Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Day 59 (Round IV) "In the trenches": 'tis the season edition

Sigh. We're into the season again: here's a (redacted) version of an email I sent to my staff yesterday:


"In response to one of our colleagues who wanted feedback about coping with plagiarized material in a student submission, I wrote-up a fairly detailed "best-practices" document describing how I've handled it over the past 9 years here . I am reasonably confident that what I've laid out represents ONE (only one) reasonably effective way of coping with the seeming inevitability of student plagiarism. Remember that now, nearing the end of the semester, is precisely the season when we are most likely to see it: be on the lookout for it, and, if you uncover some, feel free to review my document on the wiki [link].

Coping with plagiarism

In academia, occasional violations of ethics are bound to occur; unfortunately, they have become only more common with the advent of a digital "cut-and-paste" composition method.

However, there are good, and not-so-good, ways to handle this. If you find yourself in the position of having to confront an instance of plagiarism, begin by asking yourself some questions:

  • What percentage of the final grade is the assignment worth?
  • What is the deadline?
  • What has been the nature of this student's work otherwise: good, bad, or in the middle?
  • Do you have a "read" on why this person might have plagiarized: panic, criminality, insufficient understanding of academic ethics, other?
Answers to the above, while irrelevant to the severity of the crime, may give you a preliminary sense of the degree of severity with which you wish to respond.

I'm pasting in below the specific language in our syllabi, which is there not because we must enforce it to the letter of the law, but so that we can--while also providing the option of lightening up if our best pedagogical opinion suggests otherwise.

If you uncover a documentable example of plagiarism, I would suggest that you wait until you have returned the assignments; hold the culprit’s back. At the end of class, if the student asks for it, say "you need to set up an appointment to talk to me about your paper"; do not give back the paper. Make the appointment for at least a day or two later, not right away.

On the appointment day, have the student meet you at your office; have a photocopy of the student’s paper, with the plagiarized sections marked, and sample printouts from which the student copied. Sit the student down, put both the student’s xeroxed paper and the sample printouts on the desk, and say "can you explain this please?"

If the student denies any wrongdoing, point out that it is impossible that the student "coincidentally" mimicked the sample pages.

If the student admits wrongdoing, show the student the printout of the syllabus language and point out that the student can be EXPELLED FROM THE UNIVERSITY for this violation of academic ethics.

If the student refuses to say anything, say "this is a clear-cut example of plagiarism; here are the university policies regarding this violation of academic ethics" and dismiss him/her for the moment.

Regardless, prior to dismissal, tell the student, "I will need to consult with my superiors regarding how this will be handled. As of this moment, no decision has been taken. But you are liable for an F on the assignment, an F for the class, or expulsion from the university. We will be in touch with you."

Based on her/his response, after the student’s departure you yourself can decide how rigorously you want to apply the syllabus policies regarding plagiarism.

My own rule of thumb, in such cases, is to say to myself, "my ultimate job is to teach this young person--not just about music, but about ethical conduct. What scenario, resulting from this situation, will most effectively teach the student not to do this again?"

Typically, if a plagiarizing student expresses any regret or remorse, I usually do not want to expel or fail him/her. What I will usually do is communicate to the student, after another day or two, "you understand that you violated academic ethics, right? That you cheated? That you are liable for expulsion from the university?"

Then, assuming that the student expresses any remorse and/or understanding of the crime, I will say "I'm not going to flunk you out of this class. But this assignment is not your work. Therefore, you are receiving an F on the paper. If that means that you receive a non-passing grade in the class, that is a consequence of a dishonest choice you made. And such choices have consequences. In the meantime, you will need to fulfill every other part of the course requirements--and this incident will go on your permanent record. I hope you now understand why plagiarism is a very, very bad choice."

In my observation and experience, this "scare the absolute crap out of them, elicit their remorse, make sure they understand not to do it again, make them take their lumps with the F on the paper and possibly for the class" strategy is the most constructive pedagogical response you can make to plagiarism.

And, of course, you can consult with your superiors if/when the above doesn’t cover the possible scenarios, or if you have more questions.

[from the syllabus]

Academic Integrity: [link to university's O.P.'s]

It is the aim of the faculty of [] University to foster a spirit of complete honesty and high standard of integrity. The attempt of students to present as their own any work not honestly performed is regarded by the faculty and administration as a most serious offense and renders the offenders liable to serious consequences, possibly suspension.

"Scholastic dishonesty" includes, but is not limited to, cheating, plagiarism, collusion, falsifying academic records, misrepresenting facts, and any act designed to give unfair academic advantage to the student (such as, but not limited to, submission of essentially the same written assignment for two courses without the prior permission of the instructor) or the attempt to commit such an act. ...

b. "Plagiarism" includes, but is not limited to, the appropriation of, buying, receiving as a gift, or obtaining by any means material that is attributable in whole or in part to another source, including words, ideas, illustrations, structure, computer code, other expression and media, and presenting that material as one's own academic work being offered for credit. "

Happy Thanksgiving. :-/

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