Did Shakespeare Write This for You?

Resources for Teaching about Plagiarism

by Eric Hofmann (2006)


Part 1 (or, Why I chose this topic)

Europa lacks conclusions or the macro-tragic implications of its title.”


It was seven years ago, but I still remember thinking, Not again! I was teaching intro writing classes at a university in Washington, DC, and for the second semester in a row, I had a hunch I was reading plagiarized work. The prior semester, I had had to play detective, tracking down sources in the school’s library and searching the books for the suspicious passages. A confluence of factors had tipped me off that first time, most notably a shift in style and vocabulary in the places I had asked the student to develop further on her working draft. The student’s attitude was also a factor: something felt not quite right when we discussed the project during class.


The second incident that year was different: it was clear from the first paragraph that the student had simplified the assignment—a comparison of two films—into a commonplace single movie review. With a quick look on an Internet search engine (something like Google at the time), I had the entire paper on the screen in front of me. But the contentment that comes from satisfying a hunch was quickly replaced by the dread of the task ahead of me.


And then…


Last fall, I was working with faculty in the Lehman College/College Now program as the CUNY Central Office liaison. In one of our monthly meetings, an English teacher explained how a student in her course had borrowed a classmate’s paper and copied it “whole-cloth.” After consulting with school administrators, the teacher and the College Now coordinator met with the student and decided to give an F in the course.


By reporting this incident to faculty peers in the monthly meeting, the teacher opened the door for a lengthy discussion about plagiarism, in general, and the role of College Now, specifically, in addressing larger academic issues. The conversation also revealed some interesting views on the program’s perceived role in educating students about academic integrity.


Part 2: Developing the plagiarism curriculum


Of all the challenges teachers face these days, plagiarism can be one of the most frustrating. Our expectations for our students are blanketed in hope and trust, for we want to believe that the improprieties we hear about won’t happen with the kids in our classrooms. On many occasions, our naïveté is our strength—open faith in our students’ best intentions is an essential component of a supportive learning environment. When students plagiarize, it undermines our trust, which in turn chips away at the relationships we build with our students.


So it eased the tension somewhat when a philosophy teacher in the Lehman program shared the advice he gives would-be copiers: “You wouldn’t go to the gym and ask someone to lift the weights for you, would you?”.


The power of an appropriate analogy can go a long way to getting students on board, and our laughter underscored our eagerness to share our experiences around the topic. Of course, analogies can only go so far, as would our brief descriptions of one-time, five-minute classroom lessons about plagiarism. We needed something more comprehensive that realistically could address the broad scope of the issue.


The Lehman College/College Now faculty suggested that a committee gather to create helpful plagiarism resources for everyone teaching in College Now. As a member of the committee, I worked with two high school teachers with ample experience of their own teaching college courses.


Our approach was to create a series of modules that were flexible enough for teachers to use in any discipline, in sequence or isolation, at various points in their existing curriculum. We would provide all of the resources for the modules, while also encouraging teachers to develop their own handouts or choose their own readings.


To begin, we chose to focus the modules on four topics:

  • Definitions of plagiarism
  • Identifying plagiarism and academic dishonesty
  • The consequences of plagiarism
  • How to avoid plagiarizing


Next, we came up with various activities and assignments to address those topics and hashed out a defining structure, with recurring features, for each of the modules. We prioritized the use of real-world examples and effective literacy strategies. Meeting for 10 hours over the course of two weeks, we fleshed out a curriculum and completed our own “homework” assignments to share at the following meeting. An additional 40 hours or so went into designing the layout for print and online versions. Along the way, we shared our work with colleagues for feedback.


One of the more challenging modules from a curriculum design perspective was “The Consequences of Plagiarism.”


We had a lot of questions but few answers, and knowing that students want specific answers, we struggled to identify them for ourselves and, ultimately, our colleagues. The result is a homework assignment followed by one of three in-class activities:

  1. designing a flow chart that represents Lehman College’s policies on academic integrity,
  2. commenting on testimonies from students found in violation of the honor code at a prestigious liberal arts university, or
  3. writing reactions to the allegations against a prominent historian.


It was difficult to design our own flow chart of the Lehman policy, but the experience highlighted the uncertainty faculty and students face when trying to make sense of the institutional guidelines.


Overall, the variety of approaches to this module represents the messy quality of the subject, and we feel it highlights that the consequences are best avoided through ethical academic practice.


Part 3: Making the curriculum work in the classroom

College Now is the perfect place to address the important issues of academic integrity. Indeed, what program could be better than one focused on the transition from high school to college, where the stakes are higher and the policies often more sweeping than students realize? (excerpted from the plagiarism site’s Letter to College Now faculty)


The process of creating a curriculum that could be used across institutions and across disciplines made for stimulating conversations and engaging intellectual work. We realized that educating students about academic integrity and plagiarism was continuous and also fraught with uncertainty. In fact, we found our own discussions sidetracked by our growing understanding of the topic and our eagerness to capture all aspects of the issue.


For example, does high school instruction around plagiarism prepare students for the demands of college standards? Do the mechanics of various citation styles deter students from conversing in dialogue with established intellectual work? Have students received direct instruction in paraphrasing and summarizing, and if so, was it connected to a lesson on proper citation?


In the end, we are left with this question: how can these modules work for you?


The answer depends, of course, on the nature of your course. We imagined that English teachers might use more of the modules than math and science teachers, but we also believe that academic integrity issues are relevant to all disciplines, and that plagiarism is important to address in any literacy-based curriculum. While it may not seem important to stress citation styles in a calculus course, math instructors who assign written reports will have to teach the format used in their discipline.


I’ll leave you by commenting on one of our favorite assignments: the activity sheet that describes several academic and real world scenarios in the “Identifying Plagiarism” module. The exercise should be fun for students and relevant regardless of subject area. Moreover, as we suggest in the “Did they get it?” section, the evidence of student learning can be found in the quality of their questions. Whenever students begin asking sophisticated questions about the protocols of the subjects we value—questions much like the ones we found ourselves asking—our lessons about academic integrity will be a success.


The College Now Web site for teaching about plagiarism can be found at http://www.lehman.edu/provost/enrollmentmgmt/collegenow/plagiarism


Eric Hofmann is the director of College Now and University Director for Collaborative Programs. He came to CUNY from Georgetown University, where he coordinated teaching and learning projects in the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS); many of the projects focused on issues arising from the use of technology in the classroom. He is also a college writing instructor.