I was a bit surprised to discover that both Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber and P. Z. Myers in Pharyngula (and, in a me-too wave, Musical Perceptions, Nicomachus, and Rhosgobel) thought I was defending the plagiarizing habits of Michael Gunn, the student who’s suing the University of Kent.
They will not get full marks for that reading. I was saying that if an undergrad English major who’s a casual and habitual plagiarist hasn’t been nailed on it in three years of college, he might be pardoned for feeling indignant if the university suddenly decides to take a hard line a few days before he’s supposed to graduate. Gunn is still in the wrong. But if his practices were as as he describes—that is, if he’s been a casual and habitual plagiarist—he should have been caught long ago, and it shouldn’t have taken a computer program to catch him.Here’s a longer version of what he said:
“I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise,” he told The Times Higher Education Supplement. “But I always used the internet, cutting and pasting stuff and matching it with my own points. It’s a technique I’ve used since I started the course and I never dreamt it was a problem. I can see there is evidence that I have gone against the rules, but they’ve taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning, and warned me of the problems, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks and no one spotted it.”
Just to get this out of the way: I have no tolerance for plagiarism. I was helping my mother and the rest of her English department identify cases of it clear back in high school. I also don’t think Mr. Gunn’s plagiarism was inconsequential. He was stringing together cut-and-pasted material, which is wrong, albeit not in the same class as purchasing whole papers from one of the many websites that sell them. He must have known it was to some extent improper, but I can imagine him being honestly unclear on the exact degree of impropriety involved.
Doubtless some of Kieran Healy’s commenters will still think I’m defending Gunn’s plagiarism per se. They will definitely not get full marks for their readings.
What I want to know is, who’s been grading the papers at Kent University? Gunn’s papers will have been a patchwork of different writers, approaches, and voices. As I said in my earlier post, monitoring their use of the semicolon is often enough to catch student plagiarists. In Gunn’s case, he wouldn’t have had variable style and usage from paper to paper; he’d have had it within the papers themselves. That bothers me. Shouldn’t English instructors notice that? How could they not notice it? Yet they didn’t.
It also bothers me that none of his instructors recognized any of the material he was cannibalizing. There’s a lot of impersonal, undistinguished secondary literature on the web, but not all of it can be so described. Sooner or later, a student who’s not an expert in the field must unwittingly swipe material from some well-known or distinctive piece of litcrit. However, nobody spotted Mr. Gunn doing that. Also, some areas of English studies are quite specialized, with relatively small bodies of secondary literature, and relatively small numbers of scholars familiar with it. Lifting material from them is a variety of Russian roulette: you’re safe unless your paper crosses paths with one of those scholars, at which point they’ll have you dead to rights. But that didn’t happen either.
I repeat: Who’s been grading the papers at Kent University? Do they in fact have a faculty that can neither spot multiple changes of author within a single paper, nor recognize that an undergraduate is lifting paragraphs right and left from published literary criticism?
Dealing with plagiarism in an educational way, rather than this random-shootings punitive way, takes work. The University of Kent’s previous answer to the problem, which seems to have consisted of announcing in its student handbooks that plagiarism is a no-no, is simply not enough. You have to pay attention. You have to follow up on suspicions. Disciplinary action ought to happen at a point well short of graduation week.
Anyone who still thinks that what I’m saying constitutes a defense of Michael Gunn’s plagiarism are encouraged to re-read the last paragraph of my previous post on the subject. That’s still what I think Kent University should do: Reinstate Michael Gunn, give him three years’ free tuition, and let him re-do every scrap of that coursework he says he cheated on. And if you think that adds up to a defense of Michael Gunn or plagiarism, feel free to write me a note explaining how you got through school.