Organization, Stress, and the Temptation to Plagiarize

Yesterday in the Vitae subset of the Chronicle of Higher Education, two articles appeared that anticipate our upcoming student workshop on avoiding plagiarism. In one, Helen Rubinstein (current writing fellow at Cornell College, but who once taught classes here at City Tech) recounts a difficult story about a plagiarism case. In another, Melanie Nelson (President at MRN Consulting) debunks the myth that organization is an inherent trait. Together, these two pieces speak to some of the issues that may contribute to a student’s temptation to plagiarize, and to which professors may need to be responsive.

  1. Time Management

One of the points that Nelson makes is, like many other things that you can’t learn overnight, time management is a skill. We have all seen students struggling with this skill, but also often hear things like “I’m just not very organized,” or “I’m not a very good student.” It is important that as instructors, we resist the urge to buy into this logic. It’s not that some students are just inherently better than others–it’s that some students have developed their time management and organization skills and some of them haven’t.

  1. Stress

WAC Fellow Claire posted a recent blog on student stress and writing to learn, but it bears repeating here that stress is a powerful motivator for taking shortcuts. Rubinstein reads plagiarism not as an instance of students exercising their power to deceive, but rather as an expression of their powerlessness. She says, “Plagiarism is a gag on the voice, a paper bag over the face. So what if — the next time our students plagiarize — we tried harder to actually see them? What if we could understand plagiarism as an expression of exhaustion, of distress, maybe even a plea for help?” 

Writing is an activity that can be deeply affected by the internalization of either of these factors. Rubinstein’s call to view plagiarism as an opening to try and help students not fail is one that makes sense with WAC principles. Writing-to-learn itself is premised on the notion that writing, like time management and organization, is a skill. In addition to giving students tools to develop the skill of writing, we should be thinking about giving them tools to develop other kinds of life skills.