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When I was an undergraduate, living on the 11th floor of a high-rise dormitory with five other students, one of my roommates came home one late December evening and -- in a fit of drunken inspiration -- dragged the dorm Christmas tree into the elevator and set it up in our room. A very short time later, he decided that he had made a mistake and wanted to get rid of the evidence. Instead of lugging the tree back down to the lobby, however, he chose to dismantle the fake tree, branch by branch, and toss it out the window. At the time, however, one of the dorm’s resident assistants happened to be coming home from a late evening himself and was almost hit by the tree’s metal trunk. That led authorities pretty directly to our room, but not before my roommate had the time to plead desperately with all of us to deny everything. We foolishly acquiesced. After my roommate finally confessed, the rector called each of us back into his office to inform us that we would all receive a massive chunk of community-service hours for the part we had played in covering up the crime. “You looked me right in the face,” I remember him saying, his voice shaking with emotion, “and lied to me.” That meeting shook me up. I remember feeling as if I had wronged the rector personally -- and, in a way, I had. The rector and I had always had a good relationship before that incident; afterward, I avoided him whenever I could, and my sense of having screwed up hovered over every encounter we had until I graduated. When I became a teacher, and confronted my first student plagiarist, I remember thinking that I would use the same strategy my rector had used: Whatever punishment I imposed, I would make sure that the student understood that his violation of academic honesty was also a violation of our personal relationship. How effectively I did that, now close to a dozen years later, I honestly don’t remember. But I know that for many years, I continued to look back at my rector’s approach as the model for treating cases of academic dishonesty: Make certain the student understands the full moral gravity of the offense by laying down both the punishment and healthy doses of guilt. I didn’t realize how completely I had changed my mind about that until an assistant professor at my institution told me about a plagiarized paper he had just discovered, four weeks into his first year on the tenure track. I invited him into my office to talk about it, and while he spoke he held in his hand both the student’s paper and a printout of the Web site from which the paper was copied, word for word in some long stretches. “I’ve gotten a lot of advice from people already about this,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m still not sure what to do.” So I offered him the advice I follow myself in plagiarism cases (and which I dispensed in this space a few years back): Fail the student for the assignment, and require him to sign our college’s plagiarism-settlement form. The student acknowledges his wrongdoing on the form, and it is filed with the dean of students. If the student repeats the offense, the existence of that form in his file leads to more severe punishment, up to expulsion from the college. Thinking that my colleague was debating between that sort of response and a more lenient one, I did my best to convince him that all cases of plagiarism should be documented, to ensure that we are not harboring students who are violating academic honesty in every course they take. “Oh no,” he said to me, shaking the papers in his hand, “that’s not the issue. Of course I’m going to fail the assignment, and make him sign the form. There’s no question of that. It’s just that this assignment isn’t worth all that much, and so failing him for it won’t hurt his grade all that much. I’m trying to figure out how I can ratchet up the punishment.” In that moment, I understood two things: He was angry, as my rector had been angry and as I used to get angry, at the way a plagiarized paper can feel like a personal insult; and that, understandable as that anger may be, acting upon it and showing it to the student are equally bad ideas. How and why my perspective has changed over the past dozen years is not clear to me, but it has. So I did my best to see if my colleague could let go of his anger and view the situation more objectively. Here is what I told him: • That the last thing on the student’s mind, when he made the poor decision to plagiarize, was his personal relationship with you. He did it because he was lazy, or he was rushed for time, or he felt overwhelmed by the assignment. He did not do it to send any message to you about your worth as a teacher, or to test your integrity, or to make your life miserable. He did it for his own reasons and did not expect to be caught, and hence thought little, or not at all, about how his actions would affect you. • That the student might have plagiarized because he goes home every day to a dying mother, or works 40 hours a week, or because he doesn’t have the intellectual aptitude to complete the work. None of those things excuse or mitigate the offense, but they can explain it. And none of the possible explanations you might dream up for any given case of plagiarism will have anything to do with you. • That personalizing the academic dishonesties of our students distorts the relationship we should have with them. When our spouses lie to us, they do indeed violate a compact we have made to each other, oftentimes one formalized in wedding vows. I have not exchanged vows with any of my students. If I count them as friends (and occasionally I do), I do so with full awareness that the friendship must remain a very constrained one; I have power over their grades, after all, and the unequal balance of power in our relationship makes true friendship a practical impossibility. When my students violate academic honesty, they are not sinning against me; they are sinning against the standards of an intellectual community they have agreed to join. The proper response is to follow the standards that the community has established for such offenses. So, no private lectures delivered without a punishment, no slaps on the wrist. Document the offense, fail the student for that assignment, and/or require completely new work from the student. Keep it all on the record in the event of future offenses. Sure, I still get angry when I discover a plagiarized paper -- I even get angry at plagiarism cases I hear about secondhand, like my colleague’s. If you feel anger, you feel it. Sometimes that can’t be helped. But feel it and let it go. And don’t address student violators with anger. After all, it’s not about you. If you are a professor in the United States and you have a pulse, you have heard about the problems of Internet plagiarism. Exactly what you have heard may vary, depending on what you have read, whom you have been listening to, and how you have been filtering the information or opinions that you have encountered. But everyone is worried about it -- and for good reason. Students can gain easy online access to an astonishing array of ready-made term papers, and for a fee, they can get custom-written papers within 48 hours from online sites. Send in the assignment and a creditcard number, download the attachment when the finished paper comes back two days later, print it out, and presto! Assignment completed. Fifteen-page paper on Plato's attitudes toward Homer? No problem. Professors cannot always spot plagiarism, especially if a student gets a paper from a closed, subscribersonly Web site or hires an online ghostwriter. But often, they manage a digitized gotcha. No longer do they need to spend arduous days in the library, searching for the sources of a suspect paper. In faculty lounges, professors brag to each other about the speed and ease with which they located downloaded papers. Actually, a whole gotcha industry has sprung up. Turnitin.com, Plagiarism.org -- each week brings news of another Web site that will help catch the miscreants. Never mind that some of the sites fail to distinguish between quoting and unattributed copying; never mind that they blur the distinctions between omitting quotation marks and downloading an entire paper; never mind that some require the professor to violate students' intellectual-property rights by contributing students' papers to the program's database. What drives all the new sites and the professors' anxiety is the concern that ethics, integrity, and honesty are flying out the window on digitized wings. That is a legitimate concern to which we must collectively attend. But professors should also be worried about even more compelling issues. In our stampede to fight what The New York Times calls a "plague" of plagiarism, we risk becoming the enemies rather than the mentors of our students; we are replacing the student-teacher relationship with the criminal-police relationship. Further, by thinking of plagiarism as a unitary act rather than a collection of disparate activities, we risk categorizing all of our students as criminals. Worst of all, we risk not recognizing that our own pedagogy needs reform. Big reform. I use the word "stampede" deliberately. We are in danger of mass hysteria on the plagiarism issue, hysteria that simplifies categories and reduces multiple choices to binaries. It appears that the Internet is making cheating easier; hence, it appears that the Internet is encouraging bad morals; hence, it appears that morality is in precipitous decline. And there we are at the ramparts, trying to hold back the attack. We see ourselves in a state of siege, holding the line against the enemy. All those who worked to get advanced academic degrees in order to police young adults, please raise your hands. No hands? Then let's calm down and get back to the business of teaching. We like the word "plagiarism" because it seems simple and straightforward: Plagiarism is representing the words of another as one's own, our college policies say, and we tell ourselves, "There! It's clear. Students are responsible for reading those policies and observing their guidelines." Then, when a "plague" of plagiarism comes along and we believe academic integrity itself is under attack, things get even simpler. Encouraged by digital dualisms, we forget that plagiarism means many different things: downloading a term paper, failing to give proper credit to the source of an idea, copying extensive passages without attribution, inserting someone else's phrases or sentences -- perhaps with small changes -into your own prose, and forgetting to supply a set of quotation marks. If we ignore those distinctions, we fail to see that most of us have violated the plagiarism injunctions in one way or another, large or small, intentionally or inadvertently, at one time or another. The distinctions are just not that crisp. We have to pull back from the mass hysteria and remember that the P-word covers a wide variety of behaviors, circumstances, and motivations. Accidentally omitting a set of quotation marks is not the same as submitting a downloaded paper. Now, a downloaded paper is something that no professor should tolerate. It has to be punished. We assign papers so that our students will learn from the experience of writing them; if they do not write them, they do not learn. We have to protect education; we have to demand that our students learn. But even as we're catching and punishing plagiarists in our classes, we have to ask ourselves why they are plagiarizing. Some of the possible answers to that question are not very appealing. But just as we cannot ignore students' plagiarism, we cannot ignore these possibilities, either: * It is possible that students are cheating because they don't value the opportunity of learning in our classes. Some of that is cultural, of course. Today's students are likely to change jobs many times before they retire, so they must earn credentials for an array of job possibilities, rather than immersing themselves in a focused, unchanging area of expertise. The fact that many of them are working long hours at outside jobs only exacerbates the problem. * It is possible that our pedagogy has not adjusted to contemporary circumstances as readily as have our students. Rather than assigning tasks that have meaning, we may be assuming that students will find meaning in performing assigned tasks. How else can one explain giving the same paper assignment semester after semester to a lecture class of 100 students? Such assignments expect that students will gain something from the act of writing, but they do not respond to the needs and interests of the students in a particular section of the class. They are, in that sense, inauthentic assignments We expect authentic writing from our students, yet we do not write authentic assignments for them. We beg our students to cheat if we assign a major paper and then have no further involvement with the project until the students turn in their work. Assigning and grading a paper leaves out a crucial middle: working and talking with students while they draft those papers. You're too busy? Then what about dividing your students into small groups that you, a teaching assistant, or a tutor can meet with, or that can respond to their members' work before the papers reach you? We deprive our students of an authentic audience if we assign papers that are due at the end of the term and that the students never see again. We deprive them of an interested audience if we scrawl a grade and "good work" on a paper -- and nothing else. We deprive them of a respectful audience if we tear apart the style, grammar, and mechanics of their papers, marking every error and accusing them of illiteracy for their split infinitives, without ever talking with them about what they were trying to accomplish, how they might achieve their goals, and why all the style, grammar, and mechanics matter anyhow. I raise those possibilities for myself as well as for my colleagues. I have not only witnessed those practices; I have engaged in them. They are, in fact, temptations to which we regularly succumb, just as our students may succumb to the temptation to plagiarize. Do professors' shortcomings excuse students' textual transgressions? No. But they do demand that we recognize and reform pedagogy that encourages plagiarism because it discourages learning. We have to be ethical, too. So do our institutions. If professors' working conditions are such that they cannot give, work with students on, and respond to authentic writing assignments, then the working conditions need to change -- whether that means cutting class size, reducing teaching load, or placing more emphasis on teaching in decisions about hiring and promotion. Writing is an invaluable means of learning. Professors must demand that their students do the writing that they are submitting as their own; professors must assign essays that foster learning; and institutions must ensure that their professors' working conditions make good teaching possible. READ the directions in the left column below and TYPE your paraphrastic, emotive, dialogic, and analytical responses in the right column. This for passage 1 Prediction (Pre-reading Strategy) • Read only the title and the first sentence of the text. • Skim the reading for any headings. • Make a prediction: what do you think this reading will be about based on the title, first sentence, and headings? Glossary (Paraphrastic Annotations) • As you read, record at least TWO words or phrases that are confusing or unfamiliar to you. • Look up the unfamiliar words (images might help, too!) • Explain in your own words what they mean. Key Points (Paraphrastic Annotations) • As you read, record at least TWO of the most important points or ideas that the author makes. • Type these key points IN YOUR OWN WORDS. • Include a page or paragraph # at the end of every key point. I Feel… (Emotive Annotations) • As you read, note at least ONE passage in the text that makes you feel some kind of emotion. • Quote this passage and include a citation at the end. • Explain what it makes you feel and why it makes you feel that emotion. (Perhaps it makes you feel sad, angry, anxious, uncomfortable, offended, excited, worried…or maybe even makes you laugh out loud!) I think this text will be about… I think this because… I did not understand… Because of my online research, I now think it means… I also did not understand… Because of my online research, I now think it means… The first key point of is… (AuthorLastName #). the reading The second key point of the reading is… (AuthorLastName #). Quoted Passage & Citation: This passage makes me feel… I feel this way because… Connections (Dialogic Annotations) • As you read, note at least ONE passage (or describe parts of the text) that are similar to or are different from: • your personal experiences • other texts • events from the world • Include a page or paragraph # at the end of the quoted or described passages. Quoted Passage & Citation: This passage reminds me of the time when I… I agree with/don’t agree with this passage because in my own life… Quoted Passage & Citation: This passage reminds me of (title of another text) because… This passage differs from the ideas in (title of another text) because… Quoted Passage & Citation: This passage/text makes me think about (event from the past) because… This passage/text makes me think about (event from today) because… This passage/text makes me wonder about the future because… Agency (Analytical Annotations) • How can we think of this text in terms of agency? You may consider some or all of these questions: • Who is limited in their agency? • Who or what limits their agency? • Does someone do something to limit their own personal agency? • What actions do people take (or argue that we should take) to increase their personal agency—or the agency of others? Discuss the theme of agency in relation to the text here… READ the directions in the left column below and TYPE your paraphrastic, emotive, dialogic, and analytical responses in the right column. This for passage 2 Prediction (Pre-reading Strategy) • Read only the title and the first sentence of the text. • Skim the reading for any headings. • Make a prediction: what do you think this reading will be about based on the title, first sentence, and headings? Glossary (Paraphrastic Annotations) • As you read, record at least TWO words or phrases that are confusing or unfamiliar to you. • Look up the unfamiliar words (images might help, too!) • Explain in your own words what they mean. Key Points (Paraphrastic Annotations) • As you read, record at least TWO of the most important points or ideas that the author makes. • Type these key points IN YOUR OWN WORDS. • Include a page or paragraph # at the end of every key point. I Feel… (Emotive Annotations) • As you read, note at least ONE passage in the text that makes you feel some kind of emotion. • Quote this passage and include a citation at the end. • Explain what it makes you feel and why it makes you feel that emotion. (Perhaps it makes you feel sad, angry, anxious, uncomfortable, offended, excited, worried…or maybe even makes you laugh out loud!) I think this text will be about… I think this because… I did not understand… Because of my online research, I now think it means… I also did not understand… Because of my online research, I now think it means… The first key point of is… (AuthorLastName #). the reading The second key point of the reading is… (AuthorLastName #). Quoted Passage & Citation: This passage makes me feel… I feel this way because… Connections (Dialogic Annotations) • As you read, note at least ...
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