Monday, February 19, 2007

Why does it make me so mad when they cheat?

Recently, I met with someone who thought her student had plagiarized a research paper. It was a hunch based on the consistency of voice and sophisticated level of diction in the paper. Unfortunately, the student hadn't turned in many previous assignments and hadn't done a first draft as assigned, so the professor had little to compare this sample to. She wasn't sure how to approach the student, given that she had no "proof." She wondered if she could just give the student a zero for that assignment.

She was also concerned about dealing with the student because of her own, somewhat unexpected, emotional reaction her suspicion had triggered. She felt angry and disappointed. Maybe even a little hurt. I've had similar reactions to my students' drafts -- even when I haven't suspected plagiarism. Many a night, bleary-eyed and surrounded by stacks of first drafts and rubrics, I've taken personally their poorly and seemingly hastily written drafts. I've despaired at my failure as a teacher and/or fumed at their laziness as students.

Usually the voice of reason interjects in these situations (my dear spouse) and reminds me that the issue is neither as black and white as I make it out to be, nor as dire a situation as it feels to me after three hours of grading. And he's right; the drafting process affords (and often delivers) the wonderful possibility of improvement and growth.

And plagiarism is rarely as simple as a student purchasing a paper off the internet or copying directly from a source. To be sure, there are gradations of intent involved in plagiarism, as well.

In the case of my frinq friend, we tried googling some sentences in the paper to see if it was copied directly off a searchable site (it wasn't). We also went to the student's bibliography to see if the sources were real (they were), if they were available at the PSU library (they were), and whether we could recognzize any verbiage from the paper (we could).

We found several things:
1. None of the phrases were verbatim, rather they were from internet sources listed in the bib. They were failed attempts at paraphrase, since they were simply the source's words in rearranged syntax (hence the suspicious level of diction).
2. The student hadn't cited some sources properly in her bibliography so that we could actually track them down, i.e. include database information.
3. The biggest problem was actually that the paper didn't meet the criteria of the assignment. It was a report, not a research paper. There was no thesis, there was no indication of the writer's inquiry or interpretation of the source material.

Here is the plan we came up for this instructor:
1. Ask the student to come in for a meeting and to bring her sources. Ask her how/where she found them. Point out that her current bib doesn't allow the reader to be able to easily track down these sources.
2. Ask the student about in-text citations and paraphrase. Ask her where her own ideas occur. In places that don't sound like a student, ask her, "are these your ideas or someone else's?" If someone else's, whose?
3. Tell the student that this will be considered her first draft and that she must rewrite it for credit for a second draft. Point out how it misses the requirements of the assignment. Talk to her about thesis and inquiry.

Rather than accusing the student, asking her questions helps the instructor understand what actions may be intentional and unintentional. It also gives the instructor an opportunity to fill in gaps when students forget, miss, or misunderstand information from the class.
Asking her to rewrite the paper doesn't let her off the hook; it affords her the opportunity to practice the rhetorical goals of the assignment -- we generally assign papers because we want students to learn how to do a certain writing/researching task, not just so we can give them a score.

I encourage faculty who suspect a student of plagiarizing to contact me. I'm happy to be a second set of eyes and a co-investigator, and sounding board. Also, contact me for ideas to create assignment sequences that make plagiarism difficult or simply not worth the effort.

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