… and the university, in turn, fires the professor.
You’ve probably already seen this story. Loye Young, an adjunct professor at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, warned his students (as we all do) against plagiarism. Indeed, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, he included this statement in his fall course syllabus for his management information systems course:
No form of dishonesty is acceptable. I will promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing. That includes academic dishonesty, copyright violations, software piracy, or any other form of dishonesty.
While grading an assignment, Young discovered (at least) six students taking the course had committed plagiarism. Then he followed through on what he had promised in his course syllabus and publicized the names of the six on his (public) blog for the course.
The administration at the university decided that publicizing the names of the students in this way violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), or at least came close enough to violating it to expose the university to Bad Stuff. So, they suspended the failing grades assigned to the six students and they fired Young.
Let the record reflect that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a lawyer.
As such, I’m not qualified to get into whether a grade assigned by a professor but not yet officially submitted to the university registrar counts as an “educational record” of the sort whose release FERPA bars without permission of the student. Nor can I say with any certainty whether the syllabus statement is an enforceable contract into which the students entered by remaining in the course. Nor, for that matter, do I have the legal chops to dig into the various entangled issues of due process here — for the failing grades, for honor code sanctions over and above the failing grades, or for Young as an instructor fired by the university.
I do want to think just a little about the larger question, though: How can we better discourage plagiarism?
Clearly, warning students that plagiarism will earn them failing grades does not stop them from plagiarizing. Nor, sadly, does devoting lots of class time to explaining proper citation of sources, nor does requiring students to complete plagiarism tutorials.
If students have no shame when (privately) presenting work that is plagiarized to those teaching them as if it is their own work — if they’re just counting on us being too stupid or overworked to detect it — what other options do we have?
To the extent that plagiarism is breaking trust not just with the professor but with the learning community, does that learning community have an interest in flagging the bad actors? If you know there are plagiarists but you don’t know who they are, does this create a situation where you can’t trust anyone?
In the Daily Texan article about the case, a faculty member from the University of Texas opines that Young’s response to plagiarism was too draconian:
Renita Coleman, a UT assistant professor who taught a journalism course on ethics in the spring, said there are better ways to handle plagiarism.
“I don’t think that it serves anybody well to publicly humiliate them,” she said. “It doesn’t teach anybody that it’s wrong.”
Coleman said each university has specific guidelines for dealing with cheating, and situational factors should be taken into account. She said she has dealt with repentant plagiarists who weren’t punished severely since they said they learned a lesson.
“Admitting your mistake and making an effort to fix it goes a long way,” she said. “Motivations matter.”
Coleman added that privacy should be considered in the instance of plagiarism.
“It’s not the same violation as, say, robbing a house,” she said. “It’s not something that’s an illegal act.”
Let me suggest here that there is a relevant difference between saying you have learned a lesson and actually learning that lesson.
Indeed, one of the reasons that my university’s office of judicial affairs asks instructors to report all cases of plagiarism and cheating no matter what sanctions we apply to them (including no sanctions) is so there will be a record of whether a particular offense is really the first offense. Students who plagiarize may also lie about whether they have a record of doing so and being caught doing it. If the offenses are spread around — in different classes with different professors in different departments — you might be able to score first-time leniency half a dozen times.
Does that sound cynical? From where I sit, it’s just realistic. But this “realistic” point of view (which others in the teaching trenches share) is bound to make us tougher on the students who actually do make a single bad decision, suspecting that they might be committed cheaters too.
Keeping the information about plagiarists secret, in other words, hurts students who could be helped.
Now, I’m not sure that full-on internet-wide public shaming is the optimal solution to this problem. But for offenses that amount to breaking trust within a community — offenses that have significant negative impacts on the community — I think we need to figure out reasonable ways to get the community involved in punishment and in rehabilitation.
Ideas for how to do that are welcome.