That time I tried to use a Tom Lehrer song to teach students about plagiarism

Like most instructors, I’m forever searching for fun and engaging ways to teach students about my area of expertise. I feel like this is a hard thing for any instructor to do in part because you can’t force students to be as passionate about the topics you’re teaching them as you are. But it’s especially hard with information literacy because the limitations of the contexts in which IL is often taught mean that as instructors we generally have to boil IL, which is actually a complex and nuanced subject, down to its most basic and boring parts.

Like plagiarism.

It’s hard to make plagiarism fun. Conversations about plagiarism are generally meant to scare students. It’s a SERIOUS ACADEMIC OFFENSE. It can GET YOU KICKED OUT OF SCHOOL. It can RUIN YOUR ACADEMIC REPUTATION. As a result, students understand the consequences of plagiarism without necessarily actually understanding what plagiarism is or how it applies to them. They can tell you that plagiarism is wrong but they probably can’t identify it in their own work when it happens. And it does. A lot.

Unfortunately, this post isn’t about how I solved that problem by introducing students to the wonders of academic integrity through some magical, fun activity. Mostly I’ve solved this problem by avoiding it: I barely talk to students about plagiarism or citation unless I have to and I throw up in my mouth a little every time I hear a course instructor try to scare students by telling them that citing their sources incorrectly will ruin their intellectual lives. Instead, I talk to students about the ethical use of information and what it looks like in various contexts, including but not limited to academic and scholarly ones.

I did try something once that I think qualifies as an interesting experiment though I also think it failed badly. That is, I tried to teach students about plagiarism by using Tom Lehrer’s song “Lobachevsky.” I found myself thinking about it recently after livestreaming a local concert celebrating Lehrer’s 93rd birthday in April.

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Using the annotated bibliography as the “establishing shot”

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Lately I’ve been reading some scholarly literature from the writing studies field for a project I’m working on. I’m always fascinated by the parallels I see between how writing studies practitioners/scholars and information literacy practitioners/scholars talk about what they do and the challenges they face. I really think we need a space for practitioners and scholars in these two fields to talk to each other about their work.

Anyway, I found what I think could be an interesting new parallel in the article Documenting and Discovering Learning: Reimagining the Work of the Literacy Narrative by Julie Lindquist and Bump Halbritter.

This article has me thinking: what if the research we ask students to do in information literacy classes came at the beginning of the course instead of at the end? What if we used it as an “establishing shot”?

Let me explain.

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