My son-in-law Luke teaches at a major university, one that takes trust and honor very seriously. But even in this principle-centered environment, some students cheat. As a professor, Luke believes his role is to teach the whole person, not just course content. He’s not interested in playing ethics cop. He simply wants to teach his students to engage in trustworthy behavior because it’s the right thing to do.
At the beginning of each semester, Luke rolls out the curriculum for the entire term. This includes assigning term papers on a wide range of topics. These are not the typical “research” papers. These personal essays are intended to help develop the students’ analytical skills – in short, teach them how to think for themselves.
Because many students are relatively untutored in such skills, there’s a temptation to “borrow” someone else’s thinking. In this Internet age, some ethics deficient websites actually sell and resell term papers to students who are either too timid or too lazy to do their own thinking. It’s easier than ever to take short cuts. But most students who “take short cuts” don’t actually buy someone else’s work. They “borrow” someone else’s work, sometimes in small, addictive doses. A question, of course, is where’s the line between inadvertent plagiarism and deliberate thievery?
Luke uses a high-tech tool called Turnitin (see www.turnitin.com) that quickly identifies plagiarism. This compares student work against three massive, continuously updated databases of content: billions of web pages, plus more than 80,000 major newspapers, periodicals, journals, and books, plus more than 100 million student papers from around the world.
Luke’s students submit their papers electronically. Then, before he even reads them, the papers are instantly analyzed for – shall we say – attribution problems. On Luke’s computer screen appears an “originality report” that highlights matches and shows sources side-by-side. He may see, for example, that a paragraph from a student paper is a 53% match with a Wikipedia article, or a 47% match with an obscure journal, or a 64% match with a paper submitted by another student three years earlier at another university across the country.
Trust, Not Gotcha
Again, Luke is a professor of the fine arts, not a plagiarism cop playing a game of “Gotcha!” In his professor role he can expound with world class authority on a wide range of subjects. And, yes, he wants to teach his students about proper source citation in their term papers.
But he believes, and I agree, that his most important job is to mentor his students in the fine art of trust.
_ He does it by showing them that relying on their own thinking is not only honest, but their own thinking is often better that someone else’s anyway.
_ He teaches them that “trust” is more than just a word in the school’s honor code.
_ He teaches them that trust is one of the most important lessons they can ever learn, and the most valuable attribute they can ever cultivate.
_ He does it by appealing to their heads and hearts and hopes.
Then Luke’s young charges come to realize that with confidence comes competence, and then competence begets more confidence. The amount of effort that goes into cheating and covering it up far exceeds the effort required to do it right.
When the tide goes out, we discover who’s been without a bathing suit all along. So why not invest in trust from the very beginning? Why not behave in ways that earn and maintain the trust of people important to us?
Yes, trust is a character thing. It’s also a matter of competence. And it can be taught.