Monday, February 27, 2017

Compassion’s Last Stand

by Kamilah Cummings

Last month my colleague wrote a wonderfully thoughtful and informative blog that explored the roots of plagiarism. In it he opined that understanding the root of plagiarism offers educators options for addressing it (Hayes). Having spent nearly three years as a member of a committee tasked with ensuring that the University’s academic integrity policies are upheld, I have often  found myself suspended between shock and sadness when confronted with the options some colleagues have chosen to address plagiarism. Recently, a particularly dispiriting situation beckoned me to question the role of compassion in addressing plagiarism. Even the most egregious act of academic dishonesty presents itself as a teachable moment. To that end, if compassion has a place anywhere, it should be in the classroom. 

A cursory glance at daily headlines from Washington D.C. to Chicago illuminates the reality that compassion is under siege. Even some of the most well-intentioned people and institutions appear to be forcing compassion to retreat in favor of addressing more pragmatic concerns. However, for me it is a harrowing proposition to envision a world where compassion is a casualty of war. Yet, this is the daily reality for many. Given this fact, it is troubling to witness situations where students who commit plagiarism whether unintentionally or intentionally are not only met with a lack of compassion but with scorn, belittlement, and indifference as well. I have seen compassion eschewed more times than I care to recall in these situations. However, I am particularly disturbed when these incidents occur in first-year courses with students from underrepresented groups, as research shows that two of the primary reasons that these students leave higher education are feeling unwelcomed and lack of academic preparedness.

“Integrating compassion into classrooms can strengthen the emotional, intellectual and social learning environment of a school” (Berkowicz and Myers). One need not teach compassion or design assignments or learning outcomes based on the principles of compassion to infuse the learning environment with it. One can simply model compassion in her interactions with students. Faculty can model compassion when addressing acts of student dishonesty, particularly plagiarism, by considering possible causes. For example, there are distinct cultural differences in defining what constitutes plagiarism. Having taught writing to international students from Indonesia to China, Iran, Pakistan, Mexico, and Togo, I have learned that there are striking differences in global perceptions of plagiarism. 

An additional issue to consider when addressing plagiarism is academic preparedness. For example, multiple factors might affect a nontraditional adult learner’s understanding of plagiarism. Some adult learners might have never been required to cite in school, while others may have been away from school for long periods of time and need refreshers on citation, while others might work in professions/industries that approach plagiarism and citation differently than academia. Additionally some traditional-aged students come from high schools that have failed to adequately prepare them for the rigors of university work in many regards, including working with sources.  Finally various internal and external stressors might contribute to an act of plagiarism. 

In essence all learning is developmental, and a compassionate response to plagiarism recognizes this. Although the University requires that acts of academic dishonesty be reported, faculty have freedom in assessing sanctions. I recommend that faculty include an opportunity for the student to learn from the incident as well. A punishable moment is still a teachable one. Yet, I have seen sanctions from zero credit on an assignment to complete failure of a course issued without any accompanying educational remedy. In addition to assessing a penalty, as an educational remedy faculty could require students to demonstrate understanding of plagiarism by completing a free online tutorial with The Writing Center or through a website such as Lycoming College’s "Goblin Threat Plagiarism Test” or Indiana University Bloomington’s "How to Recognize Plagiarism” test. Faculty might also have a student resubmit an assignment for a reduced grade (or no grade at all) and have the student include annotations of the revisions that were made to correct and avoid plagiarism.  

Another option could be to have the student write a short reflection on the experience of committing and being sanctioned for an act of academic dishonesty with an explanation of why they committed the act and how they will avoid it in the future. Faculty could also meet with the student to discuss the situation. I am often surprised at how infrequently this option is selected, particularly in marginal situations when despite an earnest attempt at citing errors have occurred or situations when students who are otherwise performing well in a course commit an act of plagiarism. Meeting with the student could offer opportunities for faculty to reexamine course policies and expectations as Hayes suggests.

Myriad factors influence the way human beings act and react to situations and each other. The classroom can at times reflect the best and worst of this reality.  However, “teaching is a humanistic profession, requiring compassion and genuine caring” (Potter, Whitener and Sikorsky). To that end, the student-teacher relationship should be neither adversarial nor apathetic. As teachers we hold positions of authority with our students, and we can use that authority to build or destroy. The classroom should be a place where teachers facilitate a learning experience that is challenging, transformative, and empowering. As such, a teacher should have the capacity to address plagiarism with compassion. 

I am in no way arguing that faculty should forego sanctions for acts of academic dishonesty. As Hayes asserts, “blaming the students is the easiest strategy” (Hayes). A sanction for the act addresses the student’s accountability. However, once the easiest strategy has been deployed, what next? A compassionate approach holds the instructor accountable as well. It calls for a well-intentioned attempt to assist the student in not repeating the behavior. It moves the situation from merely a punishable moment to a teachable one. After all, teaching is what we are here to do.

Works Cited

Berkowicz, Jill and Ann Myers. Compassion in the Classroom: A 'Real Strength' for Education. 24 August 2014. Blog. 26 February 2017. <>.
Hayes, Nicholas. Rooting Out Plagiarism. 31 January 2017. Blog. 26 February 2017. <>.
Potter, Andrew, Amanda Whitener and Jan Sikorsky. 8 Qualities of Great Teachers. 30 November 2015. Blog. 26 February 2017. <>.

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