2020 Conference Preview: “Back to reality: Writing assigments, hyperreality, and the ‘problem of plagiarism’”

Recent advances in cheating detection have made it possible to detect a great many more academic integrity violations in higher education than in past times (see here; here; and here). However, one thing has persistently failed to advance, and that is the type of assignment and grading used in higher education. In a multitude of courses, regardless of topic or content, students are told to write “papers” using something like the following actual set of directions (see here and here):

Please submit your 10-page paper by the deadline. It must address the main themes of our course. All papers must be in 12-point Times New Roman font, SINGLE spaced, with 1” x 1”margins, and checked for spelling, grammatical errors, and appropriate language. All material referenced in the assignment must be properly cited in APA format. Headers, pictures, graphs, and extra spacing. do not count in content length requirements. Papers that do not meet the formatting criteria will be downgraded significantly.

It is impossible to say what course this assignment is for. Only one sentence actually focuses on content, while every other one is about form and formatting. Just looking at these specifications, it seems like the content doesn’t really matter as long as formatting is good!

And this is exactly where the problem lies. As many psychologists and sociologists have found, when we feel like there is little connection between what we are being asked to do and what we think we need to be doing, we tend to feel that breaking rules and engaging in dishonest behavior is much more acceptable (see here, here, and here). No matter what cheating detection techniques we use, we will still find students cheating under such conditions, because the assignments themselves make it more likely to happen.

It is here that a particular set of concepts from the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard have practical implications. Baudrillard, in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981), spoke about the situation of hyperreality– a situation when a representation or symbol that is no longer linked to reality is indistinguishable from reality, or when a simulation has become more real and important than reality. In such a situation, reality fades into the background and no longer matters.

What an apt description of a passing, plagiarized paper! When the assignment which claims to represent learning no longer has to do with learning, we have entered the realm of hyperreality. Baudrillard provides four stages through which a representation goes on the road to hyperreality as follows:

  • a direct correspondence between a representation and reality,
  • the representation becoming more important than what it still represents,
  • the representation no longer being linked to reality,
  • the representation becoming all that exists.

These stages conveniently provide us a way to evaluate our assignments. Any good assignment is one which is clearly linked to the learning that is supposed to take place, while the worst assignment is one which exists purely for its own sake. Thus, we can take Baudrillard’s stages and turn them into a set of questions to ask ourselves. Find out more about how to check your assignments at the 2020 Annual Conference this March!

About the Author
Brendan DeCoster is a Ph.D. candidate in International Education Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. His dissertation focuses on practices and understandings of academic integrity among international students in the US, and his research focuses on issues surrounding academic integrity policies, practices, and understandings, as well as language policies, development policies and practices, and measurements of learning. All views presented are those of the author.