It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

Well, here we are again, at that time of year when we think about the last semester and prepare for the next.  Part of this process, of course, is evaluating the successes and failures of the past; however, another part of this process is complaining.  And one very common complaint, from what I have seen, involves the plague of plagiarism.

I’ve been lucky; I have taught at a wide variety of schools, with very different programs.  I have met many excellent teachers with diverse approaches to the classroom.  But one similarity between all of those programs has been the presence of a Plagiarism Hunter.  The Plagiarism Hunter is conversant with the variety of online resources to root out plagiarists; he/she spends a great deal of time looking for, sometimes finding, and then in almost every case prosecuting suspected plagiarists.  In some cases, these people push for department and/or university policies designed to punish plagiarists.  I have sat through department, faculty senate, and various committee meetings where plagiarism was hotly discussed, at times leading to rather contentious lines being drawn and policies being enacted.

I would like to use this post to announce that, well, I just don’t care.

That’s right.  I don’t care, not one little bit, about plagiarism.  Not in the least.  I spend no time looking for it, almost no time finding it, and only once in my 16-year career have I ever prosecuted a plagiarism case.

One reason for this, I will admit, is time.  I teach four courses every semester (and one over the summer), with caps ranging from 20 to 29.  I generally have around 100 students every semester, and those students complete multiple assignments.  I am not going to spend my time feeding all of that work into the various online plagiarism detection venues.  I have other things I’d rather spend my time doing, some of them work-related, some of them not; but the idea of spending any time hunting down possible plagiarists doesn’t appeal to me in any way.

And that’s because the second reason – the more important reason – why I don’t do this is because I also don’t care about grades.  Yes, I want all of my students to earn high marks and do well.  What I mean to say is that, in my opinion, the grade is not the goal; the education is.  And when students plagiarize in order to earn high grades, they do so in order to obtain something I place no value in.  And as a result, they lose out on what it is that I value most.  Those students may earn good grades, but they lose out on an education.  I don’t get angry at such students; rather, I feel sorry for them.

I understand that, for many people, grades are important, and rightly so.  Student athletes, scholarship students, and student leaders must maintain their GPAs.  Housing and registration priority are sometimes given to those with a high GPA.  Future employers and graduate admissions committees might place value on grades.  Grades, I recognize, do have tangible benefits that students can and should value.  However, those are not my central concerns.  My concern is with educating students; evaluating them is a necessary part of the job.

The way I see it, when a student plagiarizes, that student takes something to which I attach no value: the grade.  And the student loses something to which I attach a great deal of value: the education.  If I were to hunt down and prosecute plagiarists, I would essentially concede the point that the grade is valued over the education.  I would admit that assessment is more valuable than education.  I would announce to the student that the student – the plagiarist – has the correct view of the college experience, defining college as a means to accumulate grades at the expense of learning.  And to be honest, that doesn’t at all appeal to me.

But, I can hear some of you asking, doesn’t the student “get away with it”?  Maybe.  I’ll concede that perhaps some students in the past have successfully cheated in my classes, have earned grades they didn’t deserve.  It’s like they have stolen something, but not anything of value.  I don’t take it personally (as many Plagiarism Hunters seem to do), because I haven’t lost anything.  I don’t feel bad for the students who earned their grades (again, as many Plagiarism Hunters seem to do), because those students have also not lost out on anything.  In fact, those students are the ones who leave my class with something truly valuable.

Don’t think, however, that I do not have some structure to my course to minimize plagiarism. It’s just that my pedagogy isn’t designed with that in mind.  In my lower-division courses, assignments come directly out of class discussion; student writing is an extension of what we do in the classroom.  In my upper-division classes, students work in stages, (ideally) drafting their work over time.  These efforts very likely diminish the possibility of plagiarism, but that for me is a by-product.*  I choose to focus on how these measures improve student work, assist learning, and help students to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.

Whenever I think about plagiarism, I always think of Prof. Ann Charters and her graduate seminar in Post-War American Literature.  At the start of the semester, Annie told us that she had already given everyone in the class an A.  Now freed from the concerns of our GPA or figuring out how she might grade and what she might value in our work, we could spend the semester exploring what pleased us.  We were free to write as much – or as little – as we so chose.  For most of us, this was a wonderful experience.  Many of us used this freedom to try and do something experimental, or to explore in a direction new and unfamiliar to us, or to lay the groundwork for long-term projects (publications, dissertations, etc.).  One poor student, however, took this as a blow-off course, an easy A that allowed him the time to do other things.**  Yes, this student earned an A.  But so what?  In the end, he lost out.  As an early scholar of and participant in the Beat Movement, Annie was intimately familiar with the material, the movement, and the social/political context.  I learned more in that class than in most other classes.  And I’m convinced I would not have learned as much without the freedom to explore.***

OK, but what does any of this have to do with creativity?  Well, one of my complaints against the contemporary university is the focus on administration over education, assessment over learning, the degree over the material.****  The more time I have to spend on designing course policies that are not focused on the material, the more time I have to spend policing student behavior, and the more time I spend thinking of my students as potential cheaters as opposed to potential learners…the more I become part of the administrative machine I loathe.  I’d much rather spend my time finding new ways to engage the students, new ways to present the material, or find new material to incorporate into my classes.  From where I sit, Plagiarism Hunting has nothing to do with the job I was hired to do.  I’m not a policy policeman, and I take no pleasure (as many seem to do) in punishing plagiarists.  If I have to be a gatekeeper, I want to blow the gate wide open, admit everyone who shows up, and spend my time focusing on those who want to learn.  And if this means that sometimes, some students may slip through the cracks and be assigned grades they didn’t earn…I’m fine with that.  Those are not the students I am concerned with, and those are not the cracks I want to police.

*It has happened that students in the past have turned in work that had nothing to do with what was discussed in class or drafted over time.  However, those students almsot always do poorly.  Never once have I suspected such work of being plagiarized.  And if it was, then those students are doubly-cursed, for they have lost out on an education and done a poor job of cheating.

**These other things must have been tiring, because I remember he spent much of one class sleeping.

***I spent the semester researching environmental writings from the 1960s.  It was all very cool, and in some cases very, very depressing.

****For similar reasons, I also don’t have an attendance policy.  Attend or not, as you see fit.  But I do not penalize students for lack of attendance.  The way I see it, they can’t learn if they don’t attend, so they are already penalized.  And those who value grades over education won’t earn good grades if they aren’t there to learn the material.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

  1. I think we may have had this conversation once or twice before, but I have to disagree with you here, Jim. Don’t get me wrong–I understand the need for student accountability and the desire to increase intrinsic motivation, but don’t our courses lose a bit of credibility if we give up on enforcing academic integrity? As scholars, don’t we have some kind of obligation to protect the idea of intellectual property and to have our courses be models for ethical research? I’m not a “Plagiarism Hunter,” to be sure, and I have been a vocal critic of software like turnitin.com that assumes students are guilty until proven innocent. On the other hand, I care deeply about the production of knowledge, as I know you do, and I think our courses should be microcosms of what we hope the world of scholarship can be.

  2. “I think our courses should be microcosms of what we hope the world of scholarship can be.”

    Agreed. And I like to think that I do model what I want the world of scholarship to be. And that’s why I don’t care about grades; the academic world beyond our classroom isn’t invested in grades. (Though imagine how odd it would be if every publication also came with a letter grade from the editorial board.) I guess my rebuttal would be that students who plagiarize are not taking part in the “world of scholarship” by neither critically engaging with nor producing scholarship. All they are doing is repeating it; they are parrots who produce sound with no concept of the sense. Unless that plagiarized work is being sent off for publication – or perhaps sent off as a writing sample for graduate school – I can’t see how plagiarized student work has any bearing on the larger “world of scholarship,” any more than a parrot can be said to contributing to the development of language.

  3. I completely agree with you about grades. I even bandied about the idea of contract grading this semester for just that idea. Ultimately, I have decided against it, but only for logistical reasons. I still believe that we need to find the key to intrinsic motivation, however.

    I understand what you’re saying with the parrot analogy, but I DO believe my students are producing scholarship. In some cases, I get papers that simply spit back others’ ideas to me; in most cases I get authentic arguments that are smart but not necessarily original; and in rare cases, I get the brilliant, original argument that could be sent out for consideration at a journal after significant revision.

    I guess I see everything produced in my class as undergraduate research of one kind (and level) or another, which is why I view plagiarism as a complete subversion of the scholarly values I’m trying to establish.

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