At NCA in San Antonio, one program I attended was devoted to plagiarism. Ably chaired by Sherry Morreale, the panel consisted of a number of young instructors and teaching assistants who focused largely on catching the plagiarist. So much attention seemed to have been devoted to identifying the plagiarism and punishing the plagiarist that I wondered if that was time well spent. Surely, plagiarism is a problem—in all college activities and not just in public speaking where it seems we focus—but if its identification and punishment absorbs so much of our time, where is the time to inspire students, prepare lectures, and to encourage those students who need our support?
It seems there are two issues which are often not separated. One issue is to explain to students what needs and what does not need citation and how to cite these sources in the oral speech and in the papers and outlines. That, it seems, is our province as teachers and one of the tasks we need to address thoroughly. The second issue is—and this one is never made explicit but it’s there in the background—to make our students ethical and moral people. This task, it seems, is more than most teachers have time for and of course it’s not something any teacher has been trained for. How do you make someone a good person? If we knew the answer to that, this world would not be in the shape it’s in.
Consider: from the time the child enters pre-school, the parents are helping with the child’s homework, craft projects, or whatever else the child has to turn in and that might reflect poorly on the parents or prevent the child from getting into the right prep school. And this pattern, it seems, continues throughout elementary and high school and when it comes to the college application, coaches are hired to guide what is said and how it is said and, in some cases I’m sure, to actually write the required essays. And, regardless of your political persuasion, you’ll have to admit we regularly see lying and cheating that has a lot more serious consequences than whether a student earns an “A” or an “F.” Unfortunately, the same is true in the large corporations where lying has destroyed the pension funds of millions of workers. So, why are we surprised when a college student buys a paper or speech from some online source or gets it from one of the club files? The student’s parents taught him or her that such behavior was acceptable and the political and business worlds demonstrate that such deceptions are standard operating procedure. To assume that we, as communication teachers, can take this student—with this very typical history and experience—and, in a one-semester course, turn him or her into a moral and ethical person, is nothing short of ridiculous.
There is another problem with this fixation on catching the cheater and that is that it changes you (the teacher). It refocuses your energies and makes you a police officer, a disciplinarian. Instead, that same energy could be used to help the young instructor become a great teacher. Unfortunately, each person (even the college instructor) has only so much energy; if you spend it on catching and punishing the unethical student, you have that much less to give to the ethical student who wants to learn and who needs your guidance. At the same time, your fixation on plagiarism establishes an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. It’s similar to the situation in interpersonal relationships where one partner’s constant checking on the other creates an atmosphere that is guarded, accusatory, and just plain unhealthy and unpleasant.
All this is not to say that we should abandon efforts to identify plagiarism. It is a problem. But, it should never dominate the teaching experience.