One of the things we've been doing at work recently is rolling out the usage of 'TurnItIn'. When you submit a draft assignment / dissertation / thesis / journal article to TurnItIn, the software matches the writing against an absolutely massive database - anything on the Internet, many journals and, slightly controversially, anything that has been previously submitted to TurnItIn, particularly assignments from previous students.
What is important to note is that, whilst TurnItIn is frequently referred to as plagiarism detection software, it does not directly detect plagiarism, and there are, as far as I can make out, four legitimate reasons for TurnItIn to come back with a match - direct quotations, references (both of which can be filtered out), standard formatting - so previous students will have submitted assignments headed 'Institute of Educational Development, Aga Khan University - and fragments / standard phrases, so I was slighty amused when I ran something through TurnitIn I'd written myself to get a match for 'wrong place at the wrong time'. As I point out very frequently, the process of obtaining a TurnItIn report is entirely mechanical, whether a match constitutes plagiarism requires a level of human judgement - with a separate judgement required as to whether there is underlying the plagiarism a deliberate intention to deceive, as opposed to a misunderstanding of academic conventions which is overwhelmingly more likely in my experience to date.
(Random parenthetical thought. As a matter of routine we require our students to include with their dissertations a statement of originality - ie. something like, 'I hereby confirm that what follows is my own unaided work...' But this statement of originality is itself unoriginal, and so will come back with a TurnItIn match. I have considered suggesting that part of the requirements of obtaining a masters degree is including an originality statement which is itself original but on balance I don't think this is a good idea. End of random parenthetical thought).
But the problem here, working with students, is getting them worrying about the right thing. Some students with the most appalling matches take a 'hakuna matata' (no problem) approach. Others say, "But 'Chapter 4, results and discussion' has come back as a match, does that mean I have to change it?" No, it doesn't mean that, no problem that previous students have headed up their chapter with this wording. Or, "I'm on an 18% match, I'm going to see if I can get it down to 16%" - but no, 18% in itself is not a problem, so long as the matches fit the headings as above.
This idea that we can spend a lot of time worrying about things unnecessarily applies to many other areas. I was playing as guest organist at St Andrew's again this morning (will have to drop the 'guest' soon at this rate!) and talking to a fellow pianist afterwards, and I was saying that church musicians can often worry about the wrong things - eg. getting everything note perfect, in some settings ensuring there's at least one transposition in the song - when what actually matters - eg. setting a speed and keeping to it, ensuring that the congregation know when to start and stop - can go by the board. And some excellent work done a few years ago under the heading of 'Bowland maths' which looked to set up high quality project work in lower secondary mathematics classrooms, made the point from a probability point of view that we end up worrying about things which are actually very unlikely - eg. being in an aeroplane crash - and not about things which are far more likely to harm us - eg. accidents in the home. And what is the point about lying awake at 2am. worrying about an email which needs writing since, when the time comes, it takes just a minute or two? Not that I would do anything so silly, obviously.....
Of course, our Lord Jesus Christ addressed the issue of worrying (Matthew 6:25-34):
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own"
One might well consider that, from any point of view, this is jolly good advice. And it raises a very important question: what is the difference between worrying on the one hand, and using our God-given intelligence to think through issues on the other? I suppose the latter is undertaken without a grinding sense of fear or trepidation, much the same difference as dealing with matters personally or professionally. To the extent to which we cannot easily take control of ourselves in this matter, let us pray for God's help in learning meaningfully and consistently to sort out matters in our own minds without worry, trusting in God's faithfulness and omnipotence.
And finally, jolly good news! I succeeded inadvertently in doing the right thing this week! One of our colleagues got married yesterday and, as is normal in this event, an invitation to make donations (in cash rather than presents) went out a couple of months ago. Early last week the bride to be offered me an invitation to the wedding, to which I replied that that would be wonderful, thank you, would it be all right just to come to the service itself and not the reception? Yes, OK, in which case I'll send you a map as to where the church is, and not give an invitation.
I was left feeling that I'd been a bit miserable as far as my colleague was concerned - thing is working on Saturday is pretty normal and weddings do end up entailing a considerable amount of waiting around. But that was until I was talking to another colleague immediately before the wedding ceremony who explained a number of things which hadn't been clear to me to to that point. The invitations are limited in number, and are effectively tickets to the evening reception. Priority is given to people who contribute over a certain threshold. So for me to contribute and then go to the service rather than the reception means that everybody is a winner! The bride gets a contribution, the support of a colleague at the ceremony and a friend at her reception. I get to go to the part of the proceedings I actually enjoy. And a friend of the bride's - and in all likelihood I'll never discover who this person is - gets to attend the evening reception with an invitation to which I was given first refusal, almost certainly enjoying the event massively more than I would have done.
Isn't that just fantastic? And the wedding service was superb, as with so many things here, very familiar in some respects, very different in others, much stronger and more immediate communication of enjoyment and love than there is in stiff upper lip British circles. It's great being out here and able to share in these wonderful events!