Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is the plagiarism warning on syllabi racist?

The office of the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences has asked all faculty to include the following statement on their syllabi:
Plagiarism and Academic Misconduct : ‘Academic misconduct includes but is not limited to cheating, encouraging academic dishonesty, fabrication, plagiarism, bribes, favors, threats, grade tampering, non-original work, and examination by proxy. Procedures regarding academic misconduct are delineated in “Student Policies and Procedures” article X, section 2. If an incident of academic misconduct occurs, the instructor has the option to notify the student and adjust grades downward, award a failing grade for the semester, or seek further sanctions against the student.’
I objected to this statement. I wrote the following: "I do not wish to put this statement on my syllabi for principled reasons. First, the statement is in quotation marks (oddly using the British convention rather than the American), and no source is given, violating my stipulation to my students that any quoted matter must be properly cited. Second, the statement conveys a hostile and threatening tone, one I do not wish to convey to my students; I go to great lengths to convey to my students that I am there to help them become more capable, a message at great variance from the tone and message of the above statement. The statement replicates several from the administration threatening sanctions if we do not do what the administration says. I do not wish to speak to my students in that fashion.
"What do others think?"
Only one person from the dean's office responded, and that person is to be commended for engaging the issue. The response was this: "The plagiarism statement has quotation marks around it because it was copied word for word from the statement used in the syllabus of a colleague in the college of Arts and Sciences. I asked permission to use it, and the faculty member said sure, but that it had been copied work for word from somewhere else. The quotation marks are therefore an artifact of the unclear provenance of statement but a recognition of the fact that it was copied word for word. There is no conspiracy."
I replied: :"Of course, the remark about the quotation marks without citation was not my main point but a 'dig' at the failure to cite in a remark about plagiarism. To repeat my main point:
“'I would prefer to assume that, of course, no one would cheat and then deal with misconduct as it may arise. If one person says to another, "I expect you to be honest," it expresses the possibility that someone might not be honest and is an insult to that person. We assume honesty; it goes without saying. We deal with dishonesty if we must.' [I was quoting from a response to my coordinator's efforts to justify the statement; I had forwarded the correspondence between myself and the coordinator to the deans and chairs.]
“What do the rest of you think about this point as an objection to the plagiarism statement on a syllabus?”
Again, among the deans and chairs only a single dean responded, writing, “I suppose the same could be said about almost anything – traffic rules, house rules, what is considered a criminal offence, tax laws, property transfers,… there are rules and regulations, and they are [usually] written down.  And they do not suggest that everyone is dishonest unless proved otherwise. Academic integrity is at the foundation of our enterprise – and maybe it appears to some individuals  that all students and faculty understand and adopt it, but a university education is also increasingly a credentialing process, a means to an end, where  the exigencies of the deadline or grade affect performance and practice.  ….
“… it makes more sense to arrange a forum/teach in – faculty, students, judicial affairs, journalists, researchers, etc.
“If you yourself choose to have some other statement about academic integrity, have it as a topic of learning and discussion in your classes so that students know the issues, consequences and concerns, you could do so.  Keep in mind that when a student does cheat, the university takes it seriously, and we do not want to hear ‘everybody does it’,  ‘I didn’t’ know it was wrong’, ‘you didn’t say we couldn’t copy’.”
I replied: “I would love to do a forum on the topic. I believe it would be immensely helpful. But it should be phrased as a question: how should faculty deal with cheating? Or something like that?
“NO ONE should infer that I tolerate cheating. I don’t. However, I deal with it as the behavior of an individual, not the class. The only thing I say (I don’t write it down) is that I am there to help them to read with better comprehension of complex texts and to help them to write more clearly and precisely about complex ideas which may not be their own ideas; then I say, “When you write I want your own bad writing. If you wrote like a professional you would not need to be in college. So give me your own writing so that I can help you to write better.” And I spend a lot of time with students in one-on-one or small group sessions going over their papers (because they have to rewrite them; they weren’t good enough).
“I do not believe that a schedule of assignments for a class is the same as saying ‘you need to be honest’ to students. The former represents a schedule of what we will do so that students understand the class requirements. The latter is an insult to the student.
“The point about the change in the nature of universities is obviously relevant; so also is the observation that, in a predominately black university, racist assumptions about student behavior may creep in. In my classes I have read aloud the university’s ‘Code of Excellence’ to illustrate how negative racial stereotyping of black people plays out at Chicago State. The bookstore will not let students into the textbook aisles ‘because they might steal.’ Students sign up for financial aid at the last minute ‘because they are ghetto.’ Do you think that the University of Chicago requires that all syllabi contain a statement about academic misconduct?
“[to the dean who engaged my objection to the plagiarism statement] thank you for engaging in a conversation on these issues. What do others think?”
Since writing that I checked what NCATE asks for, and that don’t ask for a plagiarism warning.
And what do readers of this post think? Is the plagiarism statement racist? Am I off base?


  1. Paul-
    I do not object to the statement. I teach upper division and graduate courses and I find that MANY students from CSU AND other students do not understand the basics of plagiarism. Many do not understand that an academic paper is more than a set of quotes. Most do not understand that they need to cite when they paraphrase the ideas of others, and a few are in the habit of using word for word quotes in their work with no citations.

    I think that being proactive on this issue is an important part of helping our students develop academic and critical thinking skills. We need to do MUCH more than wait for student to demonstrate these errors before we act. I have a plagiarism statement in my syllabus (not the CAS one). I discuss this issue with students, I teach academic writing skills including how to use various sources and how to recognize, respect and acknowledge the work of others within these sources. My students take a quiz that requires them to recognize various types of plagiarism in one of the first courses in our curriculum. I use TurnItIn to check for plagiarism. I use settings that allow students to see this analysis so that they can check their own work. If they submit early, they can re-write and resubmit after this review.

    In the last year or two, I have asked the President of the Faculty senate three times if the senate could please develop a CSU statement on plagiarism, and I have had no response from that quarter. I agree that faculty should take the lead on this issue, and I agree that the CAS statement could be and should be improved.

    I also think that our faculty need to be proactive in addressing academic issues. If we do not demonstrate leadership, we should expect that our actions will always be responses to someone else's choices and decisions.
    -Sarah Austin
    ext 2453

  2. Policies at Univ of Chicago:

    Required reading for ALL undergrads at Harvard

    University of Minn Syllabus template (inclduing a requirement for a plagiarism statement.

    1. A plagiarized plagiarism statement? And that's "okay"? Nobody bothered to google it and find it in the UIC Faculty Grading Manual?

  3. Kathleen -
    Yup! That is a BIG problem!

  4. I find the link between this policy and racism to be irrelevant at best and needlessly divisive at worst. We have a serious problem with student plagiarism (and as noted above, so do the rest of the countries' schools that give a damn about it). The fact that our statement is plagiarized from UIC is an embarrassment at best and a disgrace at worst. I will use this as a "teachable moment" this semester.

  5. I wish to thank all of you for responding to my post.

    I have a couple of comments:
    It is clear to me that Sarah Austin is doing exactly what is necessary in helping students to understand how to use and cite sources. I believe this is very valuable work.
    However, the fact that universities have a policy on plagiarism is irrelevant to the issue I raised about what is to be included on the syllabus. What I said is that I doubted that warnings not to be dishonest were routinely included on syllabi at the University of Chicago. If assumptions about the conduct of advantaged white students are more generous than assumptions about the conduct of more disadvantaged black students, as I suspect they may well be, then that would be some evidence of racism. And if racism is operating, then that needs to be said.
    If the syllabus contains a statement instructing students on the proper way of using and citing sources, I have no disagreement.
    However, if the syllabus says "Do not be dishonest" or even the weaker "I expect you to be honest," I think that is insulting. To me it is curious that no one has addressed this obvious point. When I asked Mary (my wife) about this (and she has no hesitation to tell me when she thinks I am wrong), she immediately found the statement insulting. Am I the only one that finds the university's "Code of Excellence" insulting, particularly its beginning?
    To repeat: if assumptions about black students are different and more disfavorable, then I think that is evidence of racism.

    1. "What I said is that I doubted that warnings not to be dishonest were routinely included on syllabi at the University of Chicago." You present no evidence that that is in fact the case, so your argument is a non-starter.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. If I say "I doubt that warnings not to be dishonest are routinely included on syllabi at the Univerity of Chicago," I have expressed a doubt or opinion. I have not made an argument. If you think they are included routinely on syllabi at elite schools, I would like to see evidence. I do not recall ever having seen them on any syllabus at any university I attended nor at any other university at which I have taught.
      If a syllabus contains instruction as to how to use and cite sources and when to use quotation marks, I have no disagreement. I laud the instruction Sarah Austin gives. Re-read the warning the college forwarded to us. It is NASTY, and I have never, as far as I can recall, seen such nastiness toward students anywhere else.

  6. As a black student, I don’t feel like the anti-plagiarism statements in the syllabi are necessarily racist because they are coming from professors who are in most cases for my classes, black themselves. Many of us students can’t afford to ‘make waves’ about stuff like those myriad policy statements in our syllabi because we don’t want to be blacklisted. We just assume the professors put them there to ‘cover’ their you know what’s so when failed students complain, professor justification is there in the syllabus.
    I've used resources like Perdue OWL online or other citation manuals to write my papers. The requirements vary from one professor to the next, even within the same academic department! I know for a FACT that some of my professors don't know how to cite properly. They ‘steal’ images and learning tools all the time without properly giving credit. They don't even cite properly in their syllabus bibliographies or in their presentations. People don’t realize that some students can’t avoid ‘plagiarism’ because they haven’t been TAUGHT how to cite! Somebody else said it so much better that they just throw quotes around it and call it a day!!! We are not being EXPLICTLY taught these things!!!! However, we are quickly referred to various writing labs, which employ individuals who just refer us back to our professors saying, “Do what your professor wants you to do or just follow the syllabus.” The syllabi are full of what we CAN’T do, but never contains information that is actually helpful for success in the class! “So and so didn’t teach you that?” “You should have learned that in Class so and so!”
    From the CSU Code of Conduct, “I will respect the rights and property of others.” Is this from an early elementary school classroom management book? “Dishonesty of any kind including the practice of plagiarism or copying another person’s scholarship, lying, deceit, excuse making and disloyalty in personal relationships is not acceptable.” A professor actually told me that another professor ‘stole’ their academic work and presented it at a conference! “…disloyalty in personal relationships”? I know what THAT means…if you go against you know who, you will get you know what! Don’t the lawyers review these things? It seems that everything official that Chicago State publishes or mandates always seems to have a negative, threatening, possibly illegal or unethical undertones. Again, from the Code of Conduct: “Allegiance to these ideals obligates us to be responsible for our own actions and deeds, take ownership of our education, pursue scholarship and abide by all university rules and procedures. I will strive to abide by the principles of this code and will encourage others to do the same.”
    When I tried to take ‘ownership’ of my education I learned not to ruffle feathers at CSU. Civil service employees seem to have the power to ‘railroad’ student’s academic progress, employment, financial aid, etc. I have had a dean and an advisor tell me to basically ‘shut up and finish your certification or you’ll end up with a negative disposition in your file and when you finish, the COE won’t support your application for licensure.’ Integrity indeed! Syllabi are the just the tip of the iceberg…

  7. I have a plagiarism statement on my syllabus, not the one mentioned, but one that identifies that potential consequences include failure. I'm not going to compare my syllabus to University of Chicago ones, because CSU isn't U of C, just as the college and university I attended weren't U of C. Just because CSU doesn't do things like U of C doesn't make them inherently wrong or racist.

    As I tell my students when reading the plagiarism section of the syllabus, there's also a section that identifies the consequences for excessive absenteeism. We (and I mean professors at most US universities) are forced to identify potential consequences, because many in our student body are not aware of those consequences. I also identify that there is a difference between someone who mistakenly offers an author's work without proper citation and someone who intends to cheat. I will assist the former, fail the latter.

    As a case in point, one semester, I encountered someone whom I believed to simply misunderstand the rules of citation, even though she was in a 200 level course. I sat with her, explained, modeled, and worked with her, with no detriment to her grade. However, later in the semester, the same student twice took work from another student's forum. That was blatantly not a case of misunderstanding. When I failed her for the course, I saw it as a gift that I was not calling her up for academic misconduct. She thought we'd have a discussion, and she would walk away unscathed like the previous incident. Had I NOT had that plagiarism statement in my syllabus, not only would many meetings on up the administrative line occurred, the university could have potentially been open for a lawsuit.

    The gist is, Paul, not everything is racist, and not everything is done in opposition to students. However, as administrative bodies in an increasingly judicial world, we now must protect the institution for those who are open for knowledge.