The context of plagiarism

I need to write the acknowledgments section of my dissertation but I can’t help going back to Maha and Groom’s post on the ethos of educational technologies. Now I’m thinking about plagiarism in higher education courses, what it means for instructors and for learners themselves. In every undergraduate class I taught there were always one or two students who copied material from other resources and used them in their work without appropriate references. However, I’m very careful to say that they were plagiarizing, because in my experience, most students want to do a good job in their projects and they don’t understand why copying content without references may not be appropriate. Consider this:

In a ceramics class the instructor tells student that she can’t just copy a design from a book onto her vase. Student tries to explain that the design is traditional and anonymous. Instructor isn’t interested. She cuts the conversation by firmly saying “No. That is not your design. You can’t use it. That’s plagiarizing.” The instructor is patient but it’s clear that the conversation is over. The student is offended, can’t understand the instructor’s point of view. The instructor can’t understand the student’s point of view.

Ehem, so that student was of course me. 🙂 To give this incident a little bit of context, that was my 2nd year in Minnesota and I had a book that I brought me from Turkey on traditional shadow puppets Hacivat and Karagoz. This was a precious book; my husband’s grandmother (who is now 99) had given it to me. Its pages were falling apart and that day I must have taken it to the class with great care. I’m sure I was excited about using it for my project. But I remember coming home frustrated and disappointed. I hated the instructor (although I’m sure she had good intentions), and why were we so far away from home anyway?

hacivat-and-karagoz--1

Picture taken from here

So you can clearly see how context complicates things when it comes to plagiarism (to this date I still don’t know if it was ok to use the design on my vase). This experience significantly shaped how I go about plagiarism in my own classes. In one class focusing on children’s and youth’s use of social media, students were given the option to design an educational website on a topic of their choice for their final project. To my surprise one student in the class, and she was doing really well in class discussions and in other class activities, copied most of the content of her site from other sites. The website itself looked really nice; it wasn’t a last-minute project where she dumped all the content to her site. When I brought the issue to her attention, she panicked. She explained to me she never had the intent to plagiarize stuff. She wanted to make her site look good, professional. By taking content from other credible sites she was making sure that she was providing professional content.

I believe it’s the instructor’s responsibility to offer as much guidance and support as possible long before a project begins to avoid issues like this. And this is not only about  technical guidance or even about ethics. It is also about helping students understand that a course project, a website, a blog post, an essay, can always be a work in progress. It can always be improved and they shouldn’t be afraid of failing. What matters is the way they go about their work rather than the end result. I have had hundreds of undergraduate students in my courses and in most cases of plagiarism (using it for the lack of a better term), I chose to trust my students. Even if they were being dishonest it didn’t matter because I knew that when I had a positive attitude and when I believed that they approached their work with all the best intentions, our relationship would always, always be better.

So when we use a tool like Turnitin in our classes, what are we saying to our students? I wouldn’t prefer to use the tool in my classes because I don’t think it gives the right message to students. I think it creates power issues between instructors and students when actually it’s so much more important to remove those barriers in a meaningful way. And when you know your students, you just know when something is not quite right 🙂 and you can always use that as a way to improve your relationships in class.

2 comments

  1. Yes yes yes “when you know your students, you just know when something is not quite right:) and you can always use that as a way to improve your relationships in class.”

  2. This has been a very thought provoking article for me and has made me stop and reflect on my stance on plagiarism. Firstly, I totally agree with your comment about knowing our students and improving the relationships in class. However, I have always felt very strongly about the need to ensure students are producing their own work and acknowledging the work of others through accurate referencing. Why would anyone want to pass off someone else’s as their own? Very naive, I know and perhaps I am [wrongly?] projecting my own ethical values onto my students.
    It saddens me when it is clear [from knowing students and from Turnitin] that a student has copied from another source, even using the references from the copied work as if they have used them. Sometimes it is a case of not being able to paraphrase properly which is still plagiarising. I want them to have pride in achieving through their own efforts and guide them in the rationale of referencing way in advance of projects/assessments, even so, this issue still arises from time to time.
    Turnitin is used in my institution and it is supposed to benefit the student in helping them to see the level of originality in their work. However, there is still that perception that it is a tool for ‘catching them out’. Maybe I am, subconsciously at least, buying into that.
    As someone who prides herself on developing a good rapport with students, it has made me consider how I can attempt to remove such barriers in advance by perhaps approaching this issue from a different, and more empathetic way.
    Thank you for providing me an opportunity to be critically reflective.

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