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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Let's Talk about Academic Integrity, Part I: BI (Before the Internet)
August 16, 2012 - 11:44am

I encountered my first case of academic integrity as a third year graduate student teaching assistant. Although concentrating on U.S. history, I assisted Professor Thomas Africa, a beloved and noted historian of Ancient Rome, at Binghamton University. The year was 1983, fall semester. As I read through a paper on what exactly now I do not recall, I vividly remember the sense that came over me when I hit a paragraph in the middle of the term paper that instinctively struck me as odd.  At the time, I was not even aware of what the problem was. I was not looking for plagiarism. I had already assisted four courses, and had very early in my career, just the summer before, taught my own course on the history of twentieth-century American women through memoir and autobiography.  I had already in my teaching career encountered any number of challenges.  The third grandmother death that explained a late paper.  An early wave of students who advocated for better grades "just because …"  On the brighter side, I even received a marriage proposal in an evaluation (from a straight woman, it was just fun!).  So as I mulled the paragraph and my feelings, it struck me that it didn't feel an authentic part of the paper, even though it was not wildly inconsistent with the mainline prose.  It just didn't seem to mesh with the flow of the rest of the paper.

My father owned and operated a bar and restaurant in downtown Rochester.  If as a sole proprietor one did not become a master of deceit on the part of both wayward employees or thieving customers, one would find themselves out of business.  When I left for graduate school, Dad had racked up almost fifty years in the business, and in the time that I worked for him -- most of my adolescence -- he taught me a lot of tricks.  Look in garbage cans for evidence.  Watch out for frozen steaks and lobster tails flying out of the kitchen windows three stories down to the accomplice  who catches and runs off with them.  Notice the pattern of the waxy swizzle sticks in the beer trough?  Red means $1.00; yellow $.50; green $.25.  At the end of the night, the bartender will count them up to know how much he did not cash into the register and then remove that sum to keep the tape consistent with the drawer.

Training in these myriad means of deceit sensitized me to trickery.  Like in My Cousin Vinny, I was one at a magic show who had to know how the magician did it.  Perhaps because stealing and cheating was personal to my father -- it was literally his lobster tails and money, not some amorphous corporation -- I took it personally.  So off to the library I went to read through the available books on the student's topic to learn more.  Although it surprised me then, it does not surprise me now that it did not take me long to stumble upon the book and the passage.  It was the only paragraph that was lifted wholesale from the book.  Some other paragraphs in the paper closely resembled those in the book, evidence of less than original, deep thinking, but at least they were more in the student's voice than the author's.  My best guess is that the student simply got lazy at one point and grabbed a whole chuck.  This was, after all, the years before the Internet and easy cut and paste jobs from on-line sources.  He would have had to transpose on a typewriter the paragraph in its entirety.

I checked the book out and arranged an appointment with the student.  We began by talking about his paper generally, the ideas and the thesis, as a way for me to gauge how much of the material he actually had learned.  On the surface, he was swimming, but a I probed his understanding, he began to take on water and flail intellectually.  He began to get suspicious.  He asked me now, not when he first came in, why I had asked to meet with him.  I asked him if there was anything about writing this paper he wanted to tell me.  He denied there was.  I asked his explicitly if he had copied passages from his sources in to the paper.  He said he did not.  His face fell when I pulled the book out from under some papers where I had hide it and showed him the passage that matched the paragraph in his paper.  When he said nothing, I asked him what he thought we should do now.  "You know by the rules of the University, I can flunk you for the course?"  He said nothing.  "Admit it, and I will give you an F on this version of the paper.  Write another, on the same topic, but with some more research and genuine attempt at original thinking and I will grade it into an average for the assignment."  He brightened considerably, admitted he had "made a mistake" and we made a deal.  He wrote another paper, I don't recall the grade, but if memory serves me, the student ultimately achieved a grade of C in the course -- a memory because I recall that when the assistants met with Professor Africa he noted it was a low grade and asked me if I were sure that was correct.  I heard nothing from the student after that.

At the time, I felt myself to be more Savonarola than sage educator.  I sniffed out a cheater just like how my Dad taught me to do in the restaurant.  As I matured in higher education, and taught many, many more classes, when I would stumble upon similar acts of plagiarism the effect carried far less pride and a greater degrees of exhaustion and sadness.  In the Human Development Department in the School of Human Ecology in the 1990s, two students turned in the same paper and produced a prisoner's dilemma.  My enduring memory of that incident was how much time I had to spend shaking them down to pull the author from the cheater.  In a week-long Internet Law class for the MiNE Program at the Universite Cattolica in Piacenza, Italy, a program that attracted students from all over the world, a student who could barely speak either English or Italian turned in a letter-perfect paper that took me a nano-second to find on the Internet via Google.  When I have taught Culture, Law and Politics of the Internet at Cornell, I don't give assignments that lend themselves very easily to plagiarism because they are focused on the work we do together in class.  Still, I am sure that students have fooled me many times over and I never knew it.  Such is the nature of the game.

It was a teaching moment for me as much as it was for the student back in the fall of 1983.  Having already given some hints of comparison, in the next blog, I will share what I have learned about academic integrity and plagiarism in the AI era, that is, After the Internet.



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