I am currently teaching a course called ‘Presenting the Future’. It deals with a selection of twentieth-century texts of the future from Huxley and Orwell through to Russell Hoban and Iain Banks. I ask each of the students to prepare a presentation on a chosen text, and last week it was William Gibson’s by now virtual-canonical Neuromancer. The student announced that he was choosing to look at Neuromancer in its cultural context, and would be introducing us to cyber-punk, to Gibson’s own tergiversations about cyber-punk, and to some of the relations between fiction and virtual reality. This he did with some aplomb; but he also said that, true to the spirit of his topic, he had ‘stitched together’ his presentation from various web-sites on Gibson, cyber-punk and so forth.
This focussed for me some of the difficulties I have been feeling for several years about what one might grandiosely call the ‘crisis of authority’ in our pedagogic practices. As teachers of literature, I suppose we are all used to not knowing quite whose words we are hearing, or, perhaps better, words generated by what machine—this, after all, is part of the exhilaratingly uncanny nature of the discipline. We live at a time characterised by, among other things, the death of the signature and its replacement by pin numbers and similar techno-authorisations; and a consequence of this is that what we have all been living with for some time, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, is a furthering of uncertainty about where our students’ words (or even our own) are coming from.
This has an obvious bearing on issues of plagiarism. Two semesters ago, I found myself involved in a case where two students had produced essays that bore alarming similarities to each other. We have all been here before, and we seem to have two tactics for dealing with such matters. The first is the tactic of the long haul, whereby we send some poor benighted soul (usually ourselves) off to the library to check whether a printed source will helpfully and yieldingly claim responsibility; the second is to suppose collusion and hope that a sufficiently stringent, but non-violent, interview might establish whether the source lies rather in room proximity in the student halls of residence.
It used to be possible to be reasonably clear as to which tactic was more likely to succeed; if we were thinking in terms of printed sources, there would generally be a suspicion that a certain roundedness of phrase, a certain apparent familiarity with otherwise unfamiliar source material, would give the game away. If the similarity seemed rather to be taking place in terms of a fairly undeveloped discourse, we would go for the collusion option.
But this, of course, is no longer a viable distinction, because printed sources have been replaced, in many students’ learning patterns, by access to web-sites. These web-sites, as we know, do not always conform to the protocols of the printed word; they may, indeed, be more or less ‘literate’—whatever that may mean—than the work we expect of our own students. Sometimes, confusingly, they are constructed, written and maintained by the students themselves. What emerged in the case I have mentioned was, in fact, that both students—who clearly did not know each other—had independently accessed the same site, and had downloaded information with minimal changes.
I am not concerned here with how these processes affect the issue of plagiarism itself, although there is clearly more work to be done on this in many departments of English, work that will probably continue to produce Student Handbooks increasingly unreadable in their size and minute quasi-legal complexity. My concern rather is with the sustainability of the student essay itself within systems that have moved consistently away from exams and towards coursework, continuous assessment, periodic assessment, and all the other permutations of assessment that we now practice and encourage. The notion of the student essay is itself, of course, open to a variety of interpretations. We may say that it encourages the construction of a reasoned and coherent argument, and thus allows for the demonstration of identifiable transferable skills. We may locate it centrally in the procedures of assessment. We may regard the marking of and commentary on—whether in person or not— such essays as an essential, or in some cases the essential, component in the development of student learning.
I wonder whether in attaching this value to the essay we are now not merely living in the past, but refusing to admit to the ‘presenting’ of the future. Processes of information retrieval and deployment have changed radically over the last twenty years, changed perhaps to a point of unrecognisability. Students do of course still write, or at least their essays get written; but in the era of the post-signature do we really still imagine it possible to be certain from what de-subjectivised machine this writing is emerging? We have ourselves been responsible—for excellent reasons—for discouraging, and in some cases forbidding, hand-writing; a good thing too, in that it saves our time and the students’, and clearly prepares them for a world in which hand-writing has little place. I personally find that my hands turn into peculiarly misshapen claws if I have to write more than two sentences on end (which is why students continually, and irritatingly, complain about my hand-writing). However, this is again not quite the point: like some more enlightened colleagues, I could provide my commentary on students’ essays in the form of an attached (and of course word-processed) sheet if I took the trouble. But the question, it seems to me, is really about the student essay itself, and what we are thinking we are doing in assigning value— and a grade—to it. I have no evidence at all that students are cynical about this—indeed I am sure they are not—but I do think that they are increasingly amazed about our gullibility, and find our attitude towards sources and authorities quaint and slightly (but lovably) risible. They know very well that they are, on average, more web-literate than we are; they know too that the web is so vast, so multifarious, and so quality-immune that the chances of us following them through the maze— unless they are as innocent as the students I have been mentioning, who simply told us the situation, but without the faintest admixture of guilt—are, to quote Bret Easton Ellis, less than zero.
I think that the days when we could approach student essays looking with a refined eye for originality of thought, penalising over-reliance on sources, speculating on the quality of mind shining through the odd unfortunate phrase, and all the rest of the panoply of distinction on which our grading and classification systems appear to continue to rest, are decisively over. They have, I think, been over for some time, but we have been reluctant to admit this for a variety of reasons. One reason is that to realise such a thought would be to threaten the base of our own authority. Another would be that a consequence of such a realisation would be that we would have to engage in a radical rethinking of our assessment practices, rather than tinkering at the edges.
The third reason is that, as I see it, it faces us with the politically difficult option of a return to an exam-based system. I imagine I am not alone in remembering that I set my face at an early stage of my career against exams. Although of course there was the apparently inevitable hypocrisy, for someone of my generation, of having occasionally to admit that the exam system had done me pretty well, I was more than happy to join the chorus of those who complained that sudden-death exams were unjust, that they penalised the slow, thoughtful genius, that we all have good days and bad days, that the work produced was too short and panicky to allow for real inspection and discrimination and so on.
All these things I think were true. I am in no way sorry to have spent most of my working life to date in departments which have exercised the utmost care, and in some cases great inventiveness, in devising assessment schemes that allow a thousand flowers to bloom. I also still think that, at its best, continuous assessment both allows, in its macro manifestation, for a better and more inclusive judgement of student skills, and at the other end of the scale allows students to expatiate more freely than exams do on the development and basis of their ideas.
But I do now think that the heyday of such thinking is past. The future has caught up with us; it is presenting itself, but so far we are preferring not to answer the door-bell. I hope that nobody is thinking at this point that I have an answer to suggest; I don’t. But I do think we face a choice which, unless we can think of better ways of going at it, will be unpleasant. The only way yet devised, or at least practised, of divorcing students from immediate unverifiable reliance on source materials has been the examination; but disbelief in the pedagogic or summative possibilities of the examination is now widespread. Furthermore, to advocate the re-entertainment of such a system runs a terrible risk; it means that many academics who would sooner resign than attract the label ‘traditionalist’ might find themselves arguing in favour of a system against which they have set their faces for decades.
What to do? This is, it seems to me, what not to do: to continue in blithe denial of the current changes in information and authority. There is, of course, an option adopted in part—but nowhere, I think, wholly—of adopting a simulacrum of IT as an assessment method in itself: of building in an element of techno-based, multi-choice tests. That might be part of the way forward, but I doubt it should be the main part. It is, to my mind, not that our students want us to acquiesce in the state of things; it is that they are challenging us—they find themselves necessarily in the position of challenging us—to find ways of going further than the currently available means, ways of continuing to value the truly critical as it becomes ever harder to distinguish.
This is, of course, something that happens to disciplines from time to time – the examples of philosophy and psychology come to mind; it is not unique in itself. What is, however, unique about the present situation, in my view, is that we are faced in English with the immediate consequences of a cultural revolution that empowers students in ways which we are unlikely to emulate. The dreadful image of the video recorder—yesterday’s technology but still sufficiently frightening to some— springs to mind, granddad demanding help from a six-year-old to manipulate the controls. We do not, I think, want to get into that position. The discipline of English, for all its complicated history, for all its past cohabitations, for all its nationalist embroilments, for all its internal wars and visible scars, is still a strong, viable and desirable discipline; our students are impressive, articulate and forward-looking. I would like to think that we can maintain a sense of authority that goes with and rewards this cultural confidence, an authority that has ensured for many years that we are the subject of preference for many of our most excellent youngsters as well as an unparalleled magnet for life-long learning.
But I think that to maintain this position we need to think beyond generic transferable skills, and to try to come at a new set of ideas as to what truly testing tests might be. Naturally I hope that the Subject Centre might foster this debate, which is one that I, at least, consider to be a matter of urgency; there would also be a great deal to be said for finding some way of involving students in discussions about what the ‘assessment of English’ actually means, to them. We are not yet in the age of the post-human, or even (I think) of the trans-human; but the fact is that our students know a lot more, on average, than we do about what possibilities the future holds; that is because they are students of English, and are therefore more or less dedicated to the very fictions that are shaping our future. What we need from an assessment system is a way of distinction that both commands the assent of those who are ‘subject’ to it, while at the same time maintaining the credibility of those who administer it; otherwise (perish the thought) English might become a discipline whose heyday becomes consigned to that peculiar episode of the past that we shall come to designate (de-signature?) as the twentieth century.
Newsletter Issue 1 - May 2001
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