Reading Lindey (see last post) made me think about why I don’t like Turnitin, and why I’ve so far declined to use it. The UofM has a license, but has not yet made using it mandatory. This is good, as I would refuse to use it. I have three reasons: building trust with students, commercial interests, and loaded rhetoric.
1) Respect for students
I used to work in a laptop repair facility. Every day I had to walk through a metal detector before I could leave the building. This was because nearly all of us had a degree of access to a massive stockpile of computer parts that could be easily resold. I didn’t like the presumption of guilt, but I was ok with the process as I saw everyone in the building had to walk through the detector, from management down to the temps. There was no trust, but it was democratically applied, in much the same way that members of Congress, like everyone else, have to take off their shoes to get on a plane these days.
Turnitin also presupposes guilt. Students learn up front that they are suspects in an ongoing investigation (watch those crime metaphors for reason #3). Every time they turn in a paper, they must prove themselves once more.
But at least here, not all courses require such draconian measures. I’ve never heard of a graduate course requiring Turnitin. I’ve certainly never heard of a professor being asked to submit a paper to a journal through such a service. So not only is there a jaded eye from the start, but a double standard exists as to who is a suspect. Not everyone is being asked to walk through the detector – there are other lines, with higher trust levels. And in a supposedly democratic society, a tiered system of trust is appalling. Either everyone should go through the detector, or no one, in my book.
2) Commerical interests
I don’t mind the university spending money on copies of Windows, computers, janitors, teacher salaries, etc. These are all part of what is necessary for a modern education.
What I don’t like are companies that are in the education business solely for profit. I worked for one (which will go blissfully unnamed) a few summers ago, and quickly became disillusioned, as everything they did had a veneer of respectibility and concern, but in the end it was all assembly-line – at the end of the day, the organization existed only to perpetuate the organization. Opportunities for soul-searching were non-existent. Turnitin has that same stink about it. They are not there for students, but for a bottom line. Morally, they are at the same level as the sites that sell papers – they only make money off the other end of things. The less academia has to do with such entities, the better. Some are necessary evils – book publishers in particular – but plagiarism detection services (which makes me think of private eyes), we could do without.
I also don’t like how Turnitin retains old student papers, either, a state of affairs that parallels Google’s questionable ability to keep a copy of damn near everything that exists.
3) Loaded rhetoric
Plagiarism is almost always, save by progressive folks, described as a crime – a theft, a kidnapping (from the Latin root), or some sort of vaguely defined moral sin, the 11th commandment. It smears in the same way that an accusation of pedarasty does, even if the case is thrown out.
Efforts to combat plagiarism have the air of a police action. Rules for citing must be enforced. The UoM has a “task force” on plagiarism, which makes it sound like Chuck Norris is getting ready to storm Patterson. This bombastic nonsense all stems, I think, from viewing plagiarism as a crime – the academic streets need cleaning up. And thus the language resembles a police procedural.
We should be jumping for joy every time a student plagiarizes, because that means our existence as teachers of composition is validated, as we have something to teach them – citation, research, the need for critical thinking. We should get down on our knees and thank the Internet for making it easier to plagiarize, because it means we will be employed for the foreseeable future, stemming the metaphorical digital tide. We should be eternally glad that plagiarism is seen as a problem that needs fixing, because if all incoming students cited their sources fairly and accurately and did clever research out of the box, then there wouldn’t be much for us to do. We should leap to the opportunity to teach here. Plagiarism is a blessing, not a curse.
Of course, by doing so, we have to nod and wink at this constructed sin of citation called plagiarism, and allow it to continue to fester unabated so it can be treated. Because if we killed it off or contained it too well, as all these enforcement measures seem to be designed to do… I find this situation more than a little morally ambigious for composition studies; there is a hint of hypocrisy.