The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.".... ....Herman Melville.

Commentary of the Day - January 30, 2007: Combating Plagiarism.  Guest commentary by Rick Fowler.

At a recent teacher's meeting I was asked what I thought needed to be included in the new student handbook concerning plagiarism and cheating among high school students.  My thoughts immediately were of my own high school days in a northern Michigan town, attending a very small Catholic school.  There really were few problems with this issue 'back in the day' because the administrators and school boards were very adamant with, "You cheat, you're done!"  They didn't need the money that someone who got out of line would take with them after they were kicked out.  There was always someone new to take their place.

Another reason there was very little 'copying' done, was due to the ever vigilant eyes of the nuns who always seemed to be right there, always.  No matter where else you thought they might be they were always there, looking for any cheaters, and sinners. They really did have rulers and other weapons of mass humiliation tucked under the folds of their black habits -- believe me.  If a student's eyes roamed for any reason away from the paper being used, one of the weapons was smacked firmly on the desk as a reminder, and squarely on the hand if a second reminder was needed.

I'll admit my eyes roamed, but not because I needed to cheat.  Uh Uh!  It was usually due to other attractions like a new girl who entered or a buddy doing some prank so idiotic that I couldn't help but look.  Believe me; if you look at the roughness of my hands you will know I received plenty of second reminders.

The other deterrent to cheating was the "Demerit Card"!  This was roughly the size of a credit card, with numbers up to 50 on one side and rules and offenses worthy of demerits on the other.  For instance: Tardy to class 3 demerits, not having your homework 5 demerits, not wearing the proper attire 3 demerits, swearing (depending on the choice word or phrase) 5 to 7 points, teasing classmates 2 points, pranks 7- 15 points (depending if they were meant to hurt someone or not) cheating 10-50 points.  When a student accumulated 51 points they were expelled, no questions asked.  Thus my buddies and I knew our limits and none of us ever reached the 51 point margin.  But to be honest many of us, me included, raised a lot of hackles when we did everything we could to get reach 49 demerits by our junior or senior years.  Yet, I never received one demerit for cheating.

A few years ago I wrote to Sister Joan (now retired), our English instructor, to let her know that I too had become an English teacher, and although  I might have complained often and was probably a pain in the butt, I really had a marvelous language arts background due to the days in her class.  She wrote back a couple of days later.  Dear Richard: God does have a sense of humor doesn’t he?  God bless you.

So what can be done about cheating in today’s schools?  The internet offers a variety of sites where high school and college students can go to purchase a ready-made essay or research paper.  For a price they can obtain a paper that has been prewritten almost to their specs, turn it in, and claim it as their own.  Teachers have counteracted this practice with one of their own.  "My Drop Box" and "Turn It In" are innovative tools that can be used to check the legitimacy of papers written by students.  With these, students send their final essay and/or theme paper to the site, which then processes the words and send back a report to the student and teacher.  Those areas it perceives as possible plagiarism are highlighted.  If they have properly cited the phrase and section under question, there will be no problem, if they haven't they are in a world of hurt.  Now, it sounds like a simple easy-to-use procedure that will eliminate a lot of stress for the teacher, and put emphasis on the assignment of writing for a particular audience.  Yet, I wonder what happens when the computer is not working that day, the internet is down, or the area in question wasn’t even in the original paper that had been sent in?

However, I dread the day when, as a teacher, I'm forced to use such software.  It probably does work well.  It could indeed save a few steps!  However, I'm not ready to give up the traditional thinking of an educator yet.  I need personal interaction with students so they know my position, my goals, my assessment techniques, and my guidelines.  By getting to know the students in the classroom, I get a feel for their personalities.  By issuing them short writing assignments, I get a sense of their voice, their style, their limitations, which assists when longer writing pieces are given at a later date.

I don't have a sure-fire way of stopping cheating in paper writing.  However, I do know that by getting to know the students the instructor can get a sense of if what is on paper really belong to the kid or not.  If I don't believe a particular student wrote the words in a particular section, I leave a note that reads YOURS?!?!, followed by an F (unless you can prove otherwise).  As of yet, not one student has taken me to task.  They know they are guilty and to avoid embarrassment they accept the punishment of the grade.  This has happened only a few times in my English teaching career, which makes me believe that such software programs as mentioned above might be an unnecessary debit on already depleted school budgets if common sense prevails.

Then again, if the steps I've used ever start to fail me, I just might have to dress up in a habit, arm myself with rulers, pointers and demerits cards, and sneak down the aisles stealthily looking for plagiarism parolees and faker felons.

2007, Rick Fowler
Rick Fowler is in his 29th year of teaching high school English in Boyne City, MI.  He has also been a varsity football, basketball, and cross-country coach during his tenure as a teacher.

The IP comments: Rick's method of dealing with plagiarism obviously is the preferred one if it is possible to get to know one's students well.  However, in many cases teachers are struggling to cope with heavy teaching loads and crowded classrooms.  For them the online plagiarism detection programs are a real help.

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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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