This morning Google brought up a list of "Sponsored Links" that reminded me of one of those perennial teaching problems: how to keep students from plagiarizing.
It's disheartening to see Google accepting sponsorship from links that offer the likes of
"Essays written for you,"
"Custom College Essays
Low Prices. 100% Satisfaction.
No plagiarism. 100% Original."
"100% original essays. No Plagiarism
Only 9.95 p/pg and Free delivery."
"High Quality Essays w/out the Work.
Free Samples - Find Your Essay!"
It's also a bit mindboggling to see these outfits claiming "no plagiarism," as while their staff may not have plagiarized in creating the essays, this doesn't alter the fact that the purchaser is turning in someone else's work as his or her own. This is what we don't allow, never mind whether the original author consented to the deception by putting the piece up for sale.
The tricky part for us, however, to construct written assignments that are relatively plagiarism-proof. I'm not sure it's possible to design an utterly plagiarism-proof writing assignment done outside of class (I know a musicologist who assigns concert reports, and still has problems with students who plagiarize from album liner notes and such), but we can make it more likely that most of the work will be original.
For starters, have the students write something in class the first or second day. In my Writing Practicum (a one-credit course whose students are simultaneously enrolled in a specific lower-division art history survey, such as Intro, Intro to Modern, or Intro to Asian), I have the students do a description and formal analysis of a work I choose. While few of the students have ever done such a thing before, and it is an ungraded exercise, it provides me with an idea of each person's initial writing style and level of experience in writing about art. This is both a yardstick for observing improvement, and a way of catching unnatural leaps in sophistication. Other types of in-class writing (including essay quizzes and exams) can also be used as controls.
Try to come up with topics or approaches that are unlikely to have been done by others. This isn't as hard as it sounds. For instance, in the Writing Practicum I give an assignment in comparison. One of the works to be compared is the same for everyone in the class. This one is generally a canonical work. The comparison work can be chosen from a list of about ten, some of which are much less famous. While more than one student may choose the same pair, I give new choices every time I teach the class, so students cannot get a prewritten comparison from someone who took the class before. It is also relatively unlikely that these comparisons will be available elsewhere, although one cannot rule out the possibility of individual phrases being lifted.
Having students write about works seen at a local museum or gallery is also relatively safe. The older or more famous the work, the greater the chance of plagiarism, but even so, unless the work is particularly famous, finding a source to plagiarize may be more trouble than writing something original. Pedagogically, too, there is considerable value in having students write about works they can see in person. Even apart from the Benjaminian "aura" of the original work, matters of scale and texture come into play when the student can see the original.
At a more advanced level of instruction, many professors require students to turn in a series of related assignments, such as a proposal, a preliminary bibliography, and finally a research paper. This type of compartmentalization has both pedagogical and anti-plagiarism benefits. The student learns to write proposals (depending on how detailed the proposal has to be, of course), and there is less chance of a wholly plagiarized paper. When time can be set aside for students to talk about the progress of their papers, and discuss both problems encountered and exciting discoveries, this can be very helpful to students who are stuck--and also discourages plagiarism.