Generation Y (the Millennium generation) is a lively, confident and ambitious group of young people who are a delight to teach. Some members of this generation, however, have a tendency to use whatever they find on the Internet without giving credit to the source. They believe in sharing (Whalley); if it’s on the Internet it belongs to everybody. On the faculty grapevine, such usage is part of what is meant by the word “entitlement” when it is applied to today’s college students.
The result of this entitlement is a type of plagiarism referred to by some Millennials as “unintentional plagiarism” and others as simply the best way to write a paper. Either way, as everyone knows, it is a widespread and serious problem plaguing today’s colleges and universities. More and more, students seem to think that using other people’s content without crediting the source is an acceptable practice (Montgomery).
Coupled with plagiarism, unintentional or otherwise, is the growing (but not exactly new) practice of students turning in a paper that was written for one class to complete an assignment in another class. This practice is known as “plagiarizing yourself”, and it is the subject of hot debate. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang speculated on the fact that the practice of recycling a completed paper-one that has been presented, officially, for feedback of some type—is perfectly all right for faculty but not for students. Educators, in fact, are always reusing papers, that is, presenting them numerous times at different conferences and symposia, in the hope that the papers can be improved (Lang).
But when a student turns in a paper written for another course, most members of the academic community call it plagiarism.
What we have here is a “mismatch between the academy’s and students’ expectations” (Whalley). Multiple forms of plagiarism, often not even understood by their perpetrators as constituting plagiarism, coupled with different standards of what is acceptable for faculty to do versus what is okay for students to do…well, obviously we’ve got trouble. How should a teacher handle it?
Call me a softie, but I do think it’s possible for today’s college students to plagiarize without knowing it. When students grab a comment off the Internet to round out a paragraph, or when, conversely, they give credit to the source but fail to sufficiently paraphrase a quote, I don’t give them an “F”. Our objective is to teach, not punish, even when it comes to sticky issues such as plagiarism.
So how do we handle it? I usually ask the student to come by my office; I then point out the offending passage and ask how he/she created it. A lot can transpire in this moment of communication. If the student looks surprised, confused, or otherwise innocent, I’ll define what constitutes plagiarism, and explain why what the student has turned in meets that definition. If the student won’t make eye contact, or acts hostile, I will assume he/she knew the score and I’ll get tougher. In either instance, I’ll ask the student to re-do the paper with the appropriate sources.
It was my privilege not too long ago to serve as Director of the Writing Center at a four-year college in New York City. I had all sorts of students, some who were well versed in writing thesis papers and others who weren’t. One student who failed the first go-round of a Senior Thesis paper due to plagiarism was turned over to me for Independent Study supervision. At our first meeting, Cassandra (not her real name) arrived with a large manila folder from which she extracted a 25-page paper.
“Here you go,” she said enthusiastically. “I did this over the summer, to save time.”
“Cassandra, this is our first meeting!” I protested. “We’re supposed to be discussing possible topics.” I began leafing through the paper, an alarm bell ringing in my head. The paper looked familiar, as if I’d seen it before, maybe several times.
After dismissing Cassandra, I checked the paper with Turnitin.com—the whole thing was on the Internet, practically verbatim. She’d changed the title and a few headings, but that was all. Needless to say, Cassandra failed the Senior Thesis class again. It took her two more tries, and a lot of coaxing and threats on my part before she actually wrote an entire paper on her own. Once she did, she passed. She was a smart girl and she wanted to graduate. But, as she told me at the end of our time together, she didn’t like writing papers, and didn’t see why she had to do one.
Entitlement. Some Millennials think they are above such boring tasks as writing papers, much less citing sources. In fact, one of the most common criticisms of the Y Generation is that its members assume they are more intelligent than other people (Moss). Fortunately, we don’t often see plagiarism as blatant as Cassandra’s. But many students will try playing a few games with teachers, as we all know. A journalism student I taught at another college persistently took quotes off the Internet instead of getting original comments, until I suggested he change his major. And a good student of mine was horrified when I called her in and showed her an identical paper to one of hers—she’d given it to a friend as an “example” and the friend copied it, word for word.
“Sharon, you know better,” I said. “Why’d you do it?”
“I felt sorry for him,” Sharon moaned. “He seemed so lost…”
Another softie. But Sharon was going too far with her sympathy when she jeopardized her own grade, and I told her so. She promised not to do it again, and I didn’t dock her any points. I did meet with the other student, and asked for a new paper.
Plagiarism out of desperation
Although most Generation Y students seem full of confidence, there are always those who fall along the wayside, who are in danger of flunking out from the very beginning of the term. Daphne (not her real name) was one of those students. Her tenure in one of my survey courses was marked by absenteeism, failed quizzes, and bewildered looks during lectures. The paper she turned in was a hodge-podge of ideas, some written half coherently in her own words, other parts lifted as whole sections from the Internet. Citing was all but absent, and the paper was about three pages too short. When we met, Daphne began to cry and told me she was flunking out. She admitted to sticking passages into her paper without crediting the sources, even though she knew what plagiarism was. When I asked her to do the paper over, she seemed surprised.
“I don’t think I can do any better,” she said.
“I think you can,” I told her. “Let’s see.”
She gave me another paper in about a week, not written much better, but with all the sources credited. With it she included a note: “I know you could have flunked me for my first paper, and I’m very grateful you didn’t. I am going to try hard to stay in school.”
That’s what we want, isn’t it—for the students to stay in school?
Students plagiarizing themselves
I agree with James M. Lang of the Chronicle: if faculty can turn in papers, benefit from criticism and then rewrite them, maybe students should have this option too (Lang). I have no objection as long as the student meets the requirements of my assignment; that is, if I ask for five sources, I want five sources, even if the original paper had three. If that means the student has to add a section, so be it. And I’m very particular about transitions.
I’d also like the student to ask me in advance if it is okay to “re-cycle” a paper in this way. It the student is a good writer, I’ll probably say yes. If the request comes from a student who is not doing so well in the writing department, I’ll ask to see the paper and then make my decision.
Plagiarism is a serious offense, and, like bad student writing, it is a disease on the rise. We can punish the sick person—or we can try to understand why the plague is so rampant, and take steps to deal with it—compassionately.
Lang, James M., “Plagiarizing Yourself”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 2010, Volume LVII, Number 7
Montgomery, Carrie, “Are You Part of ‘Generation Plagiarism’?” NYTimes.com. Retrieved October 19, 2010 from http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/03/are-you-part-of-generation-plagiarism/
Moss, Ian David, “Generation Y and the problem of ‘entitlement’: A bullet-point manifesto”. Retrieved October 19, 2010 from http://createquity.com/2009/10/generation-y-and-the-problem-of-entitlement
Whalley, Brian, News and Reviews, Ariadne Issue 62. “My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture” by Susan D. Blum, Cornell University Press, 2009. Retrieved October 19, 2010 from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue62/whalley-rvw/