Monday, November 17, 2008

University winks at plagiarism

Faculty members complain constantly about plagiarism and trade stories about strategies to combat it. Loye Young thought he had a solution. On his syllabus at Texas A&M International University this fall, he wrote: “No form of dishonesty is acceptable. I will promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing. That includes academic dishonesty, copyright violations, software piracy, or any other form of dishonesty.”

Many professors use the syllabus to warn students about enforcing plagiarism rules, but few promise public humiliation. Young, who owns a computer business in Laredo and doesn’t depend on a teaching job for his livelihood, thinks humiliation is part of the justice system. He noted in an interview Wednesday that “there’s a reason that trials are in public.”

When he caught six students in his management information systems course cheating, he wrote about it on his course blog (which he maintained on his business’s Web site), naming the students and telling the world that he had caught them and that they would receive an F for the course and be reported to university officials.

“Plagiarism is manifestly unfair and disrespectful to your classmates,” Young wrote on his blog. “There are students taking the course who are working very, very hard to learn a subject that in many cases is foreign to them. A plagiarizer is implicitly treating the honest, hard-working student as a dupe. Of course, the plagiarizer is the dupe or else would not need to plagiarize.”

When university administrators realized that Young had followed through on his threat to fail and publicly humiliate the students, they put the failing grades on hold — the cases are now being referred to an honors council for consideration and the F’s may or may not stand. But action against Young was quick: He was fired. The university says he violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law known widely as the Buckley Amendment or FERPA, which generally bars the release of educational records about students without their permission.

Young says that FERPA is being used to cover up the real reason the university wanted him out: that it was facing an instructor unwilling to stay quiet about students’ academic dishonesty. “People here are told that students should be babied and that we need to keep ‘em in to get enrollment and state funding,” he said. “Well, I want students — when they complete my course — to actually know something, and they can’t if they plagiarize everything.” That his actions distressed many at the university as much as the plagiarism, he said, shows the extent of the problem. “This beehive needed whacking,” he said.

Adding to the buzz has been an e-mail message sent to department chairs by someone in the administration (the provost denies knowing anything about it, and an article Wednesday in the Laredo Morning Times attributed it to deans) in which the chairs were reminded to tell faculty members that any F grades for plagiarism should be reviewed by the honors council and that professors need to always think about students’ due process rights before seeking to punish them.

Several faculty members, speaking privately because they didn’t want to anger administrators, said that they were taken aback by the way the university appeared to be viewing plagiarism as an issue requiring more due process for students, not more support for professors. For the university to follow the dismissal of an adjunct with this reminder, they said, left them feeling that they couldn’t bring plagiarism charges. Further, many said that they believed it was a professor’s right to award an F to a plagiarizer and that this should not require an honors council review.

Several e-mail messages are circulating among faculty members, expressing concern that their right to assure academic integrity is being undercut. Despite how widespread a problem plagiarism is among students, these e-mail messages say, the university is looking the other way and sending a public message to students that they are the victims when a professor takes plagiarism seriously.

Young said that the plagiarism in his course was easy to detect. He said that the essays he found to be copied didn’t read like student writing and seemed to be an odd combination of sources. He said he just put some of the essays into Google to find the sources, on Wikipedia, in the archives of term paper companies, and so forth. “If students don’t know that they will be prosecuted, this will not stop,” he said. “You need to have a deterrent, and it needs to be public.”

Not all faculty members share that view. Some who don’t like the way the university is dealing with situation still think Young crossed a line by going public with the names of students. Robert Haynes, an associate professor of English and president of the Faculty Senate, said Young was “not adequately prepared to deal with the challenge of students he perceived as cheating.” Haynes acknowledged that Young’s dismissal, followed by the memo now in circulation, has left many professors worried. He said that the events are “subject to the interpretation” that the university isn’t interested in tough enforcement of rules against plagiarism, but he said he didn’t think that was true. “We are interested in combining rigor and compassion. and we don’t want to compromise on either,” he said.

It’s important, Haynes said, that professors not “be subject to second guessing for ordinary decisions,” he said, and that includes grades. At the same time, he said, it was important for students to know their appeal rights.

Pablo Arenaz, provost at the university, said he was distressed that some faculty members are concerned about the university’s commitment to academic integrity. Asked whether a professor has the right to award an F to someone caught copying, Arenaz said that was “up to interpretation.” He said it was important that everyone respect students’ due process rights when plagiarism is suspected.

He stressed, however, that the reason Young was dismissed was because he violated students’ privacy rights. Asked if university policy states that violating FERPA is grounds for dismissal, Arenaz said he didn’t know. “The university believes in academic integrity and upholds academic integrity,” he said. Arenaz, asked if he thought plagiarism was a major problem at the university, noted that he has only been there for a few months, and said he wasn’t sure. “I don’t have a feel for it at all. If I put five faculty in a room, I would get different interpretations of what it is.”


Apostrophizing apostrophes

If thick-cut marmalade is the touchstone of social class, as correspondents to our Letters page suggest, spelling is the chief indicator of education. No more deadly betrayal of incapacity in this department exists than misusing the apostrophe.

The confusion of they're, their and there drives the nation into red mists of rage. Yet which of us can swear that, in some careless holiday postcard or some late-night composition, we have not, on automatic pilot, written there when we meant they're?

Feelings have run so high that foaming pedants have joined bands of spelling guerrillas, armed with correcting fluid and scalpels to scratch out "greengrocer's apostrophes" (or should that be "greengrocers' apostrophes"?) in potatoe's or insert one in mens shoes.

It should be easy, for heaven's sake. The apostrophe stands for a missing letter. It sits before the possessive s (dog's) in the singular, because the genitive was once expressed by the termination -es (dogges). It all began to go wrong when an apostrophe was added to a plural possessive (dogs'), as an arbitrary sign, for there was no missing letter to mark.

The classic case is Queens' College (Cambridge), to be distinguished from Queen's College (Oxford) by the number of queens who founded them, hence the position of the apostrophe. Very neat, except that, as the Spectator's language columnist Dot Wordsworth reported, Queens' College confesses that the earliest examples of the name spelt with any apostrophe always have the apostrophe before the s. Indeed, the first example of Queens' College is from 1823. In the University Calendar, the spelling was changed from Queen's to Queens' in 1831.

Anomalies in names with and without apostrophes are everywhere. It is Earls Court on the London Underground, but the next stop is Baron's Court. It is St Albans but St David's; St Andrews in Scotland but St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly. St Thomas's hospital mis-spells its own name as St Thomas'. It's a terrible mess.

The trouble is that English language has suffered from the disease of creeping apostrophitis. The apostrophe is the Japanese knotweed of the garden of English. Decoratively established in words like dog's, it then popped up in words like children's. Before we knew what had happened, it was invading carefully tended phrases such as for conscience' sake. All this, says the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary gnomically, "was not yet established in 1725". No, indeed.

In Shakespeare's day, when apostrophes knew their place, the air was freer. We know not where the dramatist put apostrophes, as no manuscripts of his remain. But on the title page of the beautiful first folio it says Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. No apostrophe for Will. The title of one comedy is: Loves Labour's lost; of another A Midsommer nights Dreame or A Midsommer night's Dreame.

It is not that we know any better now. We merely know different. So would it not be a liberation and a joy to do away with the apostrophe in it's (short for it is)? There is no historical justification for spelling the pronoun its instead of it's. The word its is frightfully nouveau in any case, being invented as recently as the 16th century. Private letters show a reluctance to abide by the baseless distinction between its and it's. "Do you know it's name?" asked Darwin, no simpleton in these matters, in a letter in 1828. As the language historian Lynda Mugglestone has pointed out, such divergences only went out with the long s (which we so enjoy mixing up with f in old books).

A little learning glares at the apostrophe, as basic table-manners concentrate on the knife and fork. Give us grouse and we'll pick them with our fingers, as, once we can spell and parse, we won't mind the odd discrepant apostrophe.


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