I'm on the techrhet mailing list, hosted by interversity.org, which is a collection of mostly college and university English teachers who have an interest in the roll of technology and writing and learning. Every now and again the discussion turns to plagiarism, often prompted by some news or question about plagiarism detection software or services such as turnitin.com. I can't remember what started the recent thread on plagiarism, but a typical part of the discussion always hits on the need for faculty to develop "plagiarism proof" assignments. Now, I think I do this, by not having students write about the mundane, and by tying the work into a very specific reading where a student is not likely to be able to turn to a papermill for "relief." But plagiarism happens, as noted by a posting of mine recently, when a student copied the work of another from our class blog, fiddled with it, though not much, and submitted it as his own.
But that's not really what this is about. One member of the list, noted that she goes "oogy" or something like that she reads about faculty revamping and revising coursework to deal with the occasional plagiarist, and she has a point. It's the thinking and fear behind this sort of revamping and revising that leads people to such "solutions" as turnitin where every student has to prove their innocence. That's no way to teach or to work with students. I'm of the mind that most students, the vast majority, are honest and most of them even have some desire to learn. If I spend too much time focusing on how to thwart the few cheats I encounter each year, I'm shortchanging the students who want to learn something, if only because I make them just through some plagiarism detection hoop.
This doesn't eliminate the need for assignments that don't lend themselves to plagiarism, but nothing can be done to stop each and every cheat, and I'm not sure how much time should be spent preventing the cheat from cheating. In essence, if they don't want to learn, if they don't believe that I'm trying to help them learn, just as I take it on faith that they are trying to learn, screw them. I'm happy to fail that student if plagiarism becomes known to me, which it usually does. But I'm not going to make my class like some airport screening process for truthfulness. Just as that screening at the airport is largely a waste, a similar focus in the classroom is a waste not just of time and talent (and it's not like I have a lot of that to spare, do I?), but of trust, trust the world sorely lacks. So, I'm going to hammer students as best I can when I find they plagiarize, but I'm not going to go to ridiculous lengths to thwart the rare bit of cheating nor am I going to assume all are cheats unless proven otherwise. If that's the way I end up going, I'm in the wrong racket.