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).

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McWain, Katie. Instructors in Dual-Enrollment Programs. TETYC, May 2018. Posted 06/20/2018.

McWain, Katie. “Finding Freedom at the Composition Threshold: Learning from the Experiences of Dual Enrollment Teachers.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.4 (2018): 406-24. Print.

Katie McWain recounts a study of instructors of dual-enrollment courses. She interviews and collects documents from seven teachers, five writing program administrators or dual-enrollment coordinators, and one high-school administrator. These educators represented three “dual-enrollment partnerships” in demographically varied institutions and schools in the Midwest (409).

Documenting the increase in credit-bearing college courses taught in high schools by high school teachers, McWain notes ongoing critiques of the process from composition scholars but states that attention has been turning to how the instructors of these courses can be better supported as members of the composition community (408). She writes that the proliferation of these courses, especially in community colleges, makes dual-enrollment teachers “the first-contact professionals” who will introduce students to college writing (421), placing them in “a uniquely liminal institutional positionality” (408).

In this role, in McWain’s view, the teachers have the opportunity to make first-year composition “a transformative practice” (407). But she argues that the possibilities inherent in dual-enrollment programs depend on teachers’ overcoming significant challenges. Study of teachers’ actual negotiation of these challenges, she contends, is rare (408, 421), but understanding them and working to help teachers overcome them is “the responsibility” of the composition profession (421).

McWain attributes the growth of the dual-enrollment model to the pressure to graduate students more quickly and efficiently; since 2015, she notes, federal funding has been offered for the development of such courses (408). She traces the impact of this trend on the academic freedom of the high school teachers who instruct the majority of these classes (407).

Coding of interviews revealed four “challenges” faced by dual-enrollment instructors in the high schools (409). The first is that these instructors function within “discourse communities” and “activity systems” that differ from those experienced by college faculty (410). McWain distinguishes between the “community of literature” that surrounds high-school English curricula as opposed to a “community of composition” that college writing faculty inhabit (410). Her interviewees express frustration at attempting to provide college rigor without the support college faculty often receive. Further, one interviewee contends that her high-school colleagues “don’t see themselves as writers” and question their own expertise (“Rachel,” qtd. in McWain 411). Preparation may be taken up with “‘calibrating’ assessment strategies” rather than addressing pedagogy (411). Finally, the many entities for whom high school teachers work problematize the concept of academic freedom, as each employer competes to dictate the priorities teachers have to set (411).

Second, dual-enrollment instructors in the high schools struggle to meet college outcomes while still meeting rigid curricular requirements for the high schools where they teach. Such rigidity limits innovation and creative teaching practice. McWain gives an example of a student whose unique project on To Kill a Mockingbird received “all zeroes” as “[o]ff topic, not score-able” when tested against the required assessment paradigm (412-13). In contrast, some interviewees testified to the lack of a specific curriculum, but the freedom that may have followed from this dearth of guidance was undercut by the lack of a “professional teaching community” (412) with knowledge of college expectations and access to “the research and policies” generated by the composition profession (413-14). Teachers spoke of tweaking assignments designed to meet the high school standards rather than developing more rigorous ones that might be rejected (412).

The third challenges McWain explores involves the pressures dual-enrollment instructors face from other stakeholders, especially parents. She illustrates that the role of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is poorly defined in dual-credit environments (414-15). Her interviewees emphasize the demands of communicating with parents in a high-school setting, including “diplomatic emails” about problem areas and the expectation that parents should always be informed if a student is doing poorly (416). The failure to clearly reconcile these requirements with the responsibility given to students in a college course leaves instructors without “protection” should administrators and parents protest low grades (416). Academic freedom can also be challenged if parents object to the “mature and controversial subject matter” that may characterize college work (“Sally,” qtd. in McWain 415).

Finally, McWain argues that the labor conditions of dual-enrollment instructors both affect pedagogy and limit agency. Interviewees detail the amount of work involved in regular high-school teaching (416), while one participant created a spreadsheet to demonstrate that dual-enrollment teachers worked 117 more hours per semester than other teachers (420). These instructors are expected to plan college-level coursework with, in one case, “a 22-minute lunch” and “a 47-minute planning period” (“Kelly,” qtd. in McWain 417). “Sally” reports “being responsible for 124 students” (417). Moreover, teachers report that “assessment is prioritized over pedagogy,” forcing instructors to adjust their activities to meet grading demands (417).

Asked what they most needed, interviewees stressed “time” (419). McWain contends that all teachers, including those in post-secondary environments, face demands to teach more for less compensation, but she highlights the extra burden confronted by the overlay of dual-enrollment duties onto high-school exigencies (419).

McWain illustrates “innovative solutions” developed by teachers themselves, such as one instructor’s handling of parental objections to course content (419-20). Teachers and administrators alike envision more support, such as collaborative “teams” to help with professional development and course design and designated coordinators for dual-enrollment programs (420). McWain suggests possible gains in pushing for more membership in the certifying body, the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, which has created standards in several areas. Despite criticism that the Alliance “is not a guarantee of curricular integrity,” McWain contends that the organization at least encourages awareness of important issues (420).

She also recommends that composition’s professional organizations and graduate programs recognize the increasing role played by dual-enrollment instructors and begin to incorporate coursework and policy positions that will encourage better conditions and improve practice for these faculty (421). Her own study, she writes, is “preliminary and general,” but she argues for the importance of learning about and supporting “this growing segment of our disciplinary population” (421).