The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2590 Monday, 12 November 2001
From: Karen Peterson <
Date: Monday, 12 Nov 2001 03:54:46 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Plagiarism Revisited
This is not directly Shakespearean, for which I apologize in advance;
nevertheless, since the plagiarism issue has been discussed here from
time to time, I thought I would forward this article. It is from the
Chronicle of Higher Education. Ordinarily I would simply give the link,
but as this is from the subscribers-only site, I decided to paste the
entire piece. I found it interesting, and hope others may as well.
>From the issue dated November 16, 2001
POINT OF VIEW
Forget About Policing Plagiarism. Just Teach.
By REBECCA MOORE HOWARD
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
credit-card 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
Professors cannot always spot plagiarism, especially if a student gets a
paper from a closed, subscribers-only 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
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
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
* 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.
Rebecca Moore Howard is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric,
and director of the writing program, at Syracuse University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
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