Some Thoughts on Plagiarism
As a teacher, I lose a lot of sleep. Not because I'm up late grading papers or planning assignments necessarily, but because I'm worried. Am I doing a good job? Are they learning anything? Do I really know good writing when I see it? Am I too easy? Too hard?
But the one thing I don't lose sleep over is plagiarism. Now, I know many of you do. The studies are there that show us how many students plagiarize in their two or four years of college. The Internet papermills make it as easy as point-and-click. The writing handbooks contain increasingly longer sections on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Plagiarism detection software abounds. And at every gathering of writing instructors, the topic comes up: what do we do about plagiarism?
At my college, we used to have access to Turnitin.com,* and some instructors used it religiously, having students hand in their papers on disc and telling them that all their work would automatically be "turned in." I was opposed to the practice from the start simply based on the classroom ethos I believed it created: an ethos of distrust. Call me naive, but I refused to assume that any of my students intended to cheat; it was a bridge I refused to cross until--no, when--I came to it.
But rarely do I come to it, despite what some would call my lax approach to the issue. I make very little of plagiarism in my classes. Other than a brief talk about why we do MLA documentation when I go over how to do it, I don't talk to my students much about the issue. And yet, in the eight years I've been a full-time faculty member, I can count on one hand the number of students I've caught plagiarizing. How do I explain this? I think it comes down to two basic elements of responsible teaching: good assignment creation and relationship building. In other words, give assignments that are creative, specific, and not easily fulfilled by generic, downloadable material and get to know your students and their voices. I never allow students to choose their own topics, I never assign "the research paper" on a topic they are "interested in,"** and I read enough of their writing closely enough so if there is a change in voice, I'll hear it. Most of my assignments call for responses to texts we are all reading in class, and I change my texts regularly. I address unintentional plagiarism when it happens, by reviewing the concepts of summarizing, paraphrasing and effectively quoting and documenting. This usually solves the problem.
Does a plagiarizer ever get away with it in my class? I'm sure it has happened. But I still don't lose sleep. Someday, somewhere, either he will get caught or she will become a executive at an Enron-like company, but it will not change the way I teach. I will not adopt practices in my classroom that assume all are guilty from the start, nor will I create an atmosphere where students are terrified to incorporate other sources into their work for fear of improperly giving credit. We live and work in a world increasingly based on collaboration and the use of the Internet, and some of these issues of whose work is whose are becoming moot anyway.
No, I don't lose sleep over plagiarism.
*For more on the sinister side of Turnitin.com, read Nick Carbone's excellent piece here.
**I think the open topic research paper just begs to be plagiarized.