Turnitin dot Culture

Matthew S. Willen’s “Reflections on the Cultural Climate of Plagiarism,” from the latest issue of Liberal Education, looks at the way that plagiarism — as a way of working the system in a way to win at any cost — is endorsed by our culture-at-large. It comes as no news to most of us that we live in what David Callahan terms “the cheating culture.” But Willen raises the interesting suggestion that our campus climate itself in many ways unconsciously reproduces the culture that encourages the plagiarist.

Willen suggests a few options for preventing plagiarism by changing the campus ethos — including incorporating a code of ethics of some kind and enforcing the rules more strictly. But the really difficult task of getting students to value learning, rather than winning, is the key to success. Willen implores that “it may be useful to reflect on the ways that our institutional and pedagogical practices continue to reinforce and reward aggressive competitiveness and an individualistic me-first climate, to the exclusion of recognizing those who have contributed to the integrity of a campus or local community.”

Writing classes are an important space for accomplishing this. In addition to evaluating writing as an process of discovery (as opposed to an end-product, inspected by the teacher before kicked off the imaginary assembly line), I think having students peer review their papers and share their research is a good way to make learning communal. I’ve noted that some students often feel more accountable to each other than to the teacher in peer editing workshops, when the due date is established not to turn papers in to me, but to trade papers with a partner and write some feedback (which I do collect). Students who might otherwise be procrastinators who turn their papers in late will often work harder to meet deadlines for one another’s peer editing homework and try to impress one another with their research skills. Some students will risk plagiarism when it comes to the teacher’s private evaluation, but few would do so at the risk of being exposed “live” in class by a fellow student. Making the writing process alive and human curtails plagiarism because it resists the “system” of grading, the “mechanics” of paper grading as product evaluation. The more mechanical an educational structure is, the more apt it is to be treated as something to “work” and manipulate, rather than as an (organic?) process of learning.

This year we’re moving quickly toward adopting turnitin.com as a way to combat plagiarism on our campus, and this participates in the culture of cheating in an interesting, if problematic, way. While it’s true that there are many reasons not to use the software, it acknowledges the ubiquity of plagiarism and denounces it as unethical, while also proclaiming that “we’ve armed our defenses up against you internet cheaters.” Since some of our faculty lack the skills, let alone the time, to hunt down plagiarized writing from online sources — and since cheating students often count on such weakness as working in their favor — I think it’s probably a good thing that we’re adopting turnitin as a solution in our particular campus. But it’s not THE solution, and I’m highly aware that we’re using a mechanical process — a technology — to do the work of plagiarism prevention. Pitting machine against machine is rarely the solution to a social problem. I’ve written about turnitin on Pedablogue before, but I’m going to start thinking more practically about how to humanize and socialize this technology as much as possible to ensure that it is conceived as part of a learning process, rather than a mechanical operation which itself could be manipulated. For example, in addition to having students write about cheating in a thematic paper, I might also try to figure out how to incorporate turnitin.com into their peer review processes. Or maybe I’ll have them write a reflective paper about their first experiences with the software. I could come up with a creative assignment like W. L. Yarroch’s “turn it in quest.” I’ll probably have them print out their own originality reportsand turn those in (in hard copy) with their essays, at the very least, rather than adopting the role of plagiarism cop.

Maybe our culture is too aggressively competitive. If academic life is a sport, I’m not the umpire. I’m the coach. Part of my job is to live up to the values behind that old cliche, “it isn’t whether you win or lose but how you (or better yet, we) play the game.”

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

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