College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Leonard, Sandra. Plagiarism and Contingent Faculty. May TETYC, 2018. Posted 06/29/2018.

Leonard, Sandra M. “Plagiarism and Contingency: A Problem of Academic Freedom.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 21.2 (2018): A1-A13. Print.

Writing in the May 2018 Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, Sandra M. Leonard discusses the pressures placed on contingent writing faculty by the kinds of plagiarism policies she finds most commonly in place. Such policies, among them the approach endorsed by the 2016 Modern Language Association handbook, call for a no-tolerance approach to plagiarism, in Leonard’s view lumping a wide array of writing practices under “an all-inclusive definition” (A3). Leonard writes that while many full-time faculty may be empowered to revise such draconian definitions and develop teaching practices more in line with composition theory, contingent faculty are caught between their struggles to teach well and their need to observe institutional requirements (A4).

Leonard contests claims that plagiarism rarely occurs and that it can be handled with a standardized response. Citing the work of Rebecca Moore Howard and a New Zealand study reported by John Walker, Leonard notes that instances that meet strict definitions of plagiarism occur in a quarter to a third of sampled student work (A3). According to Leonard’s research, studies demonstrate that most instances involve “improper paraphrase,” designated as “patchwriting” by Howard (A3).

In this view, when inflexible policies fail to distinguish between such errors, which may be unintentional, and deliberate fraud, they risk punishing students for what Howard considers an important step in the learning process (A3-A4). Leonard contends that students who commit this infraction may not know they are using sources incorrectly and thus cannot be effectively deterred by blanket warnings and “integrity statements” (A4). She cites composition professionals who consider such missteps from students an opportunity to teach revision as well as to inculcate a deeper understanding of intellectual property issues (A9).

Leonard argues that inflexible language in institutional policies delivers mixed messages to contingent faculty, leaving them without resources to deal with such a complex pedagogical issue (A5). Required by policy to report all instances, faculty may find administrators bowing to concerns about students as “unhappy customers,” with the faculty member depicted as “harsh” for doing her job (A6-A7). Leonard cites cases of faculty whose careers were affected by addressing a plagiarism case (A6). She notes that contingent faculty are especially at risk because institutions are not required to explain why an instructor is not rehired (A6).

Leonard details the burdens imposed when contingent faculty attempt to address plagiarism, including the time to hold “highly sensitive” meetings, often without private office space, and fill out extensive paperwork (A5). She argues that charging a student with plagiarism results in stress and forces the faculty member to take on a “pseudo-legal” role as a “prosecutor,” positions far beyond either his expertise or level of compensation (A6). Moreover, Leonard writes, taking on a plagiarism charge can affect the mood of a class and lead to lower evaluations, which may then be used to justify “retaliation” (A6).

The author reports a number of effects on faculty agency as a result of plagiarism policies. A zero-tolerance policy removes teachers’ ability to make decisions about how to handle various levels of infractions (A7). Teachers may fall back on assignments they consider “plagiarism-proofing”: instructions so unique and precise that, ideally, students do not have a chance to plagiarize (A7). Leonard contends that students can still defeat these efforts; also, designing assignments for this purpose may preclude many of the pedagogical choices considered most valuable in process pedagogy, so that “preventing plagiarism” appears to be “more important than teaching course material” (A8). In such contexts, the option of  “low-stakes” assignments “has no meaning” if students can be punished for citation or paraphrase slips (A8). Further, she maintains that “plagiarism-proofing” in this way actually prevents students from learning how to negotiate intellectual property boundaries through practice and feedback (A8). In contrast to the ways other skills are taught, enacting zero-tolerance for paraphrase and citation errors means that students would have to demonstrate “perfection at every stage” despite being denied the learning inherent in making mistakes (A8).

Leonard notes that contingent faculty are especially likely to be “caught up in a fight of mixed messages” (A9) because so many of the issues involved occur in first-year writing, which is increasingly taught by part-time instructors (A10). In some cases, Leonard writes, instructors decide to ignore plagiarism altogether rather than risk the dangers involved (A8-A9). Others may rely on detection software despite opposition from scholars in the field; in some cases, institutional policy on the use of such software may leave faculty with no choice (A9).

In Leonard’s view, policies should specifically recognize faculty expertise and agency by granting the ability both to determine when a case merits punishment and to design a “successful in-house procedure for dealing with plagiarism that works for their class culture” (A10). Such policies would allow instructors to emulate creative solutions like those designed by Gerald Nelms and Kate Hagopian (A9, A10). Leonard stipulates that policies should ensure support for faculty who find that sanctions are in order as well as the legal and institutional guidance to manage such a complex and charged situation. This support, moreover, should “also incorporate plans . . . that do not draw on part-time faculty labor outside of contracted hours” (A10).

Leonard writes that, despite increasing awareness within composition of the challenges involved in dealing effectively with the many skills involved in successful use of outside material, institutional policies “haven’t caught up” (A10). She advocates for changes that will no longer “displace the stresses of academic dishonesty onto the most vulnerable faculty” (A10).

Hartwig, David W. Student Understanding of Plagiarism. TETYC, Sept. 2015. Posted 09/22/2015.

Hartwig, David W. “Student Plagiarism and First-Year Composition: A Study.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.1 (2015): 38-56. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

David W. Hartwig studied students’ comprehension of plagiarism after encountering it in various forms during his first appointment as a writing teacher at a community college. Of sixty-four students in his first-year classes, eight (12.5%) had committed “some form of apparent plagiarism”; only two were “egregious” and “intentional” (38). These experiences led Hartwig to examine attitudes and approaches to plagiarism in the composition literature and to design a study to better understand what students at his institution knew about plagiarism and how well they were able to apply their knowledge.

One student’s comment, on being told his paper had come from an online paper mill, that he didn’t “know how [his] paper got there” led Hartwig to examine contentions that students bring deliberate strategies for plagiarism from high school. This charge did not resonate with Hartwig’s experiences, which suggested that “lack of knowledge and skill” were more to blame (38), and inspired his concern that his teaching methods, although in line with those of his colleagues, might not be adequately informing students about the legitimate use of research materials (38-39).

Hartwig recounts claims that students participate in a culture in which writing and the standards for use of material are much different from those promoted by their college teachers. According to this view, students see public instances of plagiarism treated “light[ly]” and are more likely to be influenced by peer culture than by academic perceptions and rules (39). To gauge the prevalence of plagiarism, Hartwig presents studies encompassing the 1990s by Donald L. McCabe, Linda Klebe Treviño, and Kenneth D. Butterfield that show student mishandling of source material to be “a persistent problem” that can be somewhat ameliorated with honor codes (40).

Hartwig suggests that challenging the concept of the individual author has burdened scholars who hope to help students understand this abstract idea while simultaneously discouraging what continues to be seen as academic dishonesty (40-41). His review of current attitudes toward plagiarism among composition scholars focuses on the question of “intention” (41; emphasis original) as incorporated into the definition of plagiarism by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (41). Noting the WPA claim that many discussions of plagiarism fail to observe the distinctions in its definition and arguing that intention can be hard to discern in actual student behavior, Hartwig addresses Rebecca Moore Howard’s concept of “patchwriting,” in which students incompletely translate source material into their own words. Hartwig reports that Howard encourages compositionists to see patchwriting as “an essential part of the learning process” and to develop pedagogies that “strive to move [students] beyond” the practice rather than to punish it (41).

Concluding that students are confused about the correct use of sources and that faculty often “do not understand what students are attempting when they exhibit plagiarism-like writing,” Hartwig conducted a study to compare what students know about plagiarism upon entering a first-year-writing class with what they know after completing the class (42).

For the study, students anonymously completed a ten-question quiz at the beginning and end of the term. The quiz assessed “objective” knowledge by asking students to identify specific actions as plagiarism and to demonstrate a basic knowledge of what and how to cite. The final three questions addressed knowledge applied “in practice” by asking students to determine whether actual examples did exhibit plagiarism (42-45, 49). Clarifying that the results were not used to evaluate individual teaching and that data were not attached to individuals or sections, Hartwig notes that the questions included the “admittedly problematic” issue of “common knowledge,” but states that the question was refined through piloting so that only one correct answer was possible (43-44). Similarly, some participants noted that students might be confused by a question about citation format because many Internet sources do not include page numbers; Hartwig points to the widespread availability of pdfs with original pagination but urges future consideration of this concern (44).

Limitations included a drop-off in enrollment from students taking the pre-test, with only 68% taking the post-test. Technological limitations also prevented fine-grained demographic analysis and tracking of individual student improvement (45-46). Finally, faculty freedom in course design meant that “pedagogies varied widely,” and it was not possible to link any performance measure to particular teaching strategies (46). However, the results indicated very little divergence from the mean despite this diversity.

Hartwig’s findings reject claims that students come into college knowing little about plagiarism and that ongoing plagiarism can be attributed to “flawed teaching” in college classes (48). However, his study did support the contention that “student plagiarism was the result of students’ failure to fully understand the conventions of citing sources” (48). Students did quite well on the “objective” portions of the test both before and after the first-year classes, recognizing, for example, that working with tutors in the Writing Center is sanctioned but that providing a paper to another student to turn in as her own is not (43). Similarly, they knew that quotations, paraphrases, and other forms of borrowing were to be cited and knew basic MLA format (43). They had much more difficulty recognizing patchwriting and incorrect citation in actual passages; results showed inconsistent improvement on this portion across the terms tested (47-48).

Hartwig traces many problems to issues of reading. Quoting Shelley Angelie-Carter, Hartwig contends that students “‘trying on’ academic discourse” struggle with jargon and basic comprehension (49). In fact, he concludes, the three questions that asked students to apply their objective knowledge to actual passages “tested students almost as much on their close reading skills as on their knowledge of plagiarism” (50).

Hartwig recommends continuing to refine definitions, in particular involving students more actively in these discussions (51). He also urges “decriminaliz[ing] patchwriting” (51) because it is an indication of students’ comprehension, not their honesty. He argues for foregrounding critical reading in conjunction with writing and developing strategies for instructors to pay closer attention to students’ actual handling of sources while respecting that most writing instructors have massive workloads that preclude such practices as reading all sources (52-53). In Hartwig’s view, asking that faculty across campus share in helping students recognize best citation and synthesis practices as well as encouraging administrative efforts to treat instances of plagiarism as individual cases will also help writing instructors take a more proactive approach to the steps students must take—including patchwriting—toward effective use of sources (53-54).