Let’s Revisit This Plagiarism Thing…

*Student names and identities have been thoroughly changed*

I know what you’re thinking: Another post about plagiarism. We get it. We’re using Turnitin. Let’s move on already.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been teaching in academia for over ten years and last semester, I had a case unlike any I had ever seen before. Without getting into too much detail, I will say that it was blatant and that the student had many creative excuses and spent a good amount of time fighting my decision. The story itself could be its own blog post, a cautionary tale about what happens when you choose to spend your time trying to get out of a situation caused by you not managing your time intelligently in the first place, but I digress…

The reason I really want to talk about this is because I didn’t “officially” report this student to the conduct office the first time. I did what, I think, many of us do: sat down with the student, instructed him on the correct way to cite the source, gave him the benefit of the doubt and required a rewrite of the assignment in question. In my mind, I had emailed him regarding all of this and I had proof of the match, so I figured that doing this was enough and if something came up later, I had what I needed.

I didn’t report him officially because I didn’t want him to get in trouble with someone outside of our class. I work hard to make sure my students know that our writing classroom, be it physical or virtual, is a safe space, a place where they can be free to make mistakes and learn from them. In a sense, I was afraid for him, felt protective of him. But I should have reported him.

Why? Well, if we report a student for something like this, unless we recommend it, the punishment for a first offense will be pretty similar to what we would do on our own, actually identical. The only difference is that someone in the conduct office sits down with the student as well and I have to think that doing so must be really effective in essentially scaring the student into not doing it again.

But I still find myself reluctant. I want to use these moments as teaching moments, but the student in question later showed himself to lack any motivation for improvement or movement toward an understanding of what he did wrong. The ethics of the situation were lost on him. He was more worried about getting out of it than she was about comprehension of the “crime” and possibly learning from it. If I had reported him the first time, perhaps he would have been more likely to understand the seriousness of the situation, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to betray him.

This loyalty is possibly misplaced, but I like to have this connection to my students. It’s just that even now, I recently discovered that a student copied small sections from a website into an early assignment. I am going to give her a chance to revise with citations and hope that she just didn’t know she had to formally cite a source in an early assignment. But do I report it? What would you do?

The Grade Complaint: Striking a Balance

I’m going to sound like an old lady here, but when I was in college, I never would have dreamed of complaining about my essay grades the way some of my students do. The other day, a student told me that I am “unfair” and that she disagrees with the way I saw her paper. She didn’t feel that a certain part of the essay I pointed out weakened her paper and she wanted to “work something out.” I was left wondering how on earth to respond to such an entitled complaint – a complaint that seemingly implies that she knows as much about grading essays as I do and that a grade that I have assigned can be negotiated like the price of a used car or a flea market necklace.


It’s difficult not to go on the defensive when such emails arrive in one’s inbox.  We are clearly educated and trained to grade these essays and our Program works hard to make sure we are all on the same page where grading is concerned. I try very hard to be nice about it; there is a lot of “I understand your concern but…” and “Your disappointment in your grade is not uncommon…” I want students to know that I understand their frustration.

On the other hand, I do not owe you anything. The world does not owe you anything. You earn the grade that you earn, not the grade you negotiate when you are disappointed with the grade that you earn. Continue reading

Peer Review, How I Hate to Love You

It’s a topic we have all thought about deeply. We have attended workshops and presentations, read scholarship, tried new and exciting ways of getting our students to collaborate during the revision process in our writing classes – and collaborate effectively.  I thought I had it down, really.  Then, the other day, I had a conference with one of my most impressive and hard-working students, and that all changed.

This student works diligently to revise his essays and to earn his grades.  He is straightforward and participates in class regularly, and has never missed an assignment. Overall, this is a student whose feedback I seriously value in terms of what might work in class and what might not work.  As we were conferencing over a draft of his essay, he asked, “Will we be doing peer review for this essay?”  When I answered that no, we would instead be using one-on-one conferences and instructor feedback for this one essay, he replied, “Oh good.  Peer review has mostly been useless for me.”

Punch to the gut!  Man down! Red Team Go!  S.O.S.! All manner of emergency exclamations ran through my mind.  Useless? How could this be? Grades are improving (for the most part).  Writing is getting better (through my rose-colored glasses).  In short, I had gotten cocky.  So, I asked my student, “Why do you say that, Student?”  His response was an eye-opener, and something I hope we can all use as a catalyst for discussion on the topic. 

Student said, “Well, the one time we sat in a circle was helpful.”  (To be clear, this is what I call “Carousel Peer Review.” I sit students in a circle and give them each four identical sheets of paper. Each paper contains a space for the reviewer’s name, the writer’s name, and three questions:

1. What is the author’s central claim?  Explain whether or not it is arguable and if not, how it could be.

2. What is the best part of the essay and why?

3. What part of the essay needs the most improvement and why?

Students pass their essay to the left once, read and fill out the sheet and when I call time, pass the essay to the left again and complete it for another, and so on. This way, they get four short but focused peer reviews, which I hand back at the end of class.)  So, I asked Student, “Is it because you got so many reviews back?” And he replied…

         “No. It was the best because everyone had to be quiet.”

He went on to explain that during past peer reviews, in which students had been placed in small groups with traditional and more elaborate peer review sheets to fill out, he felt that nothing got done, that it was just an opportunity to socialize and that the last time we had done it, the other students in his group had not revised their essays at all. “And,” he asked, “Why should I revise their papers for them if they do not want to do the work?” So of course, I start questioning my methods.  I mean, it’s not as if I do not circle the room and meet with each group during peer review, but we all know that small group work can be a tricky monster; students can seem really on-task when we approach their group, but then revert back to talk of Facebook and what is going on that night or what they watched on TV that week as soon as we are out of ear shot.  In addition, if we are using peer review as a way for students to receive revision comments outside of instructor feedback (say, for a middle draft when we have already extensively commented on first drafts), unless we closely evaluate each essay on peer review day (which sort of defeats the purpose), we don’t really have a way of knowing whether or not a student has truly revised the essay. 

Several ideas are coming to the surface. Should students show up to peer review day with a written summary of their revisions?  Should a requirement of peer review be that they somehow articulate their revisions to the group?  Do we have to be such police officers?

 So, I put these questions to all of you.  How do you handle the not-doers, the “I refuse to revise because only my classmates are going to be reading this anyway” students?  To beat a dead horse, how do you make your peer review effective?



Facing Plagiarism with a Positive Attitude?

I don’t know about all of you, but I have found some plagiarism over the past week or so.  Last night, particularly, an essay came back from Safe Assign with a 70% rate of plagiarism. It was a documented essay that was two pages short of the minimum length requirement with no citations or sources.  The essay was almost completely taken from two blog posts.  Disheartening doesn’t begin to describe it and in about an hour, I will meet with this student to discuss this absolute blatant abuse of the internet as information provider.
I know that this is a discussion that we have frequently and I appreciate that many of you are probably tired of discussing it.  However, in my absolute desperation, I have been reading articles online that address the issue, and I found one in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, although from September of 2012, addresses plagiarism as something that requires that “the solution should be positive; that is, show students how to act as responsible scholars and writers. The same tone should be reflected in the syllabus. [The author says he has] seen many syllabi in which the penalties for plagiarism are laid out in excruciating detail, with no positive models or behavior mentioned. Surely by now we know that positive motivation trumps the negative variety” (Karon).  Of course, many of us find this difficult, as the absolute frustration takes over and we feel like our students will never care about the ethical implications of “borrowing” work from other writers, scholars or random yahoos online who write blog posts and therefore, must be credible.
I guess I am writing for two reasons.  First, I would like to hear how all of you have dealt with this over the course of our current academic year.  How do you judge intentional from accidental?  Second, I would love to hear solutions for prevention.  Should we not allow any sources that do not come from the University Library?  Will it make a difference, when students don’t cite many of these sources anyway?  Finally, how do you stick to your guns?  I find that when faced with a crying student, I have to steel myself to the tears and really make myself stay strong in order to make sure that the student learns from the experience and grows into a ethical adult and writer in the future.
I know we’re all busy and you probably don’t want to discuss that which upsets us so much, but your insights are invaluable.  Plus, it will be nice to get emails that are not grade complaints or appeals for leniency.  🙂
Here is the link to the article and, in the interest of academic honesty, the MLA citation.
Karon, Jeff.  “A Positive Solution for Plagiarism.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 Sept. 2012.  Web.  2 May 2013.