Classroom Ethics:  A Second Solution

Clearer institutional codes may offer a partial solution; certainly institutional codes must be clear and consistent, and we must work to make them so.  But institutional codes rarely change behaviors.  Behaviors are based on attitudes, and attitudes are shaped within our classrooms.

The Internet is at once a tremendous resource and an opportunity for dishonesty:  it provides many resources which would otherwise be unavailable to students, but for students who have no ethical constraints about submitting the work of someone else as their own, it sets the stage for potential consequences which could last a lifetime.

Students like the one in the introduction plagiarize for many reasons.  We've heard all the platitudes.  Some students rationalize that it doesn't really matter, all that matters is getting that degree to put on the resume; besides, the chances of getting caught are slim.  Other students are desperate. Insecure about their writing abilities, they'd rather risk a purchased paper than go through the agony of writing their own.  In a university like the one where I teach, where the majority of students commute, have jobs, families and highly complex lives, finding time to research and write a paper may seem an overwhelming burden.  Some students question whether faculty members really care anyway. If all an instructor does is assign a paper at the beginning of the course and then hurriedly attach a grade at the end, the pressured student may feel no pangs of conscience about purchasing a paper.
We can learn from a parallel situation over the past decade.  The insider trading scandals of the '80s forced many business colleges and MBA programs to take a hard look at themselves.  Many did not like what they saw:  a succeed-at-all-costs mentality had driven out any concern for ethics.  The call for reform was equally dramatic.  Within a few short years, every new or revised business textbook included a major discussion on ethics, with case studies and examples for discussion, and an explanation of the issues.  Ethics became an important component of classroom instruction in business.  We need to frame similar discussions when teaching writing.

Last semester, I decided I wanted to test student attitudes toward the whole issue of plagiarism with online papers.  I asked my students in the Writing in the Professions course to do two things:  to read a draft of this article, and to respond with an e-mail message to me.  I had several reasons for doing this.  I wanted them to know that I know about SchoolSucks, BrainTrust (which now includes tests), Evil House of Cheat , and dozens of similar sites.  More importantly, I wanted to know how they felt about the ease with which students can purchase papers online.

Though some students had not known about these sites prior to our class, others knew students who had used their services.  Almost without exception, the students felt angry that their peers who cheated stood a good chance of never being found out.  They likewise understood that the ethics of their fellow students will become the ethics that accompany our graduates into the workplace.  Dishonesty is more than an academic "game":

        You pointed to what this problem is going to mean to us as soon-to-be graduates.
        How do future employers know which of us earned our GPAs, and who bought them?

Students also recognized how difficult it is to instill ethics in a student who lacks integrity:
        I think plagiarism goes beyond just copying a paper for a [class].  It demonstrates
        a person's values. . . . It is much more than just who gets an A on one paper.  It
        is how the student[s] got to where they end up and what they are going to contribute
        to society in the long run.

When I take my students to sites like Evil House of Cheat, we have an opportunity to talk about honesty and integrity and what it means to be a scholar.  (Those who teach online must find creative methods to shape ethical attitudes within such courses as well.)  Students need to know why dishonesty is not an academic game.  They need to know why the academic community established harsh penalties for plagiarism, why the concept (from the Latin plagiarius, an abductor, and plagiare, to steal) is still relevant today, and how and why plagiarism and collaboration are different.

Such a discussion can help students distinguish between collaboration, a power we who teach with electronic media are just beginning to understand, and intellectual dishonesty, which stretches far beyond the boundaries of our courses into the kinds of lives students will lead and ultimately the kind of world in which we will live.  We need to talk with our students about the fact that each of us contributes to the ethical framework in which all of us must work.  If someone they love has a heart attack, do they want that person to be treated by a cardiologist who frequented SchoolSucks?   Do they want judges or lawmakers, or next-door neighbors, whose college work came from Evil House of Cheat?

If we wish to hold our students accountable for ethical behavior when writing, we must teach it and model it.  Just as we have learned to teach students methods and standards to evaluate sources on the Internet, we likewise must clearly explain what is and is not permissible when writing.  Moreover, we need to model integrity within our own practices, making sure our own interaction with students is ethical.  My students are invariably surprised when I ask them to sign a Release of Student Work form at the beginning of the semester; few have ever been asked for permission to use their work for class discussions and publication.

The workplace of the future will demand lifelong learning.  A student's degree will no longer equip him or her for a lifetime.  Workers will need to know how to learn and how to work within a community of learners to create new knowledge.  The student who plagiarizes and gets caught may fail an assignment or even a course.  The employee who breaches copyright or cuts ethical corners may endanger an entire company and be subject to criminal prosecution.  As Barlow puts it in "The Economy of Ideas," "the "best obstacle to crime is a society with its ethics intact" (1996).

Ethical standards cannot depend on hardware or software or upgrades or be legislated by an act of Congress.  They must be based on the values of those who live and work together.
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