So I saw an article on plagiarism in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, linked on Dennis Jerz’s blog, that I thought was really bad. Why? Well, I was dreading looking at the byline, hoping against hope it was not an English teacher – or, even worse, a composition teacher. But it’s written by a theology professor. Hmm. I wonder what this guy’s position on plagiarism in religious texts is. Would he give Mark an F for the mixed citation in Mk 1:2-3?

The author’s attitude is quite… hrm. Well, here’s the conclusion, judge for yourself:

I believe in relentlessly exercising my students’ critical abilities, but I also believe in punishing plagiarism. A student who plagiarizes refuses to be educated. There shouldn’t be room in my classroom for that kind of student. Indeed, that person is not really a student at all.

I’ve been a TA for five semesters. The spring will be my sixth. I see plagiarism in every course. I try my best to catch it in the drafting stage, but this semester I had to report a student. I didn’t like doing it. I felt forced to. I dislike the legal rhetoric the university insists on us using to crack down on plagiarism. I hate the word itself; I much prefer citation. And I would much rather concentrate on the positive benefits of quality citation rather than stand on the top of Olympus and toss thunderbolts.

But that’s just background. More serious is that as a composition teacher, I must espouse a view of students that is the polar opposite of the one promoted in that article. No matter how blatant the plagiarism, I can not – and will not – go down the road of deciding who gets to be a student. Students who plagiarize, like any other student, are trying to get ahead – they understand at some level that education equals empowerment, usually in the sense that it is an obstacle course that they must cross.

The crux is when I have students that come into my class with the obstacle course mentality, I can hardly expect them to suddenly acquire the mindset of Platonic philosopher-kings in 15 weeks, much less learn for learning’s sake. I am part of a university system designed to churn out degrees. Therefore, being part of that system demands that I know the mindset of the plagiarist, who is only interested in their grade.

So I would disagree that a plagiarist refuses to be educated. ‘Educated’ to most is the acquisition of a degree. It does not necessarily include wisdom, knowledge, or competence. That is how our society has constructed education, for better or for worse. An education is something you pay for and receive, to throw in the financial metaphor. Plagiarism, in this strange worldview, is not unethical in the sense that it somehow perverts education; it rather fosters the acquisition of a degree, provided the student is not caught out.

Sometimes I think that the more universities cast plagiarism as a demon, the stronger it will get. I think the word itself should be brushed aside, perhaps replaced by citation, which I consider a much more positive word; and instruction should not focus on how horrible bad citation is but on all the benefits of good citation. Why? Because that approach actually fights the diploma-mill mentality. Throwing out plagiarists only reinforces the idea that a course is a hoop to be jumped through. I’d rather keep them in and work with them.

They may still fail, of course. In fact, they usually do, in my experience. But dammit, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a sorter.

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