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Water Logic

“In the University of Laurie, the purpose of the law truly is rehabilitation.” – Laurie

“In the University of Laurie, the purpose of the law truly is rehabilitation.” – Laurie

The University of Laurie (page 3)

Someone asked Laurie her opinion of the problem of plagiarism, and she answered the question with this short essay.

On Not Cheating a Cheating Student
by Laurie J. Marks, March 2007

I teach writing to college freshmen, and so the problem of plagiarism is very much my problem. My university has a strict policy on academic dishonesty, and even if a student isn't expelled for plagiarism, his or her name goes onto a watch list. However, I don't want cheating to be my primary concern – I imagine my job as more like gardening than it is like policing. Therefore, I have a few mechanisms in place to make cheating practically impossible, so I don't have to think about it. However, to make a radical understatement, writing is hard. For those students who have managed to slip through their years of education without doing any real thinking up until this point, my class acts as a fishing weir. Unfortunately, when they're caught in the net, these weaker students do cheat, for they have no other strategies at their disposal.

Most of the time, I can maintain my fond illusion that course registration has been rigged so that every semester I wind up with the best students in the university. But once a semester or so, someone inevitably tears through my delusions by plagiarizing. After I've recovered from the shock and horror, I turn my anger upon the educators who have failed to fail them during the previous 13 years. And then I fail the student and report him/her to the proper authorities, miserable though that makes me. It helps my misery if I remind myself of something said by a talented psychotherapist I once knew, who provided court-required therapy to batterers: “God speaks to you through the SWAT team.”

(If I get a weeping student in my office, however, I may skip the SWAT team approach and put her – usually her – on probation, including required weekly meetings not with a probation officer, but with a tutor. In the University of Laurie, the purpose of the law truly is rehabilitation.)

People with chalk dust in their hair will now demand that I describe my plagiarism prevention mechanisms, but even a reader who's not a teacher may find this description intriguing, because it reveals something about why teaching is so damned hard. I call these mechanisms because they're either embedded in the course design, or else they're lurking on the sidelines waiting to be called into service. These mechanisms come in two types: The Stick and The Carrot.

The Stick: I talk to the class as a whole about when and how it becomes tempting to plagiarize, about what to do should they find themselves wanting to do it, and how to keep themselves from becoming that desperate in the first place. (Don't deny the fact that you're in trouble until it's too late to do anything about it; get help early and often if you think this will be a tough class; trust that I actually want you to learn how to do the things you can't do.) U-Mass Boston has been beta-testing software called Turnitin that compares student papers to everything on the Internet and also to papers written by other students at the university. I haven't actually used the software and have no clue how well it works, but I have an entry in my syllabus that tells students I am using it, which at least helps make it real to the students that they actually will get caught cheating. The penalties for plagiarism are in my syllabus and I discuss them in class.

The Carrot: I know within the first couple of weeks which students are going to struggle, and I hook them up with the tutor and do everything an overworked writing teacher can do to keep an eye on their progress. I design the assignments so they are sequenced as an incremental progression from the simple and manageable to the complex and challenging. For example, my students now are writing essays in which they apply a neurobiologist's theory – that our brains are prone to certain glitches ("cognitive flaws") – to historical evidence related to the decision to enter the war in Iraq. The assignment question is, “How did cognitive flaws contribute to the decision to enter the war in Iraq?”

It's not an easy assignment, but besides the readings and class discussions, they have already written seven shorter and simpler papers that are relevant to this topic, and I have talked to each of them a couple of times about their ideas, and therefore this should be a doable project for them. Finally, drafts are required – I will not grade a paper that hasn't been previously submitted as a draft – and before I switched to all-electronic papers, I required them to submit the draft with the revision so I could compare them to each other. (Now I simply save their drafts on my computer and refer to them when I need to.) I still get a couple of plagiarized paper a year (out of 150+ students), but I think that's way below average.

I fear that the students who would normally plagiarize their way through the class are simply withdrawing and then going shopping for a teacher who will be easier to fool. There's not much I can do about that.