Why I’m changing my Academic Integrity Policy

After three and a half years of teaching at the university level, I still haven’t become as jaded as some professors.  I still think college students are in college to learn in order to flourish in a professional field of their choice after graduation.  Maybe I think the majority of students are like me—people who worked hard, partied too much on occasion, put all their focus on major courses and sometimes let the electives slide, while doing it all honestly. Granted, I was in college in the ‘70s, when computers were mainframes available only to the computer science majors, and photocopies cost up to 25 cents each and smelled funny.  Cheating was never anything I considered, and I’m guessing plagiarism was hard to catch and prove in the days before Google, Turnitin and online plagiarism checkers. The most widespread cheating I heard of in my undergraduate days was selling tests to students in subsequent semesters of that class.

My grad school days in the ‘80s weren’t much different. I was one of the few students in my program with a home computer, built in a garage in Richardson, Texas and running on an 8086 processor, the gold standard of the time. DOS was my friend and Windows was a curiosity. 
The campus computer lab was a bank of terminals connected to a mainframe, used only by students in classes with data analysis requirements.
Our department was innovative because we had a small computer lab with fewer than 10 Apple IIc computers available for our use.

These computers, along with first generation MacIntosh computers on faculty desks, were bought by a visionary faculty member with his personal funds and donated to the school. (I fund a scholarship I named after him.)

By then the cost of a photocopy was down to 10 cents a page, but Internet access was not widely available. If you wanted to do an online search you scheduled time with a research librarian who worked with you on key words to do a CompuServe search. The annotated bibliography and abstracts were then printed for you, and you got a deal if you could wait until 2:00 a.m. when bandwidth was cheap.  I paid $35 for one search and was accused by other students of paying someone to do my research—it was only when the chairman of the department, who had given me the online assignment for our readings class—stepped in to defend me that the criticism died down.

But I digress.
Today, students in classrooms have any number of gadgets available to them with access to the Internet and social media via cell or wifi. While some faculty still insist students turn off everything but their cardiac pacemakers and insulin pumps while in class, I have abandoned that battle.

I know in the days of paper, pen and cassette tape recorders I could zone out, doodle in margins, work on other assignments and generally ignore a professor without a smartphone, computer, tablet or MP3 player to distract me. So instead of fighting it, I tell them “You have a choice about how much you get out of this class. All I ask is that you be considerate of me, your fellow students and guest speakers. I also retain the non-negotiable right to shut you down if I realize you are working on an assignment for another class, Facebooking, or shopping online.”

So far, I haven’t had a problem. In fact, topics come up in class discussion that are settled through someone Googling the answer to a question or tweeting the link to an article cited. (Yes, I allow, even encourage live tweeting of class lectures, especially when I have guest speakers.)
So what does all this have to do with academic integrity? I’m not sure. I just enjoyed reminiscing about my college years.
My academic integrity policy has always followed my university’s policy, which provides several options for punishment. In most cases I file the report so it goes into the kid’s permanent record, and allow them to re-write the work. This is because many students mistakenly feel it’s OK to copy from their client’s website. (My PR students all must find a nonprofit organization to work with for all their writing projects.) In professional practice using material from the client’s website may be acceptable, especially if you also wrote the website copy, and want to keep a unified tone to your messaging. But my PR classes are writingclasses, so I need to know students can write, not copy and paste.
In a few rare and extreme cases, the penalties have been much greater. In one case I repeatedly warned a student about non-attribution of sources before finally nailing him/her for quoting book reviews from Amazon.com without attribution, and without finding the original source. I gave the student a zero on the assignment, and explained the policy for appeal, but the student never appealed. I guess he/she knew he/she was guilty and figured it wasn’t worth it.
In another case I busted a student for dual submission, which is submitting a piece from one course to another course without permission from the second instructor. This student’s excuse was that the first submission wasn’t graded because it was off topic, so he/she figured it wouldn’t hurt to submit it to my class the next semester. That wonderful little tool Turnitin flagged it, and it took a visit to the Dean of Students office for the student to realize my offer to let him/her re-write the assignment was an exceptionally generous offer—most professors would have given an automatic F on the assignment, if not the class.
This semester, however, convinced me to toughen up my stance, despite the liberal options offered by the university’s Office of Academic Integrity.
The project in question is a final project representing a significant percentage of the final grade in a required course. It’s also a group project.
Grading one component of the project I noticed a sudden change in the writing style and quality—as if someone else had written it. It was too polished, compared to the rest of the work in the piece. It also sounded vaguely familiar. I went to the Turnitin submission box and found the upload was incomplete, with this section omitted, so I typed the passages in question into a Word document and uploaded it to Turnitin.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner—a direct download from a website without so much as a change in the font.
My heart sank. It always does in situations like this, which mercifully are rare. But when it happens I feel betrayed, I feel the client has been betrayed, and I feel sorry for the student who, for whatever reason, chose to cheat. The other students in the class who did their own work are also betrayed.
Fast forward past the paperwork, the documentation, the unpleasant meeting with the group in which one student finally took full responsibility and begged me to not punish the whole group, past the hostile tweets and lengthy emails begging me to reconsider and offering “proof” of innocence that actually incriminated the student even more. These emails eventually turned dark and accusatory, full of Bible verses and accusations of bullying, racism and favoritism. Threatening comments made in another class made their way back to me and the administration. An appeal to the department chair and dean changed nothing—the student in question received a letter grade lower than his/her group members on the final project, which I felt was fair.
What transpired next was, I’m sure, the polar opposite of what the student hoped for. Yes, I got a “talking to” by the dean. And as much as that student hoped I got into trouble for singling him/her out for cheating, the “trouble” I got into was for being too nice.
You see, everybody above my pay grade felt I should have, at the least, given a ZERO for the entire project, which would definitely have resulted in a failing grade for this student. Most felt I should have given an automatic F in the class for the cheating, even though it was a portion of a project
I explained that with all the talk about retention I’ve resisted failing students in the past. I pointed out that I liked to turn these cases into teachable moments for the students, to turn them into better professionals. But in this case, with a student who showed no remorse, I decided to agree with the department chair and dean and take no prisoners in the future.
You cheat in my class, you’re done. You flunk. University policy allows for sanctions for “deliberate or negligent” instances of cheating. From now on, the sanctions will be the toughest possible. If they’re overturned on appeal, fine, but you’ve got to prove you didn’t cheat, and I don’t accuse anyone of cheating unless I have incontrovertible proof.
Yes, I’ve been too nice for the past three years. The vast majority of the few students I’ve “busted” for plagiarism have been contrite, admitted their sins, and never repeated them. But all it took was for one student to refuse to take responsibility for his/her actions and appeal up the food chain for me to realize being nice to students like this is a disservice to the honest students who do their work and pass or fail honestly. It’s a disservice to all in academia, and retention pressures notwithstanding, I refuse to lower the standards and pass someone who doesn’t do their own work. Plagiarism is a firing offense in the field of journalism. I’m not preparing students for the profession if I let them get away with it in school.
It’s a shame that one student (with administrativeencouragement) pushed me to this extreme, but it’s the right thing to do. Honest, hardworking students who do their own work in good faith won’t feel like the value of their degree is diluted by those who are only trying to get by in order to get a degree they didn’t really earn.

Great advice for students

Wow, has it been this long since I posted to this blog page? Well, it’s been too long. I’m back, to share a bit of wisdom from a fellow college prof. I can’t say it any better than Professor Janni Aragon can.

While grading student papers, I make comments (no names mentioned, unless it’s a shout-out about something fantastic) about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other fun stuff via Twitter.  I usually keep Tweetdeck running with several columns open, since my students often contact me via Twitter when they know I’m online.

If you’re not familiar with Twitter, there’s such a thing as a hashtag, which is simply a “#” (pound sign) put before a key word. People following that hashtag, but not necessarily you, will see that tweet. It’s a great way to make new friends on Twitter. Sports fans do it all the time during games (#Cowboys, #BigBlueNation, etc.) and commentary on breaking news often spawns hashtags (#Gaza is trending as I write this). Look for plenty of tweets with hashtags during awards shows, reality TV shows, major events and speeches by the President. I have a hashtag for each of my classes, to clue the kids in when I’m specifically addressing them as a group. They also use the hashtags to share links to articles with each other.

One of the hashtags I routinely follow is #grading.  Teachers all over the word commiserate, vent, or brag via this hashtag. They sometimes share weird things they read in student papers. It’s a little stress release, and is also frequently the source of useful information for teachers and students alike. Today was one such day.

I glanced up and saw this tweet from Sean Irwin, who is a PhD student in geography at the University of Victoria in BC.

 He was re-tweeting a link from Janni’s blog, and it caught my eye, because it addressed many students’ concerns when they get graded papers back.

I read it, commented on it, re-tweeted it and am now sharing it here for you because Janni is one wise woman.

I hope all students know it’s not about them, it’s about their work. Yes, I presume there is a teacher/professor/TA out there somewhere who hates a kid and makes it personal, but we’re all pretty honest, and try to be fair.  Remember that the next time you get a paper back that looks like someone bled colored ink all over it. It’s for your good.

And don’t be afraid to come talk to us, either. We might just like you even better.