Teaching Them What Lesson?

I had already thought about writing on plagiarism this week when I saw this article by Helen Rubinstein.  Granted, the situation she discusses is much more severe than most of us deal with, but she raises a good question about how we deal with plagiarism, what our goal should be.  I can also identify with the story a bit, as I had a similar experience in my first teaching job.

I taught at a private, boarding high school in Indiana, a place where students attended (or parents made them attend) if they were aiming for the ivy league schools.  In fact, when I once said to a class, “You know, not everyone needs to go to the ivies,” you could see and hear the relief in that room.  One of my junior students plagiarized a paper in an art class that fall semester.  When she was confronted, she responded rather erratically, so they put her on suicide watch.  She had to come and take her final by herself, and, when I asked her how she was doing, she simply responded, “Don’t ask me that question.”

I talked to one of my friends, an intern there, about the guilt I was feeling.  I was one of the ones who was piling on the work and expectations, so I felt partly responsible.  She said that I had nothing to feel guilty about, that I was simply doing my job (for much harsher responses, look at the comments after the article at The Chronicle; it seems people have no compassion whatsoever).  She was right, of course.  I can’t guess how students are going to respond to my giving them a normal load of assignments.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about plagiarism over the past week because I had a student plagiarize a paper in a first-year writing class.  She had already planned to meet with me to see if she needed to withdraw from the class (she was passing, so I wasn’t sure why she was worried, but she was on the borderline), so I told her I would grade her paper before we met.  When I asked her about the change in her writing, she said that she had gone to the Writing Center several times and had her friends read over it to give her feedback.  I then told her I had found it on the internet.

She’s an international student, and she didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of plagiarism, so I made sure she did understand it.  I didn’t do that by turning her in or by failing her, but by explaining why it’s taken so seriously in higher education.  And then I let her write another paper and give it to me the next week.

Some people would say that I let her off way too easy, that I should have punished her to the fullest extent (at our school, that would mean failing the paper and, thus, the class).  I’ve done that in the past, every time I’ve caught someone plagiarizing a paper, actually.  Like many professors, I’ve argued that I’m teaching them a lesson.  The only lesson I think they learn is that they shouldn’t plagiarize or they’ll fail, a lesson I don’t really believe they learn through this approach.

Let me try a comparison.  If you are caught speeding, you hope and hope that the police officer will let you off without a ticket.  If she gives you a ticket, you won’t stop speeding.  You say that you will, but, when you find yourself driving again, especially if you’re late, you’ll speed to get where you need to go.  If she doesn’t give you a ticket, you’re no more or less likely to speed the next time.  The punishment doesn’t change your behavior.  You might argue that plagiarism is more serious than speeding (people don’t lose their job over speeding), but the statistics show that any kind of punishment (see the death penalty, about as serious a punishment as you can get) works the same way.  There’s no real deterrent effect.

Instead, what works is changing a climate, not inflicting punishment.  I need to create a climate where students don’t feel the need to cheat because they can get help from me or elsewhere, and I need to create assignments that are so connected to our class and what we’re doing that there’s no way they can cheat.  I’m not sure what can get me to that point, as I thought I was doing pretty well with both of those, but I’ve had three students plagiarize on the same assignment in the past three semesters (after a few years of no one doing so).  I need to find a way to make that happen.

I will say that there are still times I will punish those who plagiarize papers, as I once did.  I had a student, an English major, turn in a plagiarized paper in a senior-level course.  She, too, was an international student, so she might have had trouble understanding why what she was doing was so serious.  However, she turned in a rough draft, but skipped the peer review.  When I tried to contact her to come and see me about her draft, where I first noticed the plagiarism, she didn’t do so, and she skipped class that week.  I gave her opportunities to avoid the punishment, and she chose to ignore them.  That’s a different situation.

We need to consider each situation individually and understand what our purpose is in our response.  With the student this past week, I wanted her to learn how serious this situation is, but also I wanted her to learn to write a paper analyzing a short story.  She did turn in a paper she wrote on her own, and it showed serious struggle.  However, that struggle is how she’ll learn, if she keeps at it.  It’s not a perfect response, I know, but none are.  It’s the one I can live with for right now, though.


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