If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What English Class Should Teach Students About Character

One of my responsibilities during my last couple years working in New Jersey was as one of the teacher representatives to the school's Judiciary Board. The Judiciary Board consisted of three teachers and three students (the student body president and two specifically elected representatives, one junior and one senior). When a major school rule was broken, it was our responsibility to determine as best as possible the facts of the case, and to recommend consequences to the Head of School and the principals. We saw a little bit of everything you might imagine that teenagers do, from the unending accumulation of minor offenses to bigger things like theft and drinking. More than anything else, though, we saw cases of cheating and plagiarism.

I had a conversation recently with my current colleagues here in northern Virginia. I am the only native born American in the Language Department, and we were discussing what they saw as the peculiarly American obsession with plagiarism. In the schools where they grew up, plagiarism was, if not outright encouraged, certainly openly permitted. It was the students' job to go out and find information from people who knew better than they did, and regurgitate that information. The extent to which you rephrased or processed that information was really beside the point, as far as they were concerned.

My background is pretty much the opposite. Where I went to school for 7th-12th grades, academic dishonesty (plagiarism, cheating, lying to a teacher) was grounds for immediate expulsion, a more severe policy than the two strikes given for drug or alcohol offenses. That environment certainly shaped my sense of the severity of plagiarism, and made it difficult for me to sit on the Judiciary Board as student after student came through for the same dumb things and walked away with a minor slap on the wrist. I felt at the time that if we made it more clear to the students that academic dishonesty was impermissible, and that the penalties were severe, the less it would happen.

Whether or not a one strike policy would have been the solution to the problem, the issue itself is one that schools have to deal with more and more, and need to find appropriate solutions for. The Internet gives students access to an increasing number of ways to avoid doing their own work, as well as teachers more and more resources for catching them. At schools like McLean High School, right here in my own backyard, the resulting conflict is starting to boil over.

It is not just about the increased resources available on the Internet. The Information Age is changing the role of information itself, and we should be discussing with our students just what that means for the morals and ethics of using information. On the one hand you have sites like Wikipedia, where information is open, fluid, and without owners. In many other areas, though, information is an increasingly valuable commodity, and we need to think about it as we would think about anything else with financial worth. This is going to be a difficult situation for students to navigate, since the opportunities to break the rules are growing, even as the rules become more and more important.

In that context, teaching students to do their own work, and to give credit where it is due to the work of others, is a hugely important part of education. I include it here as I am working through my ideas about English class because it comes up so often as students resort to CliffsNotes and SparkNotes to do their reading for them, and downloaded essays to save them hours of writing. Severe and immediate consequences for breaking the rules may not be the best solution in all schools or for all students, although I certainly got the message from my school, but it needs to be an explicit part of the curriculum, so that when students go out into the world they are prepared for the moral questions that lie ahead of them.

How serious an infraction do you think plagiarism is, and what would you do to discourage it?

1 comment:

J.Bro said...

I teach at the college level, but that doesn't mean these aren't lessons that I have to impart on my students. When I can, I avoid the issue by crafting assignments that aren't plagiarizable (or which I've convinced myself aren't) - responding directly to a made up definition of war, for example, or writing an e-mail to one of the authors in an edited volume. If nothing else, the cheaters are easy to catch, because they're the ones who turn in something well-written, but way off the mark.