The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked, as it periodically does,”Should Colleges Do More To Teach Students About Plagiarism?” The Chronicle is a great resource, but they’re pretty good at hyping some fear too. (Note: The Chronicle’s blog, Profhacker, is awesome by the bucketful, and if you aren’t reading it daily, you should check it out. Plug it into your RSS feed.)
But I (and a lot of other rhetoric/composition folks I know) am not thrilled to witness more plagiarism hand-wringing. Like most universities, my institution requires instructors to paste a verbatim academic integrity statement into their policy statements and/or syllabi. That’s fine. Students should know about academic integrity, and practice it. And of course we should teach them the various conventions of citation–which are far broader than MLA and APA, which, honestly, are useless to many first-year rhet/comp students, even over the course of their collegiate careers. We should teach the broader conventions, and spirit, of citation.
Beyond that, I think plagiarism might be more the instructor’s responsibility than the student’s. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this. Here’s what I mean though:
There are always students who will cheat and seek an alternate route, for whatever reason. But I think these students are extremely rare, more rare than we think. And even if they are more common than I think they are, those negative impulses that might compel some students to plagiarize are very easily short-circuited.
Write creative assignments. A well written assignment, that monkeys with the conventions of typical rhet/comp essay requirements, is virtually impossible to plagiarize, at least in part because good assignments would make plagiarism attempts so ridiculously obvious that even the boldest plagiarists would be unlikely to make an attempt at plagiarism in the first place. I have in mind the types of assignments, for example, that my graduate school colleague Jim Brown (now of Wayne State) assigned in his Anthologics rhetoric class.
Creative assignment design and re-design not only reduces the opportunity and likelihood of plagiarism, but it’s likely to keep students and instructors more engaged. In terms of self-interest, I feel that creative assignment design, which I attempt to practice, not only hijacks students’ opportunities to plagiarize, but makes grading a hell of a lot more fun for me. And creative assignments can and should be every bit as rigorous as more conventional assignments. Ideally, they can be even more rigorous, as it’s often harder to complete an assignment that doesn’t rest upon tired, well-known academic conventions.
When plagiarism cases come up, I wonder if it is at least partially my responsibility, perhaps an indication that my assignment may have invited plagiarism. Of course, there will always be students who try to take a short cut. But perhaps we should be asking, Should Colleges Do More to Teach Professors About Lousy Assignment Design? And I ask that question as an untenured assistant professor. Just something to let your brain-teeth gnaw on.