Signals en clair
Last spring I received an email from a professor at a college out east. One of his students had plagiarized something from my faculty website for a paper and he asked if I would write a letter to the young woman explaining how I felt about having my words pilfered. The following is the letter I sent (the names of all involved have been changed, however).
Professor Smith emailed me recently and asked that I pass on to you a few words about the importance of academic honesty in student work. As you no doubt are aware, most professors view plagiarism as a serious offence.
Okay, why is that? Why do professors make such a big deal about doing your own work and giving credit where credit is due? There are a lot of reasons, but I want to share three that strike me as important.
First, it’s simply a matter of fairness and kindness, qualities that I am sure you value in your friends and family. Most scholars I know are very generous with their work. Indeed, sharing ideas with colleagues, students and the public is central to their job. In many cases, all they ask in return is to have their ideas and words properly credited. This seems a reasonable enough request and you should honor it.
Second, the procedures for citing the words and ideas of others are not just a fussy academic game. Judiciously-selected and well-documented support demonstrate that you have closely analyzed, evaluated and synthesized information into a well-constructed understanding. Your use and integration of the ideas of others to support and document your own thinking is what your instructor is actually grading. Citing your sources is no different than showing your math on an exam. It isn’t enough to have an answer (even the right answer); the instructor needs to see how you worked the problem.
College graduates are expected to be able analyze, summarize, evaluate and synthesize information. These higher order thinking skills must be evidenced in their work. They are also skills valued in most professions. You may as well hone them now.
Third, and this is by far the most important reason, taking shortcuts undermines the value of your education. I realize it may not seem this way to you and it's not surprising. Our society increasingly sees education as a transaction: students do the work, earn the degree and thereby enhance their economic value in the marketplace. And if education is merely a transaction, it makes a certain sense to get the maximum benefit for the least investment. Buy low, sell high. In a transaction, students should put forth the least amount of effort to complete the deal, which might make the shortcut of plagiarism seem like a savvy option.
Here’s why it’s not. For years I have taught a senior seminar at my college. In it students reflect upon and define the meaning and value of their undergraduate experience. I ask them to look over those courses they have taken and to select the ones that have been the most valuable. I don’t define the term value. I let them do that. What’s amazing is that never in the 15 years I have taught the seminar has anyone found value in a course for which they received an easy “A” or performed below their potential.
Indeed, all of the transaction talk vanishes when I ask my students to identify what's really valuable and meaningful in their education. Instead, they speak only in terms of transformation. The courses they value are the ones in which they were transformed by discovering a new passion or realized something new about the world, a subject or their own potential. My students may often think of education as a transaction, but they only locate value in its capacity for transformation. In fact, the word education comes from the Latin word educere, which means “to bring out or to develop.”
Growth and development, of course, are often accompanied by challenge, struggle and not a little anxiety. Taking shortcuts to get the grade without doing the actual work is certainly tempting, but it’s ultimately self-defeating. Educating yourself is about so much more than a grade, a diploma or a job offer. It's that too, of course, but really so much more. It’s about you and the kind of person that you hope to be. My guess is that you are someone who values kindness and fairness. My guess is that you also have a dream and a potential that are more than worth the effort and challenge.
So be kind and fair when using the words and ideas of others. Most of all, don’t take shortcuts at your own expense.
I hope this incident can become a positive part of that process.