Recently in a faculty meeting at my university, our academic integrity representative, I’ll call her T., said her biggest job is talking teachers down from the ledge. T. explained that educators get so worked up about plagiarism, as if a student buying a paper online, or having some bot do their work has anything to do with their opinion about us.
I suppose that’s as good enough as any place to begin. Plagiarism has always gotten the academy’s panties in a bundle because academics fancy ourselves independent thinkers, sitting in our offices plucking new ideas from the void that no one has ever thought before. We believe the story we have propagated that our universities churn out more academics brimming with integrity, who also somehow have original thoughts.
But here’s the thing, to fool ourselves into believing that we have had any original thought that none of the billions of other earthlings have ever had, let alone written, is flawed. A fallacy. I teach writing at a world-class university and I don’t think I have ever had an original thought. Sure, I may present a string of ideas together in a new way, and surely my colleagues present new research, or present new information, but big ideas are scaffolded on the ideas of others. In interviews Margaret Atwood claims to have used real world events to create the Handmaid’s Tale. Astrophysicists can only do what they do because of the ideas that came before theirs. As beings we build on the ideas of others. This is the foundation of the intellectual community.
So in the university classroom, the concept of what is or is not ethically plagiarism is murky. On day one in class, I ask my students to discuss what academic integrity looks like. They always focus on plagiarism: stealing, cheating, using others’ ideas without giving them credit. They rarely talk about what it looks like to have integrity as an academic. What is the intellectual world we hope to engage with? What does that world look like today?
Since my students are performance focused, or really, grade obsessed, they want that A so badly, that they will often do whatever is allowed to get there. That can mean being a little shady.
Students always ask whether they can use Grammarly (a grammar tool): sure. Can they have someone edit their work? Hmmm, this one…