Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Motive and Lack of Opportunity

Students in one of my courses have an assessment task that requires them to read one common text each week, and then to choose at least one additional text from a list of supplementary works. The common text lays out certain basic concepts I want all students to be able to discuss, while the supplemental texts vary enough to allow students to chose readings around their own interests. Students must write a brief analysis of the texts they have selected, following some comments and questions set out in an assessment guide.

I was just marking the summaries from a couple of weeks back, and noticed an interesting thing. One of the readings on the supplemental list for that week couldn’t be provided on electronic reserve due to a copyright restriction. I had forgotten to take the reading off the supplemental list, but students would have noticed that the reading wasn’t available when they tried to access it on electronic reserve. This has happened a couple of times in the past, and I generally get a flurry of emails from students who would have been interested in the missing reading, and some enterprising students who are particularly keen will venture to the library and find the original journal or book. In this case, though, I received no emails asking where the work might be found and, in any event, it isn’t actually easy to source this text: the library doesn’t carry the journal, the article isn’t available online through any of our databases, and the print journal is in fact very difficult to find locally. I was therefore quite surprised to see a discussion of the article turn up in several students’ writing.

Now it’s of course possible that the article might have been used in some other course in past years, and a few students might still have had a copy handy. But from what the students’ writings actually said about the text, it looked more like what was going on was a kind of reference inflation. The assessment guide for this week had grouped this article with another in a description and, rather than make an argument with reference to the one article to which they had access, a few students seemed to have decided to toss in a citation to the missing one as well – perhaps on the theory that two cites are better than one. What was strangest about this, though, is that all the students who did it also also wrote on a third article, even though the assignment only requires two. They therefore weren’t trying to skimp on the assessment requirements – pretending, for example, to have read two articles when they had only read and discussed one. Yet they do seem to have been pretending to have read an article they are very unlikely to have seen.

This leaves me scratching my head a bit on motive. On the one hand, I can tell the students haven’t read the article – it’s not all that similar to the one they’re grouping it with, and you wouldn’t normally choose to cite the two pieces together if you had actually read both. (The two pieces mark a similar historical shift, which is why they are grouped in the assessment guide. This is, however, a bit of an abstract similarity to make its way into a student assessment, and in fact none of the student assessments tried to make this sort of argument.) On the other hand, I can tell the students did read sufficiently for the assessment, and didn’t need to include this citation to an unread piece – instead, by including it, they ensured that I scrutinised the rest of their writing particularly closely, to determine whether they had actually read the other pieces they were claiming to have read. I haven’t noticed anything like this in previous weeks: most students just stick to citing and discussing the two pieces they are required to read. I wonder what the temptation was, on this article specifically? I find the situation somewhat bizarre…

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