July 22nd, 2011
Did you hear the one about the NYU prof who paid for being honest? There’s a hot story in circulation this week about a tenured Business prof in New York who blogged, with dismay, about his experience with plagiarizing students this year. Panagiotis Ipeirotis (Greek to me) told his students at the start of the course that he would be automatically running their papers in the course through the trademarked stealth operation called Turnitin. By the end of the semester, 22 of 108 students had been caught and admitted to having cheated. Ipeirotos wrote that he learned it wasn’t worth being upfront with his students about using the plagiarism checker, since his teaching ratings in that course tanked and he consequently suffered lower pay raise than he thought he deserved. Ultimately, he figured that going after plagiarizers just wasn’t worth his students’ loss of trust.
The blog went viral, Ipeirotos was accused of having violated a particular student’s right to privacy by detailing some salient facts of an example, and the university urged him to remove the posting—which he did.
Your heart can sink at a story like this. It speaks to so much about some vexing aspects of university life these days. Perhaps one lesson learned here is that not only is plagiarism here to stay but that attempts to eradicate it, Turnitin notwithstanding, are proving futile. I think most profs these days just don’t have the time to go after suspected cases or the will to track these cases down with the systematic rigor Ipeirotos applied in his classroom. I sympathize with his determination to be transparent with his students on the one hand but wonder on the other if he wasn’t being naïve by doing so. Beginning your class by declaring a war on assumed plagiarizers is probably not the best way to generate a warm and fuzzy environment—or to establish a positive, confident atmosphere. Of course, it turns out that his assumptions were right: a sizable number of students did go ahead and plagiarize anyway, likely out of some false sense of their invincibility.
More troubling to me in all this is the alleged link between the prof’s declaration of war on plagiarism and his low teaching evaluations. It’s hard from this distance to know exactly where the truth lies but then it’s always hard to trust teaching evaluations done by students. Many consider them a necessary evil—the best way we’ve got, in one form or another, of assessing teaching performance. More useful, if not always accurate, would be some longer term measure, one that looks at what happens to students after graduation: what sorts of success they have achieved, what benefits of having been taught by professors x and y. But even as I say this I know how flimsy a measure it would be: one student’s success is another’s failure and so on. And can one ever really draw a straight line between a professor and successful postgraduate life? It’s nice to think so. Makes me wonder how Professors Snape and McGonagall would rate: such different teaching styles, with, arguably, equal effectiveness.
Much ink has been spilled on the relative merits and soundness of different kinds of student teaching evaluations, with no one approach ever emerging as the absolute best or most accurate. Accuracy really has nothin’ to do with it. That NYU determines salary on the basis of such evaluations is alarming in itself. You’d think that would be the biggest piece of this story. Indeed, the chat forums for this story, wherever it is posted, are full of debate about virtually every little contentious element. A lot of people have a lot of trouble or fully agree with Ipeirotos, and if you can stomach some of the insane commentary it’s worth reading through the postings to get an idea of just how many nerves have been activated. See Inside Higher Ed, in particular.
Interestingly, in his original posting Ipeirotos concluded by advocating new forms of class assignments—from in-class competitions in projects and public peer reviewing—to discourage or even make plagiarism impossible. Little discussion has focused on this recommendation, with all the attention going to whether or not he and his university were right or wrong. It often degenerated, as he recently said, to finger pointing. Predictable, perhaps. Even among the educated, such commentary often conveys the same tone as open-line radio culture. But working up new forms of student performance takes time. And who’s got that?