Brave Tailors All

At the end of the semester, I hear everything. During the semester, I’ve operated the department with relative naivete, believing all classes are sailing smoothly across the weeks. I have time to design classes, to indulge faculty in a little professional development and pedagogical discussion. At the end of the semester, though, the story changes. Students call me at home to tell me how poorly they believe their teachers performed; teachers warn me that I might be getting calls from students who claim mistreatment. I work with each one as I go, trying to give whoever has contacted me the benefit of the doubt, always keeping in mind that it isn’t teachers or students – one or the other – that I must support; instead, I must support successful learning. Teachers, as much as students, can sometimes get in the way of good learning, so when I get the call, I look for where the learning has broken down.

Always at the end of the term, I can count on a new chapter in the chronicles of plagiarism. Instructors in particular want to let me know when a student has plagiarized. Even instructors who are generous enough to offer a second chance make me aware that plagiarism has nonetheless taken place; and those instructors who are less forgiving, or who have seen too many repeat instances in a given term, they let me know so that I can be prepared to stand firm against any student outcry. I think, too, instructors just want me to know they’re being watchful.

At times, these accounts of plagiarism feel more like a head count – you know, the kind where you count the heads you’re lopping off. Or like the brave little tailor who killed seven with one blow. To hear teachers talk about it, the biggest concern with plagiarism is how to catch it more often; how not to be duped by lazy (though subversively competent) students. At conferences and faculty meetings, addressing the issue of plagiarism in the academy most often centers around what new software or virtual-ware is available to catch the evildoers in the act. In these discussions, prevention is conflated with enforcement. This is like preventing traffic violations with cameras and hidden police cars.

I can’t think of any issue academicians face larger than plagiarism. It comes up in almost every meeting; it is always topical. And no other issue seems to create as much of a divide between teacher and student… by which I mean that teachers feel pretty darn justified condemning plagiarists as Untouchables. It’s one area where we are really allowed to be unapologetically rankled; it’s one offense where punishment of the severest kind – the removal of the right to education – is warranted.

So, as educators, what do we really want? I daresay not one of us is waiting grinning in the underbrush for a plagiarist to act (please confirm, though; as I’ve implied, naivete is a weakness of mine). Instead, don’t we want students to succeed?

We’ve all been whacked on the hand at some point in our educations. Whether we accidentally or intentionally plagiarized, or whether we posited some thesis that flew in the face of our professor’s teaching, or by some other academic crime, we have felt the sting of a lesson learned the hard way. Perhaps we feel that is part of any educational experience – we must all traverse the rock and the hard place in order to qualify as learned adults.

I tend to wonder, though, if as teachers we’re not punishing ourselves more than we need to by implementing policies of punishment. Okay, so imagine you walk into your class and you genuinely believe each and every one of your students won’t plagiarize, won’t cross that horrible line. What does it feel like to teach then? The vast majority of the instructors who work in my department don’t know. Each paper handed in to them is subject first and foremost to an internet search; some English teachers – and teachers from other departments – consider it routine to push papers through TurnItIn.com before even starting to read them. Find out if the student did the work before reading for the student’s thoughts… Is this a pedagogical best practice?

I’m being transparent, I’m sure. You know already by my tone that I don’t believe in this sort of hunt. Like catching speeding drivers, to me this is nothing like prevention. This is administration, enforcement. But, I’ll go one step further: neither is the teaching of proper citation a prophylactic for plagiarism. That tried and true method, that always-the-solution solution has, over the years, done nothing to stanch the wound to the academy, our sensibilities, or authorship.

And now I’ve gone on long enough for the time being. I fear the tailors are becoming restless. I invite reactions from everyone (swat if you must), and will follow this post with another to discuss what a few instructors and myself are starting to do about plagiarism that does not necessitate citation, enforcement, or punishment…

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2 thoughts on “Brave Tailors All

  1. How many times do we have to repeat the mantra: Construct the project so that plagiarism is not an option.

    Format the essential question to require critical thinking rather than fact regurgitation. Make it impossible to copy and paste.

  2. I’m with Diane. I think my assignments are pretty tough to plagiarize. Especially when they include thematic comparisons b/w different works, or forum discussions about readings.

    I’ve always cringed at the plagiarism discussion. It assumes our highest duty is turning out the next generations of constipated thesis writers.

    I dance it different: if you’ve got the literary scholar in you, come see me, student, and we’ll just talk about how that game works – I’ll play with you, give you pointers, the whole bit. But don’t expect me to treat the entire class like you – they don’t want to be English professors.

    And I don’t want to make them hate literature for the rest of their lives by treating them like they should want to be professors.

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