upset at the choices they made that got them to that point. Some students are, in fact, overly emotional at the entire situation.

This is where I think the issue of international students comes into play. I reject the idea that dishonesty is acceptable in specific cultures. I'm going to make a broader point that applies to contemporary Canadian culture in a minute about the supposed legitimacy of deception, but I think it also applies more generally. That does not mean that dishonesty and cheating are simply accepted. Nor, for instance, should we assume that because Country X has a bad government (perhaps where there is a higher degree of, say, bribery than in Canada) that we should, ipso facto, assume a general level of graft in the culture. I have encountered people from a broad range of countries who are hard-working, thoroughly honest, interested in learning, and proud of their accomplishments (that is, not wanting to take short cuts).  It might, for instance, be true that the Russian government and sports ministry, as examples, has problems with honesty but that does not mean that Russian culture is mired in a belief that corruption is OK.

This takes on a racialized dynamic when applied to students from developing economies. When we say that "cheating is OK in India" (as an example), we are making a seriously negative, big, and generalized statement about Indian culture. I've met dishonest Indians, to be sure, in the same way that I have met dishonest Canadians and dishonest whonever, but I've met far far more honest Indian (and Canadian and whomever) students over the years.

When VOA reports on the problems of academic dishonesty with regard to foreign students in the US, I would be far happier with a multi-factor analysis that takes issues of the context in which decisions are made into account than making a general blanket statement about a culture.

The Boundaries of Honesty

Complicating this factor are other issues related to the way in which we (in this case, as Canadians) think about rules and reward "success." Social historians (I think it was Edward Thompson who I first read on this point as an undergraduate) have long pointed out that, in effect, not all rules are created equal. Some have general popular support and others, for a variety of reasons, do not. For example, we all tend to agree that robbery is not good and should be a crime. But, what about speeding?  I've not looked up the research on this (I know, I should) but I'd guess about half the people I know speed. In doing so, they are breaking the law but I doubt very much they consider themselves to be a criminal (yet, by breaking the law, this is actually what they are). What about taxes ... taking a bit of pay under the table? Or, paying for something in cash and ... shucks ... tax was not charged? Trying to avoid taxes are one of those things that so many people do and yet it takes us into a black market economy where we are breaking the law. I knew a person who would have been shocked if anyone had suggested he was not anything but a law and order kind of person. Yet, he broke the law not regularly but repeatedly with regard to taxes. If I had called him a criminal, he would have shown me the door.

Now, we can get into the reasons for this another time, but you see the point: in Canada, we have rules that we stick to and rules that we don't. We have some violations of the law that enjoy some measure of social acceptance and some that do not.

Cheating, say, plagiarism, does not fall into this category but other forms of academic dishonesty seem to. Students who are honest and would be upset at anyone saying their behaviour was dishonest will skirt the rules, even while they don't directly fracture them.  You can all think of instances where this is the case: claims of computer problems, illness, omitting reasons (I am sorry I missed class, without explaining why), and the like. One that I encountered at Mt A a few years about was what I call the "around about" citation. The citation might not be exact (the page number might be off, or the precise reference not exact) but I met students who considered that basically OK because they had provided a citation and it was "close enough."

We complicate the boundaries of honesty still further by prizing success without asking too often where that success comes from. Success is assumed to be its own marker. Thus, we are always running into athletes who take PEDs but we fall for it again and again and again because of that discourse of success. As long as the athlete is performing, exactly why they are performing that way does not come under a great deal of scrutiny. What about politics? Complaining about exactly how the other party won is often cast as sour grapes. Robocalls, in-and-out financing, scripted comments that admit a great deal of ambiguity but which pass for talking points .... If you raise concerns about these, the response will often be "everyone does it" as if that were an excuse (imagine if we used that line as a legitimate ground to not convict someone, yes, admittedly my client robbed the store, your honour, but everyone does it; not guilty!).

I have gone on way too long here but you see the point. In addition to the ambiguities we construct around rules (some are legitimate; others permeable), the disjunctures we accept with regard to personal identity (I am not a criminal even if I break the law), and the way in which we prize success and ignore process (PEDs, electoral silliness), it is not difficult to figure out that bad decisions have some back up. Every time a student goes to make a decision -- to cut and paste, say -- I suspect these things or something like them runs through their minds: its not that bad, everyone's doing it, it is just one time, it is a really small infraction, I need to succeed (or, "do whatever it takes").

Cheating, its not just for cheaters

The good news is that even with all of this going on, the students I encounter are a good bunch who stick to the straight and narrow, by and large want to learn, are interested in their subjects, and avoid academic dishonesty as best they can. One of the reasons I reject the "accidental cheating" hypothesis is that it disguises other processes that I think we should engage. The decision to step over the line is made after repeated warnings, but also made in a specific context. It is that context that we need to draw up, draw to light, and engage. If we do, I suspect the small amount of dishonest actions that we have in the PSE environment will shrink even further.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Plagiarism Rears its Ugly Head

A spate of plagiarism cases in popular culture have been in the news. You can find some coverage here about Nora Roberts and her suit, here about self-publication and fan fiction, and here about Katy Perry and her "Dark Horse" song. Plagiarism pops into the news, I could be wrong on this it but it seems to me it is about once per year, whether it is Robin Thicke and Parnell William's  "Blurred Lines." Or, Margaret Wente's column. Or, the mass cheating case nearly twenty years ago now in the US at the University of Virginia.  In higher education, plagiarism is a matter of on-going concern and so I thought I'd take the time to sketch out a few thoughts as to why it is important and some of the misconceptions I hear about it, particularly those that have circulated (on and off) in the school where I work, Mount Allison University.

Misconceptions about Academic Dishonesty 

There are three things I hear repeated regularly in discussions about plagiarism, all of which I think are wrong.

They are:
  • Students don't know what plagiarism is and so inadvertently cheat
  • International students come from cultures where plagiarism is allowed and so make mistakes in American and Canadian universities that are really not there fault. Cheating, I have been told, is part of "their culture." 
And, on the artistic side of things:
  • Plagiarism is not plagiarism, but inspiration. Artists have always played off each other and if we make them accountable to, say, the law of copyright, it will harm the creative process.
I'm going to address this last point in a separate blog because it is a special and separate case. In this one I want to start with a more general discussion of what plagiarism is, why it is important, and the sanctions that often follow from it. 

Plagiarism, Cheating, Research and Scholarship

What is plagiarism and why is it important? If you are reading this blog I suspect you already know but to lay out my argument: plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty (in more prosaic terms I often describe it as "cheating") in which an author (or, potentially a group of authors) claims credit for words, ideas, or information developed by someone else. Plagiarism occurs when one (let's assume a single authored text) does not give due credit for the sources of one's words, ideas, or information. The most common example that I run into at a primarily undergraduate institution like Mount Allison is the old "cut and paste" from the internet to a paper. But, it need not be limited to cut and paste. If you get an idea (say, an interpretation) from someone else and pretend that you made it up or you take data from someone else and pretend you did the research, these too are examples of plagiarism. 

Plagiarism is, of course, easy -- painfully easy! -- to avoid. One simply cites one's sources. I've done that in this blog with hyperlinks but parentheses (like this) and footnotes or endnotes are also common. I haven't checked this out but I'd wager that all modern word processes will automatically space and format footnotes and endnotes for you and have for some time. 

I should also say that the vast majority of students I encounter are 100% honest. That is, they may do good work or they may do bad work but they make a sincere effort to cite sources and credit the authors and researchers from whom they have taken words, ideas, or information. To be sure: they may not do this perfectly (a statistically significant minority of my students, for instance, will often mis-format citations or use more than one citation format in the same paper), but the effort is clearly there. In discussions of academic dishonesty, we need to be accurate and not allow our discourse to spin out of control. We are dealing with a very small number of students, a very small number indeed. 

Two final pre-notes that also tend to contradict each other:
  • Plagiarism (like any offence) needs to be intentional. There is a category of legal offences called "negligence" whereby one becomes guilty if one does not take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of other people and, one could argue that ensuring one does not cheat might fall into this category but, by and large, offences require an action: an intent to deceive. 
  • Plagiarism is often, however, "reverse onus": that is, faculty (or, in the case of Perry's song, it seems, lawyers) do not have to prove intent, which is amazingly difficult to prove. Instead, they have to prove commission. The reality of commission -- that I can find instances of, say, copying -- is taken to prove intent. 
Is this fair? Should plagiarism be reverse onus? This does seem unfair because few offences are reverse onus in Canada. We allow for mistakes and accidents which might, say, under the law be horrible and tragic but are not crimes. For example, if I accidentally gave someone the wrong medicine and it was an honest accident and they had further health problem that is a horrible mistake but I am not liable for it. Should not the same thing be the case with plagiarism? 

Perhaps in theory but in practice the issue is not simply the difficulty in proving intent. I'll address this matter below. After all, I don't think we should make it easier to find people guilty just because it might otherwise be hard. That would be a pretty shocking precedent that people might like until they were found guilty of some crime they did not commit just because of an easy lower bar had been set (for instance, imagine if you did not have to prove that someone robbed a store to find them guilty of robbery. If we did not have to have evidence of a robbery, say, money found on their person or a video recording of the robbery), it would get really easy to find just about anyone guilty whether they did the crime or not. 

In the case of plagiarism, however, faculty rarely make an accusation of plagiarism after a single instance. Said differently, all the faculty I know (and I know a lot because this is my job) don't jump on the first instance of, say, quote marks being missed. We note it (usually right on a student's paper) and issue what we hope will be a stern warning with a description of the penalties that will follow if the same thing occurs again. Most faculty I know are even willing to forgive a second instance of what might seem like plagiarism, particularly if it occurs in the same assignment. It is less likely that a student forget quote marks twice but faculty, by and large, do not want to rush to judgement. When we get a third instance, however, or even more, then there is a pattern. 

I'll not give specific examples because those involve real individuals and I want to respect their right to privacy. I've been head of Canadian Studies at Mount A for going on two decades now, however, and in one way or another most instances of academic dishonesty that occur in the program pass my desk, either because the faculty member has come to talk to me or, equally likely, a student has come to plead their case. In all instances, every single one, the cases involved multiple instances of plagiarism, sometimes across several courses. 

Now, we can acknowledge that there are problems with reverse onus offences but I am sure you can see the point  that I am making: because it is reverse onus, faculty are amazingly reluctant to act until they are sure that something has gone on. This involves something that is also problematic: potentially giving a cheater a break or not following the rules of one's institution (which might require faculty to report instances of academic dishonesty). But it seems to me that this is the right balance. There is nothing wrong with being sure of an accusation before you make it, particularly if it carries heavy penalties (which at most Canadian schools is actually not the case). One might be willing to accept that a student made a mistake and forgot to cite their sources or forgot their quotation marks once or twice but many times -- say, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times? -- across more than one class? The chances that this was a mistake look pretty remote now, don't they? 

You are still OK

Even after a student has been reported for academic dishonesty (say, plagiarism), they are still not in bad shape. There are repercussions, to be sure. But, most institutions in Canada -- and the one I work for as an example -- will strive for an educative solution. In other words, if a student cheats and is caught, there will be a sanction. That sanction usually involves some combination of the following: 
  • A grade sanction, whereby the student loses points or even fails the course 
  • A requirement to take some sort of workshop on proper citation
  • A student might be placed on probation (indicating that if they were caught again a suspension can follow) 
  • Some sort of note is often included on a student's transcript: place on probation for disciplinary reasons (or words to that effect) but that notation can often have a sunset clause; that is: it automatically disappears after a number of years. 
I've never seen a student suspended for a single incidence of plagiarism. It happens in the US at honour code schools (with the difference that those sanctions are imposed by the students on themselves), but not to the best of my knowledge in Canada. 

What this amounts to is this: to be "convicted" of plagiarism, a student needs to have committed incidences that are plagiarism on multiple occasions. This will result is grade loss and an educative sanction but not suspension. To be suspended, the student would require at least a second -- but more likely a third -- allegation often across more than one semester involving multiple courses. And, the same proviso are in place. Because faculty do not know if a student has ever been accused of plagiarism or found to have plagiarized (or, committed some other act of academic dishonesty), they assume (rightly) that the student has done nothing wrong and so again they will wait and see if they can find multiple instances of plagiarism before acting. 

Its just school ...? 

Even with this, someone might say ... gee ... its just school, what is the big problem? So, a student copied their essay, why should we be concerned about it? Bretag (2013), puts the nature of the concern like this: 

"Plagiarism is one of the most vehemently derided breaches of academic integrity because it undermines the premise that scholarly work will make an original and honest contribution to an existing body of knowledge."

And, this is a good starting point that succinctly captures the nature of concern. Plagiarism "undermines" the fundamental premises and work of the university. We assume that the research done by the chemist into, say, new medicines is honest and original and needed to advance cures for various diseases. We assume that research in biology is honest and original because it might help us address global warming or pollution. We assume that the political scientist's study of an election is their own and helps us advance the cause of democracy ... and so on down the line.

Plagiarism is a form of dishonesty. This is important for a range of reasons.  If the chemist or political scientist or literary critic plagiarizes (the professor, I am talking about), they are, in effect, not doing the job for which they were paid. We pay the literary critic to assess and interpret literature; the sociologist to study society, the physicist to study the stars, or whathaveyou. If they cheat and plagiarize, they are in effect, getting paid for *not* doing their work but instead claiming (falsely) that simply cutting and pasting from someone else is good enough for them to be paid. Would we accept that in any other occupation? I expect my plumber to fix my pipes, and not print off a copy of a fixed pipe form the internet and show it to me.

For students, it is important to note that plagiarism is theft. I get that for some students it does not seem like that (and, I suspect that is one reasons why a very small number of people do cheat). But, it is it. If someone takes, say, my words and pretends they wrote them (which is what happens if you don't give me credit), it is similar to going into my house and taking my TV. If someone came to my house when I was not home, took my TV, and put it in their house ... it is still my TV. It does not become theirs because it is in their house. Likewise, my words do not become someone else's because someone pastes them into a paper.

If we accepted cheating -- be it plagiarism or some other form of academic dishonesty -- most of the rest of what we do becomes irrelevant.  How does one determine what is good work (and, say, worthy of support) from what is not? How does one determine good research -- that might help people solve problems or which will enrich cultural and intellectual life -- from that which is just, in effect, a print off or something someone else said or did?

There are, to be sure, all kinds of problems with the competitive admissions standards of North American universities. From what I understand they are biased in favour of groups with power and influence. Does anyone think that marginalized social groups will benefit from a situation that permits cheating as a standard of success? Or, does anyone want to say to school kids: don't work hard, don't learn things. You will be assessed in school not by your knowledge of math or literature or music but by your ability to print off someone else's work. Does anyone think that legalized cheating will teach kids math or poetry or biochemistry? I'd argue that opposite: like Bretag, I believe it would undermine the educational process and make it, in effect, irrelevant.

I don't think this will create a scholarly extinction level events because, as I said, most people -- the vast majority -- are honest. After all, that is why plagiarism is not allowed: most people think it is wrong. But, letting people cheat will not solve problems and will not help anyone learn. And, this was something I thought everyone knew and so its periodic emergence in the public sphere and its period occurrence in university confuse me.  More on that in the next blog ...

A Blue Outlier: Or, Free Agency and Blue Jay Land

For those who are Blue Jays fans the Ryu signing is important for a number of reasons. It tells us something about the willingness of the Ja...