Friday, October 28, 2011

Catch 22 goes to school

Academic dual citizenship and its discontents

One of my friends is in postdoc limbo, having completed his degree and thus been thrust into academia's outer darkness. Since PiD is no longer a graduate student and faces a very discouraging job market, he is now at the tender mercies of the schools that hire part-time instructors on a term-by-term basis. To earn something approaching a living wage, he currently shuttles between his old school—a university that tosses him an occasional class or two—and a neighboring community college, which uses adjunct faculty for many of its classes. The two institutions don't cooperate in any formal way, so it's up to PiD to juggle the offers and cobble together a schedule that doesn't require him to break any laws of physics to meet his classes.

Fortunately, PiD has found enough similarities between the course offerings at the two colleges so that he can adapt materials he uses at one school for use at the other. In particular, boilerplate text concerning student conduct was borrowed from his university syllabus and incorporated into his community college syllabus. It had been battled-tested at the Big U, so it seemed suitable for Medium Community College. PiD had every reason to assume that all was well because MCC requires its instructors to submit their syllabi for review and approval before the start of each semester. The BU language passed muster with the MCC administrators, so clear sailing was to be expected.

As I'm sure you can well imagine, PiD's education was about to move into a new and more surrealistic phase.

He called me recently to share a conundrum. It seemed an unfortunate but typical college situation: He had clear and unmistakable evidence that a student had committed plagiarism. PiD had found the original source material and the student's surreptitious use of it was extensive and blatant. He reported it to the department chair:

“I have a clear case of plagiarism by one of my students and I need to initiate MCC's academic discipline process.”

The chair was characteristically helpful.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean the student will flunk the class, per the language in my syllabus regarding plagiarism, and I need to refer him to the college's disciplinary process.”

“Um, well, I don't think we have a formal process.”

“So what do I do then? My syllabus says plagiarism is a flunking offense and that the student can appeal by means of the college's disciplinary process. The evidence I have is unambiguous, but I presume we have a way for the student to state his side of things and get due process.”

“Okay. Well, you have to do what's in your syllabus.”

“Yes, of course. So how do I do that?”

“You should check with the academic dean.”

“Okay. Good. Does he enforce academic discipline?”

The chair seemed to think that might be the case. PiD contacted the dean.

“Yes, I agree with the chair. You have to follow your syllabus. We approved it and you need to follow it,” said the very helpful dean.

“Yeah. How exactly do I do that?”

“You know, I'm new here and just learning the ropes, so I don't want to depart from MCC's established practices. I need to refer you back to your department chair.”

As PiD well knew, Big U had a fully functioning review process in place to handle cases of academic misbehavior by its students. To his dismay, however, he had discovered that MCC was letting each department go its own way and there was no college-wide protocol for dealing with plagiarism. His current department had essentially nothing in place. The chair referred PiD to the college's statement of academic standards, which did mention that students were expected to be good citizens who behaved in a scholarly way, but neglected to stipulate any penalties or adjudication process for dealing with instances of not living up to those expectations. There was, of course, that helpful policy of reviewing instructor syllabi each semester, but apparently no one bothered to tell instructors when they cited nonexistent processes. (To add the cherry to the sundae, the department specifically required that syllabi contain a statement on the evils of plagiarism—but in reality was unprepared to deal with its occurrence.)

The last I heard, PiD was preparing a carefully constructed message to the cheater that his plagiarism had been discovered and that (a) his case had been brought to the attention of the department chair “in accordance with the provisions of the course syllabus” and (b) he would receive a failing grade in the class “in accordance with the provisions of the course syllabus.” If the student is bold enough to object, he can try his own luck with the chair. (That sounds like a “process,” doesn't it? Close enough!) Maybe she'll send him to the dean!

Oh, oh. Good luck, PiD! The dean ain't got your back!


Karen said...

My heart goes out to PiD. He's caught in a conundrum that is likely to not end well.

How on earth could a modern college -- even a community college -- not have a protocol in place to deal with plagiarism? It's not as though it isn't rampant!

Zeno said...

PiD informs me that the English department at MCC has a well-defined process for dealing with plagiarists, but the department he is in has never gotten around to setting up something similar. I suggested he copy the English department's policy. (Is that plagiarism?)

Kathie said...

It's just a matter of time before the student inevitably sues the MCC for lack of equal protection, breach of contract, discrimination or whatever, for failure to have a school-wide anti-plagiarism policy in place.

Perhaps Beatrice O. can represent him, if she's been reinstated by the Bar yet -- LOL!

The Ridger, FCD said...

Not if he gives the English department credit! :-)

I suppose his current department doesn't think its students plagiarize or something.

Anonymous said...

At the college where I teach, we have an official anti-plagiarism policy. The problem is that the dean has no spine. So here's how it went recently in a colleague's class (a young teacher who does not yet have job security).

1) Student is caught cheating on his differential calculus midterm. Physical evidence is found and confiscated.

2) As per policy, a grade of 0 is awarded for the exam. Dean is informed, and physical evidence is added to student's record.

3) Student's daddy, who is a bigshot lawyer, calls dean and makes noises about suing the college.

4) Dean destroys evidence and has someone prepare a make-up exam. Student gets passing grade. Teacher is not informed of any of this.

5) At the end of the term, teacher fails student (with a grade of 0 on his midterm). After grades are in, Dean surreptitiously changes midterm grade to a passing one, and student passes diff. calculus.

6) Next term, teacher is surprised to see student in his integral calculus class. Goes to a secretary who tells him the whole story.

7) Teacher catches same student cheating on an integral calculus quiz. Does nothing. Goes home and drinks bourbon.

Karen said...

In the department I'm about to graduate from (Various deities and thesis reviewers willing), teachers routinely make up different versions of exams (reordering the questions) for adjacent rows of students. If you're seen fiddling with your cell phone, it's an automatic zero. This keeps most people from cheating on exams. But plagiarism on papers is another matter... Usually it's poorly done and gets caught, or the professor uses Turnitin and catches it. But the number of people who cheat (and cheat poorly!) is astonishing.

Fortunately my university has a very well-established protocol for dealing with this sort of thing, and our college dean has a spine.

Anonymous said...

At one very large and well known state school I attended and taught at, you technically could not penalize a student for cheating or the like without first presenting the matter to the appropriate school committee. This pretty much explains why a professor didn't really care that I caught a student cheating during an exam. It wasn't worth the effort, especially when the student did poorly in the first place.

But academic honesty was really important. What do you mean you don't believe us? It says so right here in our handbook.


Kathie said...

But I bet your handbook contained a disclaimer to the effect that it was not binding, but merely a guid.

Or as one sage emeritus professor I knew liked to say, the handbook is binding for faculty, but optional for administration ;-)

Kathie said...

...but merely a guide.

Physicalist said...

Seems to me like PiD is doing the right thing. Flunk the plagiarist. If plagiarist wants to appeal, send him to the chair first, then up to the dean if necessary. If there's really no way to adjudicate the issue, and fairness requires honoring the possibility of an appeal, then PiD can just drop it if/when the situation gets too messy.

Anonymous said...

As I was reading this post, I fully expected the offending student to find out where the syllabus had come from and say, “I may have committed plagiarism in my term paper (or whatever), but you committed plagiarism in the academic honesty policy itself.” Did PiD have the permission of BU to use text from their course materials (including text that he wrote himself)? Did the “borrowed” course materials acknowledge that they were based on materials already in use at BU? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, then, ironically, PiD had committed plagiarism himself.

Zeno said...

An amusing little twist, Anonymous, but you're assuming that PiD's syllabus and course materials from BU were a "work for hire" to which he retained no rights. In this great big world I assume that there must be some educational institutions that try to claim exclusive rights to their instructors' self-prepared syllabi and lecture notes, but BU is not one of them. Since he wrote the source material himself, PiD was free to use it in whatever way he deemed fit -- including the anti-plagiarism prose he had composed in accordance with BU's policies.

Brownian said...

The only more depressing than the prevalence of students who think cheating is no big deal is reinforcement they get from universities and colleges that it's no big deal.

Students have always cheated, but there was a time when they also attempted to not get caught.

The first comment by anonymous makes me wonder how law schools, which surely have a higher proportion of students with big shot lawyer parents than other faculties, handle plagiarism. I doubt very much they simply lay down at the mere mention of pushback.