As the new semester creeps nearer, I’m starting to think about plagiarism again. My use of Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-detection software, is helping me relax a bit – last semester, the software made discovering plagiarism, and talking to students about it, a lot easier. However, cheating is a perennial source of anxiety for most teachers, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is causing me to re-think my approach yet again.
In Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism, Rob Jenkins asks if it’s necessary for us to focus so much of our energy on student cheating.
“Of course I care about plagiarism, and I certainly take steps to deal with plagiarists once I have sufficient proof. But I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about plagiarism or trying to catch students at it. I’d prefer to direct my time and energy toward something more positive, such as actually teaching the subject I’ve been hired to teach.”
Jenkins then goes on to list steps he uses to deal with plagiarism, most of which are common-sensical: put your plagiarism policy in your syllabus, talk about plagiarism on the first day but not only on the first day, design assignments that make plagiarism difficult. I do all these things. It’s his final point that really makes me think.
“Let it go. If some students take unfair advantage of the fact that I let them do most of their writing outside of class, or that I don’t use Turnitin, so be it. It’s not that I don’t care. I do… When I say ‘let it go,’ I mean that in the metaphysical sense. I’m not saying you should ignore clear cases of plagiarism. But the truth is, there aren’t many clear cases of plagiarism. Most cases are borderline, at best. It’s also true that, no matter what you do to deter cheating, some students are going to find a way around it. You can go crazy thinking about that all the time.”
I’m almost ready to embrace that philosophy. Unlike Jenkins, however, I find that Turnitin.com makes relaxing about plagiarism easier. Jenkins says he doesn’t use it mostly because it creates an atmosphere of mistrust, but talking about plagiarism at all creates the same problem.
I used to get complaints from students about the fact that I mention plagiarism more than once and have them sign contracts stating that they understand what constitutes cheating and what will happen if they do it. I think these complaints are warranted, and now, I always reiterate several times that I know most of my students would never cheat, and that they have every right to be insulted by the implication, but that I need to do everything I can to protect people who do their work honestly. That includes having them submit their papers to a program that will help me identify plagiarism.
Turnitin allows me to stop obsessing over every line that is atypically erudite or awkwardly shoehorned in. If the program doesn’t find something, I usually feel like due diligence has been done. Also, simply having students submit through Turnitin makes them less likely to copy things, so I feel I can relax a bit about the whole problem.
What’s more, there’s something about the use of a software program that allows me to step away from cheating and take it less personally. I know, intellectually, that it’s not personal when they cheat, but I can’t help feeling outraged and hurt, especially when I need to waste my valuable grading time looking for plagiarized sources or comparing two student papers line-by-line. A student who submits a plagiarized paper to Turnitin is not so much saying that he thinks I, the teacher, am a dupe. He is saying that either a) he believes his cheating skills are invincible (and who knows? He may be right this time) or b) he feels this is his only recourse, so he’s going to cross his fingers and take his chances, or c) he somehow still doesn’t understand what cheating is or what’s wrong with it, or d) he just doesn’t give a damn. It’s hard to take this personally, and when I call him into my office, the printouts covered with highlighted “matches” usually head off any attempts on his part to make it so.
A perfect solution? No. There are those who object to the fact that Turnitin stores student work, and others who will have noticed that it doesn’t catch everything. For now, though, I’m grateful for anything that, as Jenkins says, lets me worry less about cheating and more about doing my job. “Either you can be a teacher or you can be the plagiarism police,” he says. Well, I may still have to be a bit of both, but I know I’d rather be mostly the former, and the latter only when it’s unavoidable.
What are your plans for dealing with plagiarism this year? Are you obsessed, or can you find ways to “let it go” so that it doesn’t colour everything you do?
Yes, plagiarism can make a teacher crazy. If you’re not convinced, check out some of my real-life cheating-in-the-classroom stories here, here, here, and here.
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Image by Manoel Nato