By now, students probably think all my courses are about plagiarism. I seem to talk about it constantly: reviewing its definition, enumerating its many versions, and warning of the pernicious consequences of doing “It”. Legalistic warnings take up almost as much space on my syllabi as the list of lecture topics or tutorial readings. Every time I open my email, someone is reminding me to be vigilant, to design plagiarism-proof assignments, and to report all transgressors to the appropriate authorities.
Indeed, the Big P has become the social disease of the new millennium. The Internet, we are told, has made cheating easy and impersonal. No more need to borrow your roommate’s old paper; no more need to re-type last year’s take-home test. Just Google, click, copy, and paste. Researchers report that more than 70 per cent of students admit to cheating at some point in their university career, a statistic that has administrations scrambling to enforce codes of academic integrity.
And then there’s TurnItIn.com, a commercial service that will scan student work against its 130-million-essay database and report any similarities. This site has us poring over colour-coded e-essays and perusing statistical reports that tell us there is a 45 per cent chance that an essay is plagiarized. Now, if someone would develop a website for actually marking essays or for generating letters of reference—“There is a 65 per cent likelihood that Bill Jones should go to grad school” or ”MarkItUp.com informs me that 35 per cent of this paper is well researched and intelligent”—then we’d really be onto something. As it stands, though, I feel like I’ve been awarded the Canada Research Chair in Surveillance.
Let me be clear: the Academic Matters folks decided to call this is a humour column (though my rants and ramblings rarely rise to that lofty goal), but cheating isn’t funny. It is dishonest and unfair. It is a form of theft. Worst of all, to my mind, it wastes everyone’s time—students hand in assignments but learn nothing, professors do marking without teaching anything. A plagiarizer could have just handed in 15 blank sheets of paper. I could have just stayed at home to watch Battlestar Galactica. Plagiarism is the worst perversion of all the very best things about a university: thinking, inquiry, intellectual growth.
No doubt this view is evidence that, when it comes to a university education, I’m a sentimental old chap. So I’m hardly about to defend cheaters, who are just another invasive species of consumerist thinking, ratcheting up the rhetoric of utility around education and inducing still more legalistic responses from universities. In my revolution, plagiarizers will be first up against the wall after drunk drivers and people with good fashion sense.
But when I ran my syllabus through MoralPanic.com, I was informed that there is a 75 per cent chance that 95 per cent of this energy is being wasted. I’m not sure what to make of statistics about cheating, since I don’t imagine it’s easy to get reliable data in a survey about dishonesty. And technology has always allowed students to fudge matters. I suppose our professorial forebears complained about typewriters, which severed the act of creation from actual handwriting. Who knows how that term paper got produced? Probably Northrop Frye had some thoughts on the place of fonts in the decline of a humanistic education.
I mean, 50 years from now, all these syllabistical warnings are going to look like those Cold War civil defence films that taught students to duck and cover in the event of nuclear attack—period pieces that rather missed the point. In my experience, few students read the syllabus carefully anyway, and as soon as the tone goes bureaucratic, their minds (like mine) turn off. And with deference to Surveillance.com, I suspect that most cheaters get caught in that old-fashioned, somewhat humanistic way—a paper that is too good simply sets professorial bells ringing. I suppose, in the end, I’m old fashioned enough to believe that part of having academic integrity is starting from the proposition that students are honest adults—a premise, I’ll admit, that is somewhat difficult to run through a webpage.
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.