Plagiarism: What Should a Teacher Do?

© 2001 Rebecca Moore Howard

Syracuse University

Presented at the Conference on

College Composition and Communication

Denver, Colorado

17 March 2001

I could have titled this paper, "Okay, But What Do We Do When They Really Are Plagiarizing?" That's what I'm here to talk about today—or more accurately, what I wish I were here to talk about (a bum foot keeps me home from the conference) and what Eileen Schell is generously here in my stead to read and talk about. My previous scholarship on the topic of plagiarism has focused mainly on the suppressed contradictions and sinister implications of our constructions of plagiarism. I have argued vehemently against the very word plagiarism because of its ability to erase these contradictions and implications. But today I want to talk about the choices that teachers face when they are confronted with transgressive writing. So if you'll turn to the pink checklist in your handout, I'll talk my way through each of the items.

You're in your office, you're in front of the t.v., you're holed up in the library—wherever—with that well-known stack of papers—and you get that sinking feeling that something is very wrong with the paper you're reading. It isn't the authentic product of the putative writer. What do you do?

The first thing you can do is try to shake off the word plagiarism. It's a scare word. A ton of nasty emotional and cultural connotations attach to the word, and none of them are going to serve you well as you try to work with this paper. So instead of thinking about plagiarism, try to figure out what's really going on in the paper. Is it a case of fraud—the paper was written by someone other than the student? Is it a case of patchwriting, in which the student is blending his or her prose with unattributed phrases and sentences from a source? These are really different textual activities, you know. Using the word plagiarism to label both obscures the differences. Fraud may be a result of a student's panic, cynicism, or lack of ethics. And so may patchwriting. But much more often patchwriting comes from uneven reading comprehension: the student doesn't fully understand what she is reading and thus can't frame alternative ways for talking about its ideas. Or the student understands what she is reading but is new to the discourse. She merges her voice with that of the source to create a pastiche over which she exercises a new-found control. Don't treat this patchwriting as you would a paper downloaded from; they aren't the same.

A third distinctive textual phenomenon is the failure to cite sources. But what caused the failure? The traditional response is instruction in source attribution, but the situation may be more complex. Is it that the student doesn't know the mechanics of citation, or that he doesn't know what he has to cite? Sandra Jamieson tells me of a new phenomenon she is encountering: students who don't know that Internet sources have to be cited. To them, the Internet is a big arena of conversation, of the free play of ideas. They would no more cite it than they would cite dinner-table conversations with their roommates. I've also encountered students who operate in the belief that they needn't cite sources that I have assigned, but only ones that they have found on their own. Most compelling, though, are the students who don't cite because they are worried that I will think they don't have any original ideas: "I'd have to cite everything!" they exclaim. They know the rules for citation, but they also know the academic valorization of originality, and they prefer being regarded as original to being regarded as dull but obedient. Are they unethical? Do they deserve to be punished? Don't we teachers make a mistake if we lump their decision together with patchwriting and fraud, calling it all "plagiarism"? Then there are the students who were taught citation in high school by being required to include a certain number of cited quotations in a research paper. Do they understand that they are supposed to cite sources of ideas and paraphrase, as well? Then there are the students who know they are supposed to use quotation marks for exact quotations but who also want to alter the quotation to fit the syntax of the paragraph, and they don't know how to manage ellipses and brackets, so they just remove the quotation marks, because it isn't an exact quotation. When you get that paper in which something seems awry, forget about the word plagiarism. It's just going to make your job harder.

You'll also need to keep in mind how variable textual standards are from one culture to another. Keith Miller has demonstrated that the community of African American preachers regard language as shared treasure and citation as a discursive disruption. And surely everyone by now knows that in many Asian countries, student writers are expected to incorporate, unattributed, significant passages from authoritative sources. Anne Ruggles Gere has demonstrated that in the tradition of women's literary groups, intellectual property is a discordant intrusion. And the Napster case underlines just how prevalent is the belief that print-based intellectual property standards do not apply to online culture. Keep this in mind: the notions of copyright, plagiarism, and intellectual property that prevail in the academy are not the right answers. They are just the answers for that culture. And no one lives in just one culture at a time; hence alternative constructions for the use of textual sources are constantly manifesting themselves in students' academic writing.

So as you are looking at that icky paper, the one that gives you pause, think like a teacher, not like a judge. Before all's said and done, you may find yourself in a juridical role. But the high likelihood is that the situation is a purely pedagogical one, best remedied by your contact with the student rather than your frantic, tiresome search through the library or the Internet. Yes, you may have a cynical, unethical, fraudulent student in your class. Start, though, by investigating the more probable hypothesis: you have an unfinished learner in your class. You need to spend some office hours with that student; you need to assign him to work with a tutor; you need to ask him to revise his paper; you need to take up issues of critical reading or source citation with your class; you need to frame your assignments or your syllabi better in the future.

Before you can act, though, you have to check your college or university's plagiarism policy. Your institution may not have one—or worse, it may have a different one for each college, each department, or each teacher. Or, perhaps worst of all, it may have an anxious, high-handed, detailed policy that requires teachers to take their students to a judicial hearing when a set of quotation marks is missing, and it may then require that judicial board to give the guilty student an automatic "F" in the course when convicted. If your institution has crazy or contradictory plagiarism policies, you need to know about them before you move a whisker to respond to the paper that's in your lap. No matter how enlightened the policy may be, don't expect it to solve your problems, either. Plagiarism is not simple; it cannot be made simple; and it cannot be neatly adjudicated. At the end of the whole process, you will still feel bad, regardless of what you do or do not do.

Once you have ascertained what institutional policies govern your choices, talk to your writing program administrator or department chair to find out how the policies are (or are not) actually enacted. Local custom may provide you with a wider range of choices than the policy would seem to indicate. And because the student may object to whatever you determine about the case and may appeal it to the WPA or department chair, you need to be sure that the decisions you are making are ones that they can stand behind. How can you make the problem of a questionable paper worse? By making a decision that the next person up in the food chain is compelled to overturn.

One more document to check: the textbooks that you chose for your course. Does the assigned handbook or textbook talk about citation, quotation, patchwriting, plagiarism, or writing from sources? And what does it say? How helpful might it be in your efforts to help the student understand your expectations?

Now's the time to talk to the student. You've gotten a grip on yourself; you're not going overboard. You've considered the wide range of complicating factors. You've discarded the word plagiarism and opted instead to think about fraud, patchwriting, failure to cite, and failure to quote. You've recognized that the questionable paper may not be a product of any sort of unethical or cynical choices, but rather of a student trying to enter new discursive territory. You've recognized that overlapping, simultaneous, and contradictory cultural expectations may be contributing to the dissonance. You know what your institutional constraints are, you know how these are usually enacted in your department, and you've checked to see what sorts of instruction the textbooks you'd chosen for your course offer.

And so you sit down with the student. If you are already pretty well convinced that you have a case of fraud on your hands and that you're going to wind up in a judicial hearing of some sort, you should have someone there with you as witness. Don't set yourself up for the student's later making false accusations about your conduct during this conference.

Probably, however, you're going to be a lot less sure about what's going on with this paper, and you're hoping that the conference will clear up your questions. Having someone there may escalate the situation more than is needed; you may find it better to sit down in an appointment with the student and talk to her frankly about your concerns with the paper. Be honest. Tell her that you were concerned as you read the paper. But ask her how it was composed, under what conditions, with what sorts of assistance—whether from other writers or from texts. And usually you will get an honest answer. If the student knows that you are trying to understand her writing process and not catch her in the act, you are likely to get a frank response. And you are likely to discover that the student may have known she was transgressing (or may not have), but that the "transgression" was caused by her outsiderness to the discourse, her difficulty with the text, her uncertainty about how to weigh one apparent evil against another. And you are likely to find her perfectly willing to work some more on the task, under your guidance. And you are very likely to feel, once it's all done, that you have actually taught a student—not taught her your ethics, but taught her more about how to learn and how to interact with source texts and readers.

This desirable outcome is, however, hard to come by. It takes practice. It takes a conscious resistance to what we've been schooled to think is our appropriate response to anything labeled "plagiarism." Our culture tells us that all the activities gathered under the heading of "plagiarism" are ethical transgressions. And that makes of all of us, teachers and students alike, players in an academic drama something akin to Judge Judy, Power of Attorney, or People's Court. Ever watch one of those shows? I come upon the end of them from time to time, as I'm tuning into or out of a favorite show (such as the guilty pleasure Price is Right). It appears to me that on some if not all these shows, it is customary for the antagonists, their "attorneys," and their groupies to meet outside the "courtroom" and exchange words. I haven't listened to the words, but I've watched the faces, and that's enough. It's a cultural show, folks, and its academic equivalent is the little dramas that play out around the notion of plagiarism, with the victim-teacher and the scurrilous plagiarist-student. Just read the plagiarism anecdotes in the recent book Comp Tales; you'll see it all there. These roles are scripted for us, but we are not compelled to play them. We can choose otherwise; we can assert the agency necessary for talking with our students, listening to them, teaching them, learning from them.

I do not mean to minimize the very real dramas that sometimes unfold regarding academic fraud. I do not mean to suggest that we should not call to account those who submit papers under their own names that were written by others. I do not mean to trivialize the situation at the University of Tennessee that has caused Linda Bensel-Meyer to become a public figure in a pitched battle, in the name of Big-Time Sports versus Academic Integrity. I only mean to suggest that we are all victims if we allow the false umbrella term plagiarism to confuse us about disparate textual activities and to stampede us out of the classroom when it is a student's level of learning and not his level of ethics that is at issue.

This has been a transitional paper, linking Linda's presentation to that of Bruce Pegg, who describes the other end of the very long continuum in which we find ourselves with the word plagiarism. My endeavor has been to differentiate those ends, to break up the continuum, and to make us agents rather than actors in the business we know best: reading and writing. Let's keep fraud in the judicial arena, plagiarism and citation in the pedagogical arena. And let's keep our heads on our shoulders.