Technology & Teaching
In a June Teaching Tip, I criticized Turnitin.com for emphasizing plagiarism detection over teaching about writing with sources and academic honesty. Their model is to police your students, through surveillance (constant surveillance if you have every draft of every student's paper uploaded to the site). The counter argument to Turnitin.com's heavy-handed approach is that smart assignment design, teaching students how to handle sources, and regular dicussions (not harangues) in courses about plagiarism, cheating, and why academic honesty matter are better pedagogic alternatives to constant policing.
But rather than restate in this Teaching Tip the usual assignment advice, which most of you likely know and use, let me share instead some WWW resources and recommend a wonderful book that I've found useful in my own teaching and faculty workshops. These resources address in more detail than I can here assignment design, how to talk about plagiarism in the classroom, how to talk to students you suspect might have plagiarized (and your reading of your students' writing is the best detection there is), how to search the WWW and databases for possibly plagiarized e-text, how to tell if the plagiarism is intentional cheating or poor source handling, and how to proceed with plagiarism cases even when you can't find an originating text.
After these resources, the second half of this teaching tip, shows how I've changed my own syllabus statement on plagiarism after thinking about the central need to communicate more clearly to--and discuss more often with--my students on what plagiarism is and why it's important to think about.
Part 1. Resources for Assignment Design and Understanding Plagiarism
You know the the things to do in an assignment: avoid giving hackneyed assignments, have students write multiple drafts, have students maintain annotated bibliographies, and so on. All very good ideas. More on these strategies is available, in more detail and with some slight variations, at the following Web sites:
"Plagiarism: a misplaced emphasis," by Brian Martin (http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/pubs/94jie.html). This scholarly essay looks at the prevalence of ghostwriting, and nonattribution done by teachers and administrators that makes up much of the workaday world of academia (as distinct from the writing done in scholarly journals).
I've been visiting Harris' pages for years, not only on plagiarism, but also for his advice on teaching research online. I've always found his advice sensible, balanced, and consistent. Harris is also the author of a new book on plagiarism, The Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing with Plagiarism (2001, from Pyrczak Publishing). Details on how to order it, the table of contents, and other information can be found at the Web site for the book, (http://www.antiplagiarism.com/).
I really like Harris's book because he reminds teachers again and again to remember the student point of view. Here are some (not all) of his major points:
Harris also reminds us that we don't need to have a copy of the plagiarized source in hand. By talking to students about the piece, how they came about writing it and where they got the ideas in it, we can learn enough to determine whether it is likely that they cheated or merely made mistakes in handling their sources. And very often, notes Harris, in the course of answering these questions about their paper's content, when the student is hemming and hawing, perhaps a little bit nervous or defensive, a gently asked, "is there anything you want to tell me?" will lead students to admit they didn't do the work.
To help you talk about plagiarism with your students, his book offers a collection of cartoons that illustrate various points of views about plagiarism (two examples can be found on the Web site), which teachers are invited to use as handouts, for class discussion, or in teacher training workshops. Harris also includes several appendices with exercises to help with correct quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing; sample plagiarism statements and policies; a list of useful search engines, including databases; a list of term paper mills (which can often be searched by teachers); and useful Web links and articles.
All in all, Harris offers in this book a good starting place for developing your own wise response to plagiarism, giving you the tools you need to be proactive rather than reactive. Unlike the message from Turnitin.com, the book emphasizes the role of good teaching and classroom planning, doesn't assume students are criminals, and offers a range of resources teachers can use to be better prepared.
Part 2. A Syllabus Strategy for Talking About Plagiarism with Students
It was after reading Harris's book and thinking about the many plagiarism discussions that have come up on professional listservs, and my own complaints about the kind of police-state rhetoric used by sites like Turnitin.com, that it occurred to me that the first place to begin a better discussion with my students on plagiarism is in my own syllabus. The syllabus, after all, is the contract I make with my class. It's the document that conveys my personality, my view of writing, and sets the tone and approach I want to take with my students (and them with one another). Teachers use syllabi to set parameters, to layout conditions, to explain grades. How a syllabus talks about things like grading, writing, and plagiarizing matters.
I want an open, inviting class, where students feel comfortable taking risks with their writing, have a clear idea of what I expect, and can comfortably share their work at any and every stage. But the plagiarism statement I had in the first draft of my syllabus, which I inherited from a syllabus used by a previous teacher of the course, and which is the kind of statement I've used before, worked directly against those goals. It read:
The Emerson College Statement on Plagiarism in The Emerson College Student Handbook warns that "plagiarism is the use of the words and/or ideas of another as if they were one's own and without acknowledgement of their source" (63). Please familiarize yourself with this policy by reading this section of the undergraduate catalogue.
My conflict here is that I don't lead any other discussion with threats, so why one on plagiarism? Why start off scolding? Why build anxiety and fear when I know that I'll be asking students to learn complex literacy skills, writing skills, and academic conventions? Why make myself a state trooper to their novice driver? So I deleted the above language and swapped in this instead:
As you can see, there are some contradictions in these lists. My students asked, "but isn't someone editing and rewriting my paper cheating?" Well, no, not if it's done right. It depends on the circumstances and the assignment, but most published writers benefit from this kind of help. Students need to learn how to manage that kind of help. (I want this to be an issue, by the way, because I know a lot of students, especially in other courses, will do what so many of us do--ask someone to proofread their paper. And sometimes that proofing is simple punctuation correction, but sometimes it gets into sentence level revisions. So it is important to know to ask, when is that okay and when is it not?)
The Don'ts and Do's also link plagiarism and cheating to writing skills (drafting, revising, editing), research skills (evaluating sources, file management, planning), and student skills (time management, talking to teachers, learning to ask for help). That is, I found the lists give me a framework for talking about plagiarism and cheating in context, as things which come from daily decisions, sometimes small, in doing the work of being a student.
I know this approach might not appeal to all teachers; certainly my list of Don'ts and Do's will not. But I found this semester that using this approach has really helped me in day-to-day workshops and discussions. It has given me a vocabulary in everyday language to talk about writing, plagiarism and cheating in a way that supports writing rather than polices students. I guess I see it as the difference between gatekeeping and hosting, between warning and inviting, between suspecting and trusting.