True story: the first time I ever dealt with plagiarism in the classroom, a student plagiarized something from my own blog (the same one you’re reading this on, incidentally. Link to follow, below). It was a course on New Testament, and I had assigned a novel called The Shadow of the Galilean to give students a bit of a different perspective into the historical Jesus and Roman-occupied Judea. (It’s a delightful book, by the way, and you should read it if you haven’t.)
The assignment was relatively open ended. I told them I wanted to “review” this book. That’s it. “Review.” At that point in my career, I believed an assignment as unspecific as this one would allow students the freedom to explore, and to focus on aspects of the book that they found interesting. I was so incredibly wrong.
The day after I gave the assignment, a number of students showed up at my office asking what they were actually supposed to be doing in this assignment. They had been reading the book for the past few weeks and so had a good grasp of what was going on in it. They simply didn’t know what I meant by “review.” So we chatted about the types of things that go into a review: give a brief summary, point out some of the good, some of the less-than-good, and give you assessment. This seemed helpful to most who stopped by.
(Important reminder: I’m currently describing an assignment that I now consider bad.)
The due date arrived, and students came to class with their essays. I sat down that night to grade a portion of them, and one of the first that I picked up began: “Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean is one of the finest books on Jesus that I’ve read.”
My first thought: how many books on Jesus have you read?
My second thought: this sentence sounds eerily familiar.
As it turns out, it was familiar to me because it was taken from a blog post that I had written a few years previous. The title of the post is The Shadow of the Galilean (review), and I discovered that (at the time) if you did a Google search for “Review of Shadow of the Galilean,” it was one of the first results that appeared. My student had unknowingly plagiarized his professor.
I e-mailed the student, and we set up a time to chat the following day. As I told him what I had discovered, he sat staring at the ground. I asked him if he had anything to say, and he responded (paraphrasing):
“Honestly? I fucked up. I had no idea what you wanted us to do in this assignment, and I was afraid that asking would make me look stupid. So I went and found a review and I used it. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t even realize you had wrote the review I found, but obviously the situation wouldn’t be any better if I had copied something else. It’s my fault.”
I appreciated the student’s willingness to own up to what he had done, of course, but more than that I actually appreciated his willingness to implicate me. The assignment that I gave wasn’t clear, and while I didn’t force him to go and copy and paste something from the internet, my lack of clarity contributed to a thought process that ultimately spiraled to this place. Saying that to my face took some serious chutzpah, to be sure, but it was a good learning opportunity for me.
We come up with all sorts of reasons to make sense of why students plagiarize: they procrastinate and run out of time, they’re lazy, they lack a sense of self-efficacy, etc. But in my experience we are generally not willing to be self-reflective enough to share some of the blame, at least on occasion. Maybe a student turns in someone else’s work because they have no idea what you want them to do in an assignment? Maybe your expectations are vague. And maybe, just maybe, you aren’t nearly as “accessible” to students as you think you are.
I’m thinking about this today because as I’m working on prepping my “HyFlex” courses for the fall semester. And as I’m going through assignments that I gave the last time I taught these classes, I’m realizing how much I depend on in-class time to go through assignment details and clarify expectations. I circulate handouts for all writing assignments, of course, but because I have that time in the classroom to go through them, I don’t have a whole lot of motivation to be super precise on every point. But in a HyFlex model, the time we spend together in the classroom is even more precious because there’s less of it. And so we have to be far more intentional about how we use it. And if we’re using it to explain assignment expectations, we’re wasting it.
I’m also thinking of ways that we can make sure students know that we are available in a hybrid context (or, for some, a fully online one). After all, those conversations that happen after class, in our offices, or over coffee will be less common this semester. So how do we remain available? And how do we make sure that our students know know that asking questions about assignments is ok. That’s why we are here: to answer questions, to give feedback, and to guide the learning process. Yes, that’s the case even if you ask a question that’s answered in your syllabus. Oh, and speaking of your syllabus: how clear do you imagine that puppy actually is? But that’s a post for another day.
(If you’re curious, the student referenced above rewrote the assignment for partial credit and did a fantastic job. He finished the semester strong.)