Beginning this fall, SMC will conduct a two-year trial of Turnitin.com, a computer program designed to prevent plagiarism. Students in Collegiate Seminar and English 4 and 5 will be required to submit all papers to the Web site's database, and faculty members will be strongly encouraged, but not required, to use the program. The program proposal touched off a heated debate on campus, and was approved by the Academic Senate 11-3 with one abstention. Here we present pro and con arguments from two faculty members.

 

Policies Needed to Stem "Culture of Cheating"

By Professor Barbara McGraw

Academic integrity is critical to the viability of academic institutions such as Saint Mary's College and therefore to students' learning experience. Yet, cheating and plagiarism is at an all-time high on most campuses, and recent surveys conducted in conjunction with the development of the Honor Code and Student Honor Council show that Saint Mary's College is no exception. In 2004, nearly half of Saint Mary's students reported that they believe plagiarism occurs "often" or "very often," and 55 percent said that inappropriate collaboration on assignments occurs "often" or "very often." Students also indicated that plagiarism often goes undetected by faculty.

If such data are correct, then the failure to adopt policies and practices necessary to counter plagiarism actually contributes to a culture of cheating that undermines students' confidence in academic life. Moreover, such culture is likely to corrupt students who would not ordinarily cheat. Further, the data suggests that a considerable number of students graduate without learning how to write. Their poor performance not only undermines their own future chances, but also undermines the reputations of their academic institutions and calls into question the academic qualifications of deserving graduates.

Use of Turnitin will be respectful of non-plagiarizing students. Insufficient and ineffective checking of plagiarism does a disservice to those students who do their own research and writing. Those who plagiarize may end up with better grades, better employment and better graduate school opportunities than those who do not plagiarize. Use of Turnitin also will be respectful of students who do plagiarize. Under the current approach, students whose cheating is discovered are subjected to serious discipline, while those who are not discovered receive the undue benefit of a good or better grade.

A few have expressed unease about using Turnitin, likening it to a kind of "Big Brother" scenario that is distrustful and therefore disrespectful of students, thus undermining the teacher/student relationship at the core of SMC's academic mission. However, "Big Brother" is about thwarting a person in disrespect of that person's inherent inviolable humanity. "Big Brother" was never about what is proposed here: using a method that helps to ensure that basic principles of fairness, honesty, respect and integrity are followed so that all can live and learn in an environment that is respectful of everyone.

 

Proposal Challenges Academic Freedom

By Brother Charles Hilken

The minority opposition to Turnitin represents a deep and principled difficulty with the program. I offer three points in summary:

  • As professors and students we continue the ancient relationship of master and disciple. Saint La Salle's educational philosophy gave greater depth of meaning to this relationship. Turnitin jeopardizes the loyalty and integrity fostered in that relationship.
  • Good teachers can, with a modicum of foresight, assign essays that are difficult if not impossible to plagiarize.
  • Plagiarism cannot be checked by any one means, and therefore Turnitin highlights a problem without resolving it. It will not guard against purchased original works, or works authored by others.

A particularly noxious requirement falls on students in Seminar and first-year English course who would be required to upload essays to Turnitin, under the threat of academic disqualification for the subsequent semester, even if their professors do not use the program. Seminar classes would be policed by comparing syllabuses with class rosters, putting some professors in an untenable position.

If professors disagree with Turnitin on principle, it is not enough to allow their abstention while forcing students to comply. Indeed, the proposal challenges academic freedom. Professors have the right to guard students against imprudent demands upon conscience. Removing a class from Turnitin would force professors to remove writing requirements, rendering first-year English courses futile and putting Seminar leaders at odds with the Seminar program. That could be avoided by allowing each professor to control the submission of essays. Otherwise, we are headed for an antagonistic relationship between the professorate and the student body.

Turnitin raises the idea of cheating by all students, painting all with the same unpleasant hue. The wisdom of the Lasallian pedagogical tradition teaches that students are unique creatures to be contemplated and approached in all their individual love-worthiness and capacities for learning. Students will not be attracted to knowledge by encountering a rehearsed message that they are capable of performing badly.

Professors who believe the program has detrimental effects upon pedagogy should be free to keep it out of their classrooms.

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