The ongoing debate surrounding TurnItIn and other plagiarism detection services (PDSs) has taken some interesting turns. Sharon Gerald has smart insights and suggestions about how teachers might deploy such services in their classrooms, to which I can only say: go, read, now. But I’m particularly interested when Clancy suggests that “the anti-PDS arguments… don’t address the underlying principles enough,” and I agree with her that we need to talk about those underlying principles more — but those principles are also why I disagree with the way she casts the debate. So, to sort this out (and I’m sure she’ll correct me if I’m misrepresenting her position), for Clancy the foundational question seems to be: if plagiarism must be detected in order to prevent it, how do we construct the work of the composition course in order to facilitate that detection and prevention?
In Clancy’s words, “What exactly do you do at the moment of encounter with that paper that you’re 99.9% sure is plagiarized?” According to Clancy, in the past, such certainty came from the “intuition” of professors. First point of disagreement: it’s not “intuition” at all; it’s the instructor’s familiarity with previous drafts and strong engagement with the students’ style, which — in my experience — develops very early in the FYC semester. In other words, what Clancy calls “intuition” is a product of the way the contemporary composition course is constructed (or, OK, at least my composition course). So in that sense, the moment of detection has already happened, by virtue of the way we teach. It sounds to me like Clancy’s actually asking for verification, for which she offers five methods, four of which I use: Googling, talking to the student, requiring a paper trail, and requiring multiple drafts. (I agree that the ethics interview and “originality report” are obnoxiously didactic and sanctimonious.) Clancy says talking to the student can make the student angry, to which I’d reply: not necessarily, especially if you say to the student something like, “I notice your style and tone changed markedly in this paper. Can you tell me about your writerly decisions regarding audience? What sources and positions are you drawing from here?”
More confusing to me is Clancy’s assertion that asking students to show their “paper trails” — their notes as well as their drafts — fosters an attitude that students are guilty until proven innocent. I don’t see how this can be so: making those trails visible and helping students to see that essays don’t spring fully formed from the foreheads of their authors is, for me, part of the processual work of the composition classroom. But then I see what Clancy’s saying: she’s assuming that showing the paper trail is done in service of plagiarism detection. It’s a similar case with Clancy’s assertion about submitting multiple drafts and “sources to compare the drafts to” in order to detect plagiarism: if one understands, rather, that writing gets produced in class, that the work of the writing class is writing, then those drafts are produced as an organic function of the course, as in-class material product (and, OK, evidence) of its valuable intellectual labor. And the instructor doesn’t have to “micromanage” at all — my students produce generative writing in class, respond to one another and revise, and so when I see the final document with all the evidence of textual work that preceded it, I spend the most time with their one-page reflective letters where they describe to me what changed and what didn’t, where they got stuck and un-stuck, what strategies they used, and why. Ultimately, I think Clancy runs into trouble when she sees that sloppy, recursive writerly process as serving plagiarism detection and prevention, rather than seeing the avoidance of plagiarism emerging organically from the processes that good writers use.
And that perspectival shift is precisely my problem with TurnItIn: the enactment of an argument about how to best use PDSs performs an epistemological shift that causes us to privilege plagiarism prevention as the overriding goal, and to see all other aspects of composing as serving that end. TurnItIn privileges the appropriative moment and positions plagiarizers as Pokémon, telling composition teachers, “Gotta catch ‘em all!” So criminalized, they must all be caught and punished. Of course, this language (consider Clancy’s use of “burden of proof”) is perfectly in line with the popular media rhetoric on plagiarism pointed out by Rebecca Moore Howard; language that constructs plagiarism as the ultimate “deadly sin” punishable by the “academic death penalty.” Such a language of criminality and the privileging of property rights obscures the way that writers work, cite, collaborate, argue, and respond to one another. But see, there are two impulses in Pokémon: the accumulative impulse (“Gotta catch ‘em all!”) but also the give-and-take engagement of playing one card against another, one Pokémon against another, the pleasure in the way that texts and writers engage another. My problems with TurnItIn are that the ideological blinkers it offers show us only one value for writing — and, further, that it indicates to students that it’s perfectly acceptable for one party to appropriate that value while another party is criminalized for performing the same appropriation.
I’ll whisper here my dark and unspeakable secret: dear reader, I won’t lose sleep if I fail to catch and punish every single wicked, evil plagiarist. Sure, I notice the odd changes of voice and style, and every time I’ve noticed such shifts (every semester save one since 1998), I’ve confirmed that there was indeed a problem, and followed up on it. But if The Doomful Specter of Academic Plagiarism called me before him to pass judgment upon my pedagogy and told me that I’d been found wanting — told me that a student had, heaven forbid, Gotten Over — I’d be like, “Well, OK. So?” Does that in some way invalidate my entire pedagogy? Does that show what a jacked-up terrible instructor I am? Does that show that said student learned nothing from the course and thereby offer a reason why we must use machines to hunt down and mercilessly exterminate the relentlessly proliferative scourge of plagiarism committed by the lazy and amoral students populating our courses?
Well, here’s a thought. A while back, writing teachers were cheered by the arrival of a technological solution to the relentlessly proliferative scourge of spelling errors committed by the lazy and illiterate students populating their courses. Today, there’s a substantial body of empirical evidence pointing to the radical increase in homonym and wrong word errors in student writing following the rise in popularity of spelling checkers in word processing applications. So tell me: what kind of increase in ethical errors might we imagine seeing in student writing, if we were to pass along to machines the apparently overly onerous task of actually paying attention to how our students write?