Sunday, September 18, 2016

Plagiarism: The Elephant in the Academic Room

This semester I am the instructor of record on six sections or courses.  I have one online course in professional communication and the traditional version of the same; I have a First Year Experience Seminar with a theme of Liberal Arts Education and what it means for the student; a section of basic public speaking (which I have taught for 38 years); a capstone course for Interdisciplinary studies majors; and one student in an internship.  Needless to say, I am a bit overwhelmed by this, on top of being the department chair and having some other responsibilities.  Consequently I am exhausted, had to cancel a family reunion trip this weekend, and am getting a nuclear stress test in two weeks because of certain symptoms I am having.  Even now typing this I am feeling shortness of breath.

Stress is often an excuse used by students (and their professors) for why student plagiarize, which is the real subject of this blog post.  Having too much expected of them just sends students to the easy way out, borrowing inappropriately.  I am not sure if that is somehow meant to be a justification; I have long felt (without any corroboration) that profs who don't get too upset about plagiarism were guilty of it and good at it during their own careers.  Or else they just don't care, for whatever reason.

But . . . as person with closing on four decades of teaching experience, I do care about plagiarism.  I care about it by punishing it, by pointing it out, by finding it, and by teaching against it.

Not that my punishment is always that tough.  It's usually, "Do this right within the week or fail this assignment or possibly the class."  Many of us don't want to go through the processes or a student conduct committee--they are time consuming and don't always turn out like they should--so we decide to be judge and jury and the students, who may act dumb but usually know what they have done, are glad for the second chance.  Occasionally they just take the failing grade; occasionally they want a "second opinion" and will go to the next level.  I realize that not taking it to the higher level is bad policy, despite the annoyance.  The student is allowed to get away with it in another class because there is no record of it.  I also give them one chance; a second time and there is no hope.

I find plagiarism, largely, by using software that is now embedded in our institution's learning management system.  Is that fair? Yes.  It's not fool-proof, but it's good enough to catch the worst offenders and to see how the student is inappropriately using sources.  I usually ignore the colors until it flags 30% of more, because references pages are always flagged.  It will flag quotations that are used correctly, too.  The students can see it and make corrections before final submission of an assignment.

In terms of teaching against it, I am very clear and take nothing for granted.  I show examples.  It occurred to me this week, however, that I and most of us are doing something very wrong.  We tell students there are three ways to use sources:  verbatim quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing.  I typically show with my hands:  verbatim quoting and paraphrasing take this much (a foot apart) and creates this much (a foot apart), but summarizing takes this much (two feet apart) and your version is this much (six inches apart).  I have decided to teach students that paraphrasing should be avoided.  Why should they paraphrase, really?  Shouldn't they take the core of a source's argument and abstract it into their own words to make their argument, and if the source says something so delightfully that it bears repeating, just quote verbatim?

H.L. Mencken said that a Puritan was someone who would lie awake worrying that someone somewhere was having fun.  I always found that a stupid statement from an unbeliever; our view of the Puritans has come down through him and we don't appreciate their accomplishments.  However, I sometimes think I lie awake worrying about my students' understanding of plagiarism (as well as my subject matter in general) far more than they do.  I learned a long time that the only thing that really works is consequences.  Until we have strict polices on plagiarism that are uniformly followed, it will go on.  I find it especially common among athletes, but I blame that on the athletic culture that (a) rewards economy of effort to the detriment of the student and (b) pushes the students through academically as long as their athletic ability can be milked for all its worth.  These young people are largely exploited. 

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