A Syllabus Strategy for Talking
About Plagiarism with Students
After reading Robert Harris's book, The Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing with Plagiarism (2001, from Pyrczak Publishing); an article on the role of honor codes by Robert Boynton in the Washington Post;
and thinking about the many plagiarism discussions that have come up on
professional listservs I participate on such as WPA, TechRhet, WCenter, 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
(as well as the tone I want them to take 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 fall 2001 syllabus, 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
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:
Intentional plagiarism will
not be tolerated. Any student who plagiarizes another's work will automatically
fail this course. In addition, Emerson College will take disciplinary action
and an official record of such action will become part of your permanent
file. Plagiarism can result in probation or expulsion from the College.
Most importantly, you are here to learn and gain skills that will serve
you during your entire career and life; to plagiarize is to cheat yourself
of this opportunity.
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?)
You should read your student
handbook. (Has anybody read it?--I've never met a student who has unless
and until they have a question it answers. It's not exactly scintillating
stuff.) It has all the legal warnings you'll ever want to hear. But since
you're likely not going to read the handbook, let's think about plagiarism
more carefully and realistically than the handbook does.
Unfortunately, the term plagiarism
is more technical than practical. It's used to describe equally mistakes
in handling and citing sources and deliberate cheating and lying about
the authorship of the work you hand in. In fact, one refuge of many cheaters
is to say that they merely made mistakes in source handling. So by plagiarism
in this course I want us all to distinguish between fraud and cheating,
which is always wrong, and mistakes in learning, which are inevitable,
correctable, and for many people, necessary for learning. Mistakes are
welcome; deliberate fraud is not.
To help explain some of these
differences, and how they play out in practical terms in the course, and
to give us a way to talk about these issues, I'd like to invite you to
think about plagiarism as a matter of Don'ts and Do's. Some of the Do's
will vary in other courses, but most all teachers will agree and assume
you'll abide by the Don'ts.
We'll talk about this stuff
as the course goes on.
Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't
steal. Don't misrepresent others work as yours. Don't go to places like
schoolsucks.com, evilhouseofcheat.com, termpapersrus.com, or any of the
other hundreds of online and off line sources where term papers can be
commissioned or bought or borrowed for <wink>research purposes only</wink>.
Don't make up fake sources. Don't make up fake quotes. Don't make up fake
interviews. Don't think that by copying something over and changing every
couple of words that you've put it in your own words. Don't think that
because something is on the Net it doesn't need to be cited. Don't think
that because a lot of textbooks and other printed matter you read don't
site sources that you don't have to cite them either. Don't think that
because politicians have speech writers and actors have script writers
who often go unacknowledged that you can get a writer to "secretary" your
paper for you; rules that apply in other settings are different here, where
the purpose is for you to do the writing. Don't go to the library, find
a book that hasn't been checked out often, then find a source in its bibliography,
and then copy that source into a paper as yours. Don't procrastinate on
assignments and homework so that you end up under too much deadline pressure
and become tempted to take shortcuts. Don't be afraid to come see me if
you feel overwhelmed, unsure, fear missing a deadline, or start falling
behind. Don't try to get around any of these Don'ts by working so hard
to disguise them that you might as well have just done the Do's.
Do share ideas with one another.
Do swap writing. Do help one another write. Do edit and rewrite sections
of one another's papers from time to time; writers do that kind of thing
all the time, and editors do it with them. Do learn to like your writing;
even when it's bad, hand it in any way, and know I'll always find something
to like about it. Do expect to make mistakes managing and citing sources.
Do expect to correct them. Do take care in downloading sources and taking
notes. Do find a way to use sources wisely and fairly. Do learn the myriad
rhetorical purposes that including and citing sources can serve. Do use
the word processor to help you manage sources (for example, put sources
you're quoting or paraphrasing in a different font and font color until
the final draft so you don't accidentally forget they came from some other
writer). Do have fun with sources, think of using them as weaving, building,
playing with blocks, or any other metaphor that you associate with "taking
what's at hand and making something of it." Do write before, while, and
after you research, but especially before. Do discover an argument so you
have a distinctive voice in your own essay, and aren't overwhelmed and
intimidated by sources. Do come see me whenever you have a question about
the course, are feeling overwhelmed, or unhappy with an assignment or your
work; we can talk and find a way to make things work.
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.