Chronicle writer Marc Perry’s “NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash” will certainly elicit polarized reactions (as it already has in the comments section), but it’s imperative that humanities educators, especially those who teach writing-intensive courses, recognize that dealing with cheating/plagiarism can be a huge time-suck and can lead to a hostile classroom environment. Our time should be devoted to those who don’t cheat, and students shouldn’t feel like we spend our after-hours vetting their papers with McCarthyist zeal.
Though I’ve been teaching college writing classes for only three years, I had to learn very quickly how to avoid such situations, and I thought that I’d share my methods for minimizing the effort and controversy in dealing with plagiarism. As a qualifier, I’ll add that I’ve taught only entry-level (freshman and sophomore) classes; my recommendations don’t apply as cleanly to upper-class (junior and senior) courses, which assume (rightly or wrongly) that students understand the basic ethical tenets of college education.
1. Make the class plagiarism policy crystal clear in the syllabus. This seems like a “duh” piece of advice, but I’ve seen many syllabi vaguely and hastily gloss over plagiarism. If what counts as plagiarism and what will happen if the student plagiarizes both are spelled out in the class’ constitutional or charter document, students will much less likely (a) be confused as to what is and isn’t plagiarism, and (b) use (a) as a viable excuse when they’re caught plagiarizing. I even go so far as to include a document that reiterates this information that the students must sign and return to me (it’s a daily grade in addition to my policy that I will not grade any major assignments until it is signed and returned to me).
2. Design assignments that don’t lend themselves to easy plagiarism. In my syllabi, I’ve indicated that because of how I design my assignments, it will take a student much more time and effort to plagiarize well enough to trick me than it would take simply to do the assignment fairly. Plagiarism happens for many reasons, but the biggest are (1) lack of preparation for college-level work, and (2) ease of access to the means to plagiarize (procrastination is the biggest situational reason, I think). Open-ended assignments that can be found by the hundreds on the Internet should be avoided in favor of assignments that are tailored to the specific content and design of the class. For example, in my research and argumentation class, I forego the standard rhetorical analysis of a general issue in favor of a rhetorical analysis of a specific argumentative source from the students’ annotated bibliographies. In a literature course, requiring that students base their essays on several of the primary and secondary texts discussed in class is a good idea.
3. When in doubt, Google it. Whenever I’d read a passage from a student’s paper that sounded fishy, I’d Google a fragment of the passage in quotation marks: something unique enough that it probably won’t be a common sequence of words found in a lot of documents. Most plagiarism is lazy plagiarism, and this simple method catches lazy plagiarism 100% of the time. I can count on one hand the number of plagiarism cases that weren’t simple copy/paste jobs. This requires that we make an effort to “get to know” our students’ writing over the course of a semester, but it’s hard not to in a writing-intensive course.
4. When plagiarism happens, make it very clear to the student that nothing is up for debate. Whenever I catch a student plagiarizing, I make an appointment to sit down with her or him privately. At the outset, I explain that the conversation is purely informative in nature. I have everything ready and in front of me: the plagiarized paper, the source(s) from which the student plagiarized, the syllabus, and the form that the student signed at the beginning of the semester. Sure, the student will probably try to mount a defense, but polite and diplomatic insistence that nothing is up for debate pretty quickly shuts down any resistance (you should also prepare for the awkwardness of the student getting teary-eyed*). At the meeting’s conclusion, I advise the student on what s/he should do for the rest of the semester. For me, these meetings take about five minutes on average, and never more than ten minutes.
Cheating, of course, will never be eliminated. But I do think that it’s a quality control aspect of our jobs as educators to make sure that unethical behavior is not rewarded with credits or a credential. On the other hand, time/energy spent on bad apples is time/energy not spent on good eggs. It’s all about labor- and energy-saving steps so that those tiresome and/or hostile situations don’t arise nearly as often as they could.
As a closing note, I’d love to hear about what you, dear Reader, think about reducing plagiarism opportunities and controversies, especially in the literature classroom.