Ethical Engagement: Practical Solutions for Addressing Plagiarism in the Writing Classroom

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Catherine Cronquist Browning, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2010

Academics who teach in post-secondary settings are united by a depressingly pervasive problem: plagiarism. As a Graduate Student Instructor with six semesters of teaching experience and one semester of readership experience at Berkeley, I have already handled several cases of academic dishonesty, including egregious plagiarism, piecemeal plagiarism, unintentional plagiarism, and dual submission of the same essay for two courses without proper notification of the instructors concerned. I have also, like many writing instructors, faced situations in which I suspected but could not prove plagiarism. Although I am grateful for and have used the systems Berkeley has in place to dissuade students from plagiarism and academic dishonesty, including the Code of Student Conduct, the Center for Student Conduct and Community Standards, departmental and college policies, and the resources of the GSI Teaching and Resource Center, I also believe that writing instructors are obliged to take more “on the ground” action against plagiarism, preemptively whenever possible. During Spring 2009, I developed a system of “ethical engagement” to address plagiarism in my course English R1B: The Confessing Animal.

My project of “ethical engagement” for students consisted of three prongs, integrated into a variety of in-class and take-home exercises over the course of the semester. These three prongs were (1) an ethical evaluation of the value of critical thinking in postsecondary education; (2) an accessible and thorough grounding in proper academic self-positioning and citation, including a deconstructive approach to the plagiarized document; and (3) an emphasis on draft stages in the writing process, including what writing psychologist Joan Bolker has described as learning “to write in order to think.” I began by taking one class period to give students a PowerPoint presentation on plagiarism and academic dishonesty, clarifying the university’s policies, but also explaining the reasons behind them — practical, legal, and ethical. We discussed intellectual property and the post-secondary educational project; students came to understand that wholesale plagiarism may provide a temporary solution to their urgent need to produce pages, but it does not address their more important need to develop their own critical thinking. As students began working on their own essays, we discussed not only the mechanics of citation but the ways in which citation can help writers position their opinions in relation to those of other critics. To help students understand the muddy thinking that comes with piecemeal or partial plagiarism, I wrote four plagiarized paragraphs based on some of our course reading. As a take-home exercise, students were asked to “un-plagiarize” these paragraphs using citation, signal phrases, paraphrasing, or even complete re-writing. When we discussed the results in class, it was clear that students who knew the abstract definition of “plagiarism” had trouble recognizing it in practical examples; discussing the different forms of plagiarism in the sample paragraphs helped them understand what it means to assert their own writerly voices and hold these distinct from other critics and thinkers. As students turned to their own papers, I stressed the importance of freewriting and drafting, using each stage of writing and revision to clarify their thoughts.

I was able to evaluate my project in several ways. First, I graded the take-home exercise on “un-plagiarizing,” which demonstrated that students understood how to perform the technical aspects of academic honesty. Second, I was able to watch students develop their ideas over the course of freewrites, drafts, and peer review discussions, and I observed greater interest in substantial content revision than in my previous courses. Third, the one case of plagiarism that did occur in the class was both extremely obvious and easily handled. Although I was not able to prevent every student from plagiarizing every time, my system of “ethical engagement” made it not only difficult for students to get away with but also undesirable for them to try.