Continuing from my previous post, I wanted to write a bit about why I have been thinking about academic integrity, and what, concretely, I plan to do about it.
So, why have I been thinking about this? For one thing, my department had its fair share of academic integrity violations last year. On the one hand, it is right for students to be held accountable for their actions. On the other, in the face of a spate of violations, it is also right for us to reevaluate what we are doing and why, what sort of environmental factors may be pushing students to violate academic integrity, and how we can create a better environment. Environment does not excuse behavior, but it can shape behavior in profound ways.
Another reason for thinking about academic integrity is that starting this fall, I will be a member of the committee that hears and makes a determination in formal academic integrity cases at my institution. It seems no one wants to be on this committee, and to a certain extent I can understand why. But I chose it, for several reasons. For one, I think it is important to have someone on the committee from the natural sciences (I will be the only one), who understands issues of plagiarism in the context of technical subjects. I also care a lot about ensuring that academic integrity violations are handled carefully and thoughtfully, so that students actually learn something from the experience, and more importantly, so that they come through with their sense of belonging intact. When a student (or anyone, really) does something that violates the standards of a community and is subject to consequences, it is all too easy for them to feel as though they are now a lesser member or even excluded from the community. It takes much more intentional communication to make clear to them that although they may have violated a community standard—which necessarily comes with a consequence—they are still a valued member. (Thanks to Leslie Zorwick for explaining about the power of belonging, and for relating recent research showing that communicating belonging can make a big difference for students on academic probation—which seems similar to students accused or convicted of academic integrity violations. I would cite it but I think it is not actually published yet.)
Thinking about all of this is well and good, but what will I do about it? How do I go about communicating all of this to my students, and creating the sort of environment I want? Here are the concrete things I plan to do starting this fall:
In all my courses where it makes sense, I plan to require students to have at least one citation (perhaps three, if I am bold) on every assignment turned in—whether they cite web pages, help from TAs or classmates, and so on. The point is to get them thinking regularly about the resources and help that they make use of on every single assignment, to foster a spirit of thankfulness. I hope it will also make it psychologically harder for students to plagiarize and lie about it. Finally, I hope it will lead to better outcomes in cases where a student makes inappropriate use of an online resource—i.e. when they “consult” a resource, perhaps even deceiving themselves into thinking that they are really doing the work, but end up essentially copying the resource. If they don’t cite the resource in such a case, I have a messy academic integrity violation case on my hands; if they do, there is no violation, even though the student didn’t engage with the assignment as I would have hoped, and I can have a simple conversation with them about my expectations and their learning (and perhaps lower their grade).
I will make sure to communicate to my students how easy it is for me to detect plagiarism, and how dire the consequences can be. A bit of healthy fear never hurt!
But beyond that, I want to make sure my students also understand that I care much more about them, as human beings, than I do about their grade or whether they turn in an assignment. I suspect that a lot of academic integrity violations happen at 2am, the night before a deadline, when the student hasn’t even started the assignment and they are riddled with anxiety and running on little sleep—but they feel as though they have to turn something in and this urge overrides whatever convictions they might have about plagiarism. To the extent their decision is based on anxiety about grades, there’s not much I can do about it. However, if their decision stems from a feeling of shame at not turning something in and disappointing their professor, I can make a difference: in that moment, I want my students to remember that their value in my eyes as human beings is not tied to their academic performance; that I will be much more impressed by their honesty than by whether they turn something in.
As a new member of the academic integrity committee, I plan to spend most of my time listening and learning from the continuing members of the committee; but I do hope to make sure our communication with both accused and convicted students emphasizes that they are still valued members of our community.
Other concrete suggestions, questions, experiences to relate, etc. are all most welcome!