But that’s cheating!

Last spring, I encountered a case of plagiarism in one of my Cont. Ed. courses; for an essay assignment, a student submitted a slightly reworded version of an on-line essay available through one of the many Internet study guide sites. At the time, I posted my response, which provoked a few cheers from some of you.
The following addresses the issue of academic ethics in the context of the Internet, and is my first journal entry for the latest M.Ed. course I’m taking, ‘IT and the College Classroom.’ There’s also an interesting thread dealing with academic ethics over on Siobhan’s blog, so if you can still stand looking at your screen once you’re done here, go check it out.
The advent of the Internet has had a profound effect on education, and this effect is both positive and negative. In positive terms, the Internet has exponentially expanded our academic horizons. We have access to research and commentary from fellow academics from around the world. We can read out-of-print books, see rare film adaptations, and hear long-forgotten radio plays, thanks to the ongoing global academic effort to share more and more knowledge among more and more people. The academy in particular, perhaps, benefits from the same non-profit-oriented open source spirit that has given us free software such as Open Office, Linux and Moodle.

The negative aspect of all of this sharing is that it’s now exponentially easier to find a 500-word essay on the symbolic nature of setting in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ In the current Cegep system, students take English courses because they are required to do so. The Ministry of Education (and Leisure and Sports, but that’s another rant), correctly places supreme importance on the students’ ability to communicate in the language of instruction, hence the requirement not only to complete four English courses, but also to prove proficiency in a provincial exit exam that tests students’ ability to read and write analytically. However, the reasons for the requirements – however good the reasons may be – are not communicated effectively to the students, or, for that matter, to teachers in other disciplines. As a result, students take English courses, resenting the time and effort required. They avoid reading as much as possible unless the instructor builds reading quizzes into the syllabus, and they look for shortcuts when it comes to writing assignments. Since they don’t see how and why English courses are important, students tend to place their English homework at the bottom of their list of priorities, which leaves them scrambling to finish assignments at the last minute – enter the on-line essay fix. Presumably, the rationale is that if the student cannot conceivably complete the assignment in the remaining time, submitting a plagiarized essay is a viable option because the worst that can happen is that the teacher will ‘catch’ the student and give the essay a zero – at which point the student will present his/her sob story about academic pressures and/or problems at home, and hope that the teacher will allow them to resubmit. The best case scenario, obviously, is that the teacher doesn’t recognize the plagiarism and assigns a high grade for such insightful, well-written work.
What this comes down to is a few more responsibilities for the teacher. First of all, English teachers in particular, and all teachers in general, should explain and reiterate the importance of communication skills. Regardless of a student’s discipline, s/he will need to develop these skills if s/he is to be successful in the world outside the academy; in fact, the high-tech revolution has made this truism even more relevant. If you can’t communicate effectively, as a listener, a speaker, a reader and a writer, you won’t get very far in the virtually-expanded world. Secondly, teachers – again, across disciplines – need to work together to define academic ethics in this “new” academy. Before we start disciplining students for perceived missteps in their use of Internet sources, we need, individually and collectively, to determine what constitutes appropriate use of these sources. Finally, we need to recognize that our job includes teaching students how to successfully and effectively exploit the apparently limitless resources of the Internet. In the past, English teachers have taught students how to use on-campus library facilities, and how to collect and incorporate a limited number of sources from ‘hard’ texts, such as books, magazines and newspapers. It only follows, then, that today’s English teachers should be teaching students how to apply the same skills to web-based resources. After all, it would be remiss of us to overlook the fact that with rare exception, our students have unlimited Internet access – and they can count on one hand the number of times they’ve stepped into a library to do research. So rather than simply vetoing all web resources lest these resources prove inappropriate or inaccurate, not to mention too easily copied and pasted and submitted as student work, teachers need deliberately and aggressively to teach students how to navigate search engines, evaluate web resources, effectively incorporate sources, and correctly document these sources to avoid any possible whiff of plagiarism.

7 Replies to “But that’s cheating!”

  1. I almost totally agree with you. I agree that students need to be taught how to use and document all resources effectively, but I’m no longer sure that English teachers are the ones who should be doing this. I feel like all high school and CEGEP students should be required to take a specific course, perhaps similar to the Research Methods course Social Science students have to take, in which they learn to navigate, utilize and document all forms of information available to them, from the internet to the radio to newspapers to scholarly encyclopedias, but with a particular emphasis on online info. I think librarians might be the best people to teach these skills (I took my students to a library and research information session with one of our delightful research librarians, and found myself wishing I’d gone long before, as I learned so much stuff.) I feel like there are skills involved that go beyond the provenance of the “research paper writing” courses I took when I was in high school, and I think maybe there are specialists more qualified than we are to teach those skills.

  2. BTW, I came face-to-face with a level of “shared information” mentality that boggled me this week, and that made me think that the problem is (even) larger than I’ve been willing to accept. I’ll post about it sometime soon, but, in brief, after giving my students a talk about coming to class prepared, and telling them that, to demonstrate the consequences of coming to class unpreparead, we were going to do no group work for the next few classes and all students would be responsible for their individual work, I watched as students tried to discreetly pass papers to each other, shift their desks together, and turn around to consult what their friends were doing; I corrected their work yesterday, and, out of the 16 students who showed up that day, only 2 are getting full credit for doing individual, complete work. There are too many ramifications/interpretations to get into here (and I know there are issues with my way of handling it), but it brings me back to the days when I was a student teacher in an elementary ESL class and the teacher told me, “They’re going to cheat no matter what you do; don’t waste your energy trying to prevent it.”

  3. There may well be people better qualified to teach these skills to our students, but the fact is that for now, at least, such a course – or series of courses – doesn’t exist, which leaves us, and perhaps the Humanities teachers. Also, I would argue that at the Cegep level, our primary goal as English teachers is to help our students become better communicators; while our own academic backgrounds are testament to our love of literature, our students need us to teach them reading, writing and analysis. Literature, then, is the means rather than the end.
    I’m not assuming, by the way, that you’re advocating a literary classroom to the exclusion of all else; I’m just riffing on your response.
    I would also argue that yes, other people have specific training in RM, but then, the first time you or I taught grammar, we were treading into unfamiliar territory. We may be able to use grammar, but before we taught others about grammar, could we have explained why comma splices are bad or whether or not it was OK to end a sentence with a preposition?
    A final point: recent (i.e., in the last 15 years) reforms within the Cegep system have increasingly limited students’ options for course selection. Once upon a time, students were free to take English and Humanities courses based on interest, and could choose four complementaries from any discipline other than their own. Today, students are more and more restricted; they’re down to two complementaries, from a pre-determined list selected for specific disciplines. At the same time, they’re urged to finish in four semesters, so that they end up overloaded in their middle semesters. Where do we fit in the study & research skills course?
    As I said, I absolutely agree that such a course would be a significant benefit to all students, but I wonder about its feasibility in the current system. Wanna start a revolution with me?

  4. I agree with both of you. SC is right that, ideally, we shouldn’t be taking class time away from our subject to teach RM. We should be campaigning the Ministry for a mandatory RM course (perhaps the first term’s Humanities?). To complete the course, students would have to demonstrate an ability to quote, paraphrase and cite sources correctly and would be required to sign a contract stating that they understand what plagiarism is. On the other hand, as Maggie says, no mandatory RM course yet exists, and we have to deal with the reality of that. I would add that just as we hope our colleagues mark their assignments for grammar and structure, as well as content (literacy across the curriculum and all that), so we should encourage good RM methods whenever we can in our courses (RM across the curriculum). I’ve taken the stance that the Block-B course is the perfect place for this, and I spend no small amount of time teaching RM methods in mine. It is, however, an exhausting job, as I check almost every line of their final research projects to make sure that they’ve correctly paraphrased and/or cited sources. The ideal would be if we had decent software (the one we have at my college is not decent) to check for plagiarism, thus taking an onerous job out of our hands to some degree.

  5. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I love your suggested punishment for plagiarism Maggie! Not only might it deter potential plagiarists, it would be incredibly cathartic for the teacher!

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