Friday, May 16, 2014

Academic (Dis)honesty

Although we're only halfway through the quarter, one of my students has already failed another class because she plagiarized an essay, apparently in a very blatant and deliberate way.  She sat in my class last week, tears rolling down her face.  I felt sorry for her.  I was also disappointed.  I address plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty in every class, warning students of the consequences if they are caught.

I tell them the story of the late Edward Kennedy, who was suspended from Harvard for convincing a classmate to take his Spanish exam for him.  Of course, his father quickly bought his way back in, but for the rest of his life, despite a long and distinguished senatorial career, this incident remained a blemish on his character. In fact, in retrospect, it seems to have foreshadowed a personal and public life that was plagued with ethical lapses.

If my non-native speaking students are particularly vulnerable to accusations of plagiarism, it's not because they are more "dishonest"; it's because they don't have enough control over English to "dumb down" the language of their plagiarized sources so that they can be plausibly passed off as their own efforts.  And when they "google" their material, they somehow fail to consider that instructors can also "google" it.  Which is how the hapless student (above) was busted.

Part of the problem, from my angle, is that too many assignments practically "invite" students to plagiarize: the topics are too general, too over worked, and do not require students to do any more than synthesize other writers' ideas.  The failure of instructors' imaginations in designing writing assignments is a big part of the problem.

But here's an example of academic dishonesty that troubles me even more:  There is a tenured writing instructor who habitually teaches 20 credits a quarter.  That's a stunning load in terms of marking.  How does he manage it?

Easy!  He farms out his students' papers to an outfit that, for a modest fee, reads and grades the papers for him.  It's common knowledge that he does this.  Perhaps his dean does not consider his behavior unethical.  (His students complain it takes a long time to get their work back from him, but no wonder; he probably sends the stuff in batches to India.)

I find it infuriating.  I also wonder if I'm a bit of a chump.  What is keeping me from recruiting my own cadre of "assistants?"  Marking grammatical errors isn't difficult, nor does it require any qualifications beyond a command of English sentence structure; it's just tedious.  Being relieved of reading and marking student papers would free me up to focus on the parts of teaching I do enjoy (e.g., story telling, pontificating), allow me to moonlight, and probably double my income.  Furthermore, there are some (bored housewives looking to supplement the income from their monetized blogs, unemployed English majors) who might view this kind of piecework as "an incredible job opportunity."


  1. I learned not to plagiarise after I was offered money as a school student to write someone's essay. I spent so much time agonising over their essay, to give them value for money, that I used up all my best ideas and time and had to watch, in chagrin, as she was publicly commended for her essay, while I got a mediocre mark for mine.

    It's getting harder to enforce plagiarism even outside the university, because the free availability of things like online newspapers has destroyed the idea of protected information. Look at how many people scoop up online information and then repackage it as a self published book, or who don't understand why it's wrong to download movies from peer-to-peer sites. Astounding. So when you talk about plagiarism to your students, don't be surprised if they literally don't understand what you're talking about, The entire internet is telling them something different.

    1. Colleges and universities haven't figured out how to encourage students to do their own work in this new environment. The instructors, for the most part, have their heads in the sand, or worse, they're modeling the same behavior they admonish students for.

      Not only the internet, the world at large rewards unethical behavior, as my colleague demonstrates. Why do your own work when you can pay someone lower down the totem pole to do it for you? To do otherwise is to commit the worst sin of all: inefficiency.


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