Honesty isn’t an adequate policy

Minimal and moralizing rhetoric surrounding academic integrity oversimplifies the complexities of plagiarism.

By Sam Preston

Bashing this school is not a practice I usually indulge in or condone. I may not like Bartlett or South, but I doubt you can find a college where the students don’t complain about the food. The course bidding process is capricious and frustrating, but I have found the majority of professors to be accommodating during the first few weeks of classes. Although this University has plenty of flaws, I usually remind disgruntled students that the quality of education far outweighs the often-exaggerated problems we post about on Overheard and other social media sites.

However, one issue that I continually find troublesome is our approach to academic honesty. Voicing this concern with students typically invites the inappropriate, yet predictable, accusation that I plagiarized and am bitter about my past mistakes. That conclusion is  unfounded and false. I understand the intricacies of our policy as a result of extensive research on the topic, conducted to satisfy the final project requirements of a public policy class called Implementation.

During this quarter-long endeavor, I interviewed dozens of students, teachers, and administrators to learn how our policy is implemented and how it may be improved. I discovered many troubling trends that need to be addressed by the University and our student body.

I asked 100 of my peers whether they read, skimmed, or even recognized Doing Honest Work in College, a helpful guidebook authored by Charles Lipson that is distributed to every first-year during O-Week. First of all, only 5 percent read any portion of the work. Even more disconcertingly, close to 20 percent somehow failed to receive a copy in the first place. And 74 percent of surveyed students stashed the text on their bookshelf and never touched it again. When I was a first-year, I did the same thing. I dismissed learning about academic honesty because I believed plagiarism was always a matter of deliberate cheating. However, my research suggests that the reality is more complicated and warrants greater attention. Professors I interviewed held diverse views on what constituted the offense, and most acknowledged that different assignments demanded different standards. Collaborative work is often a fluid concept that flirts with dishonesty, and peer “editing” is a slippery slope that can inadvertently become an inappropriate practice. Plagiarism is more nuanced than you would believe.

Considering a majority of students ignore Doing Honest Work in College, these subtleties need to be addressed in the classroom. However, my collection of course syllabi offers a disheartening reminder that academic honesty is consistently overlooked. These class outlines typically offer the standard foreboding rhetoric that all cases will be handled with the utmost seriousness. Few indicate that uncertainty should be addressed by asking the professor, and many fail to even include an academic honesty section in the first place.

To complement my interviews and syllabus collecting, I documented how professors approached the subject in class throughout my college career. To this day, no instructor of mine has invited substantial discussion about his or her specific policies. Instead, he or she usually reiterated the “seriousness” of the offense and reminded the class of the sobering consequences. In one especially telling example, a political science professor overviewed his entire policy in one succinct sentence: “Everyone knows about it, and it’s simple. Just don’t do it.”

This type of oversimplified, morally charged rhetoric inadvertently promotes the false belief that plagiarism is always a conscious decision to cheat.  As a result, students regularly turn in assignments without first evaluating their work’s consistency with professors’ expectations of academic integrity. Whether it’s a problem set or a midterm paper, we often assume our understanding of permissible “collaborative work” is aligned with our teachers’. Furthermore, few students have the inclination to fully examine the nuances of academic honesty on their own time, and consequently, a dangerous disconnect can persist through academic quarters.

Two students I spoke with can attest to how problematic assumptions and pervasive ignorance can result in permanent black marks. Although these individuals conceded that they were ultimately at fault, they were simply unaware of certain citation guidelines and paid dearly for their mistakes.

Although I am critical of the persistent decision to frame plagiarism as a purely moral dilemma, I nonetheless understand that students have a responsibility to learn the policies before completing assignments. Every student who accidentally plagiarizes is guilty of carelessness and falls short of the expectations of a University of Chicago student. However, considering both professors and honest students want to avoid this demoralizing outcome, I believe simple practices can combat student ignorance, erase preconceived notions, and reduce the number of accidental incidents on this campus.

Communication must be heightened to bridge this disconnect. First and foremost, why not implement a mandatory discussion on academic honesty during O-Week? Such a setting would be more engaging than a time-consuming 200 page book. These meetings would also de-stigmatize the issue and encourage greater discourse about this little-discussed subject. In addition, all professors should stress that plagiarism is not always a matter of conscious cheating in the classroom and reiterate the importance of clarifying any confusion throughout the quarter. Syllabi should in turn state the explicit criteria of each expected graded assignment. These are basic steps that will heighten transparency and drastically improve our approach to academic honesty.

I have loved my time at the University of Chicago. I genuinely enjoy working in our admissions office, and was honored to represent this school on the soccer field for four great years. However, this place is not perfect, and I believe faculty, professors, and students need to further investigate plagiarism on our campus. Many of these cases are avoidable, and I would encourage everyone to ask their professors to go over what their plagiarism definitions are on specific assignments.  Because who wants to read a book about that, right?

Sam Preston is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.