A Compassionate Approach to Plagiarism

Allow me to paint a picture: It is late on a Saturday night, and you are still awake trying to finish grading a stack of papers. The task for this particular assignment is to build an argument about the role and presentation of women in Hamlet. You want to finish grading tonight so that you can go to bed with a clear mind, satisfied in the knowledge that this duty to your students has been fulfilled and you can enjoy your Sunday at leisure. The respite will be brief – there’s always the next assignment to consider – but well-earned.

Three papers from the end of your pile you discover that one of your students has regurgitated almost word-for-word the CliffsNotes summary and analysis pages of this play that appear online. You know this before you even look up the website to check, because this genre of online summaries is so recognizable; the language informative but repetitive and somewhat elementary. You groan as alarm bells start to go off in your head, the CUNY Policy on Academic Integrity flashes through your mind, and you frustratingly ask yourself a stream of rhetorical questions: Why on earth have they done this when you gave plenty of notice for the paper? Why do they have to do this for YOUR class? How do they have the gall to literally copy and paste so boldly from another source into their own paper? Do they not understand how blatant it is when work from anywhere else is copied into their essays?

It can be difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of our students, especially given that we are professional educators and so presumably did not struggle enough with our own essays at undergraduate level to veer into the murky realm of plagiarism. But the fact remains this is a very real and serious problem at college level.

Our faculty workshop last week on “Avoiding Plagiarism” discussed various factors that can contribute to the conditions in which a student feels they have no choice but to copy someone else’s work: poor time management, a lack of self confidence in their own work, and instances of bad paraphrasing and improper citations which lead to acts of plagiarism that are sometimes unintentional on the student’s part, but an issue nonetheless. Solutions to these issues were discussed in the workshop’s presentation, which is available to view online.

Another set of factors to bear in mind, and the ones I would like to focus on here, are the external pressures that many of our students face outside of their education. Most CUNY students juggle part-time or full-time jobs along with their studies, sometimes multiple jobs. Some students have issues at home with either unstable environments in which to study, or family concerns that can pull their attention and focus away from school (more than once I have had a student let me know they have a sick relative for whom they are the primary carer, and hence lessons have to be missed because of hospital visits, and assignments have to be scaffolded earlier etc). Other students might not have such external pressures, but instead are struggling with debilitating internal factors such as anxiety, depression or other mental or physical illnesses that prevent them from performing to the best of their abilities.

Why should we concern ourselves with these external or personal pressures of a student if our primary role in their lives is to deliver an education and assess their ability to apply that information? Firstly, I believe it is our responsibility as instructors to cultivate a general awareness of what the lives of our students look like outside of the classroom, so that we may better support them inside the classroom. This means being open-minded and flexible enough to look beyond their performance on paper and assess who they are on a human level. So when a serious issue such as plagiarism enters the classroom, we must take the time to stop and think about the root causes of why a student might have resorted to that behavior, and not rush to presume it is arrogance, laziness, or just bad organization skills. Secondly, your openness and approachability as an instructor can help to avoid issues such as plagiarism to begin with, because the student feels comfortable enough to be open about their struggles from the beginning and then you can work together to figure out the best course of action.

There are many ways to manifest this compassionate approach in our classrooms. It could mean making an announcement on the first day of class, or adding a section to your syllabus, that explicitly states the fact that you understand and are aware of these pressures and will show compassion and offer support where necessary to help them succeed as best they can in your course. Another option is being upfront about the things we might juggle ourselves as instructors (especially those of us who are adjuncts and have second jobs or PhD’s to work on besides teaching) which can make us seem more approachable and responsive to their individual situations. Some instructors make it mandatory for students to attend office hours at least once in the semester which can be another way of building a working relationship, especially with those students who find it hard to take the initiative to ask for help even when it is desperately needed: having them come and visit you to talk one-on-one can open up this dialogue. It can also be as simple as figuring out ways of bringing current events into class discussions in the context of course material, so as to show sensitivity and awareness about what they might be feeling and experiencing in reaction to the outside world, and incorporating that into their studies so as to provide an outlet.

My point here is not to take on the task of being a hybrid instructor / therapist. Actually, being a supportive instructor means we can be the first step towards their figuring out what other resources are available, and where they can get adequate help and support from the appropriate places. Rather, if we can develop strong enough relationships with our students to really know them, then we can spot potential problems, such as the likelihood of acts of plagiarism, early enough to prevent them. This also means less instances of disciplinary action to deal with later on, which is good news all around! If we can lead with compassion, we can support and encourage students to successfully manage their various pressures both in and out of the classroom and still produce good, honest work.