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When plagiarism is really a different discourse community

February 8, 2009

I have written about plagiarism before, but InsideHigherEd chooses to write about authors who are hawking their new books, like Susan Blum of Notre Dame.  In that book, the Scott Jaschik writes that Blum notes that the current police state of looking for plagiarism in student work should be a more nuanced endeavor (no problem with that from me)–one should not fail to, Jaschik annotates her as saying:

distinguish between buying a paper to submit as your own, submitting a paper containing passages from many authors without appropriate credit, and simply failing to learn how to cite materials. Treating these violations of academic norms the same way is part of the problem.

My problem begins when I hear more of Blum directly quoted (Jaschik quoting Blum as she was quoted in “an interview”):

“That’s how I felt when I first started looking into this topic,” she said. “I was really hurt when I felt students didn’t show respect for the assignment. I felt a tension between really liking my students as individuals and that they didn’t take academic work as seriously as I wanted them to…. I felt it was a battle. It was ‘How can I make them care?’”

First, one should not assume, nor should one lament, the lack of concern about intellectual integrity amongst ones students.  These are the same kids that are extending their adolescence into their twenties.  What one should lament is the overall lack of institutional attention on bringing these kids into accountibility for the ideas they present.

That said, accountability, as in driving, needs to be taught.  If your Freshmen arrive not knowing how to manage the distinction between their ideas and another, then they need to be taught.  Will this be easy?  Depends.  But it must be done, and frankly, that is why the kids are there.

There are some other Blum/Jaschik ideas that I might address later (like making the distinction between “competitive” colleges (“I just have to get a 4.0 or my life is ruined”) and a “a less competitive college” (honey, in this economy all education is lifelong competitive), but suffice, for now, the following:

  1. In Composition classes, I do not impose the label of plagiarist unless the student obviously sought to submit a draft that she did not write herself.  I readily give extensions for “life happenings,” so there is no excuse for the deadline-imposed paper-buying.
  2. In Composition classes, inadvertent plagiarism (not properly assigning a source, mistakes in quoting, etc.) are opportunities for instruction.  While it affects the grade, it does not reflect upon the student’s moral character (see #1, which does).
  3. I would then call upon a class (like the one I took as an undergraduate) where one is taught how to approach, write and present an academically-oriented paper.  High school doesn’t count in this regards, and, frankly, it shouldn’t.  High school and college are two different communities with differing agendas.  Teach them to write in a writing course.  Make it part of the core curriculum.
  4. Otherwise, each and every instructor has the onus and responsibility to teach the student how to navigate the writing discourse community that is college.  No bitching.  Unless your college outsources this task to a specific class, it is on you.  Take the first assignment of each class as a hit against student ignorance of proper writing, such it up, and teach the poor, ignorant things how to properly cite, attribute and acknowledge the ideas of others.  You are, after all, getting paid to traffic in the world of ideas.


  1. Let the notion of students living in a Web 2.0 world (where supposedly they lie, cheat and steal off of the internet) distract you from instructing them how to live and write in the college community.  We don’t see as valid the notion that since students can steal a song off the internet they can then steal a CD from Wal-mart.  Why not?  Their parents/police/etc. taught them not to steal as kids.  Well, no one, really, is tasked with teaching kids how to not plagiarize (high school, again, doesn’t count), so assume these 2.0 kids as a plagiaristic tabla rosa and introduce them into your community.
  2. Fail to use the tools at your disposal:, BlackBoards plagiarism insert, etc.
  3. Once identified, though, do not wholesale condemn missing quotation marks around a direct quote as the same as a paper purchased from a paper mill.  You are the instructor.  Seize the teaching moment.  Show discernment.  If you are too frustrated with their ineptitude, get another job.  I guarantee that after a month of dealing with life in “the real world,” the petty missteps of some unlearned students will been seen with renewed appreciation.
  4. Look upon tenure as an excuse to not teach the basics.  Yours is an isolated, buffered, safe community.  Learn to either appreciate your luck or get out of the way.

Enough said.

  1. brokeharvardgrad permalink
    February 9, 2009 7:19 pm

    Well said. I wonder why profs assume that students come into the university setting knowing all this to begin with. How old are those instructors? Was this taught in high school for them, because I know plenty of high schools where the only sin is buying a paper, not copying from some old encyclopedia. Perhaps there is more to the discourse than just saying it’s a cultural standpoint. Were these freshman or seniors about to graduate. Whenever you are dealing with students, you are dealing with gray areas. It is strange that instructors assume student knowledge levels and then impugn the students based on assumptions. I like your statement about the instructors taking some responsibility and not bitching. Well said.

  2. February 21, 2009 1:47 am

    Some of us don’t have a choice about differentiating between missing quotation marks and wholesale plagiarism. Our university academic honesty policy explicitly says that both of these count as plagiarism and both incur the same punishment (a write up on the student’s record in the first instance, to be erased upon graduation if it doesn’t occur again; a failing grade for the course if it happens a second time). Students are required to read the policy in class and we are supposed to enforce it.

    Of course, we could choose to ignore this policy, but I think that’s probably a really bad idea for an adjunct or young faculty member to do, given the consequences it could have on his/her career if it came to light (which it presumably would once students start complaining to other lecturers who enforce the policy that “Dr So-and-so didn’t treat this as plagiarism when I did it in her class”).

  3. Cassandra permalink
    March 4, 2009 8:31 am

    “Once identified, though, do not wholesale condemn missing quotation marks around a direct quote as the same as a paper purchased from a paper mill. You are the instructor. Seize the teaching moment. Show discernment. If you are too frustrated with their ineptitude, get another job. I guarantee that after a month of dealing with life in “the real world,” the petty missteps of some unlearned students will been seen with renewed appreciation.”

    I used to teach the courses where it was my job to teach my students how to cite others’ work. Many of them just simply refused to do it. Despite numerous reading assignments on the topic, classroom examples, and in-class practices, several students in EVERY class would still plagiarize on the final papers.

    Now, my definition of plagiarism is different from yours: a purchased paper is CHEATING, not plagiarism; the last school I taught at called it “academic dishonesty.” For me, plagiarism is a citation error; or, rather, failing to cite any source other than the writer’s own brain. I usually just marked a paper down for minor transgressions (at least early in the semester), but a final paper draft where every 3rd sentence has been plucked wholesale off the web? Oh, that’s plagiarism. And that deserves an F. And I came to realize it also needed to be documented and sent above because the student ALWAYS wanted to barter out of the F…often by saying how “mean and unfair” I was.

    I now know that many students simply don’t care enough to learn how not to steal other people’s ideas, words, or even sentence structure. Quotation marks might as well be strange, alien symbols left behind on Earth by marauding Venutians. And a bibliography is a task left to brainiacs who are just trying to kiss their teachers’ asses.

    As you suggested, I was “too frustrated with their ineptitude,” so I quit. But I now resent being forced to do so because of students who willfully refused to learn what I was teaching them. A student can fail Chem 101 by not learning the basics of the periodic table of elements. So why can’t a student fail English 101 for not learning how to cite sources?


  1. Problems with Plagiarism « Burnt-out Adjunct
  2. Plagiarism is not Recursive Writing « Burnt-out Adjunct

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