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).