This talk was composed for the Qatar Teaching and Learning Forum, on the topic of “Encouraging Student Authenticity in Writing.” I was part of a panel responding to recent articles about contract cheating. Full disclosure: I self-plagiarized a few sentences from one of my own articles.

I always feel a little guilty on the first day of class. I talk about my plagiarism policy, but the plagiarism policy on my syllabus is sandwiched between two paragraphs which were straight up copy-pasted from my institution’s policies. 

I’ve conducted a study on plagiarism in conference abstracts. You want to know who most often plagiarize conference abstracts? Maybe graduate students, some of whom are just now learning advanced disciplinary conventions and citation methods? It would be kind of understandable. No, it’s FULL PROFESSORS who ring up the high scores on Turnitin, most often because they self-plagiarize their own work and submit it as a new paper. They should know better, right? 

So I’d like to note that we could have gathered today for an alternative panel on Encouraging Authenticity in PROFESSOR writing. 

But we are here to talk about students, so I will note that one of my first principles of encouraging authenticity is to point out when it is perfectly ok, even preferable, to NOT be authentic. I teach technical writing, and to my knowledge, Qatar Petroleum does not want its new engineers running around putting all of their policies “in the student’s own words.” They want graduates to use what we call boilerplate text – text that you use verbatim; unauthentic text. 

Deborah Brandt studied workers who are ‘ghostwriters’ – people who, as part of their work, write speeches, policies, letters, reports, and other documents that are never acknowledged as the author of their work, much like the author or authors who wrote the policies on my syllabus. She concludes that “when it comes to writing, people’s expressive voices seem inevitably tangled with interests and liabilities of the organizations that employ them – and often cannot be comfortably extricated even off the job” (p. 164). In simpler terms, ghostwriters were proud of their words, even as those words were credited to others. They took great care in blending their individual voice with the voice of their employer. 

If we aim to prepare our students for work in the neoliberal corporate world – and we are remiss if we don’t acknowledge the reality that academia is largely such a world – we need to prepare students to be ghostwriters. 

What I think is important here is not to demonize these practices. As I hope I’ve pointed out, we as faculty members are implicated in and participate in practices that we don’t necessarily want to see in our students. What this looks like in my classroom is that when I analyze texts with my students, we talk about how, in the words of Leslie Seawright, documents in both the workplace and academia “accrue power for writers and readers, and […] are used for ideological purposes as well” (96). I show them chains of writing – what once was an email to me becomes part of my email back, and then that becomes an abstract that I submit to an editor, who provides feedback that shapes my first draft and on and on. I think it was Bakhtin who said something about how our mouths are full of other people’s words, but I couldn’t find that quotation when I googled it, so maybe I misremember it. 

Some technological tools for academic integrity are used for ideological purposes as well, and that’s why I won’t use Turnitin. Although it bills itself as a plagiarism prevention service, Turnitin, as a text-matching software, cannot distinguish between properly cited quotations and plagiarism (Purdy, 2005), nor can it detect if another writer has been paid to write the submission, and it does not often flag patchwriting, or when the writer changes a few words in a quoted phrase. Essentially, it can’t do more than a professor who Googles a few phrases here and there. Turnitin’s internet database, more than 45 billion webpages, is roughly the same size as that of popular search engines, over 49 billion webpages, which are free for any internet user (Turnitin, 2016; de Kunder, 2016). Turnitin uses this database to sell themselves to universities; however, this database has a large population of student writers who did not provide informed consent – their professors required them to submit their original work to a company that then makes money off of the students’ intellectual labor. 

My biggest problem is that Turnitin and programs like that is that students are presumed guilty before they are proven innocent – well, maybe innocent with 15% guiltiness. 

Some of you may have been thinking earlier, “Well, I have much higher goals for my students than to be the next cog in the corporate machine – writing is for expression of ideas and exploring what it means to be human!” Well, I agree with you, too, and this is where my second principle of encouraging authenticity comes in. I can refuse to adopt practices of the police state and start with the premise that writing in university needs to be meaningful to students. 

The authors of The Meaningful Writing Projectoffer compelling evidence that the kind of writing that sticks with students – across all disciplines – are assigned by faculty who encourage student agency, engagement, and transfer of learning. Meaningful writing assignments, they observe, invite students to

  • Tap into the power of personal connection 
  • See what they’re writing as applicable, relevant, real world, and connected to their future selves 
  • Immerse themselves in what they’re thinking, writing, and researching, including engagement in processes of writing (p. 108-109). 

This week, what that looks like in my first-year writing course is that students are emailing me their ORQs – original research questions – that they will then use as a basis for a series of interview questions (another small assignment that will be recorded in their research journals). They will ask these interview questions and write up their findings in a report, which I will see probably 2-7 drafts of, depending on the student and how much they want an A. 

Designing meaningful assignments and scaffolding them into shorter, manageable but also somewhat challenging stages helps my students see how they can do writing that seems out of their league. I want my students to be like ghostwriters: confident that they can tackle ANY writing assignment that comes their way, whether at university or in the workplace. 

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