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Friday, June 27, 2008

Plagiarism Kills Teachers, One Student at a Time

I don't write much about my work on this blog, on purpose. Although I will never be able to leave my work at the office (there is always grading to do, a book to read, an article to write), I have enough workplace drama at work, so I prefer to keep this little sanctuary free of those stressors.

But lately, there's a topic that I just can't get away from, and I want to hear from you about it: Plagiarism.

It's an ugly word, and it's an ugly thing to find in student work. And, let me tell you, it is RAMPANT. Every semester, I have The Discussion with more than one student about why his or her work is unacceptable for the very simple reason that it is not in fact his or her work at all but the work of someone else being passed off as original for a grade.

Frankly, I find plagiarism to be among the very very worst kind of lies. I'll freely admit that lying about a homicide would be worse. And I'm not drama-queen enough to call plagiarism "intellectual murder," though I sort of wish I were. But here's what students don't get: when you copy down what someone else wrote and turn it in with your name on it as if you thought up that particular constellation of words and ideas yourself, you are doing damage in so many areas.

You deprive yourself of the education you are paying for by not doing the work the professor has designed as a way to help you with the learning process.

You forever tarnish your integrity in the eyes of the professor to whom you've handed the phony work. If you turn in a paper that I discover is plagiarized, I will google sentences and phrases out of every single thing you turn in for the rest of the term. I will be suspicious of every idea you voice, wondering where you actually read it or whether you could possibly have thought it up yourself. I will kick myself, if the plagiarized paper was not the first written work you turned in to me, for not noticing that you might have plagiarized in earlier papers, and I will wonder whether any good grades you have gotten not only from me but from any other professors I know are actually based on uncaught lies. I will find myself suspicious of your brains, concerned that they are not, in fact, yours. And YOU made me this suspicious.

You short-change your classmates
because once I've got an instance of plagiarism in a class, I begin to worry and wonder about every eloquent turn of phrase I come across. I find myself double-checking for plagiarism in papers by students I know are smart because suddenly I wonder how much I really know about what goes on in any student's writing space late at night. And then, occasionally, I heave a giant sigh of sadness and regret that I am suspecting a student who in fact seems to be genuinely insightful.

You create a silent monster in your professors, a growing feeling of resentment that festers and threatens to take over every interaction between us. I am livid that you make me doubt not only your own mind but that of your classmates. I do not WANT to be suspicious of my students. I want them to be brilliant. I want to write in the margins of their papers comments like "how insightful" and "fascinating" and "what an original interpretation" and "this is very eloquent." I love it when I get to write that rare end-note after reading a paper where I tell a student that I've never thought of a text in this particular way before, or that I had always thought something, but that the student has opened my eyes to new ideas. I get all giddy when I get to ask a student for a clean copy of a particularly wonderful paper and permission to pass it on to other subsequent classes as an example.

And when a student kills that joy, that spirit of mutual discovery, that opportunity for the classroom to be a place in which teachers both convey information and learn from their students; when a student turns me from a facilitator into a policewoman, I become infuriated.

I have had incidents of plagiarism in the past year in everything from introductory survey courses for freshman to graduate seminars. With first-year-students, I am extremely stern, but I am also careful to pay close attention to the root causes of the problem: is the student overscheduled? Overwhelmed? Unsure how to quote sources properly? The last is pretty easy to spot because there are typically markers in the paper that suggest an effort to show that the ideas are not all the student's own, although there is a deplorable lack of quotation marks and page number references. That is an easy problem to solve and a teachable moment.

But when a student stands in my office and says he or she "did not mean to copy" something that is cut and pasted from Wikipedia in complete verbatim paragraphs, I get so angry that I start to shake. Such copying cannot be inadvertent. And to say to my face that it was only compounds the lie by insisting that a deliberate action of laziness, inconsiderateness, and stealing was somehow an accident. And if said assertion comes from a graduate student who has no excuse for not knowing better? Steam begins to pour out of my ears as we speak.

Apart from loosing the wrath that is MommyTime Indignant on such students (and failing them for the assignment), I do not know how to stem what seems to me to be a growing problem.

As students every year are more and more internet savvy, they seem more and more likely to turn to online sources for a quick fix. It's terrible that there are term-paper sites online where you can purchase papers--canned ones on popular novels, or, for more money, custom written ones with the requisite number of sources. But it's even more problematic that students have figured out that there is a wealth of information out there that is free and ripe for picking--and that they have no internal compass to help them see the vast difference between "reading up" on a topic (a skill I am already teaching my four-year-old) and passing off someone else's intellectual property as one's own.

My students are on average extremely hard-working, first generation to go to college, putting themselves through school types. The vast majority of them have a very clear idea of the value of an education and would never dream of plagiarizing a paper. They would give me a speech on how this was wasting their own money if I asked. But the ones who do plagiarize, a small-but- growing minority, don't tend to pay for papers (I think) because there is so much out there that is free. That, actually, makes it easier for me to catch plagiarism. If I google suspect phrases, almost always, the first 2-3 hits turns out to be the site from which they copied the text; whereas with a bought paper, I would have a harder time tracking down the original source.

Some of these online sites even allow you to indicate a writing level, so that the paper's style will not be suspiciously above that of the level of the course. But students who are willing to plagiarize tend not to realize that writers have styles and that if they drop a paragraph in here or there that reads as if it is publishable quality (because it was actually already published), I will notice the abrupt change in style from their writing.

Call me crazy, but I would so much rather read something slightly less eloquent that is the product of a student's own mind than read an article by a famous scholar (badly) passed off as student work.

I have had a few occasions of a particularly absurd incident in the online class I teach, where students copy things directly from my lecture notes into their papers or exams. As if I would not notice that the lectures that I wrote were being handed to me credited to being written by someone else! It takes guts to do something like that. Or a complete lack of logical functioning in the brain.

I am almost at my wits' end, though. What do I do about this? I write complex paper topics that require comparisons of texts, the turning in of drafts, and analyses of particular scenes, in an effort to ensure that there is no single source that would be copy-able that really answers the question. I have plagiarism statements with the university's policy clearly spelled out on my syllabi. Now I am starting to feel like at the beginning of every semester, I have to have The Talk with the entire class, complete with involuntary shaking of my body and quavering fury in my voice to make an impression. But that doesn't really seem like the way to meet a class on the first day and start things off in the spirit of intellectual inquiry and respectful discussion.

I know that this is a problem too, in Blogland, which is why I'm posting now. Some of you may have had experience with this. What would you do not just to address the problem after it happens (I have plenty of means at my disposal for that) but to help nip it in the bud before it starts? What I want is to receive fewer plagiarized papers in the first place, so that I can stop being suspicious every time something wonderfully written comes across my desk. I want to get back to that time -- not so long ago -- when I could revel in my students' successes instead of always having a niggling thought at the back of my mind, "What if this work is all a lie, and I just haven't found the original source yet?" That isn't fair to my students, and it's exhausting for me.

I signed up to be a teacher, not the police. I want my original job back.


San Diego Momma said...

As a writer, I think plagiarism is that much more abhorrent. When I consider plagiarists, I think where's the pride in your work? How can you think so little of yourself that you need to take someone else's words and not craft your own. It's such a crime of laziness.

Perhaps warn your students that if they're caught stealing someone else's words, they will be required to write a paper on some obscure thesis -- (Why Gigantism is Understudied :) ) -- which doesn't lend itself so easily to plagiarism -- in order to get a grade in your class. Or, read them a paragraph from something and then watch them as they write their reaction to it. Perhaps then they'll learn to take pride in their own thoughts.


supertiff said...

i don't know why anyone would ever even try to plagiarize, when the result could be THAT YOU ARE EXPELLED FROM THE UNIVERSITY.
in other news, it was always my very favorite thing to read the nice notes that you mention in the margins of my own paper. i guess i'm a bit of a nerd.

LaskiGal said...

As a prof's assistant years ago, I graded my very own paper . . . it had another student's name on it. I was mortified. Angry. Frustrated. Long story on how she got it, but suffice it to say that it was way too easy.

As a teacher, I would encounter plagiarism all the time. I would easily find the original work online. Sometimes my students were so cavalier that they neglected to take out the online formatting before turning it in. Nice.

I would print out the web site, highlight the copied areas, staple it to their paper, mark their paper a "0" and write, "Not student's original work," and pass it back to them. No words.

My policy was to contact parents if plagiarism occurred. I didn't at first, but eventually I did it (and even sent them a copy of the material that was copied).

One parent actually came to me and claimed her son was stressed and felt pressured to do it. Really? By whom? She asked if he could do the assignment again. I said YES. He copied again . . . but was at least smart enough to remove the formatting. Just not smart enough for me not to catch him. Nice.

I could go on and on . . . but since that incident, there are NO second changes with plagiarism. It is stealing. Pure and simple.

Once students saw that I meant business and there were NO second chances and I had no problem letting them FAIL themselves, the incidences of plagiarism decreased significantly.

I also talked about it all the time and had students share their stories of having their words stolen/copied. Awareness helped

Sorry so long . . . like you, I am passionate about this topic.

auds at barking mad said...

I have so many thoughts on this topic that it will be a miracle if I can post them without sounding disjointed and rambling. But first, I could literally feel your frustration and ire through your words. I wish, every student entering your classroom could read those very words.

I echo San Diego Momma's sentiments about how deeply, as a writer, it cuts. It's intellectual robbery.

Having a daughter who is heading off to college in the fall, and being a writer myself, I worry about this from two different angles.

In her high school graduating class there were four students not allowed to walk during graduation due to plagarism. From my point of view, I thought the consequences were light. Discipline, in my opinion should have included automatic failure of the class.

I do worry, now that she's heading from high school, into a world where academic and especially written assignment expectations are going to make HS projects pale in comparison, that she will be tempted, especially with the prevelance of information and work available on the internet. She has never done anything like this before, but like I said, I know the temptation will be there. Will she be up to the challenge?

I am hoping, that having a mother who writes and a grandmother who writes in addition to being an attorney, will kill whatever desire there is, to plagarize someone else's work.

I also wonder if perhaps educators at the high school and primary school level need to better prepare our youth for what will be expected of them at the college and university level. I proofed every single written assignment she had this year...every paper, every essay and whilst my eldest is bright, I was astonished at her inability to put together a proper essay. And it didn't seem to matter to her teachers. As long as there were no glaring spelling, grammar or syntax errors, she got an A.

I hate to sound as if I'm insulting educators, but lately I've been astounded at the lack of expectation from teachers when it comes to not only content, but composition, format and style. Where's the guidance and preparation for what will be expected of a student once they enter university?

Finally...where is the expectation on the part of the student him/herself to ask more of themselves? Are we so afraid, as parents and teachers of being politically INCORRECT that we are shortchanging our children by not expecting their very best work, which includes the integrity to create their own unique work and not steal from someone else.

In the end, if we don't expect it from them, how can we expect them to set any standards for themselves?

MommyTime said...

Deb and Auds, I feel your pain as writers. I await with trepidation the day when a student hands me something with a bit from a published essay of mine copied into it. It is intellectual robbery, short and true, and it is something students should be deeply ashamed even to contemplate.

I also agree that there are multiple temptations: it is so very easy now AND there is so much pressure, as you both suggest.

LaskiGal, your methods seem so sound, and much like mine. I wish deterrence didn't have to come in the form of punishment for crimes already committed, though, and that there were ways to help them learn to be proud (as Deb suggests) of their own work so that they would be less tempted to do this in the first place.

As for standards, Auds, one of the problems is the change in composition theory about how students learn best to write: the thought is that teaching them rules and rote drills stifles the ability to express an idea. Hence, relative lack of concern over structural issues. Hence, I have to teach my students not only the conventions of writing about literature but also the basics of how to make a convincing argument using evidence in my college classrooms. I won't get into the turf war (lit vs. writing) about methods; but I will say that I think we generally do students a disservice if we teach them growing up that grammar and punctuation are completely inconsequential things. Students who cannot write a coherent paragraph cannot write a decent job letter and, hence, cannot get any job that requires more than a bright smile and an ability to pull of the color McDonald's Yellow.

As for Supertiff: you were a student of integrity, as you are a person of high standards and careful thinking. Sadly, this does not describe all students. Sadder still, they are not able to see or think of consequences till they've already made the mistake.

I very much look forward to other ideas that may get added to this discussion!

Mrs F with 4 said...

Back in the Dark Ages, it was made absolutely crystal clear at undergraduate and post-graduate level, that if we even CONSIDERED plagiarism, we were cooked. Done. Out of there. Forever.

We had great lecturers, who encouraged us to read around the subject, to bring that information to class, to discuss other people's ideas, research, quotes. we also knew the consequence for trying to pas off other's work as our own.

Perhaps it's a generational issue, in part (now I sound 98 years old), but we absolutely knew, without question, that it was wrong to steal - whether physical property, or intellectual.

I know that if my teachers gave me detention, I was in for big-time double-trouble at home, whereas I hear from colleagues now, that any hint that their child might not quite be an utter angel, leads to angry, and sometimes violent, confrontations with parents. Who are NOT on the side of the teacher.

Oops, I'm way off topic - but I wonder if it might not be related?

As to what you do about it, MT, I'd have to give that more thought.

Kaza said...

I know it, and it seems to get worse every semester. I'm about to teach my first online course, and suspect the problem might be even worse than usual.

Tara R. said...

When my college kid was still in HS, and taking AP English, she had to submit her work through a specific Web site. The way she explained it, this Web site could scan the submitted essays for plagiarism. How cool was that? I think you're right about freshmen, many just didn't learn proper research/citation methods and are totally lost when/if they get into college. But, stealing is stealing!

proseandconverse said...

As a hard-working student, the thought of other people plagiarising really chaps my hide, too.

Last semester, I took on online writing course and the professor ran everyone's papers through a program she had that automatically screens for it. If I can find the syllabus where she said what the program was called (it's a website, I think) I'll let you know- might save you a lot of Google time!

Stella said...

I teach high school and I could not agree with this post more! I abhor plagiarism and my students just don't get it.
It bothers me to no end to see that my kids think it's ok to put their name to someone else's work. I hate the lies and I hate that they have no respect for themselves or the other person!

calicobebop said...

My admiration for teachers grows every day. I'm thankful that there are teachers, like you, who genuinely wish to educate and not just produce students who will pass a certain test and raise the score for the school. I don't have any words of wisdom for you - but I can offer encouragement. Keep fighting the good fight and thank you!

Lisa said...

By the time a student reaches college, it will be VERY difficult to instill honesty into him. This is not very encouraging to you, but there is probably little you can do for your students to prevent their cheating. They needed to have better principles instilled in them as a child, along with better preparation for college.

The lack of moral teaching and the lack of grammar/composition teaching both stem from the same source. You mentioned it in a previous comment: not wanting to squelch self-expression (let's not be puritanical). But this is a myth.

Rules, when they are sensible, help us be better - more creative, more efficient, more free. You made this point yourself in your previous post on the rhythm of the day. You got more done with a few rules to structure your time. We all do. Grammar and composition rules, by making us intelligible, give us the freedom to express ourselves effectively. Moral rules, by pointing out the boundaries, free us from the trap of endless agonizing about what is the right thing to do. When we KNOW it is wrong to plagarize, our only choice is to do the work, so we stop dancing with temptation and just do it.

You can try to give your students some rules, of both kinds, but the sad truth is that it is much more difficult to learn and keep these things at 18 or 23 than it is at 2 or 4 or 10.

So, the best thing we all can do to minimize plagarism is to teach our children what is right...in grammar and in morals, and hope that they will spread that to their peers and their own children.

lattemommy said...

Despite the fact that I am no longer in university, I have found myself thinking about this topic often in the last couple of years. It makes me very sad, for many reasons.

I think some of it stems from the fact that the "internet generation" thinks that what is out there on the web is public property. It's as much theirs as it is anyone else's. They just don't see how the expression of ideas can be intellectual property.

Remember: this is the same generation that thinks that music file sharing and downloading music without paying for it is ok. That it is not stealing. That the musician does not have a right to see royalties from their work. That it is the musician's responsibility to "keep up with emerging technologies", and if they don't then too bad. Ridiculous.


Sorry, now I'm getting worked up. Time for me to stop.

BusyDad said...

First, I must compliment you on your new look. Very classy! I can't imagine how easy it must to plagarize in this day and age. When I went to college, at least you had to go thru the effort of re-typing from text (not that I did that!!!). Nowadays, it's just a few clicks of the mouse. It's pretty scary. But really, in the end, like you said, you are just cheating yourself of an education. Makes no sense. I can see how this just creates cynicism towards brilliance, which is totally sad.

Cocoa said...

Like the new look!

I wonder what ethics a person was taught to even consider plagiarizing in the first place. Apparently, basic moral values of right and wrong - it's right to tell the truth, wrong to tell a lie - have not been drilled into them.

Amber said...

It is a whole different world than when we were students. I remember being so paranoid about plagiarism that I would go out of my way to change up every little sentence I researched. As an educator, this would be soooo frustrating!

And thanks for the tip of having an asthmatic reaction to my allergies--this diagnosis resonates with me and I'll suggest it my next appointment!

LceeL said...

I have a son who'll be headed off to college before too long. I am going to point him at this post. He has Asbergers Syndrome and with it he has issues related to writing and handling longer term writing assignments. I am so afraid he will resort to plagarism. Perhaps, if he understands the real harm he would do by doing such a thing, he will be prevented before the temptation arises.

Ok, Where Was I? said...

Ugh, I'm having such flashbacks. I hate it the most b/c it's so time consuming. Do you do something, not do anything? I always failed students for the course, but it's so hard for them to get punished beyond b/c they appeal to a group of their peers in whatever the student governing body is, and they get out of the punishment--ie, get rid of the F and take the class again.

I got so tired of paper work and endless emails about it after finding a student that I just found other ways to fail the paper--not hard b/c they almost never fulfill the assignment anyway. It doesn't directly address the P issue, but it sure saves a lot of time.

foolery said...

I think it's safe to say that if a college student plagiarizes, it's not their first time doing it, and the trouble started long before they got to you.

I once had the unenviable task of telling a wholesaler that his salesman Lou was cheating me, and, although the sales in question were not of this wholesaler's goods, it could reflect poorly on his business name. He sighed and thanked me for telling him, and then he told me something that has stayed with me. He said that the salesman Lou was a man of very high integrity for decades, who had gotten into serious financial difficulty. "Lou cut a moral corner one time," the wholesaler told me, "and it nearly killed him to do it. Lou said 'never again.' But the next time was just a bit easier, and then still easier, and so on."

Had the consequences been devastating the first time Lou cheated someone, Lou would never have done it again. I think these issues need to be addressed WAY before they get to your level, Miss MT, but since they aren't, you are the unlucky soul who gets to deal the harsh punishment. So sorry it has to be that way for you!

MommyTime said...

So many wonderful and thoughtful comments that I hardly know where to begin. I did want to pick up on an important point that Lisa and others have made, though: this is a moral issue on the part of students as much as it is one of laziness or desperation. And I can't teach any of those things necessarily. But I do try. I've called out seven cheating students in the last week. Their responses are fascinating...from contrition to complete defiance. The former will probably learn something from this; the latter will not. But I cannot teach what they are not willing to learn, and I cannot bear the burden of their own lack of moral compass, though it makes me very sad to realize this. Thank you all so much for your supporting, helpful, really thoughtful ideas.


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