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Plagiarism and inclusive teaching: A perfect union?

By Katie Malcolm, CTL Instructional Consultant

“I wanted it to be perfect.”

Paul, who preferred to be called by his “American name,” uttered, staring down at my desk. He had been in the US for a total of six weeks and now faced an accusation of academic misconduct with the consequences of potential expulsion and deportation.

Paul was a student in a writing studio that I taught, which some students took in tandem with their first college-level English courses at our open-admissions community college. The studio was popular with international students, many of whom were apprehensive about taking college English courses at a US institution. As the studio teacher, I was able to give students a space to share and discuss their work, their struggles, and strategies for success in their separate English 101 classes.

Now I had no idea what to give: advice? sympathy? reprimand? Scanning through the text below the red “0” on Paul’s essay, I noticed it was typical of his work–thorough and thoughtful–but cloaked in a very different writing style. “Did you write this?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied solemnly.

“Why does your professor believe you plagiarized?” I asked.

“I got too much help on my paper,” Paul stated.

“Where did you get help?”

“The tutoring center. I went there five times last week! They helped me with my grammar.”

Five times. I paused. “You’ve done well on your papers for me—why did you get so much help on this one?”

“It’s 40% of my final grade. I wanted it to be perfect.”

Sometimes I worry that we have come to see plagiarism as an irreversible breach of contract: as your instructor, I will do my best to educate you, to help you learn and grow—unless you plagiarize.

But as Paul’s example shows, plagiarism isn’t always an act of malice or laziness or even poor training—on the contrary, Paul’s laudable effort is what led him to produce work so different from his “own.” Even students who have copied entire pages from online sources have revealed to me that their reasons for doing so are governed not by indolence, but misunderstanding my expectations for sources, for citations, and/or for their own abilities and growth—imperfect as these may be.

Whatever the case, students who misunderstand my expectations are often the same students who are the least comfortable in my class for a myriad of reasons: they are the first in their family to go to college; their high schools did not fully prepare them; they are marginalized in a historically white, straight, middle-class, male institution; and/or they are struggling with academic English. In all of these cases, a little bit of inclusive teaching goes a long way.

In the CTL we define inclusive teaching as “leveraging the diverse strengths students and instructors bring to the learning environment, as well as recognizing how systems of power and privilege may play out in the classroom.

Inclusive teaching helps make our campus and our classrooms more inviting to all students—not just the students who are familiar with our expectations because these expectations mirror those they’ve encountered at home or in elite American high schools. So when students plagiarize, I use this as an opportunity for learning and inclusion, rather than punishment.

How do I do this?

First, I have a private conversation with the student. Even if I think I understand why a student has plagiarized, it’s important to hear it from them, since misunderstanding is at the heart of the issue. Once I understand where our expectations have clashed, I have a real teaching opportunity ahead of me. I keep a copy of the student’s essay in front of both of us, so that they can see the exact places where an instance of plagiarism appears and begin to visualize what this actually looks like in their work.

After I have a conversation with the student I give them a chance to revise so that they can apply what they’ve learned while it’s still fresh in their minds.

Now I hear some of you thinking, “I have 400 students—how would I find the time to sit down with those who plagiarize, or to read all of those revisions?” TAs can play a major role here, but it may also be heartening to know that because plagiarism arises from a conflict of expectations, clarifying those expectations can create a healthy dose of prevention.

This doesn’t just mean that I put a statement about plagiarism in the syllabus, although that is an important first step. I share sample essays with my students, and as a class we discuss how an effective paper weaves language and ideas from other sources into their own words, again with a tangible example in front of them. I clarify my expectations for citations in class and in the assignment prompt, and usually offer a 5-10 minute mini-review of MLA or APA or whatever style I require them to use. I point students to free resources—including online citation guides, and the UW Writing and Research Center. UW Professor John Webster has written extensively about preventing plagiarism, offering invaluable advice.

And above all, I continually stress with each assignment that although I have high expectations, perfection is not one of them. In order to learn, students need to be able to take risks, to make mistakes, and, as research has shown, multilingual students may need years of supportive writing practice before they can write in a form of English that fulfills our expectations for articles and verbs. For me, an inclusive classroom must encourage students to do their own writing, even if it includes the “errors” that novices are bound to make. This means that I occasionally have to stop and reread a sentence or two in some of my students’ papers. But it also means that I get to read work demonstrating that all of my students are learning.

About the author

Katie Malcolm has taught multilingual students in interdisciplinary writing courses for 11 years. As a CTL consultant, she works with faculty and TAs across campus to support multilingual and first-generation learners at UW.